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April 3, 2003

The Man with the Golden Gun

2002's Best Catcher Arms

by Michael Wolverton

In the spirit of Better Late Than Never, it's time we present the second annual Golden Gun Award, honoring last year's most valuable catcher arms. The winner is the major league leader in Stolen Base Runs Prevented (SBRP), which measures the numbers of runs a catcher saves his team by throwing out opposing basestealers. It is calculated from the number of opponent steals (SB), the number of runners the catcher throws out (CS), and the number of runners the catcher picks off (CPO), using this simple formula:

    SBRP = 0.49*(CS+CPO) - 0.16*SB

The formula is explained in my ESPN.com Pudge vs. Piazza article from a couple of years ago.

Here is the 2002 Golden Gun winner, along with the other nine finalists:

Catcher         Team   SB   CS  CPO  SBRP
Bengie Molina    ANA   43   32   1    9.2
Jason LaRue      CIN   33   25   1    7.4
Vance Wilson     NYM   26   22   0    6.6
Mike Redmond     FLA   39   26   0    6.4
Geronimo Gil     BAL   61   32   0    5.8
Ivan Rodriguez   TEX   26   13   7    5.6
Damian Miller    ARI   40   23   1    5.3
Charles Johnson  FLA   37   22   1    5.3
Brad Ausmus      HOU   65   30   2    5.1
Brian Schneider  MON   26   19   0    5.1

Bengie Molina has always had a better-than-average arm, sporting a respectable 29% caught stealing rate in his career entering 2002. But he raised his game a notch in 2002 (his defensive game, anyway), gunning down enough opposing baserunners to save the Angels nine runs over the course of the season. That work put him at the top of a relatively weak field to claim the Golden Gun prize for the year.

The previous Golden Gun winner, Jason LaRue, had another fine season behind the plate in 2002, although he didn't match the eye-popping numbers he put up in 2001. One reason is that opposing teams wised up a bit and ran on him less frequently. Teams attempted a steal every 16 innings against LaRue in 2002, down from one every 12 innings the year before. You'd expect that many of the runners who opted not to run on LaRue in 2002 were the slower runners he threw out easily in 2001, and the numbers seem to bear that out: The rate of successful steals per inning against LaRue changed very little between 2001 and 2002 (.032 vs. .036), but his caught stealings per inning dropped by a lot (.049 vs .028).

Ivan Rodriguez, the long-standing king of catcher arms, put up distinctly un-Pudge-like caught stealing numbers in 2002, catching only a third of the (admittedly few) runners who challenged him. However, he picked runners off base like the Pudge of old, racking up a league-high seven catcher pickoffs despite spending a third of the season on the DL. And those pickoffs kept him among the league's most valuable defenders behind the plate, despite the pedestrian CS%.

And what about Molina & Co.'s noodle-armed counterparts? Here are the least valuable catcher arms from 2002:

Catcher         Team   SB   CS  CPO  SBRP
Mike Piazza      NYM  126   21   0  -10.3
Gregg Zaun       HOU   39    5   0   -3.9
Brook Fordyce    BAL   41    6   0   -3.8
A. J. Hinch      KCR   39    7   0   -3.0
Josh Paul        CHW   20    2   0   -2.3
Eli Marrero      STL   20    2   0   -2.3
Sandy Alomar Jr CH/CO  46   11   0   -2.1
Tom Wilson       TOR   44   11   0   -1.8
Chad Moeller     ARI   18    3   0   -1.5
Bill Haselman    TEX   33    8   0   -1.5

No one will be surprised to see Mike Piazza topping this list. Scott Hatteberg and Ed Taubensee had recently mounted challenges to Piazza's claim as the weakest throwing full-time catcher in the league, but with Taubensee retired and Hatteberg banished from the catcher's box (presumably forever), Piazza currently doesn't have much competition.

Obviously, Piazza's weak arm doesn't make him a bad player; his impressive work at the plate more than compensates for his less-than-impressive work behind it. But those 10 runs his throwing costs the Mets do make a difference in his standing among catchers. For example, Piazza was easily the best offensive catcher in the majors last year according to Keith Woolner's VORP. But adding or subtracting the value of the catchers' arms moves both Rodriguez and Jorge Posada ahead of Piazza in overall contribution for the year. (Posada's arm was essentially neutral last season.)

Who are the early favorites for the 2003 award? As LaRue showed in 2001, it can help if you can couple a strong arm with a weak or non-existent reputation. The lack of reputation provides the opportunities--stolen base attempts--and the arm converts them into outs. So it's possible that an untested catcher like Miguel Olivo could emerge to claim the prize. But, reputation or no, you can never count out Rodriguez. A full, healthy season in a new league could restore Pudge as the dominant arm in the game.

Related Content:  2002,  Pickoffs

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