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February 27, 2014

Skewed Left

What it Means to Move Off Catcher

by Zachary Levine


One of the favorite storylines this time of year is the positional change, whether it’s putting on an entirely different kind of glove or just moving over a few dozen feet to the left or right. Predicting performance changes is hard, but a positional change is something we can see, so it’s something we can write.

One of the least-favorite storylines—or at least most confusing—is when a positional change comes with a promise that the player will be able to improve on offense because he can spend more time working on it.

You’d think this would be particularly true with catchers. Shortstops, for instance, spend as much time taking ground balls as their counterparts down the defensive spectrum at second and third do. But if this were ever going to be true, you’d think it would be with catchers. Every day before the game, while the other position players are taking extra hacks in the cage—which may or may not help, granted—the catchers are sitting in with that day’s starting pitcher and the pitching coach going over the opposing lineup.

This winter, we learned that a couple of long-rumored moves were going to finally happen. In the much longer-rumored instance, Joe Mauer isn’t listed in the top four of the Twins’ official site’s depth chart behind the plate. He’ll be the starting first baseman and will presumably DH from time to time as well. Then there’s Carlos Santana, whom the Indians will move to third base with Yan Gomes taking the majority of the crouching.

Baseball doesn’t provide a ton of history of such moves to analyze whether they have any immediate impact on offense, and beyond that, the confounding variables present a problem. A move from behind the plate can come not for prevention, longevity, or defensive purposes, but as a direct result of an injury that we’d expect to see the player bounce back from on offense as well. So in looking at the predecessors of Mauer and Santana, neither of whom has been without injury concerns, we limited it to those with at least 70 games behind the plate the year immediately before the move.

As a result, there’s really not a lot of history to look at. In fact, there was a 14-year period leading into the WARP era in which nobody fit the category. But since 1958, there have been 68 qualified players who played the majority of their games at catcher and switched the next year to play the majority at another position (not pinch-hitter or pinch-runner).

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Premium Article Minor League Update: S... (02/27)
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