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February 19, 2004
The Man with the Golden Gun
2003's Most Valuable Catcher Arms2002 Results
It's awards season again, with people across the country anxiously awaiting the results of the Oscars, the Pulitzer Prizes, and of course the most prestigious award of them all. Yes, it's time for the third 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 number 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 2001.
Here are the top 10 finishers from 2003:
Catcher Team SB CS CPO SBRP ------------------------------------------ Bengie Molina ANA 45 31 2 8.9 Paul Lo Duca LAD 83 43 2 8.6 Toby Hall TAM 44 31 0 8.1 Brian Schneider MON 24 21 0 6.4 Brandon Inge DET 69 33 1 5.4 Damian Miller CHC 42 25 0 5.4 Miguel Olivo CHW 34 19 2 4.8 Brad Ausmus HOU 69 31 1 4.4 Rod Barajas ARI 26 16 1 4.1 Ivan Rodriguez FLA 40 19 2 3.8
Bengie Molina just nosed out Paul Lo Duca and Toby Hall to win his second consecutive Golden Gun award. The title was actually Lo Duca's to lose toward the end of the year. He had a small lead over Molina when a broken wrist ended Molina's season on September 3. If Lo Duca had just thrown out runners at the break-even rate (about 25%) for the rest of September, he would have won the coveted prize. Instead he threw out only three of the last 16 players to run on him, costing his team about a run, and costing himself the honor.
The fact that Lo Duca could even stay in the same neighborhood as Molina in this measure demonstrates something we wrote about last year: you don't need the strongest arm in the world to be a valuable defensive catcher. Lo Duca doesn't have anywhere near the reputation for throwing as Molina, and the numbers bear that out: He was run on almost twice as often as Molina last year, and he still threw his runners out at a lower rate, 34% to 41%. So Lo Duca wasn't nearly as good at stopping the running game (Keith Woolner's essay in Baseball Prospectus 2004 sheds a lot more light on this subject), but he threw out his runners at better than the break-even rate, and he piled up the prevented runs the same way Wal-Mart makes its money: volume, volume, volume. In other words, he turned his weaker reputation, and opponents' overeagerness to exploit it, into an advantage for his team.
Aside from Molina, most of the historically strong throwers had a rough year in 2003. Pudge Rodriguez is still a good defender, but age and injuries have taken their toll. He threw out around a third of opposing basestealers for the second year in a row, which is a far cry from the 50% or more he regularly threw out in his pre-2002 glory days. Jason LaRue, the Golden Gun winner in 2001 and runner-up in 2002, threw out a mediocre 25% of his runners last year. Mike Matheny continued his steady decline from his 2000 throwing peak; his CS% has gone from 51% in 2000, to 45% in 2001, to 34% in 2002, to 23% last year, and his SBRP totals have declined from 16.9, to 9.7, to 4.8, to last year's -0.2.
On the other side of the spectrum, here are the least valuable catcher arms of 2003 by SBRP:
Catcher Team SB CS CPO SBRP ------------------------------------------ Mike Lieberthal PHI 84 18 0 -4.9 Brook Fordyce BAL 70 14 0 -4.6 Greg Myers TOR 50 10 0 -3.3 Tom Wilson TOR 56 12 0 -3.3 Benito Santiago SFG 42 8 0 -3.0 A.J. Hinch DET 23 2 0 -2.8 Todd Pratt PHI 28 4 0 -2.6 Matt Walbeck DET 32 6 0 -2.3 Gary Bennett SDP 47 11 0 -2.3 Mike Redmond FLA 27 4 1 -2.0
None of the guys on this list were all that bad. Most of the players here are average or slightly below-average catchers who were a little below their normal performance levels in 2003. Most of the really poor throwers of recent years--Scott Hatteberg, Eddie Taubensee, Todd Hundley, Robert Fick--have left the catching position for one reason or another.
Of course, there's one notoriously poor-throwing catcher who's still working behind the plate, and who's conspicuously absent from this list. That's because Mike Piazza had an uncharacteristically good season when he was healthy--good by Mike Piazza standards, anyway. He threw out 22% of opposing baserunners, after putting up totals of 12%, 16%, and 14% in the previous three years.
Regression to the mean is the overriding theme of both the lists above. The distance between the best arm and the worst was far smaller in 2003 than it had been in previous years. Molina's league-leading total of 8.9 runs prevented, for example, would have finished sixth in 2001. And Mike Lieberthal's league-trailing total of -4.9 runs would have been only sixth-worst in 2001.
Part of that may be due to the changing team attitudes toward stolen base strategy: Clubs are running less, and are being a little more selective in who they run against. But I suspect most of it is just due to a random down cycle in extreme catchers, both good and bad. Pudge Rodriguez and Mike Matheny don't have the cannons that they used to, and there haven't been any exceptionally strong arms to come out of the minor leagues to take their place. And there haven't been any young noodle arms to replace Hatteberg and Taubensee either.
The former may be taken care of if Humberto Quintero ever hits well enough to earn a regular major league job. As for the latter, I won't speculate on the next young catcher to throw like Eddie Taubensee. I don't want to get sued.