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May 20, 2004

An Early Look at Catcher Arms

How They're Faring So Far

by Michael Wolverton

With the quarter mark of the season almost here, let's take a look at how catchers are faring with opposing basestealers in the early going. As usual, we'll rank catchers' arms by Stolen Base Runs Prevented (SBRP), which measures the number of runs a catcher saves his team by throwing out opposing basestealers. It's 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- and bottom-10 throwing catchers in the majors in 2004, through Tuesday's games:


Rank Catcher        Team      SB     CS     CPO     SBRP
--------------------------------------------------------
1    Kevin Cash      TOR      12     10      2       3.9
2    Jason Kendall   PIT      10     11      0       3.8
3    Henry Blanco    MIN      13     11      0       3.3
4    Jose Molina     ANA       8      9      0       3.1
5    Gerald Laird    TEX      11      9      0       2.6
6    Javier Valentin CIN       2      6      0       2.6
7    Brian Schneider MON       6      7      0       2.5
8    Brent Mayne     ARI       8      6      1       2.1
9    Javy Lopez      BAL      15      9      0       2.0
10   Ivan Rodriguez  DET       3      4      1       2.0
10   Gary Bennett    MIL       3      5      0       2.0
...
56   Sandy Alomar Jr CHW      15      3      0      -1.0
57   Doug Mirabelli  BOS       9      1      0      -1.0
58   Tim Laker       CLE       6      0      0      -1.0
59   Miguel Olivo    CHW      16      2      1      -1.1
60   Victor Martinez CLE      25      5      0      -1.6
61   Dan Wilson      SEA      19      3      0      -1.6
62   John Flaherty   NYY      10      0      0      -1.6
63   Benito Santiago KCR      20      3      0      -1.8
64   Todd Greene     COL      12      0      0      -2.0
65   Charles Johnson COL      26      4      0      -2.3

A few notes, all of which should be read with the standard small sample size disclaimer "It's early, but...":

  • The big story here is the arrival of the young guns. Two catchers who demonstrated strong throwing arms in the minors, Kevin Cash and Gerald Laird, are showing that their ability translates to the major leagues. While Victor Martinez looks like the Next Big Thing at catcher based on offense alone, Cash's superiority on defense makes up a big portion of the current offensive gap between the two. The same is true for Laird, whose all-around performance makes him a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate despite his recent hitting slump. We wondered in our last catching article who the young heirs to Jason LaRue and Mike Matheny were. It looks like we might have our answer.

  • Jason Kendall has offset his unspectacular production at the plate this season with his outstanding work behind it. He's thrown better this spring than he has at any time since...well, ever. While it seems clear just from watching him play that some of the improvement is for real, don't expect him to remain at the very top of the league all year. For one thing, he's never been especially close to a 50% caught-stealing rate in the past--his career best was 39% in 1999 (pre-ankle injury), and the past three years he's been in the 15%-25% range. For another thing, three of the 11 caught stealings he's credited with this year were on attempts to steal home. It's not unreasonable to count the occasional busted squeeze play as a CS for the catcher, since it involves some skill and often a throw to record the out. But it is unreasonable to expect them to continue at that rate throughout the season.

  • Ivan Rodriguez has still got it. A massively intimidating reputation, that is. While his caught-stealing rates the past couple of seasons (33% in 2002 and 32% in 2003) seemed to indicate that his arm isn't what it once was, almost no one in the American League is willing to test that theory. He's been run on a grand total of seven times, with four of those attempts coming from one team (the happy-go-lucky Twins). Seven attempts in 265 innings works out to one attempt per 38 frames, a rate we're willing to bet has never been seen in modern major league history. And if you're thinking that it's only the elite basestealers of the league who are daring to test Pudge's arm, you're wrong. The players who have run on Pudge--Michael Cuddyer, Corey Koskie (twice), Michael Ryan, Jody Gerut, Coco Crisp and David Eckstein--are hardly the majors' biggest speed burners.

  • The Colorado tandem of Charles Johnson and Todd Greene dominates the bottom of the throwing rankings. It's surprising to see teammates stuck together at the bottom of the league, especially when they've both put up respectable numbers in the recent past. But the obvious explanations don't pan out. It's unlikely to have much to do with the thin air of Planet Coors, since Johnson and Greene have been equal-opportunity offenders on the road--two for 23 in Denver, two for 19 away. Blaming the pitching staff doesn't really work either, since the stolen bases have been spread fairly evenly among a large number of pitchers, many of them holdovers from last year's staff. Most likely it's just a couple of aging catchers who have hit a rough patch at the beginning of the season.

  • Regardless of the cause of Johnson and Greene's struggles, if you're a Rockies fan worried that opposing basestealing is a disaster for your team, don't. Because of a general eagerness to run on the Rocky catchers, Rocky pitchers have caught five runners stealing and have picked off another. Add in the pitcher numbers, and the overall effect of opposing basestealing against Colorado is right around the break-even point, despite the catching tandem's lousy throwing rates.

The catchers in between the two extreme lists are, by definition, not distinguishing themselves one way or another in their throwing. But I often get asked about some of them, so here are a few of the more notable ones:


Rank Catcher        Team      SB     CS     CPO     SBRP
--------------------------------------------------------
14   Mike Lieberthal PHI      13      7      0       1.3
17   Jorge Posada    NYY      15      7      0       1.0
18   Mike Matheny    STL       8      4      0       0.7
21   Ramon Hernandez SDP      12      5      0       0.5
23   Brad Ausmus     HOU      19      7      0       0.3
29   Johnny Estrada  ATL      18      5      1       0.0
30   Bengie Molina   ANA      15      5      0       0.0
30   Jason Varitek   BOS      15      5      0       0.0
41   Mike Piazza     NYM      14      4      0      -0.3
46   Jason LaRue     CIN       6      1      0      -0.5
49   Paul Lo Duca    LAD      26      7      0      -0.8
50   A.J. Pierzynski SFG      14      3      0      -0.8
55   Damian Miller   OAK      21      5      0      -1.0

The stories here are the players defying our expectations. Two-time defending Golden Gun winner Bengie Molina has been battling injuries and hasn't been his old cannon-armed self. Jason LaRue and Paul Lo Duca have also put up strong caught-stealing numbers in recent years (though as Keith Woolner's essay on catcher defense in Baseball Prospectus 2004 taught us, much of Lo Duca's apparent success was actually the result of his being tested so often), only to struggle in the early going this year. On the other hand, part-time catching seems to be agreeing with normally noodle-armed Mike Piazza. After spending most of the first decade of his career putting up truly embarrassing caught-stealing numbers, Piazza caught a respectable 22% of opposing runners last year, and he's at exactly that same level again this season.

And if you're wondering whether A.J. Pierzynski has done everything he possibly could to alienate his new team and its fans, at least he can say he's throwing better than Benito Santiago. For now.

Related Content:  The Who,  Jason LaRue

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