A look at the movement at the top of the all-time catching leaderboards.
Last week, Baseball Prospectus debuted expanded catcher statistics in an all-day festival immortalized forever as Catchella. We have long known that catcher defense, particularly pitch framing—we will not be referring to it as “presentation” whatever your preferences, players—is hugely important in assessing a catcher’s value. With framing data going back to 1988, and blocking and throwing data going back to 1950, we have a wealth of new information to sort through and analyze to help understand exactly how much those skills affect the game. The totality of that analysis will take time, but as we start to unpack this treasure chest, a few interesting tidbits emerge.
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Today, we take our catching-defense offerings to some pretty exciting places.
It’s Catcher Day at Baseball Prospectus, as we celebrate the expansion—both in method and in scope—of our new catching statistics. Given the age and breadth of some of these stats, we truly feel as if we are debuting our large adult child.
The statistics both apply to and measure players other than catchers, but they are all perhaps most important to catchers as we measure their total value to a team. The statistics are four-fold, covering three critical catching skills:
1. Running Game
a. Swipe Rate Above Average (SRAA) – the effect of the player on base-stealing success;
b. Takeoff Rate Above Average (TRAA) – the effect of the player on base-stealing attempts;
Yasmani Grandal had a poor reputation for working with pitchers; now he doesn't. How did he get here?
In general, when you think of catchers leading a pitching staff for a playoff team, it's not the youngsters who come to mind. Names like current managers Brad Ausmus and Mike Matheny come to mind. Backstops like Yadier Molina or Russell Martin are the go-to active examples. Cubs manager Joe Maddon came to the North Side in the offseason, and along with his arrival, the team added two veteran catchers—Miguel Montero and David Ross—in an attempt to jump-start its ability to compete. It's worked thus far, and Maddon knows that developing a young catcher is a process, one that can be difficult for a team with playoff aspirations.
"When guys come to the big leagues as a catcher, they're so ill-prepared regarding calling a game, understanding a game, understanding a lot of stuff, because they don't do that in the minors," Maddon recently said. "You do it on a much smaller level; it's primarily a situation where you're trying to take care of physical fundamentals, as opposed to mental fundamentals. If you have a special catcher and a really good catching instructor or program in the minor leagues, that's essential. Because to me that's one of the hardest things, it's like a quarterback in the NFL, reading a defense. They talk about how it takes five years to really understand that stuff; it takes a couple years for a catcher to understand exactly what's going on. It may sound overblown, but it's true. I really think that coming into this moment, if you have somebody to really prepare you to understand what's going on here; 60 feet, six inches I know, 90 feet to the bases I know, the gun readings, everyone has seen that. But the game could not be any more different [up in the big leagues]."
The Red Sox replace A.J. Pierzynski with a talented defense-first catcher.
The Situation:A.J. Pierzynski and the Red Sox seemed like a nice fit over the winter, but neither his season nor Boston's season went as planned. Pierzynski’s free-swinging ways clashed with the selective lineup Ben Cherington assembled, and his glove was a weakness. As a result, the team grew increasing frustrated with the veteran backstop, leading to whispers that the Sox were contemplating jettisoning him as early as April. With Boston's catching prospects having fine seasons in the minors, the Sox finally pulled the plug on Pierzynski on Wednesday, calling up 23-year-old catcher Christian Vazquez. Vazquez’s breakout year at Pawtucket has tempted Boston to make this move for some time, and the hope is that he can inject a new energy with his impact defensive skills.
Background: The Red Sox took Vazquez in the ninth round of the 2008 draft out of Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and signed him for an $80,000 bonus. Even with a top-10-round grade, Vazquez was seen as a project on both sides of the ball, and his short, stout frame gave rise to concerns about his body, though those liabilities can sometimes turn into assets behind the plate in terms of durability. At the plate, Vazquez’s small frame isn't conducive to power. His bat speed isn’t a strength either, and swing-and-miss has been a big issue. Vazquez has always been able to throw, but the rest of his defensive game lagged behind. Concerns about his glove were such that in the low minors he saw time at third base, with a smattering of appearances at first and second. Over the last couple years, however, he's addressed many of these doubts.
At one position, the A's are still Moneyballing like it's 1999.
For the most part, pitch receiving operates on a level that’s easy to overlook. Over thousands of pitches, certain catchers establish an edge, and those edges add up in a way we can’t see without looking at a leaderboard. Every now and then, though, framing on a small scale comes to the fore, usually when it leads to a larger event. Brett Lawrie, let’s say, strikes out looking out a pitch that appears to be outside, hurls his batting helmet at the home plate umpire, and gets ejected from the game. Our first impulse, like Lawrie’s, is to blame the umpire who blew the call. After reviewing the video, though, we realize that the real culprit was Jose Molina, in the catcher’s box, with the catcher’s glove. The ump was a red herring, a patsy, or maybe an unwitting accomplice.
The best receiving catchers (and the best receiving teams) of the upcoming season.
One of the benefits of our recently released catching defense metrics is they’re essentially ready-to-project, thanks to the regression feature of the model (the "R" in RPM). RPM also gives us two ways to assign value to framing, one using context (the ball-strike count) and one using a flat value (recently adjusted* to ~.155 runs).
How have players who've changed positions from catcher (like Joe Mauer and Carlos Santana) historically tended to do?
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.
Why "be quiet" might be the best advice for backstops.
Catchers’ contributions, more so than those of players at any other position, defy—or at least strongly resist—quantification. We’ve long had a handle on backstops’ ability to prevent stolen bases, block pitches in the dirt, and field batted balls. But that’s the low-hanging fruit and, unfortunately, a little less juicy than the revelations hiding on the higher branches.
We have made major strides in assessing receiving, which was almost impossible (statistically) before PITCHf/x, though some aspects of that skill remain tough to untangle. But there are still some significant unknowns. Game-calling, of course. Defensive positioning. And the nebulous, but probably important, art of “working with pitchers,” which can encompass everything from recognizing when a guy is gassed to knowing how and when to boost a batterymate’s confidence. (Confidence, of course, is another intangible quality, although if Gabe Kapleris correct, “there isn’t a factor more responsible for success.”)
Jon Denney heads a deep class of prep-school catchers in a draft for which the collegiate crop is thin.
The catching crop is deep at the prep ranks and light among the collegians this spring. Below is a look at some of the top names to know for the June draft, beginning with the cream of the catching crop.
A look at contemporary accounts from Mike Piazza's early career.
With the Hall of Fame announcement scheduled for this week, now is a good time to look back at the early careers of some of this year's most talked-about nominees.(And with the early exit polls looking as they do, it might be nice to remember just how great some of these players were.) Let's take a look back at some contemporary accounts of Mike Piazza's at-one-time obvious Hall of Fame career.
It's a famous story now that Piazza was drafted in the 62nd round and only as a favor to Los Angeles manager (and Piazza's godfather) Tommy Lasorda. It's a catchy story, after all. A man drafted that low isn't expected to amount to much of anything, let alone become a twelve-time All-Star or the career leader in home runs for a catcher. Today, for example, the draft doesn't even go to 62 rounds.
Is Jose Molina a stealth MVP candidate? Ben looks for photographic evidence.
The Tampa Bay Rays were eliminated from playoff contention on October 1st, falling short of their fourth playoff appearance in five seasons, but it wasn’t because of their pitching. The staff’s walk rate fell from 3.1 per nine innings in 2011 to 2.9 in 2012, and its strikeout rate rose from 7.1 strikeouts per inning to 8.5, good enough to set a single-season AL strikeout record. Granted, it wasn’t exactly the same group of pitchers in both seasons, and the strikeout rate rose across the league. But the pitching improvement wasn’t just maturation on the part of the pitchers or another manifestation of the game’s trend toward more strikeouts. There was also a Molina in the machine.
In March, I mentioned the Rays’ Jose Molina signing as one of my favorite moves of the offseason, writing “Molina for $1.5 million (plus an option for 2013 at the same price) might be the best value any team got from the free agent market this winter.” The month before, Max Marchi had summarized Molina’s weaknesses (hitting and blocking) and strengths (framing and throwing) in a piece called “What Are the Rays Expecting from Jose Molina?” LikeMike Fast, Max found that Molina was among the best backstops in baseball at the things he was good at and among the worst where he struggled. But according to Max’s calculations, Molina’s framing skill was so superlative that it made him the best pitch-for-pitch defensive catcher of the past 60 years, which more than made up for his flimsy bat. That’s why the Rays wanted him, and that’s why it looked like they’d gotten a good deal.