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A few items from the mailbag generated by The
Man With the Golden Gun: 2002
, which ranked baseball’s best catcher
arms using a measure of Stolen Base Runs Prevented (SBRP):

I was glad that you concede that your analysis is biased against players that have a solid reputation. It strikes me as a limited phenomenon anyway. Only the real newbies are likely to get much of a bump from extra throwing opportunities against uninformed opposition. All catchers with good reputations will benefit by the comparison to the Piazzas of the world who have so many attempts against them.

— CDS

I did note in the original article that a catcher’s reputation
influences the number of steal attempts against him, and that the
number of steal attempts in turn affects his Stolen Base Runs
Prevented rating. But I wouldn’t say the analysis is biased against
players that have a solid reputation.

It all comes down to what you’re trying to measure, skill or value.
If you’re trying to measure skill–how strong, accurate, and
generally impressive a catcher’s arm is–then yes, you would want to
give extra credit to those catchers who prevent runners from even
attempting to steal. But SBRP is trying to measure value–how many runs the catcher prevents the opposition from scoring through his control of the
running game. And if run prevention is what you’re after, shutting
down steal attempts isn’t necessarily a good thing. In fact, you
could make a strong case that it’s a bad thing.

That’s because steal attempts seem to be a net negative for offenses
league-wide. (I’ll say in a minute why I have to use the qualified
“seem to be.”) On average, a stolen base is worth only .16 runs to
the offense, but a caught stealing costs the offense .49 runs. (Those
numbers come from the work I
did
, but other people have come up with similar values.) That
means that running teams need to succeed about three times (.49/.16 =
3.1) for every time caught stealing just to break even in the running
game.

But major league teams don’t come anywhere near that break-even rate
on the basepaths, coming much closer to two successful steals for
every caught stealing than three. Last year major leaguers stole 2750
bases and were caught 1282 times, for a success rate of 68%.
(Contrary to popular belief, the numbers don’t differ much between the
AL and the NL.) Also, major league runners stumbled into 330
pickoffs, many of which involved would-be basestealers leaning the
wrong way. Add it all together with the run values above, and you get
that the running game cost major league offenses a total of 350 runs
last year.

Now, let’s imagine your team has an uber-Pudge, a catcher with an arm
so fearsome that no team ever dares to run on him. That sounds good
on the surface, but actually what he’s doing is robbing the team of
its share of those 350 runs. You’d be better off with Joe Average
Catcher, who gets plenty of steal attempts and who throws out about
30% of them–enough to take advantage of league-wide over-aggressive
baserunning and prevent some runs for the defense.

Of course, uber-Pudge doesn’t exist. Even the most fearsome arms in
the league get plenty of steal attempts against them, and because of
those steal attempts, those arms are more valuable than Joe Average’s.
But you don’t want to award them extra points for any steal attempts
their reputations prevent, because more steal attempts allow him to
prevent more runs — i.e., they make him more valuable. Given a
choice between a 50% CS catcher who sees a steal attempt every 14
innings (Ivan
Rodriguez
in 1996), and a 50% CS catcher who sees a steal attempt
every 19 innings (Rodriguez in 2001), you’d prefer the former every
time.

Now the disclaimers. There are potential benefits of stopping the
running game that I’m ignoring here. In particular, there’s the
hit-and-run, which definitely has some value to offenses in taking
extra bases and (more importantly) staying out of double plays.
Strong-armed catchers who prevent steal attempts presumably also
reduce hit-and-run plays to some degree, saving a few runs in the
process. I don’t know of anyone who’s studied hit-and-run plays–either the benefit of them or the effect of the catcher on them–but it could be worth a look. My guess is that the overall effect would
be small, but that’s only a guess.

How come Ramon Hernandez wasn’t considered? Even through last
year, he had a reputation as a weaker-armed catcher, but the stats
don’t reflect that. In 1100 innings, only 45 bases were stolen off of
him, while he threw out 30 would-be base-stealers, for a CS rate of
40%.

Compare that to his previous year, where there were 98 SB and only 44
CS in a similar amount of innings, and it looks like Hernandez has
vastly improved.

— DC

You’re right that Hernandez deserves some mention for the improvement
in his throwing. He put up mediocre numbers in his first two seasons,
and then hit bottom in early 2001 when he started off just 3-for-33 in
catching baserunners. The A’s worked with him on his release time and
footwork, and he regrouped to finish with solid end-season numbers
that year, better numbers last year, and even better numbers so far
this season.

But I really wanted to use your email to make a broader point about
catcher caught stealing numbers. The numbers you cite for Hernandez
are the caught stealing numbers you’ll find at all the major
stats sources, including ESPN.com
and MLB.com.
And you’re right–if those were Hernandez’s actual caught stealing
totals–then he would have been among the top finishers in SBRP last
year.

But all those sources include pitcher caught stealings in the
catcher’s numbers. (A pitcher caught stealing occurs when the pitcher
picks a basestealer off first, and the runner continues to second and
is thrown or tagged out.) Hernandez actually threw out only 21
would-be basestealers last season; the other nine CSs that ESPN &
Co. credit him with occurred on plays where he didn’t even touch the
ball.

You could make an argument that pitcher CSs tell us a little bit about
the catcher behind the plate. But I think including pitcher CSs in
catcher numbers does much more harm than it does good, so I don’t
include them. I don’t know of a comprehensive online source for
catcher-only CS numbers (I get mine from box scores). STATS, Inc. has them, but only for this year and only for a handful of catchers.

If Bengie Molina is now the Man with the Golden Gun, does that mean he acquired a 3rd nipple as well? Maybe La Rue had to hand his over… or maybe extra nipples just accumulate on one’s body like gold gloves do on shelves. Pudge must look like a sow…

— RK

I have no idea what you’re talking about, RK. On a completely
unrelated note, I’ll mention that our original plan for the prize
was a week of devoted servitude by Herve Villechaize and an
evening with Maud Adams (Mmm…Maud Adams). Unfortunately, the
idea fell through when we discovered that the late Villechaize was,
well, late, and when Adams wouldn’t return our calls. So we went with
plan B for the prize: glowing praise and our highest esteem. I’m sure
Molina would prefer that anyway.