keyboard_arrow_uptop
Baseball Prospectus is looking for a Public Data Services Director. Read the description here.

I might be a little biased, but I think that if there’s something that last week’s Hall of Fame results needed, it was more inductees named Russell. With Russell Branyan not eligible for election (and in legal trouble), things have been looking kinda bleak. But something else happened in last week’s results that gives me hope. Other than that guy who’s going in with a backwards cap, catcher Mike Piazza finally got his spot in the Hall of Fame.

I’ve personally always been rather conflicted about Mike Piazza’s Hall of Fame case. It’s true that Piazza was—by counting stats anyway—the best hitting catcher ever. But despite Piazza’s gaudy counting numbers, I wasn’t entirely convinced. For one, I’m a #SmallHall guy, so I’m a little more strict on who I give my imaginary votes to. I think it’s worth looking at Piazza’s numbers through the lens of his time. He played in the middle of an era in which everyone was hitting the ball like crazy. (And no, that’s not a veiled reference to “I think he used PEDs.” I have no idea whether or not that’s the case, and I will begin with the presumption of his innocence.)

When we adjust for the era through the lens of WAR, we get a player who notched around 60 WAR (depending on which index you look at). A good career, but really at the edge of where players get into that Hall of Fame range. Added to that, Piazza was famous for his troubles throwing runners out. In my head, Piazza was the kind of guy who should get in, but he should sweat it out a few years.

Fast forward to late last year, when BP’s statistical wizards said that they were cooking up some new catcher stats on catcher defense based on some of the framing work that they’d done, and that they were taking it back into history. And so I asked… what do they say about Piazza? Sure enough, they confirmed what everyone knew, that Piazza really was one of the worst throwing catchers in baseball history. However, he was a really good framer and blocker. Really good. I mean, really really good. To the point that while we had been focusing on his lack of a throwing arm, we had missed the outstanding defensive catcher who had been right in front of us all the while in the 1990s. When you factor in Piazza’s defensive chops, even with his weak arm, he becomes a “no doubt about it” Hall of Famer. It’s a statement that I wouldn’t have made even two years ago.

It got me thinking. We now know that catcher defense is a big deal. We know that, at least in this current environment, the difference between an elite catcher and an awful one can be on the order of 40 runs of value per season, mostly in stuff that we didn’t used to recognize was happening. While teams have been discussing the value of framing and stealing strikes for years, when we finally put a number to it, it became hard to ignore. Catcher defense might not be on the same order of magnitude as offensive production, but it can take a very good hitting catcher and turn him into a Hall-worthy player. Or a shockingly average player. It’s kind of like when we figured out that RBIs weren’t a very good measure of a player and Joe Carter started looking so… normal.

So, is there a Hall of Famer in our midst whom we haven’t even recognized?

The stats show that the five best defensive careers (since 1950) behind the plate belong to Brad Ausmus, Jose Molina, Russell Martin, Yadier Molina, and Brian McCann. (For the Brewers fans in the audience, Jonathan Lucroy comes in sixth.) Ausmus, in the year that the best offensive catcher ever got inducted—and how many times I heard that the best hitting catcher of all time belonged in the Hall ispo facto—got no votes at all for the Hall, despite being the best defensive catcher ever. Jose Molina, for all his defensive value, had no talent for hitting, so he will be politely excused from the ballot.

But let’s look at the rest of the field. Here’s a table of the four currently active catchers and their career bWAR, catcher runs, and assuming that 10 runs is a win, their career WAR when you actually include the catcher runs in WAR.

Player (age, 2016)

bWAR

Catcher runs

WAR + catcher

Russell Martin (33)

33.3

218.1

55.1

Yadier Molina (33)

30.4

198.5

50.2

Brian McCann (32)

28.0

175.1

45.5

Jonathan Lucroy (30)

15.8

161.6

32.0

Looked at from the point of view of WAR as it is now, Martin looks like a guy who would go down in the Hall of “Oh yeah, I remember that guy, he was pretty good.” But looked at with his catching contributions included, with another couple of even moderately decent seasons—entirely reasonable given that Martin will turn 33 right before the beginning of spring training—Martin becomes a guy with 65 wins, which would peg him level with 2015 inductee Craig Biggio.

Among the acronymati, there have always been our cause celebre cases for the Hall of Fame. Mike Mussina is criminally underappreciated for what he did as a pitcher. Tim Raines gets no love because he has to live in the shadow of Rickey Henderson. Tim Raines is to Alan Trammell as Rickey Henderson is to Cal Ripken, Jr. I have no objection to Ripken or Henderson being enshrined in Cooperstown, but their accomplishments shouldn’t devalue the cases of Raines and Trammell. With the benefit of WAR, we can see that both put up value that was largely hidden from view. Trammell’s was in the form of an unrelenting decade of excellence from the hardest non-battery position on the field. Raines did it with on-base percentage, despite not reaching 3,000 career hits or a .300 career batting average (and yes, he stole a lot of bases). Two decades ago, we didn’t recognize how important and valuable it was for a player just to be able to handle shortstop in a non-embarrassing manner, but now we know, and we should give players their due accordingly. Sadly, for Mr. Trammell, who has aged out of the ballot, it appears that most Hall voters are stuck in the 1980s in how the evaluate Hall of Fame cases. There’s more to the game than just hitting a bunch of home runs.

I think that in 10 years, we’ll be having this same conversation about Russell Martin. He is sneakily having a Hall of Fame career right there in front of us on the center field camera every night. Unlike someone like Miguel Cabrera, who is making his case (convincingly!) in ways that are loud and rather obvious, Martin is following the Alan Trammell model and adding value in ways that aren’t well understood. It’s easy to explain a home run even to someone who isn’t a fan of the game. It’s hard to explain even to someone who watches 100 games a year why being able to make strikes out of two borderline pitches out of 150 in a game is such a big deal. But just because it isn’t well understood doesn’t mean that it’s not important. Runs are runs, after all.

But it’s going to take something of a fundamental shift in understanding the position of catcher. It’s something that most certainly needs to happen. The catcher can’t be understood as simply the appendix of the team. In fact, he might be more important than the center fielder or third baseman, when it’s all said and done. He’s got a job that’s more than just being willing to don a chest protector. The pitcher might be the most important person on the field when it comes to determining what’s going to happen in the game, but it’s actually reasonable to say that the catcher might have the second-most to say, and a lot of it comes from his role on defense.

The idea of valuing defense and putting it onto the same scale mathematically with offense (denominating both in runs) has been a tough sell with the general public. Yeah, I know, you who read Baseball Prospectus are more likely on-board, but let’s remember that there’s a whole world of baseball fans out there who have no idea what UZR stands for. It’s going to take some convincing.

If it’s any consolation, actual teams understand what this is all about and have been configuring their rosters accordingly. In some sense, I wonder whether we are living in the golden age of value for the pitch-framing catcher. Not in the sense that I think that the top framers now are going to be the best ever, but the fact is that teams are paying attention to framing now. When looking for a potential catcher, they are no longer just looking for a guy who will wear the tools of ignorance and then picking the best bat that they can find. Now that we know how valuable a good framer is, there will likely be more guys selected for their framing abilities, and the relative value of having a good framer will be lessened. Maybe a guy like Ryan Doumit, the consensus pick for the worst defensive catcher over the course of a career, doesn’t make it to the majors as a catcher. A catcher as good as Martin or Yadi in terms of raw talent might be around, but teams will be paying more attention to the skill, meaning that the bottom of the scale will be higher. If there’s something to be said for Russell Martin, he picked a really good time to be a really good framing catcher. The amount of value that he’s added over the average catcher has been impressive.

The thing is that we now understand what Russell Martin is doing while he’s still active. He’ll be around a few more years. By all accounts, he makes a great teammate and team leader, so even if his bat declines quickly, he’ll likely still have a job as a backup backstop to fall back on. If there’s any value from being that clubhouse guy (and I believe that there is), that’s just more value on top of his on-field stuff. But even ignoring that, Russell Martin is making a really good case for crossing over that “Yeah, I guess he probably should be a Hall of Famer” line—as long as we can get people to understand how important catcher framing and pitch blocking really is.

So, I’m going to start the bandwagon rolling now. It’s time to stop undervaluing the contributions of a really good catcher. When we start having conversations about which currently active players are potential Cooperstown material, we need to go beyond the great hitters of the era. It’s time to start including Russell Martin in that conversation.

Russell Martin for the Hall of Fame.

Thank you for reading

This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.

Subscribe now
You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
dougkm
1/12
This is a perfect example of taking baseball analytics to the extreme. The HOF is generally reserved for the greats, not the very goods. Russell Martin is a very good catcher, but he will never be seriously considered for the Hall of Fame.
AllenH
1/12
You mention that “the relative value of having a good framer will be lessened” as data on framing becomes more widely disseminated and assimilated. I wonder about something else that could lessen the value of a framer – namely, can umpires adjust? As they get wise to this information (along with the rest of the world), certainly they will try to keep a sharper eye on the ball and to draw a line between where the pitch initially hits the catcher’s glove vs. where it ends up after the catcher moves his glove and makes the pitch more “presentable.” I say that they will “try” to do this. But will they be able to? It happens so fast. They would almost have to have some of the pitch recognition of a real good major league hitter, it seems. Any opinions as to whether umpires might be able to effectively adjust to framing?
pizzacutter
1/12
I think that the case for framing is that it's taking advantage of a neuropsychological weakness in umpires (and all humans). Technically, it's a strike based strictly on where it crosses home plate, but of course, it's doing that at a speed of 80-100 mph while curving and moving and the umpire trying to figure out if a pitch was either half an inch to the outside or inside of an imaginary line in the air. That's a hard task for any human being to do, and so umpires naturally use other information. If they see the glove moving away from the plate, they -- whether consciously or unconsciously -- make the assumption that the ball was breaking that way.

Could umpires adjust? Maybe. Being aware of these biases might be a good place to start, but a lot of them operate at an unconscious, near-automatic level. The brain fills in information based on conjecture all the time.

The other option would be robot umps.
AllenH
1/12
Yep, and this information, over time, might just make the robot umps start looking a lot better to many people. Thanks--
Dodger300
1/13
I remember standing on a back field at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, fascinated as Joe Ferguson threw pitch after pitch in the dirt, teaching a young minor leaguer how to block the ball.

After watching Mike Piazza spend a solid hour on his haunches getting beat up that way, I believed that anyone who was that dedicated to learning his craft had a great chance for success. I never regretted drafting Piazza for my APBA team.
Michael
1/13
Let's acknowledge Craig Wright's excellent article praising Mike Piazza's defense in one of the hard copy Hardball Times Annual books. Wright used a with or without your analysis and was the first author I recall who seemed to show that Piazza's defense was quite good.
jfranco77
1/14
Catcher the first time the Pirates made the playoffs in 21 years? Check.

Catcher the first time the Jays made the playoffs in 22 years? Check.