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I must confess: I am a bit of a catcher defensive metric agnostic. Or perhaps I am just a bit wary of defensive run values in general. I am not one to damper the Catchella spirit though, so I threw on a Come On Feel The Illinoise! T-shirt and pored over a very large spreadsheet of minor-league catcher defensive data to see how the stats match up with our scouting reports. Spoiler alert: It did make me think about the way I and others evaluate catcher defense from a scouting perspective.

I divided the subjects into a few tiers and all stats come from levels and seasons for which we have framing data.

The no-doubt catchers

They might win a gold glove or they might not, but we will start with catchers that projected as clear major-league-quality defenders at the position.

Austin Hedges

What we said:

“Near-elite defensive profile behind the plate; plus arm; quick release and accurate; excellent footwork; excellent receiver; strong hands and quick feet; high baseball IQ; excels at game management and battery relationship.” – Jason Parks, San Diego Top Ten Prospects, 1/13/14

“Hedges has a reputation as an elite defender, and he was excellent, but probably a half step behind [Christian] Vazquez in most areas. The pop times were just plus, not HOF like Vazquez—but I was told I didn’t see him really let it fly…A 70 defender at catcher with a 30 hit tool still plays in the big leagues. Will Hedges even hit that much, though? His swing and approach are a long way from where they need to be.” -Al Skorupa, Seven Days and 32 Prospects in the Desert, 4/1/15

What the stats say:

2013: 165.2 innings, 4.6 csraa, 0.1 epraa, 0.0 trraa, -0.4 srraa, 4.3 runs above average
2014: 953.2 innings, 35.4 csraa, 1.5, epraa, 0.4 trraa, 4.3 srraa, 41.6 runs above average
2015: 489.2 innings, 12.8 csraa, 0.2 epraa, 0.0 trraa, 0.4 srraa, 13.4 runs above average

Hedges' 2014 season in Double-A is the second-best defensive season in the database, bested only by Jonathan Lucroy's 2011 campaign. One could argue that Hedges was rushed to the majors in 2015. His career minor league line is .256/.316/.390, but most of that damage was done in A-ball. He hit .225/.272/.314 in Double-A in 2013 and 2014, and played just 27 games for El Paso in the PCL (where to be fair, he did rake), before getting called up to San Diego. Hedges was clearly overmatched by major league pitching, though playing irregularly as a backup wouldn't have helped, but how much does he actually need to hit to be a starting-quality major league catcher if he is a truly elite defender behind the plate? We don't know that he is yet, mind you, but here the scouting reports and metrics are in agreement. There is no flaw in Hedges' defensive game, and he is a potentially top-tier receiver. If he can even manage a Jose-Molina-like .650 OPS, he is likely an above-average regular for the position. So Hedges may be the test case for how much teams weight defense vs. offense for backstops. But until he manages even that meager offensive goal, the question posed by Al remains unanswered. Even in a low-offense era, Hedges' bat is an impossible sell. Much like…

Mike Zunino

What we said:

“Zunino needs to improve his receiving skills, but he is near major league-ready player who can contribute at some point in 2013. His bat will play down the lineup, with fringe-average to solid-average grades on the hit/power. While it might seem like a knock to suggest Zunino is only a role 5 player, the value plays up because balanced glove/bat catchers are hot commodities, especially when they will be under team control for six seasons.” -Jason Parks, Seattle Top Ten Prospects, 12/21/12

What the stats say:

2013: 873 innings, 22.4 csraa, -1.2 epraa, 0.0 trraa, -1.5 srraa, 20.5 runs above average
2014: 1121 innings, 20.4 csraa, -1.1 epraa, 0.0 trraa, 0.5 srraa, 19.8 runs above average
2015: 954.1 innings, 9.5 csraa, 0.0 epraa, 0.1 trraa, -1.1 srraa, 8.5 runs above average

Zunino represents the limitations of the Hedges profile. His 2014 was actually quite good if you give him credit for the 20 runs above average on defense along with the slugging-heavy, below-average bat. The bar for catcher offense is so low that even with a disastrous .254 OBP, he was still playable in an everyday role. When the bat starts to dip below that though, even well-above-average defense can't make the profile palatable. It's pretty hard to sell anyone involved in the process of baseball games from the owner to the hot dog vendors that starting a guy hitting .174/.230/.300 is a good idea, unless it is part of a convoluted plan to tank your team's value so you can move it to Miami.

That said, Zunino has out-performed his scouting reports which pegged him as more of an average defender with a glove polished enough to move quickly to the majors.

The “They can catch for me” club

These are (or were) catching prospects to be sure. But there were questions about if they would ever be better than fringe-average there, or if they would even stick there at all. These are the type of prospects that tend to get more varied opinions on their gloves depending on who you are talking to.

Willson Contreras

What we've said:

“This isn’t Kyle Schwarber with the bat or anything, but add in a 55 glove and 60 arm, and I think it’s obvious why so many believe it’s Contreras who will be the backstop of the future in Chicago.” – Christopher Crawford, We Interrupt This Postseason to Bring You Important Prospect Updates, 10/26/15

What the stats say:

2015: 641 innings, -6.4 csraa, 1.3 epraa, 0.0 trraa, -0.8 srraa, -5.9 runs above average

If you were wondering, Schwarber came out 3.4 runs to the good in 2015 behind the plate, albeit in a small sample (which itself is probably instructive). At this point it might be worth it to tap the brakes on the Willson Contreras breakout bandwagon, but I will instead remind you of that old scouting adage: “Don't scout the stat line.” I think this should apply to minor league catcher defensive stats as well. What are we looking for from Willson Contreras as evaluators? I think the same thing we are looking for with any prospect, major league tools, and evidence of actualization thereof.

Contreras only started catching in 2012 and has never caught more than 75 games in a full minor league season. The questions I ask when watching him would be fundamentally different than the questions the stats are asking. And that's fine.

Kevin Plawecki

What we've said:

“Strong, filled-out frame; body to handle the rigors of the position; solid receiver; firm glove; uses body well; fundamentally sound; quicker release helps average arm strength play up.” -Chris Mellen, New York Mets Top Ten Prospects, 11/10/14

“His receiving has improved since my first look at him in Brooklyn. He manages the game and his pitchers well. I have noticed that the pitch sequencing with him behind the plate has been better than his peers in the system, but it is difficult to assign credit for that without knowing who is really calling the game. Plawecki is a large-framed catcher and can be a bit stiff when blocking balls in the dirt, but that is less of a concern to me than his arm.” -Jeffrey Paternostro, Getting to Know Mets Catcher Kevin Plawecki, 4/20/15

What the stats say:

2014: 794 innings, 12.9 csraa, 0.8 epraa, 0.2 trraa, -1.5 srraa, 12.4 runs above average
2015: 770.1 innings, 12.3 csraa, 0.1 epraa, 0.0 trraa, -0.4 srraa, 12.0 runs above average

I have seen Plawecki live 15 or so times across his minor league career, and I think my report on his defense is pretty spot-on. I think it also demonstrates that we (I) might be evaluating catchers wrongly. I thought Plawecki was a solid receiver, but the league would eventually be able to run on him too much for the glove to play to better than average. He hasn't been great at controlling the running game (though his throwing has improved a lot in the last 18 months), but it just doesn't matter when compared to his ability to frame pitches. Working a stopwatch is easy. I can point to two dozen pop times I got from Plawecki, almost all between 2.0 and 2.2. I can describe to you his issues getting on top of his throws, and how he floated balls high and into the runner like a pitcher missing armside and up. I can describe to you the differences between an average catcher arm and a good one. It's harder to do that with receiving, and it may simply be a function of where I (we) watch the game.

The name of my column is “The View From Behind the Backstop” and that is where I watch the vast majority of the game. It is the preferred angle for evaluating pitchers, and gives you a good baseline for batter's swings as well. What it doesn't give you a great view of is the catcher, who is often shielded by the umpire. You can watch his body pretty well, and his glove movements okay, but the range of receiving value is so much larger than any other aspect of catcher defense that the gradations become incredibly important. During Plawecki's 2015 season he had 5,498 opportunities to alter a ball-strike state with his framing, only 57 opportunities to throw out a base stealer. Victor Martinez is the textbook example of a guy that had to be moved off the position “because of his arm,” but the rest of his defensive profile was rapidly declining as well. We (I) need to start paying more attention to how a catcher receives pitches. And we need to find the right vantage point(s) to do it.

Gary Sanchez

What we've said:

“He isn’t a lost cause behind the plate and has shown some improvement in recent years, but the overall profile is always going to be fringy.” – Jason Parks, New York Yankees Top Ten Prospects, 3/15/13

“Defense has improved since my viewing last season; feet are still slow and he lacks the necessary movement to block pitches; really struggles to block pitches in the dirt; footwork is still largest issue; does show ability to bounce out in front of home plate and set himself for a throw to first or second; no feel for pitch framing; lacks the fluidity in his wrists and hands to catch; he can hold his own behind the dish but will not be an asset; sluggish movement added to below average receiving skills hinder his defensive value.” – Tucker Blair, Eyewitness Report: 8/18/14

What the stats say:

2013: 183.2 innings, -2.1 csraa, 0.0 epraa, 0.0 trraa, 0.3 srraa, -1.8 runs above average
2014: 830 innings, 6.6 csraa, -1.4 epraa, 0.0 trraa, 1.8 srraa, 7.0 runs above average
2015: 727 innings, 6.0 csraa, 0.5 epraa, 0.0 trraa, 1.3 srraa, 7.8 runs above average

Sanchez was easily the biggest surprise to me over the course of this project. From a scouting perspective his strengths are obvious, a plus-plus arm that doesn't always play to the full tool, along with rough receiving and blocking skills. But it is worth noting that one of the themes above was improvement, and that is borne out in the numbers. Between 2014 and 2015 you have about a season-and-a-half worth of innings (I use 120 games in my head to approximate a “full” catcher season), and Sanchez has been above-average at throwing out runners (as you would expect) and framing (which flies in the face of the scouting reports. If Sanchez is an above-average catcher on balance, that would radically change his projection as a major leaguer. The bat is still raw, but the power potential, combined with an everyday backstop projection with the glove, would make him a role 6 type.

The Jesus Montero

And finally we come to the prospects that were catchers in the same sense that Bobby Bonilla was an astronaut. From my favorite of his New Historical Abstract capsules:

"When I said that Carney Lansford was an awful third baseman, I didn’t mean that he was as bad as Bobby Bonilla. Bonilla, listed at 240 pounds, has played about 8,000 career innings at third base, so I suppose that makes him a third baseman, and if you sent him into space a few times I suppose that would make him an astronaut, but apart from that, he was no more a third baseman than he was an astronaut.”

More specifically, we come to Jesus Montero for reasons that will become obvious in a moment.

Jesus Montero

What we said:

“He's immobile behind the plate and has significant difficulty catching pitches with life, often reverting back to old habits that include stabbing as opposed to receiving balls. He has above-average arm strength, but it's mitigated by the amount of time in takes his hefty frame to go from crouch to throwing position. Between his deficiencies and the physical toll catching takes on the body, the Mariners should tell Montero that the only glove he'll wear from now on is those of the batting variety, sit back, and enjoy.” – Kevin Goldstein, Jesus the Mariner, 1/16/12

What the stats say:

2012: 488 innings, -10.7 csraa, -0.8 epraa, 0.0 trraa, -1.6 srraa, -13.1 runs above average
2013: 231 innings, -6.9 crsaa, -0.1 epraa, 0.0 trraa, -0.3 srraa, -7.3 runs above average

I needed an example to a catcher with bad defensive scouting reports and of course Jesus Montero fits the bill. I suppose I could have just as easily used Josmil Pinto or Kyle Skipworth (who had one of the twenty worst seasons in the database), but only one of them showed up in a dream I had after a week of combing over minor league defensive catcher metrics. At the risk of breaking the cardinal rule of polite conversation and telling you, the reader, about one of my dreams, it involved my sitting an office and a well-dressed man telling me that Jesus Montero was right outside the door. I retorted that if that were true I would certainly know, because Montero would be larger than the door. I comfort myself while writing this as it seems like a relevant anecdote when discussing his defense as well. He played catcher like a man that was larger than an office door.

Thank you for reading

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edwinblume
1/12
Looking at Zunino, it appears that his defensive metrics have worsened over time. Is that because he really has gotten worse or has "average" increased? Or both?