One of the toughest things to quantify in all of sports is a catcher’s value on defense. Their are so many responsibilities and subtle nuances that go into being a quality Major League backstop. The best of the best are able to deftly juggle the responsibilities of managing a pitching staff, framing borderline pitches, blocking pitches, holding base runners, throwing said runners out when they attempt to steal, and much, much more. Recently I’ve been doing some research into catching defense and I have been somewhat unsatisfied by both the traditional statistics (caught stealing %, passed balls, and so on) and by the advanced metrics (URZ and defensive runs saved). A few excellent studies in particular have been done to analyze a catcher’s ability to frame pitches, but otherwise most analysis is left to judgment. I’ve been compiling some of my own numbers relating to catchers controlling the base running game in order to gain a better understanding of who the best backstops in baseball really are, and I’d like to share some of my findings today.
The spreadsheet below contains catchers or catcher groupings from all 30 Major League teams. Twenty-five Major League teams have primarily used one catcher for at least 50% of their innings behind the plate while the five remaining clubs have worked out of a platoon scenario for one reason or another. For that reason I’ve examined those five clubs as a unit to examine whether or not those platoons are actually working on the defensive side of things.
I’m looking specifically at a catcher’s ability to limit an opposing team’s running game, so we have some of the traditional stats (caught stealing %, stolen bases allowed) mixed in with some numbers I’ve been working on.
The first of which is innings caught per stolen base allowed. This statistic is simple. All it does is let us know how frequently a catcher is giving up stolen bases. Elite catchers allow 1 steal for every 25 or more innings caught, while the worst allow about one stolen base per every 10-11 innings. For further reference the league average for the 2013 season is one steal per every 16.2 innings.
The 2nd statistic I created is stolen bases allowed per 1200 innings, which is about the equivalent of 140 games behind the plate. This number is based on a catcher’s current innings caught per stolen base allowed, and is rounded to the nearest whole number. It creates a nice even number which allows us to get a true idea of the difference between the elite catchers in baseball and the below average ones. The best catchers will sit somewhere in the 30-40 range. The worst are going to be the ones who top 100. Everyone else is coalescing towards the middle, which for the 2013 season is about 74 stolen bases allowed per 1200 innings of work as a backstop.
Finally, this is still a relatively small sample size so remember to keep that in mind as well. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s take a look at the numbers:
– Yadier Molina, Matt Wieters, and Miguel Montero are far and away the cream of the catching crop. This isn’t a new development either. All three annually grade out among the best defenders at their position.
– We really need to talk about your catching situation Joe Maddon. Rays catchers have allowed more stolen bases than any other team this season while doubling down on a complete lack of offense. Combined, the Jose Molina-Jose Lobaton pair ranks 20th in baseball in team OPS at the catching position while producing just 3 homers and 17 RBI in 52 games! In fact, opposing runners should probably be given the green light even more frequently than they already are thanks to Tampa’s paltry 16% caught stealing rate.
– Russell Martin has been an absolute godsend for the catching-starved Pirates. A year ago Pittsburgh gave a majority of their playing time behind the plate to Rod Barajas. If not for actual video evidence, I would have assumed Barajas was just rolling the ball down to 2nd base a year ago thanks to an arm that best resembles a wet noodle. He gave up a whopping 1 steal per every 8.88 innings caught, which is about half as good as Martin has been this season. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, they are still giving Mike McKenry playing time at catcher. The only thing easier than stealing a base from McKenry would be taking actual candy from a picture of a baby. He’s giving up 1 steal per every 6.01 innings which is far and away the worst rate in baseball.
– Buster Posey, contrary to popular belief, is just not a good defensive catcher. He’s slow getting out of his crouch and his arm strength is only so-so, which makes him an easy target for speedsters. He’s allowed 1 stolen base per every 13.8 innings caught, which is right in line with his career average. Posey’s an absolutely wonderful, game-changing force with the bat. His receiving and throwing skills just haven’t gotten there yet.
– Who’s the most improved backstop from a year ago, you ask? Why that would be none other than Joe Mauer. The Twins offensive powerhouse gave up 1 steal per every 11.2 innings caught a year ago, but that’s jumped up to 1 per every 42.6 innings caught in the early going. That’s got to make Twins fans breath a little easier going forward.
– Kurt Suzuki is absolutely killing the Nationals right now. When you’re a no-bat/defense first player, you need to perform well on defense. Suzuki hasn’t done that so far, getting his pocket picked 30 times in 33 chances this season. Hurry back soon Wilson Ramos.
-Teams should be stealing more often off of these players: Chris Iannetta, Nick Hundley, Wellington Castillo, Jarod Saltalamacchia, and Tyler Flowers.
-Teams should probably avoid running on these guys: Wilin Rosario, John Buck, the Yankees platoon, and Rob Brantly.
Big thanks to Baseball-Reference for some of the statistical help.