Evaluating How Catchers Control the Opposition’s Running Game – 2013 Edition

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:

Screen shot 2013-05-30 at 8.59.07 AM

– 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. 

16 thoughts on “Evaluating How Catchers Control the Opposition’s Running Game – 2013 Edition

  1. 1
    David Horwich says:

    Putting all the credit/blame for controlling the running game on catchers overlooks a significant aspect of the issue, namely the ability (or lack thereof) of a pitching staff to hold runners on and deliver the ball quickly to the plate.

    Perhaps Joe Mauer has made some adjustment that has improved his release time and throwing mechanics – or is it that this year’s Twins pitching staff is collectively better at holding runners on and/or faster to the plate?

    To take a specific example that leaps to mind, look at the stolen base numbers against Tim Lincecum, who has a slow, twisty delivery:

    2007 10/12
    2008 20/23
    2009 20/25
    2010 27/30
    2011 23/37
    2012 25/27
    2013 8/8

    Is it all his catchers’ fault that (with the exception of 2011) base stealers have been successful 80-90% of the time while he’s on the mound? It seems to me that Lincecum’s pitching style bears at least as much of the blame.

    And how important is controlling the running game, anyway? Over the last half dozen years teams have averaged a little over 0.6 SB per game, in an offensive environemnt of (roughly) 4.5 run/game. No doubt it was more important in the Dead Ball era, when teams averaged about twice as many SB/game, the offensive environemnt was less than 4 runs/game, and (as far as we can tell with the limited data we have) SB success rates were significantly lower than they are today.

    So I think that using success against the running game as a proxy for overall catcher defense is an excessively narrow approach to the difficult question of evaluating catcher defense.

    This is hardly a new insight on my part, to be sure.

    • 3
      David Hruska says:

      Let’s take all of Lincecum’s innings with Posey away then and see what happens. That’s 301 total with a 28-5 stolen base/caught stealing ratio. Posey now allows one steal per every 13.78 innings over the course of his entire career. That works out to 87.08 steals over the course of a full season, which is still well below average and it’s about 40-50 bases worse than an elite catcher, someone like Yadi Molina or Matt Wieters. Yes, some of the blame for steals falls to the pitcher, but for the most part it’s the job of a catcher to keep runners where they are.

      • 4
        David Horwich says:

        Hmm. I think it’s more the job of the pitcher to keep the runner where he is, and the catcher’s to try to throw him out if the runner takes off.

        For example, the number of SB against Andy Pettitte has always been low, and most seasons would-be thieves have had a poor success rate against him. As far as I know no one has ever suggested Jorge Posada was a stellar defensive catcher, and the credit has rightfully been given to Pettitte’s outstanding pickoff move. On the other hand, Nolan Ryan gave up a lot of steals…and so on.

        I’m not saying a catcher has *nothing* to do with SB/CS percentages – there’s a reason Ivan Rodriguez was well above league average in CS% throughout his prime – but that a significant portion of the credit/blame has to go to the pitchers involved.

        My larger point, though, is that CS% is only one part of a catcher’s defensive performance, and to my mind not the most important part – there’s framing pitches, blocking balls in the dirt, agility in fielding foul pop-ups and bunts or dribblers in front of the plate, the ability to call a game and work with the pitching staff – but none of those things are easily quanitifiable, so CS% is given more weight than it should be when evaluating catcher defense.

        I hope it’s clear that I offer these thoughts in a spirit of constructive criticism and friendly discussion. Evaluating catcher defense is a particularly knotty problem with no obvious solution. The work that’s been done on pitch framing in the last few years is very intriguing, but even that addresses only a part of the overall question.

        • 5
          David Hruska says:

          Again, I’m trying to evaluate one aspect, hence the title “Evaluating How Catchers Control the Opposition’s Running Game”, and I agree, overall it’s a rather thorny issue to look at the entirety of catching defense. Between pitch framing, blocking, holding runners, throwing out runners, and That’s why I’m picking at it one skill at a time.

          Now, onto the point. We both agree Andy Pettitte is pretty great at holding runners, which obviously means that catchers do indeed get better when he’s on the mound. But it’s a two-way street and the guy behind the plate still has a bigger effect. Let’s take a look at his numbers by catcher (min 100 pitched with each catcher):

          Andy Pettitte: 3180 IP, 182 SB, 1 steal per 17.47 IP, 68.7 steals per 1200 IP

          With Jorge Posada: 1177.1 IP, 72 SB, 1 steal per 16.35 IP, 73.39 steals per 1200 IP

          With Brad Ausmus: 518.1 IP,18 SB, 1 steal per 28.8 IP, 41.67 steals per 1200 IP

          With Francisco Cervelli: 116.1 IP, 3 SB, 1 steal per 38.78 IP, 25.79 steals per 1200 IP

          With Joe Girardi: 612.2 IP, 43 SB, 1 steal per 14.25 IP, 84.27 steals per 1200 IP

          With Jim Leyritz: 261.2 IP, 12 SB, 1 steal per 21.81 IP, 55.02 steals per 1200 IP

          With Jose Molina: 164.1 IP, 13 SB, 1 steal per 12.64 IP, 94.94 steals per 1200 IP

          All of these players were significantly better with Pettitte on the mound, which makes sense, the same way a catcher would be worse if an inattentive pitcher like Tim Lincecum or AJ Burnett were on the mound. These are extreme cases though.

          You can still plainly see each catcher’s individual skill shine through however. Ausmus went from very good to great at catching runners with Pettitte. Posada merely went from bad to average. The important thing is that there’s still 25-35 bases between Ausmus and Posada. Both catchers also caught Roger Clemens quite a bit and an interesting thing happens when you look at those numbers.

          Roger Clemens: 4916.2 IP, 446 SB, 1 steal per 11.02 IP, 108.89 steals per 1200 IP

          With Jorge Posada: 971 IP, 103 SB, 1 steal per 9.43 IP, 127.25 steals per 1200 IP

          With Brad Ausmus: 531 IP, 44 SB, 1 steal per 12.07 IP, 99.42 steals per 1200 IP

          Again, we have a 25-35 base difference between the two. But the hierarchy is still in place. The best throwing catchers prevent steals all on their own.

    • 14
      John Autin says:

      “how important is controlling the running game, anyway?”

      Good question, David Horwich. And here’s a small piece of the puzzle:

      In 2013 games through Thursday, when one team had more steals than their opponent, they won at a .637 clip. Sounds good in the abstract, but it’s one of the lowest figures for “winning the battle” in any of the offensive counting stats.

      Context is huge, of course, and we all can remember games where steals or CS were crucial. But for an anecdotal case, note that Jacoby Ellsbury’s 5 SB the other night produced no runs, and as a bonus, landed him on the bench with a groin strain.

  2. 2
    mosc says:

    We need a stealing leverage statistic. You’d have to look at the probability of stealing in any given RE24 situation, and give each player some kind of seasonal steal probability number. Then, you can calculate the expected number of steal attempts a catcher SHOULD see and use that against what they DID see.

  3. 6
    brp says:

    The variance in attempts is interesting to me. It’s too hard to nail that down; do teams run less because of a catcher’s reputation, or the pitcher on the mound, or simply their personnel/game situations?

    E.g. when Montero has only thrown out 14% and Rob Brantly has thrown out 45%, then why have teams attempted to steal 8 more times on Brantly in roughly 120 fewer innings? It’s not like teams are trying desperately to scratch out runs against the vaunted Marlins rotation or anything.

    Or why are they running so much against Martin and so little against Pierzynski, etc. I’m thinking a combination of the lack of review of data just like this and also that steals are somewhat predicated on game situations, and of course personnel on the basepaths. It doesn’t matter how bad Carlos Santana is at throwing out runners, the ChiSox aren’t going to try a double-steal with Dunn & Konerko anytime soon, for example.

    • 10
      no statistician but says:


      I second the notion. Some high octane thieves like Brock and Henderson stole for fun, but the running game is dependent to a great extent on situation and the personnel of both teams.

      Just a passing thought: It might be easier to isolate what makes a bad catcher than a good one, and do the weaning in reverse. Problem: same as above, situation and the other players come into it a lot. With a knuckleballer on the mound, any catcher has the potential to look bad.

    • 11
      David Hruska says:

      You have those numbers backwards brp. Runners have attempted to steal on Brantly 23 times in 294 innings (13 safe/10 out). Runners have attempted 24 steals on Montero in 225 innings (23 safe/1 out).

  4. 7
    Timmy Pea says:

    I always thought Gary Carter was overrated, esp. on defense. Go to compare at B-Ref, and compare Gary and Joe Carter, it’s quite a shock to see how similar their hitting stats are.

    • 8
      Lawrence Azrin says:

      Timmy Pea,

      We’ve been through this before; their raw offensive numbers may look kinda sorta similar if you squint hard, but you still have adjust them for context. Joe Carter had a lifetime AIR of 103 (somewhat above-average offensive context); Joe Carter had a lifetime AIR of 95 ((well below–average offensive context).

      Gary Carter has +158 Rbat, while Joe Carter has only +5 Rbat. Even if you don’t adjust, Gary has a 26 point advantage in OBA, which is huge.

      Without throwing more numbers around, Joe Carter was about average offensively over the course of his career,sometimes decent, once/twice even good. Gary Carter was not a truly great hitter, but usually good,and sometimes excellent.

      When you factor in the huge huge advantage in value Gary has as a catcher (defesively I’d consider him ‘good’ at the very least) compared to Joe as a corner OFer, there’s really no comparison at all Gary Carter is at the very least an all-time Top-10 catcher (probably higher) and a very solid HOFer. Joe Carter is _at best_ a Top-40 righfielder, and not remotely a serious HOF candidate.

      • 9
        David Horwich says:

        Yes, we have been down this road before, and I suspect Timmy Pea is just looking to rile folks up a bit.

      • 15
        Lawrence Azrin says:

        @8/Lawrence (me)

        OOPS! I meant to say ” …GARY Carter had a lifetime AIR of 95 (well below–average offensive context).”

        FWIW, JOE Carter had a great year in 1986, and may have been a serious MVP candidate (he finished 9th) if the Indians had actually contended (they were 84-78, 11.5 GB), as he was widely seen as a leader in their resurgence.

        Gary Carter, however, had at least 6-7 seasons as good or better than Joe Carter’s best. To pile on further, Jay Jaffe’s JAWS HOF-worthiness evaluator on B-R has:

        Gary Carter – 2nd greatest catcher
        Joe Carter – 104th greatest right fielder

        A little bit of a difference, huh?

    • 16
      BryanM says:

      Tim , as a Jays and Cards fan , I repent my poking a little fun at the cubs the other day. The Jays last won 20 years ago, and they sure are not as good as the Cubs this year…. Sadly , in 20 years, they have never been able to replace the greatness of Joe Carter.

  5. 12
    John Autin says:

    David, I enjoyed this piece! It’s great to look at all aspects of how catchers fare against the running game, not just CS percentages. For instance, Miguel Montero had an outstanding CS% the past 2 years, but a lousy figure this year (2 of 15). But the bigger picture is, most folks just don’t run on him any more; about 80 attempts per year in 2011-12, but on pace for less than 50 this year.

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