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Quantifying catchers: The best and the worst defenders

If you read my first post, you'll be familiar with the methodology I'm using to attempt to judge a catcher's defense in a run value. If, by chance, you missed it, the quick rundown is this:

  • I find the league average rate of caught stealings, wild pitches and passed balls allowed, throwing, catching, and fielding errors for a catcher.
  • Compare each individual catcher to the league rate.
  • Apply a run value for each of the categories

This gives us a runs above or below average number for each catcher.

However, this method doesn't adjust for a catcher's game calling abilities -- we're just not able to do that effectively. Also, this isn't even the best possible method available and this should be accompanied by a scouting report of some sort. Absent of a scouting report, the Fans Scouting Report is a very good start (here's the 2009 totals).

With my clarifications and back round information out of the way, lets get on with it. Below I will have the top 20 catchers from 2002-2009 in terms of runs saved.

Brian Schneider 53.3
Brad Ausmus 39.1
Yadier Molina 38.2
Joe Mauer 32.0
Gerald Laird 28.1
Henry Blanco 28.0
Rod Barajas 27.7
Kenji Johjima 26.0
Mike Redmond 23.5
Mike Matheny 21.2
Ivan Rodriguez 18.2
Dan Wilson 17.8
Yorvit Torrealba 17.4
Damian Miller 17.1
David Ross 16.0
Jason Varitek 15.8
Jose Molina 15.8
Chris Snyder 12.6
Raul Chavez 12.3
Mike Mahoney 11.9

As you can see, catchers defense really only comes into play at the extremes. Keep in mind, some of these guys have full data for the last eight seasons and are barely over the 10 run mark. But, if you're very good (or very bad), it can make quite the impact on your total value. Who had Brian Schneider in the pool as "best defensive catcher of the Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement era?" If you did, then you should be writing for Bless You Boys instead of me.

If you look at Brian Schneider's value section on Fangraphs, you see he's got 20 runs saved from 2003-09 in just caught stealing/stolen bases. Personally, I've got him for just about 31 from 2003-09. I'm sure it's a weighting difference on our parts that is giving us different values. In my method, though, nearly 60% of Brian Schneider's value comes from caught stealing runs. While the remainder of what we can calculate isn't a huge part of a catcher's runs saved total, it does add up over the years. This is why I will continue to calculate the catcher defensive ratings until Fangraphs includes wild pitches/passed balls, and throwing, catching, and fielding errors into their methods (which I suspect won't be too long from now).

Bullet points on the rest of the list:

  • Yadier Molina is very good. We know this, and it shows up here despite the fact that teams have nearly quit running on him completely.
  • If you subscribe to my method, Joe Mauer gets another 3 wins tacked onto his 02-09 WAR totals. That would bring him to about 32 WAR total for the Twins by age 27. I think he's pretty good at his baseball thing.
  • Gerald Laird pops up here -- so there is hope for what has appeared to be a bad year for him all around in the Old English D. He's gunning down runners at merely a league rate and has been below average in wild pitches/passed balls allowed relative to the league average. That said, he's had years where he's been rather pedestrian: 2004 (1.3 runs), 2005 (-1.2), 2008 (0.0) coupled with his great years: 2006 (5.4), 2007 (8.4) and 2009 (13.7).
  • There is a reason Henry Blanco sticks around the Majors. He's a defense-first catcher, so teams live with his career .656 OPS (good for a .284 wOBA).
  • Pudge Rodriguez may look low on the list, but he, by this method had a bad start in my database: 2002 (-6.6 runs), 2003 (-1.3) and 2004 (-3.3) cost his teams a collective 11.2 runs. He made up for it, though with monster years in 2005 (7.6), 2006 (10.0), 2008 (9.6) and a good year in 2009 (3.1).
  • Jason Varitek at one point was a very good catcher. He's never been good at throwing runners out, but he's been a good backstop at not allowing wild pitches and passed balls, as well as limiting any errors.

Now, let's look at the trailers. Here are the 20 'worst' catchers by my methods, from 2002-2009:

Michael Barrett -37.4
Mike Piazza -26.2
Mike Napoli -20.6
John Buck -20.2
Doug Mirabelli -20.0
Gregg Zaun -18.6
Josh Bard -18.0
Chad Moeller -17.1
Miguel Olivo -16.6
A.J. Pierzynski -16.3
Ryan Doumit -15.5
Todd Greene -14.2
Miguel Montero -12.8
JD Closser -12.3
Mike Lieberthal -11.8
Javy Lopez -11.8
Mike Rivera -11.0
Paul Bako -10.8
Jarrod Saltalamacchia -10.6
Jeff Mathis -10.5

It's a good thing Michael Barrett had been above-average for a catcher with the bat, because his defense has been shoddy, to say the least. Fangraphs has him at -17 runs saved in caught stealing/stolen bases from 2003-09 (don't know why their database is only going back to 2003...) while I have him at -19.4. Given that these numbers are very close, I can estimate he's cost his teams another 10-15 runs in just wild pitches/passed balls and the throwing, catching, and fielding errors. Again, these little things add up over time.

Bullet points on the less-gifted defensive catchers:

  • Mike Piazza's poor reputation is well earned. I have data only for 2002-2006 which is when he retired. That's an average of -5 runs per year from the feared slugger. He obviously made up for it with the bat, though.
  • I wouldn't put a lot of stock into Doug Mirabelli's numbers. He's spent a large portion of his days catching Tim Wakefield. You try to catch that knuckler, not commit and error and still try to throw runners out. Victor Martinez can sympathize with him.
  • As if the majority of baseball fans needed ammunition against A.J. Pierzynski, they can now use the fact that he's a bad catcher in not only shutting down the running game, but also in the other measurable areas of catching.
  • Who is JD Closser? Well, he was a catcher for the Colorado Rockies for three years from 2004-2006, and hasn't sniffed the big leagues since. He only got into 160 games in that time span, but he sure did impact the Rockies with some poor defense. One bad year in the running game and below-average in preventing wild pitches/passed balls as well as commit errors.
  • In case you're wondering, Jorge Posada sits at -8.1 runs total, good for 30th worst.

Just a couple more tables before I go. First, here's the top individual seasons for the years I have looked at:

Brian Schneider MON NL 2004 15.5
Gerald Laird DET AL 2009 13.5
Jason Kendall MIL NL 2008 13.2
Kenji Johjima SEA AL 2007 12.2
Yadier Molina STL NL 2006 11.7
Bengie Molina ANA AL 2002 10.9
Mike Mahoney STL/SFG NL 2005 10.1
Ivan Rodriguez DET AL 2006 10.0
Yadier Molina STL NL 2007 9.7
Jorge Posada NYY AL 2003 9.6
Ivan Rodriguez DET/NYY AL 2008 9.6
Jose Molina NYY AL 2008 9.4
Victor Martinez CLE AL 2007 9.2
Kenji Johjima SEA AL 2009 8.9
Gerald Laird TEX AL 2007 8.5

  • There's the secret to Brian Schneider's success. He had a phenomenal year for the Montreal Expos in 2004. Nearly 9 runs saved in the running game, another 4 in preventing wild pitches/passed balls, and just under three more in the various errors.
  • The Molina Family is good at this catching thing.
  • How fun was it to be able to watch Pudge Rodriguez defensively? I may not have enjoyed his comments as he was heading out the door, but few things I like more than watching him catch-and-throw behind the plate.
  • Kenji Johjima is underrated. I don't hear him get mentioned as a good defensive catcher enough.

The 15 worst individual seasons:

Michael Barrett CHC NL 2006 -10.4
Mike Lieberthal PHI NL 2003 -10.2
Jason Kendall OAK/CHC AL 2007 -9.9
Mike Napoli LAA AL 2009 -9.6
JD Closser COL NL 2005 -9.3
Benito Santiago SFG NL 2003 -9.3
Mike Piazza NYM NL 2002 -9.0
Doug Mirabelli BOS AL 2004 -8.9
Miguel Olivo KCR AL 2009 -8.7
Josh Bard SDP NL 2007 -8.7
Ramon Hernandez BAL AL 2008 -8.2
Mike Piazza SDP NL 2006 -7.6
A.J. Pierzynski CHW AL 2008 -7.4
John Buck KCR AL 2008 -7.3
Josh Bard WSN NL 2009 -7.2

  • There's MIchael Barret again. Probably no surprise why he's only gotten into 7 games with the Blue Jays this year.
  • Jason Kendall being on the both of these last two lists shows how volatile quantifying defense is and that these lists are merely guides, not gospel.
  • Again, cut Doug Mirabelli's 2004 some slack for the whole Tim Wakefield thing.

That should be enough data to quench anyone's thirst for catcher defensive runs saved. At the end of this month, I will post 2010 data and will continue to do monthly updates throughout the season until Fangraphs includes wild pitches/passed balls, throwing, catching and fielding errors into their catcher defensive runs saved totals. It's too easy for such a great site to not include them.

Big, big, big thank you goes out to Lee Panas for using his wonderful database skills to combine all my individual season into 'career' totals that I presented above. You should go buy his book and then read his blog daily if you don't already!