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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Catchers & Defense: Some Thoughts 

I faulted The Fielding Bible for their decision not to attempt to deal with the impact a catcher has on a team’s defense. Playing catcher is a very challenging job because you spend most of the game squatting in the dirt with heavy pads on, drenched in sweat, blocking the plate, catching 95-mph fastballs, interacting with sometimes fragile pitchers, throwing out runners trying to advance … then you have to worry about batting and getting a hit … it is all a massive headache and to survive you have to be a pretty sharp guy. Little surprise that so many managers were also catchers: e.g., Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa.

Rating a catcher and his contribution to his team might be the holy grail of defense analysis. Today I am going to talk about two issues: durability, and holding runners.

First durability.

Innings Played / (Pct. of team’s innings)
Lieberthal (2005): 998 & 2/3 (69.6%)
Pratt (2005): 436 & 1/3 (30.4%)
Lieberthal (2004): 1104 (75.5%)
Pratt (2004): 333 (22.8%)

Pratt got more playing time in ’05 because Lieberthal is slowing down a little these days. Still, see how the rest of the league did:

Rest of the NL:
Matheny (Giants): 1122 (77.7%)
Ausmus (Astros): 1065 & 2/3 (73.9%)
Phillips (Dodgers): 724 (72.4%)
LoDuca (Marlins): 1033 & 1/3 (72.4%)
Barrett (Cubs): 1017 & 2/3 (70.7%)
Molina (Cardinals): 959 & 1/3 (66.4%)
LaRue (Reds): 914 & 2/3 (63.8%)
Miller (Brewers): 917 & 1/3 (63.8%)
Schneider (Nats): 926 & 2/3 (63.6%)
Snyder (D-Backs): 915 & 2/3 (62.9%)
Estrada (Braves): 823 & 1/3 (57.2%)
Piazza (Mets): 809 (56.4%)
Cota (Pirates): 681 (47.4%)

You can’t read too much into this because there are a lot of variables here like pitchers wanting a personal catcher (e.g., Gavin Floyd and Jon Lieber apparently prefer for Sal Fasano to catch their games), injuries, etc. Certainly it appears that Mike Lieberthal is still a pretty durable guy.

It doesn’t surprise me at all to see Mike Piazza at the bottom of the list.

On to stolen bases attempted:

Stolen Bases Attempted / SBA per 1,000 innings
Lieberthal (2005): 80 / 80.1
Pratt (2005): 28 / 64.2
Lieberthal (2004): 94 / 85.1
Pratt (2004): 32 / 96.1

This is a stat I keep track of because a catcher’s arm sometimes has a deterrent effect: teams won’t run on a strong-armed catcher except in situations where they can expect to succeed. So you might see a catcher with a 20% rate for catching base-stealers, but teams ran just 20 times on him because he’s so good. Then you might see a guy with a 25% rate, but teams ran on him 150 times because he’s so weak. Who contributes more to his team’s defense?

I think Lieberthal does a pretty decent job defensively. I don’t think teams tried to take advantage of opportunities against him. Now compare Lieberthal’s numbers to the rest of the league:

The Rest of the League:

Phillips (Dodgers): 97 / 125.3
Piazza (Mets): 95 / 117.4
LoDuca (Marlins): 118 / 114.2
Estrada (Braves): 84 / 102.0
Matheny (Giants): 102 / 90.9
Barrett (Cubs): 91 / 89.4
Schneider (Nats): 80 / 86.3
LaRue (Reds): 76 / 83.1
Miller (Brewers): 76 / 82.9
Cota (Pirates): 47 / 69.0
Snyder (D-Backs): 63 / 68.8
Ausmus (Astros): 57 / 53.5
Molina (Cardinals): 39 / 40.7

I think we can say that Phillips is a weak defensive catcher for the following reason: teams in the NL West were the least likely to steal a base in 2005: the average NL West team attempted 106.4 steals, and three of them attempted less than 100. The average NL Central team tried 138.6 steals. The average NL East team? 136.8. With baseball’s unbalanced schedule that means that the Phillies played a lot of games against teams that like to run: 75 against the NL East, 41 against the Central, and 31 against the West. (Interleague factors skew this a little.)

So the fact that Piazza, Lo Duca and Estrada rank #’s 2, 3 & 4 on the list isn’t surprising. Do teams in this division run because they are defensively weak? Or because there are good base-stealers in the division? (e.g., Carlos Beltran, Jimmy Rollins, Bobby Abreu.) Maybe a little of both.

One player that I think we can say is a very good defensive catcher is the Cards Yadier Molina: not only did he have just 39 attempted base-stealers in 959 & 1/3 innings, but he allowed just 14 to reach. Yes, he threw out 25 base-stealers – 55%! That’s good. Real good.

Mike Lieberthal is still a pretty good catcher. Sure he only caught 19% of base-stealers. That’s better than Piazza’s 11% and comparable to Lo Duca’s 21%.

Conclusions. Catching is the holy grail of defensive sabremetrics. If anyone can come up with a workable system and can suggest things that we can measure, I'd like to hear it. Until then, I'm going to stick up for Mike Lieberthal. He's a good catcher. Not great, but good.

Nice throw by Pat Burrell in last night's Brewers game, just a few hours after I got done questioning his defensive skills. This is a tough series for the Phils to win: the Brew crew looks tough.

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