It would be easy for me to complain about this “boring” and “predictable” update of the catcher defense rankings. I mean, the top and the bottom catchers are just as we expect. On the other hand, that sort of reassures me that these catcher defense rankings are getting at something like reality, you know. If, say, Yan Gomes led all year like he did last month, I’d be pretty worried. There is always interesting stuff to be found in these semi-regularly updated catcher defense ratings, so let’s see what we have.
I am trying to get away from discussing the same methodological stuff in every update. As usual, there is a methodological postscript after the rankings. Look at those for more details if you are interested of the admitted scope and limits of these ratings. I will offer a bit of commentary, instead.
What is boring about this installment? After the Yan Gomes anomaly from last month, Yadier Molina and Matt Wieters are on top. That is hardly surprising; I don’t think these basic ratings are the only ones that have them as the best defensive catchers in baseball. Molina might be one of the best overall players in baseball, and people finally seem to realize it. Wieters’ is still weirdly underrated, although his bat has actually been bad (rather than simply disappointing relative to expectations as in the past) this year, mostly due to a low BABIP. Joe Mauer is in third, which is a bit surprising. It is not that he is a bad defender, just that he hasn’t been quite this good in the past. Combined with a revived bat, Mauer is quietly working on a MVP campaign.
The bottom three contains at least one surprise. Two are not total surprises. Chris Iannetta, the third worst is probably not as bad as his numbers so far, but he has never been a defensive wizard. Luckily, a league average bat behind the plate is passable. Carlos Santana is the worst in the league so far, and that is hardly surprising, either. He is no Joe Mauer, but his bat still makes him one of the better catchers in baseball this year.
The surprise is that Jose Molina is the second-worst overall. At least, it may be surprising to some, given that he has a good defensive reputation. Most of that is due to his famed ability to frame pitches. That research is very important, and I like it, although I also think some of us (including myself) have been a bit uncritical about it. The Rays must believe in it strongly to allow Molina to get so many reps. He can’t hit (he has an 80 wRC+ so far this year about what you would expect), and he has not been impressive in the non-framing aspects of fielding for a while. I watched a game this year during which he repeatedly let balls get past him.
In other words, given his bat and glove, Jose Molina had better be a bad-ass pitch-framer.
So here, for your entertainment and irritation, are the rest of the rankings.
Concluding Methodological Postscript
I should make clear that for reasons of simplicity I am not including such debated areas as pitch framing or the more amorphous “game calling.” I am not taking a position one way or the other on either of those, simply making clear the bounds of these rankings. When I discuss “catcher defense,” like most others, I will be discussing preventing stolen bases, blocking pitches, etc.
One of the difficulties with evaluating catcher defense with regard to even these issues is that, much more than with other fielding positions, the catcher’s performance is dependent on another player — namely, the pitcher. No matter now strong or weak the catcher’s arm is, he can’t escape the reality that he depends on the pitcher’s skill with regard to holding runners, quickness to the plate, etc. While the catcher’s skill with regard to blocking pitches that are off the mark is clearly important, catching Tim Wakefield poses a unique challenge — just ask Josh Bard. And so on.
For these reasons, probably the best way of measuring catcher defense is Tom Tango’s WOWY (With or Without You) method of defensive evaluation as detailed the 2008 Hardball Times Annual. You can read about the details in the links provided. Versions of WOWY for catchers have also been done by Brian Cartwright and Dan Turkenkopf. I would do it that way if I could. The main issue is that 1) it’s pretty complicated, and beyond my present capabilities, and 2) it requires something like Retrosheet, which isn’t available until after the World Series is over, so even if I could do it, I couldn’t get the numbers during the season of even now…
While the method used here is neither terribly subtle nor original, I think when compared to things like the Fans’ Scouting Report and WOWY methods, it compares fairly well. Just keep in mind the acknowledged limits (e.g., not taking into account the pitchers’ contributions like WOWY does).
The Method Used Here
For non-WOWY catcher defense, the basic idea is to 1) choose what events you’re going to deal with, 2) determine each catchers performance with respect to league average, and 3) decide the run value of each event.
Stolen Bases/Caught Stealing (CSRuns): First, we figure out the league rate for caught stealing. One cool thing about the new Baseball Reference is that it separates out the catcher caught stealings from the pitcher pickoffs, so we can exclude the pickoffs (not under the catcher’s control) from the equation. So we total the CSctch +SB to get total stolen base attempts (SBA) and then to total CSctch/total SBA for the lgCS rate. We use the weight of .63 runs for each caught stealing, which represents the average linear weight of the caught stealing (.44 runs) plus the weight of the stolen base not achieved (.19 runs). The formula for runs above/below average for each catcher is thus (CS – (lgCSrate) * SBA) * 0.63.
Wild pitches/passed balls (WPPBRuns): The league rate is (WPlg + PBlg)/lgPA. The linear weight for each passed ball/wild pitch is 0.28 runs, which we make negative since the more WP/PBs a catcher has, the worse his defense is. The formula for each player is ((WP + PB) – (lgWPPBrate * PA)) * -0.28.
Errors (FcE and TE Runs): I deal with three different kinds of catcher error recorded by Baseball Reference: throwing errors, catching errors, and fielding errors. I’ve assimilated catching errors to fielding errors. There are separate linear weights for throwing (including catching) errors (-0.48) and fielding errors (-0.75). The method is the same as above. Get the league rate, then see how far over/under the player is. For throwing errors: (TE – (lgTErate * PA)) * -0.48. Fielding errors: (FE – (lgFErate * PA)) * -0.75.
Then you just add them all up to get the total runs above/below average. It’s not perfect, and hopefully, there will be some improved options soon, but the results do seem to reflect reality. I round to one decimal: I aware that gives an illusion of precision that isn’t there, I simply do it to expedite sorting and ranking. I thought about coming up with a “rate” version like UZR/150, but that isn’t as simple as prorating for innings caught/PA — one needs to normalize each sort of event separately, the chart is confusing enough as it is. For now, this is just a value measurement of what each player did this season.