Well, 2008 is already upon us. Happy New Year; pitchers and catchers report in like six weeks. Finally, we can close the books on 2007 and begin the process of pretending it never happened. I myself began this process months ago and have continued with great success through the holiday season by drinking enormous quantities of the official spirit of the United States.
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much in the way of trades or free agent signings to help out the cause. Apart from not re-signing Captain Red Ass and swapping garbage with the Brewers, the Mets’ biggest move so far this off-season was trading a promising-yet-frustrating young outfielder for a not-so-young platoon outfielder and a younger, but still not actually young good-field, no-hit catcher. This move was generally received pretty poorly here in Geektown, but at least a few of us have defended it by saying that Brian Schneider’s defense—controlling the running game and handling the pitching staff—could significantly improve the Mets pitchers in 2008.
So, how good is Schneider’s fielding? How valuable is a good-fielding catcher in the first place? We all know about his hitting—it’s crummy. He’s got a career OPS of .700, after all. Of course, you don’t run around with a career OPS+ of 82 (that’s 18 % worse than league average for you playing at home) unless you’re pretty good with the tools of ignorance. Baseball GMs aren’t all geniuses, we know, but they’re usually not complete idiots. Guys who can’t field or hit don’t spend a long time in the majors.
And here’s where I’m going to steal from the smarty-pants over at Baseball Prospectus. They addressed this question specifically in section 3-3 of Baseball Between the Numbers, titled “Is Mike Matheny A Catching Genius?” Catchy title. Anyway, ol’ Keith Woolner took a look at the different things a catcher could do to influence a pitcher’s performance:
1. He can study the opposing batters and call for the right pitches in the right sequence.
2. He can use his glove and body to frame incoming pitches to subtly influence the umpire to call more strikes.
3. He can be attuned to what a pitcher wants to throw, or what pitches he is throwing well, and keep his pitcher comfortable.
4. He can control the tempo of the game, calling pitches quickly when a pitcher is in a groove or slowing things down by heading out to the mound for a quick meeting.
5. He can monitor a pitcher’s emotional state and use leadership and psychological skills to help a pitcher maintain his focus.
6. He can be skilled at blocking balls in the dirt so that the pitcher is not afraid to throw a low pitch with runners on base.
7. He can watch for signs of fatigue and work with the manager to decide to make a pitching change before the game gets out of hand.
8. He can engage in conversation or actions to distract the batter while staying within the rules of the game. A distracted batter is less likely to get a hit.
9. He can remain aware of the game situation and call for an unexpected pitch for the situation, gaining the element of surprise.
10. He can prevent opposing baserunners from stealing, either by throwing them out or keeping them from trying to steal at all.
That sounds pretty complete to me. I’m not going to go through all of Woolner’s points from the book, which is itself basically a restatement of an article Woolner originally published in the 1999 Baseball Prospectus, but I’ll skip right to the conclusion. He says “there is no objective evidence that the catchers considered to be the best at their craft actually improve pitcher efficiency, increase strike rates, induce more misses and fouls, or do anything else to reduce batters’ offensive output” (page 110). The only thing a catcher can do of any significance is stop teams from stealing.
This is extremely surprising. One of the fundamental assumptions of the game is that catcher defense is enormously important. Teams always talk about being “strong up the middle,” having good glove men at catcher, short and second, and in center. Though none of the new defensive stats (RZR, FRAR, PMR) are perfect, sabermetricians are starting to make good progress on quantifying exactly how much of a difference good defense can make. How come we can’t find any consistent difference between catchers?
Catcher ERA of Paul Lo Duca and Brian Schneider for the last eight years, represented as a % better or worse than the team ERA. Woolner believes that differences in CERA are primarily due to luck.
Well, if I knew that, I’d have a job consulting with Bill James and Red Sox and not punching numbers down at Yoyodyne Corp., writing a baseball article every other week in my spare time. There may be a persistent skill in catcher defense, but we just can’t find it because of all the statistical noise in the limited number of pitcher-catcher innings. A catcher will only work with a starting pitcher 20 or maybe 25 times a season, and that assumes that they both stay healthy. In a sample size that small, it’s really easy for luck to overwhelm any trends we might otherwise detect. Or maybe a catcher’s influence on the game is both enormous and quantifiable, but we just haven’t figured out how to find it yet. Hell, DIPS seems obvious after the fact, but that stat isn’t even out of short pants yet.
Or maybe Woolner is right, and the difference in catcher defensive ability is either statistically insignificant or does not exist. That would seem to undermine a lot of Schneider’s value to the Mets. However, there is at least one area where catcher ability is easily quantifiable, and that’s control of the running game. Although he hasn’t been great recently, this is one area where Schneider is going to be an improvement.
The Mets haven’t had a catcher who could throw anybody out with any regularity for a long time. Schneider may be no Ivan Rodriguez, but he’s not Lo Duca either. I’ll put it this way: in the last two seasons, Lo Duca has allowed only four fewer stolen bases (156) than there were attempts against Brian Schneider (160). If he can just hold baserunners to something near the break-even rate, that’d make me very happy.
In the end, I don’t know if Woolner is right or not. I also don’t know how much sense it makes to trade a 22-year-old prospect for a 31-year-old catcher whose main asset may or may not even exist. On one hand, while it’s possible that we’ve been grossly overestimating the defensive contributions a catcher can make, it’s also possible that the physical demands of the position are so great that it retains its importance because so few can even do it at all.
Special thanks to Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Reference. They know what they did.