January 4, 2008
Is Brian Schneider a Catching Genius?

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.

14 Responses to “Is Brian Schneider a Catching Genius?”

  1. Comment posted by BOB A. BOOEY on January 4, 2008 at 1:27 am (#586025)

    uhhhhhhhh i will say no ,,,,, we will see but i still dislike the trade ,,,,

  2. Comment posted by littlefallsmets on January 4, 2008 at 2:17 am (#586030)

    We’re just stretching so far to try and justify this travesty, aren’t we?

    Brian “The Animal” Schneider’s crap seven days a week and Ryan “Fried Chicken Comma” Church is crap three days a week.

    Blah. Frustrating. We can’t rationalize our way outta this one, guys and a few girls. Ain’t enough rationales under the sun for it.

  3. Comment posted by john on January 4, 2008 at 8:03 am (#586031)

    It comes down to whether or not Schneider D’s improvement of PLD makes up for PLD advantage when it comes to the offense. I dont think it does.

  4. Comment posted by Nj is waiting for The Mets to make a deal on January 4, 2008 at 8:29 am (#586032)

    ha ha Littlefalls
    I agree with you. The Mets are PUSHING “The Shneid ” as well as making up stories on how people like Delgado will redeem themselves.

  5. Comment posted by e poc on January 4, 2008 at 3:59 pm (#586368)

    wait a second. isn’t the real question whether or not the defensive gain with schneider outweighs the offensive gain with castro? why is lo duca even part of this conversation? the answer to the real question is: castro’s offense is far, far better than schneider’s, and castro’s defense (at least the part of it we can objectively measure) is only slightly worse. castro’s cs% by year 2004-2007: 33, 27, 35, and 4. matt himelfarb wrote an interesting article a couple months ago suggesting that the statistical outlier in 2007 is largely a result of the pitchers he caught. castro should be our starting catcher and milledge should be our rightfielder.

  6. Comment posted by Wdwrkr35 on January 4, 2008 at 5:40 pm (#586419)

    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”

    This is true if your a stat nerd who only sees through numbers.

  7. Comment posted by e poc on January 4, 2008 at 5:49 pm (#586425)

    it’s true for everybody. the meaning of “objective” is not dependent on your preference or aversion to numbers.

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  9. Comment posted by Simons on January 4, 2008 at 7:48 pm (#586459)

    I think any improvement Schneider offers in the running game will be more than outweighed by the penalty of his bat. Someone who has more patience than I can probably demonstrate this conclusively by looking through SB/CS ratios to give us something like ‘Well, Schneider might save you 20 bases a year on defense, but he’s costing you 100 bases a year on offense,’ that kind of thing. I would do it but I’m too old lazy.

    Wouldn’t it be funny if Estrada ended up having a better year than anyone else? By funny I mean not. Also he’d have to get hired somewhere first.

    Interesting article, thanks.

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  11. Comment posted by Simons on January 4, 2008 at 7:58 pm (#586460)

    Matt Himelfarb, everybody

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  13. Comment posted by Matt Himelfarb on January 5, 2008 at 4:15 pm (#586487)

    Thanks for the mention- I read every article at Mets Geek but don’t usually comment here, but since our publishing system doesn’t work with pre-formatted data, you’ll notice some of the numbers there are extremely hard to read.

    Anyhow, here are the two I mentioned- the year to correlation of catcher CS%, and Matheny’s varying rates as he traveled from team to team:

    Years Corr. Coeff.
    1998-1999 +0.59
    1999-2000 +0.57
    2000-2001 +0.78

    Matheny MIL 1996 52 19 27% 2 1.8
    Matheny MIL 1997 69 34 33% 5 7.9
    Matheny MIL 1998 67 19 22% 0 -1.6
    Matheny TOR 1999 40 16 29% 0 1.3
    Matheny STL 2000 44 46 51% 3 16.9
    Matheny STL 2001 31 25 45% 5 9.7

  14. Comment posted by JamesSC on January 7, 2008 at 12:47 pm (#586802)

    I think one thing that is important to note in terms of CS is the vast difference in people even TRYING to run on Schnieder as opposed to other catchers. I think it is fairly telling that Brian has so many fewer attempts to steal as other catchers. So when he has the same % thrown out as someone else, it is not close to being the same because the ones that another catcher might be throwing out are the ones that dont even try.

    Still don’t like the trade, but LF and some others here need to start recognizing the actual value of what we got rather than this world where Schnieder and Church are both worthless.

  15. Comment posted by JamesSC on January 7, 2008 at 12:48 pm (#586803)

    it’s true for everybody. the meaning of “objective” is not dependent on your preference or aversion to numbers.

    No ePoc, it is only true for those who don’t value what they see with their own eyes over numbers. It is only “objective” for those who agree with its biased results.

  16. Comment posted by e poc on January 7, 2008 at 3:05 pm (#586901)

    that’s ridiculous, james. what the quoted text from woolner’s article says is simply that there is no objective evidence that catchers improve a pitching staff. it’s not saying they don’t. it’s saying that the objective evidence we have does not support a claim that they do. that’s all. you can debate his methodology or his math, but you can’t debate the very meaning of the word “objective”. it’s objective even if you think that the entire project betrays a bias toward objective results, or that objectivity is not as valuable as subjective experience. i don’t tend to evaluate players subjectively, but i respect that some people do and i respect that these people can sometimes offer a lot of insight through their subjective evaluations, but can’t that be good enough? do we actually have to go off the deep end and claim that objectivity itself is somehow up for debate? it’s not. woolner’s talking about math, guys. even if you reject the peano axioms, i don’t think you can make a case against woolner’s objectivity. what you can say is, “the numbers don’t tell the whole story.” fine. but please stop making it into some kind of farcical “objectivity is biased toward empirical facts” argument. because that’s not bias, it’s science. take it or leave it.

    i myself kind of believe that catchers have some effect on pitching staffs, despite the numbers, but the numbers tell me that even if they do, it doesn’t show up in the objective results. and runs and wins are objective results, so i say to myself, well, maybe catchers do affect a team’s pitching, but it would be kind of stupid to base my evaluations on that premise, since there’s just absolutely no way to tell how that works, or which catchers can do it with which pitching staffs, or what exactly any of that is going to affect in what ways, so let’s just leave it alone and concentrate on what we know works.

    as for schneider preventing runners in the first place:

    schneider 77 total runners in 1051.1 innings, 1 runner per 13.7 innings
    lo duca 94 in 974, 1:10.4
    castro 30 in 331.2, 1:11.1

    schneider 240 in 2968.1, 1:12.4
    lo duca 323 in 3034.1, 1:9.4
    castro 91 in 1215.1, 1:13.4

    unless you believe that castro completely lost his once-very-good ability to hold runners and throw them out and that the ability will never return to him, i think it’s pretty clear that schneider’s not any better at preventing runners from attempting to steal than castro is.

    as for your suggestion, simons, i have no idea how to convert rc/g into bases or sb/cs into runs, but if you take the averages of the last three seasons, schneider over castro would gain us one extra out on defense for every 216 games played (based only on controlling the running game), whereas castro (again using three year averages) would gain us one whole *run* on offense every 7.35 games. (the methodology there is, basically, 1/[the difference between their cs%/innings per attempt] on defense and 1/[the difference between their rc*3/outs] on offense, which admittedly is pretty rudimentary.) that’s a huge dropoff in production from castro to schneider. schneider better have some pretty tangible intangibles to make up for that disparity.

  17. Comment posted by jk21 on January 9, 2008 at 12:10 am (#587594)

    the fact is that lastings couldn’t reach his full potential with us. he’s a CF. i think he could’ve improved as a RF, but what i thought was most valuable and what showed the most potential was his ability to go the other way and up the middle when he had to get a hit. i think it was too soon to get rid of him. of course they didn’t like his attitude and that always factors in. but would you take miguel cabrera given his attitude? in a perfect world, no, but in a competitive world, probably yeah