Unlike the guys who play between the baselines, determining the value of a catcher defensively is a much harder proposition for me. I haven’t been able to translate defense into runs the way I have for all the other positions, but I AM able to look at the responsibilities of a catcher and determine what teams are benefiting more from good catching than others. Here’s how I do it.
There are seven things for which a catcher would get credit as being solid defensively. If the catchers for a team are above average in a category, they get a point. If below average, they lose a point. The top score is seven, the lowest score (obviously) would be -7. Here are the categories:
W/L Percentage: Score a point for a winning record, take one away for being below .500.
Adjusted ERA: If the team’s staff has a better than league average ERA (4.43), score a point.
Mistakes Per Game: Essentially errors and passed balls are added up. The norm is about .11 mistakes a game for AL catchers. Score a point for doing better than that. Otherwise, take one away. The only time this is patently unfair is when a team has a knuckleballer – so this works against Boston right now. But it’s just a single category and I tend to give that team the benefit of the doubt on that category.
Mobililty: Mobility is the total number of assists that aren’t tied to stolen bases and the number of putouts that aren’t strikeouts. A good catcher blocks the plate and gets outs on throws home, or can race out of the crouch to snare bunts and make plays in the field. In the AL, the average catcher made .38 plays requiring mobility. Score a point for beating that number.
Fielding Percentage (not counting strikeouts): I guess someone had to get credit for the putout when a batter strikes out. Unfortunately, catching strike three isn’t really “fielding”. So, I look at the fielding percentage after removing putouts for Ks. The average catcher has a fielding percentage of about .914 on balls in play or when runners are trying to advance. Beat it, and score a point.
Assists Per Game: These are assists NOT tied to stolen bases and is used to grade the catcher’s ability to make good throws. The league average is .23 assists per game.
Stolen Base Percentage: Can a catcher hold the running game in check? If so, score a point. The league average is 73.6% – which is awfully high, don’t you think?
The best catcher (well, team of catchers) can score a seven – and it happens from time to time. As it turns out, there was a seven in the AL in 2009 – and it was your Detroit Tigers led by Gerald Laird. The Tigers had a winning record, an adjusted ERA of 4.26, cut off the running game, made few errors, few mistakes in total, had great mobility, and had an above average number of assists not tied to stolen bases.
I’ll list the table here to show you where the catchers rank defensively and then discuss the nuts and bolts in the player comments below.
Joe Mauer (MIN): Hands down the best catcher in baseball, wouldn’t you think? An offensive force who chose to try and take advantage of hitter’s counts and blasted his way to creating 131.6 runs. Last year, Mauer wasn’t as dominating against the run, but he still did a few good things. His backups, Mike Redmond and Jose Morales can contribute. Both can hit a little and catch enough – but had limits. Redmond struggled against baserunners, who were successful 35 out of 40 times, while Morales had 5 passed balls and 3 errors in just 183 innings.
Victor Martinez (CLE/BOS): A remarkable hitter who bounced back from an unproductive and injury riddled 2008 to hit 23 homers, drive in 108 runs, and generate 108.8 runs of offense. His catching skills don’t match his offensive numbers – easy to run on, not exceptionally mobile. And, when asked to play first base, shows his lack of mobility there. Still, he’s 30 runs better than any other catcher offensively, you can live with the rest of it most days.
Kurt Suzuki (OAK): Would you have guessed he was the third most productive offensive catcher? Mid range power and average, can run some (78.45 Runs Created) and his stats aren’t helped any by playing in Oakland. Plays a lot of innings. Not great against the run and his teams haven’t been remarkably successful, but don’t blame this guy. Oakland’s catchers scored at 3 points, which is five above average counters, and just missing on mobility and the team’s winning percentage. He’s a great catcher.
Jorge Posada (NYY): Still a very productive player (74.98 Runs Created). Good power, good batting average, and patient at the plate. Defensively, Posada found some of his youth. His backups, Jose Molina (now in Toronto) and Francisco Cervelli may not hit like Jorge, but they are more than his equal defensively – a nice thing for the Yankees to have. Overall, the team ranked at +5 – six above average categories and just missed the league average for mobility. Cervelli was great against the run – gunning down 10 of 23 runners.
A.J. Pierzynski (CWS): Hit .300 but his power numbers were down a bit. Contributes with the bat (69.22 Runs Created), but his defense is not helping out. Not very mobile, makes a few too many mistakes, and the team fell below .500. The final tally was -3, which means that only the team’s ERA and the total mistakes per game numbers were above average. Everything else was not. Ramon Castro was #2 last year, and he isn’t known for his defense either (though he threw well in 2009).
Mike Napoli (LAA): An impressive hitter – power, patience, hit .272. His backup, Jeff Mathis, is the glove wizard. The net is a very productive combination. Slightly above average catching (+1) and above average hitting.
Miguel Olivo (KCA): Hits for power, but doesn’t get on base (53.59). Has a strong throwing arm, but doesn’t always get the ball where he was aiming. Makes an awful lot of mistakes, and for a guy who looks lean, isn’t very mobile. Royals catching was well below average (-5) because John Buck couldn’t throw people out and even though he’s less mistake prone, EVERYBODY is less mistake prone than Olivo. In 2010, both Olivo and Buck will be gone. Olivo is in Colorado, where if he gets off to a hot start might hit 30 homers and make 15 errors… Buck is in Toronto.
Jason Kendall, who inherits this job, would rank in this spot offensively and I don’t believe that things are going to improve that much defensively. You never know.
Matt Wieters (BAL): In two years, he may be the guy challenging Joe Mauer for the top rung. For now, he’s got work to do. A good hitter (.288, .412 slugging – 49.04 Runs Created) and not horrible catching (-1 as a team), I like where Baltimore is heading here. Gregg Zaun is gone, so Chad Moeller can back things up himself. Moeller didn’t throw anybody out trying to steal, though. Okay, two people, but that’s it. Maybe they can sign Paul Bako to teach Wieters a few tricks.
Rod Barajas (TOR): His batting average tanked to .226, but his power numbers were up (46.99 Runs Created). I think Toronto would miss Barajas, but Raul Chavez was equally good at shutting down the running game and not horribly error prone. Chavez is also more mobile these days and offensively they were a wash. Chavez is cheaper, though… The 2010 Blue Jays have only one catcher on the 40 man roster, Royals vet John Buck. After that, it’s non-roster invites like Chavez, Jose Molina and former first round pick J.P. Arencibia. Arencibia, out of Tennessee, has good power and some skills, but right now looks like he’d have Barajas’ batting numbers.
Before I let this get away, John Buck wasn’t horrible last year. Defensively, as mentioned, he was stronger than Olivo but everyone focused on Olivo’s homers and so he got to play more. Buck hits for some power and, per 27 outs, was actually more productive hitting than Olivo because he gets on base more often. I’m NOT suggesting that Buck is a hidden all star, but rather that if he got 450 at bats and kept his batting average around .240 rather than .220, he would probably help a team more often than not.
Jason Varitek (BOS): Now Victor Martinez’s job. Varitek started out okay and just faded to 14 – 51 – .209 (43.3 Runs Created). His slugging and OBP numbers aren’t very good either. ‘Tek also allowed 87% of the runners to steal – 108 successes against 16 runners gunned down. Martinez and George Kottaras weren’t any better (Martinez was worse in Boston, about the same if you combine his days in Cleveland). Martinez is going to help score runs in Boston, but I think the pitchers might miss Varitek. The young Varitek anyway…
Gerald Laird (DET): Didn’t get the lion’s share of the credit for Detroit’s comeback season because as a hitter, he’s not one. Creating just 41.3 runs with his .225 batting average and .320 slugging percentage, nobody’s putting Laird on their fantasy team if they can help it. But he was solid as a defensive stopper – above average in all seven categories and only Kenji Johjima was harder to run on. Laird tossed out more than 40% of all runners.
Kelly Shoppach (CLE): Did I read that right? Shoppach was hit 18 times by pitches? What did he do??? As a hitter, he strikes out WAY too much (39.77 Runs Created). He’s better defensively than Victor Martinez was, but that’s like saying I’m taller than my seven-year-old. He was a bit more mistake prone, but better against the run and much more mobile. Lou Marson, the former Phillies prospect, will get every chance to win the job and I gather he will. Marson will hit in the 280s with medium power and some patience. And, he can throw, too. Oddly enough, in terms of total production, Shoppach was better in Cleveland than Victor Martinez because if you count everything, you have to include Victor’s lack of defense at first base.
Dioner Navarro (TB): After such a nice 2008, Navarro crashed and burned in 2009. His batting average fell to .218, his power was gone, and he doesn’t get on base in other ways so that was a big zilch at the end of the lineup (32.63 Runs Created). His reputation against the running game may have stopped more people than actually stole bases – the numbers show him to be league average and in the seven categories, Tampa scored ZERO – just as many above average categories than below average categories. The team says they want Navarro to come into camp lighter, so check the Diamond Notes in the spring.
Kenji Johjima (SEA): Back in Japan – his batting average and playing time fell off (despite being more productive per 27 outs than many of the guys ahead of him – the net was just 29.91 Runs Created). Defensively, he and Rob Johnson weren’t too bad – just a few too many mistakes and marginal mobility.
Rob Johnson, who – like Grady Sizemore – had surgeries over two-thirds of his body in the offseason, comes into 2010 as the odds-on starter. And yet Johnson wasn’t all that solid, generating just 25.2 runs while being a slightly above average catcher (compared to Johjima, who was awesome).
Jarrod Saltalamacchia (TEX): He needed to have a big season with Laird gone and Teagarden coming up behind him and it didn’t happen. Salty wasn’t horrible defensively but Teagarden is better – better against the run and more mobile. As a hitter, Saltalamacchia didn’t cut it – just 29.3 runs created with an OBP under .300 and the SLG under .375. If it was .320 and .425, he’d be hard to replace.
As it was, Taylor Teagarden hit worse than Saltalamacchia, generating 19.3 runs in his 200+ plate appearances. So, Teagarden’s chance may have passed as well – meaning Max Ramirez may wind up the starting catcher. The only problem with that is that even Ramirez didn’t hit in AAA last year – batting just .234 with a .336 SLG in Oklahoma City. The Rangers THOUGHT they had the position locked down two years ago, and now Laird is gone and nobody has really stepped forward. I think Saltalamacchia, because he’s likely the better hitter of the group, will eventually take over for good.
Final Thoughts… You want to know how valuable Joe Mauer is? Look at how many catchers generate barely 50 runs of offense and realize that Mauer is 80 to 90 runs better than that. AND, he’s a great catcher. He was easily the most valuable player in the AL last year and will deserve whatever monster five or six year deal he can get.