Catching Up

Several of baseball’s most intriguing stories this year have concerned the men behind the plate. In the first half of the season alone, we’ve witnessed:

  • A great first half from Ivan Rodriquez, spearheading the Tigers’ surprising rise to respectability.
  • A fine offensive performance by Johnny Estrada in Atlanta, who just a little over a year ago was maligned as the bad return in the Kevin Millwood deal.
  • The Molina brothers splitting catching duties in Anaheim while a third brother makes his debut in St. Louis.
  • Mike Piazza setting the catcher home run record and finally getting to first base.
  • A great beginning to Joe Mauer’s career, along with a breakout first half by the Indians’ Victor Martinez.

Win Shares particularly gives high rankings to Estrada and Rodriquez, who are on pace for thirty Win Shares each, which is a real achievement. In the entire history of baseball, a catcher has achieved at least thirty Win Shares in a single season only 33 times. Here’s the full list:

Catcher      Year    Age     WS
Piazza       1997     28     39
Bench        1972     24     37
Freehan      1968     26     35
Bench        1970     22     34
Bench        1974     26     34
Berra        1954     29     34
Piazza       1996     27     33
Piazza       1998     29     33
Campanella   1951     29     33
Campanella   1953     31     33
Carter       1985     31     33
Dickey       1937     30     33
Fisk         1972     24     33
Tenace       1975     28     32
Berra        1950     25     32
Howard       1964     35     32
Piazza       1993     24     31
Porter       1979     27     31
Berra        1951     26     31
Berra        1956     31     31
Carter       1982     28     31
Cochrane     1930     27     31
Daulton      1992     30     31
Fisk         1978     30     31
Bench        1975     27     31
Simmons      1978     28     30
Carter       1980     26     30
Carter       1984     30     30
Cochrane     1932     29     30
Fisk         1977     29     30
Freehan      1967     25     30
Lopez        2003     32     30
McCarver     1967     25     30

This list says a lot about the evolution of men with ignorant tools. Not a single thirty Win Share season occurred among catchers until 1932, and each decade thereafter seems to have cast an individual spotlight on the finest catchers in history. Here’s a list of the number of thirty Win Share seasons by decade, along with the leading catcher(s) of the time:

1930′s: 3 (Cochrane and Dickey)
1940′s: 0
1950′s: 6 (Berra and Campanella)
1960′s: 4 (Freehan)
1970′s: 10 (Bench and Fisk)
1980′s: 4 (Carter)
1990′s: 5 (Piazza)
2000′s: 1

Win Shares, of course, includes both batting and fielding stats, and Bill James took care to credit catchers for the important role they play on the field. He included a number of stats to assess each catcher’s fielding ability, such as caught stealing rates, errors, wild pitches, sacrifice hits allowed and Catcher ERA. Since we don’t typically look at these stats during the year, I thought I’d pull them together to see how this year’s guys are doing behind the plate. In particular, we’ve got:

  • Innings played at catcher
  • Percent of baserunners Caught Stealing (CS%), as well as total Stolen Base Attempts (SBA). I included both stats because sometimes runners just won’t run on strong-armed catchers.
  • Team ERA with the catcher behind the plate. The impact that catchers have on ERA is certainly tenuous, as Keith Woolner has written, but it’s worth a look.
  • Wild Pitches and Passed Balls per Game (Nine innings caught). I included Wild Pitches because catchers do have different abilities to prevent wild pitches.

Now for the stats. I’ve grouped catchers by team, which makes their stats more directly comparable (having caught the same pitching staff). Let’s start with the Angels’ Molina brothers:

Name          Team          Inning SBA  CS%     ERA   WP/PB/G
B. Molina     Angels        368.3   32  22%    4.40     0.538
J. Molina     Angels        326.0   27  48%    4.50     0.221

The younger Molina (by a year) has been outplaying his brother in the field, catching almost twice as many runners on the basepaths and allowing fewer wild pitches and passed balls.

Name       Team          Inning SBA  CS%     ERA   WP/PB/G
Matheny    Cardinals     484.3   22  27%    3.98     0.204
Molina     Cardinals     146.0    6  50%    3.95     0.370
McKay      Cardinals     124.0   11  45%    3.05     0.435

Mike Matheny has a reputation as a good fielding catcher, and he seems to be earning it this year. His CS% of 27% is about average, but there have been only 22 attempts against him in nearly 500 innings — the lowest ratio of any regular catcher. He also manages to keep errant pitches under control. Meanwhile, the other Molina brother is throwing out 50% of runners — though only six attempts have been made with him behind the plate. Baserunners just don’t seem to take chances against the Cardinals in general.

Name       Team          Inning SBA  CS%     ERA   WP/PB/G
Zaun       Blue Jays     371.3   41  32%    3.90     0.364
Cash       Blue Jays     325.0   24  46%    5.23     0.609

Kevin Cash‘s catch-and-throw reputation preceded his arrival in the major leagues, and the stats show it. Veteran Greg Zaun, however, has much better “other” catching stats.

Name       Team          Inning SBA  CS%     ERA   WP/PB/G
Rodriguez  Tigers        573.0   27  19%    5.09     0.455
Inge       Tigers        140.0   21  33%    4.63     0.643

Last year, I-Rod’s defensive stats started to decline, and that appears to be continuing this year. He has caught only 19% of basestealers, though there have only been 27 attempts in nearly 600 innings. At some point, runners will start taking chances against him again.

Name       Team          Inning SBA  CS%     ERA   WP/PB/G
Blanco     Twins         411.7   32  47%    4.90     0.372
Mauer      Twins         238.0   14  36%    3.40     0.189

Henry Blanco has a great arm, but look at Joe Mauer’s other stats. There’s a big difference in ERA, which may be entirely due to the timing of Mauer’s return. But he also is showing a strong ability to block them wobbly pitches. And his CS% ain’t bad, either.

Name       Team          Inning SBA  CS%     ERA   WP/PB/G
Olivo      White Sox     366.3   27  26%    4.69     0.393
Alomar Jr. White Sox     271.0   31  19%    4.72     0.332

The White Sox traded Miguel Olivo for Freddy Garcia, and they are going to miss his strong arm. His other stats aren’t really different from Alomar’s, but Alomar doesn’t have much of a future.

Name       Team          Inning SBA  CS%     ERA   WP/PB/G
Johnson    Rockies       495.0   50  18%    5.38     0.418
Greene     Rockies       234.7   18   0%    7.13     0.729

Wow. The Rockies’ catchers stink.

Name       Team          Inning SBA  CS%     ERA   WP/PB/G
Varitek    Red Sox       581.0   51  25%    4.15     0.186
Mirabelli  Red Sox       165.3   27  22%    3.27     0.980

Warning: Tim Wakefield alert. Doug Mirabelli is Wakefield’s personal catcher, and the wild pitch/passed ball counts show it. As does the ERA.

Name       Team          Inning SBA  CS%     ERA   WP/PB/G
Barajas    Rangers       414.3   25  28%    4.21     0.217
Laird      Rangers       240.0   20  45%    4.35     0.338

Gerald Laird started the year as the Rangers’ regular catcher, but tore a ligament in his thumb in late May. Rod Barajas has stepped in and has contributed with the bat and behind the plate, exhibiting more power than Laird. He may not have Barajas’ arm, but his defensive game appears solid overall.

Name       Team          Inning SBA  CS%     ERA   WP/PB/G
Phillips   Mets          301.3   20  20%    3.43     0.269
Piazza     Mets          277.3   27  19%    4.09     0.260
Wilson     Mets          165.0   13  38%    3.27     0.273

Mike Piazza has been criticized for his inability to throw runners out, but Jason Phillips doesn’t look any better. Vance Wilson has the best arm of the three, though they appear relatively even in the other categories.

Name       Team          Inning SBA  CS%     ERA   WP/PB/G
Redmond    Marlins       412.3   39  26%    4.30     0.175
Castro     Marlins       243.7   13  31%    3.55     0.259

Mike Redmond was I-Rod’s backup last year, and his fielding stats were not great. He does seem to block pitches well, and his arm is okay. Ramon Castro’s swollen toe and shrunken bat may keep him off the Marlins’ roster for good.

Name       Team          Inning SBA  CS%     ERA   WP/PB/G
Schneider  Expos         594.7   31  48%    4.19     0.318
Diaz       Expos         148.0   11  27%    5.59     0.304

Brian Schneider is one heck of a catcher and should be the Gold Glove half-year winner in the NL, maybe in all of baseball. Only 31 stolen base attempts in nearly 600 innings, and half of them have been caught.

Name       Team          Inning SBA  CS%     ERA   WP/PB/G
Hammock    Diamondbacks  360.7   37  27%    3.77     0.424
Mayne      Diamondbacks  201.7   18  44%    6.69     0.803
Brito      Diamondbacks  174.3   16  50%    4.96     0.413

These guys are contributing nothing on offense, so I’m not sure their fielding stats matter. Still, Brito appears to have a better arm than Hammock, who’s been struggling with a bum knee.

Due to length constraints, I didn’t include all catchers in this article. However, here is a complete list of all major league catchers and their stats.

References & Resources
In addition to Bill James’ work, Tangotiger provided inspiration through his excellent research, which includes a review of the best fielding catchers over the last few decades.

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