College catcher defense

In my article last week about the defensive spectrum from college baseball to the pros, one detail stuck out more than the rest. As expected, the level of offense at each position showed less specialization in college than in the major leagues. But it was particularly dramatic with regard to catchers.

In Division One last year, catchers OPS’d .828, not far below the overall average of .843. That’s better than either shortstops or second basemen, and not far behind left fielders. (Really!) If you narrow the focus to the top eight D-1 conferences, catchers creep even closer to average: .838 against .845.

Sure, a lot of college catchers don’t stick at the position, but then again, neither do many shortstops or center fielders. I discovered that in college, the bad fielders aren’t necessarily the good hitters, at least outside of the catcher position, which raises the question: To investigate the anomaly that is college catcher offense, can defensive stats tell us anything?

Quantifying catcher defense

If we want to use catcher defense stats to see if the smooth-fielding backstops are really providing all that offense, first we need some catcher defense stats.

Any attempt at quantifying catcher defense has to start with a sort of apology. Much of what scouts and coaches look at is awfully hard to evaluate with the numbers. We can see who is gunning down runners, who is blocking pitches and who is chasing down foul pops, but game-calling skills? We just don’t have enough to go on. It’s especially tough with college catchers, who spend their entire career with the same coaches, often catching the same pitchers. And since NCAA teams don’t play every day, the top catchers can sit behind the plate for nearly every inning of the season, limiting our chances to compare their performances with those of their backups.

Let’s turn to what we can quantify. I break catcher defense into three components: the running game (stolen bases, caught stealings and pickoffs), pitch blocking (wild pitches and passed balls) and playmaking (fielding bunts and popups). None of this is conceptual rocket science; in fact, I’m following pretty closely in the footsteps of number-crunchers such as Sean Smith.

To varying degrees, each one of those involves factors beyond the catcher’s control. Pitchers (and to some extent, coaches) have a say in the success of the opponent’s running game; pitchers have a lot to do with wild pitches and passed balls; and the randomness of balls in play, along with the defensive skills of teammates, affects a catcher’s likelihood of making plays.

I’ve got a few years of data to work with, so it’s easy enough to look at year-to-year results, which give us some indication of how much the results are luck and how much can be ascribed to skill. As you might expect, controlling the running game is least luck-dependent, playmaking is next, followed by avoiding passed balls, with avoiding wild pitches most ascribable to luck.

Accordingly, all of the numbers we’re going to look at are heavily regressed. In fact, I regressed wild-pitch numbers even more than my year-to-year results suggest I should. Since virtually all college catchers work with the same pitchers from one year to the next, some pitcher-skill data surely creeps into any attempt to isolate catcher skill.

Superstuds

Before we combine the defensive stats with offensive numbers, you want to look at some results, don’t you?

The player I was most interested in was Tony Sanchez, last year’s fourth overall pick. Many considered him to be an overdraft, and if he doesn’t stick at catcher, it’s not clear whether he’ll be a viable major leaguer at all.

As a freshman in 2007, Sanchez ranked as the 17th best defensive catcher in D-1, just above a couple of other guys whose names you might recognize, Matt Wieters and Josh Donaldson. Most of his value came from limiting opponents to a 56 percent success rate on the bases. Altogether, he was worth roughly three runs above average in about 50 games.

In 2008, the results weren’t so pretty. He failed to throw out even 30 percent of would-be base-stealers, and his overall defensive value was not even a full run above average. 2009 was better. He got back over a 40 percent kill rate, and also cut down on wild pitches and passed balls, returning to the +3 range, good for about 50th in D-1.

What about Buster Posey, you ask? About +3 in 2007, with solid running-game and pitch-blocking stats. He lost almost a full run relative to the average number of plays made by D-1 catchers. 2008 was better, at +5, negating half of basestealing attempts and saving nearly an additional two runs by blocking errant pitches. Again, though, he made fewer ball-in-play outs than average.

Oddly enough, Posey may not have been the best defensive college catcher drafted by the Giants in 2008. That honor goes to the unfamiliar name of Aaron Lowenstein, a UC Irvine product. He topped all catchers in 2008 with a +7 that year. Lowenstein was fourth overall in ’07 as well. Both years, he did everything well. In 2007, he gunned down more than 60 percent of would-be basestealers. In 2008, 55 percent.

Remember, throughout this discussion we’re talking about college seasons. In Lowenstein’s case, that’s about 60 games, so a pro-length season at his ’08 rate is in the neighborhood of +15 runs. I’m not about to project a +15 for anybody, but man oh man, this guy could be good. (I’m less excited about his offensive potential. Now in his third minor league season, his career OPS sits at .562. Perhaps he has a future in coaching.)

The 2010 draft class

We’re a little more than a month away from this year’s draft, and the chatter is already mounting regarding just how high Miami’s Yasmani Grandal will climb up draft boards. Let’s take a look at a few other top contenders.

Grandal. +0.5 in 2008, +2 in 2009 and +0.5 so far this season. He has only gunned down better than 40 percent of base-stealers once, but for his entire career, opponents have avoided running on him. Last year, his pitch blocking was solid, but for the most part, there’s nothing in his record that stands out as particularly positive.

Micah Gibbs – LSU. +3 in ’08, +6 in ’09 (8th best in D-1) and +0.5 this season. The numbers suggest that Gibbs is an absolute monster at keeping the ball around the plate. Nearly one-third of his defensive value last year came from pitch-blocking, ranking him best in college baseball in that department. He hasn’t been nearly as successful stopping the running game this year, explaining his lower numbers.

Cody Stanley – North Carolina. +1.5 in both ’09 and ’10. Nothing very noteworthy in his record. He consistently limits opponents to about a 65 percent success rate in stolen base attempts, and he does everything else a bit better than average.

Cameron Rupp – Texas. -1 in 2008, +1.5 in 2009 and +1 so far this year. He threw out only 9 of 52 base-stealers his freshman year, but since then, he appears to have developed a fearsome reputation. He hovers around a 40 percent kill rate, but perhaps opponents are carefully picking their spots. They attempt fewer steals against him than against almost any other catcher in college baseball.

Back to the spectrum

Draftnik detour completed, let’s return to the question that prompted this analysis. Why are college catchers such good hitters, relative to average? Are a bunch of poor defensive backstops slugging away, padding the position’s average stats even though they may never catch a professional game?

Nope. Catchers whose defensive value last year was more than one run above average (roughly, the top quartile) posted an aggregate OPS of .864. That’s better than any other position except for first base! The lowest quartile averaged an OPS of .817.

So much for that theory.

In other words, the sifting of defensive specialists—the process that brings you the Jose Molinas and Gary Bennetts of the world—hasn’t really set in at the college level. Guys like Aaron Lowenstein are more the exception than the rule. Further research may reveal just how likely college catchers are to stick at the position through various levels of pro ball, and how those rates compare to other challenging positions.

If these results are any indication, the chances of lasting behind the plate aren’t very good. You probably could’ve guessed that before reading this article. But is that what you would’ve thought about the college catchers who—at least on paper—are the best defensive performers? I don’t think I would’ve taken that bet.

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Comments

  1. Sean Smith said...

    Are catchers one of the positions in college where the more talented players are clustered?  You could look at what percent of starting divsion A catchers wind up being drafted.

    As for game calling, even at the major league level nobody has been able to quantify how much it matters yet, but in college it may be a non-issue.  I was under the assumption that coaches usually called games, but I could be wrong.  My hazy memory tells me there was a story about Wieters calling games by himself, and the fact he did this was considered out of the ordinary.

    Lowenstein has thrown out 39% of basestealers so far in the pros.

  2. Paul said...

    I spent a couple of years around college baseball so let me give you a quick impression of why catchers can still hit:

    1. Along with not having to catch every day, college leagues almost always have the designated hitter.  So on the rare occasion the catcher gets overworked, you can DH him and not lose his bat.

    2. On the high school level, stolen bases are fairly easy to come by.  If you are fast, you can steal bases.  If you have average speed but have good form, you can steal bases.  If the opposing catcher has no arm, you can steal bases.  When these base stealers get to the college level they tend to be in for a rude awakening.  So if the catcher is defensively mediocre he’s still a lot better than the average baserunner is used to.  The fact that coaches tend to focus on improving defending the running game adds to it.  It can take years before a college coach will give up on a good high school base stealer in the hope that they will eventually figure it out.  (Often that runner will eventually figure it out.)

    3. Defense in general in college is not as good, so the value of someone that can put the ball in play has greater value.  The defensive stud that strikes out a lot is not only giving up the “regular” offense of the better hitter, but also the “cheap” hits that normally would be outs on the professional level plus more “reach on error” events.  So you get less of the great glove, no hit types.

  3. wsk said...

    nice article.
    a proxy (shadow image) for how a catcher manages a game, is the number of runs after a disputed call; error; bad walk.
    number of unearned runs.
    pretty much, period.
    a catcher who tends to get his team out of ugly situations, might be a suggestor about how long he’ll hang in the majors, getting 150abs, for 12 years

  4. Jeff Sackmann said...

    Sean -

    I think you’re right, I didn’t think about that while writing this.  There are some other tough-to-quantify skills that do apply to college catchers (pitch framing, etc), but yeah, game calling is the big one.

    Paul -

    The wording of your first sentence, that catchers can “still” hit, brings up a good point.  I’ve been thinking in terms of, “Why are the good hitters playing catcher?”  But another way to frame it is, “Why are catchers good hitters?”

    This doesn’t explain everything, but I would guess catchers have to work harder on defense and daily preparation than guys do at less-challenging positions.  I’m sure people have done this work for the high-minors and the majors, but I wonder if at lower levels, catchers don’t improve as much at the plate, perhaps because they have other stuff to do. 

    Or, the catchers who *do* improve at the plate are doing so at the expense of their defense, ending up like, say, J.R. House, able to hit, but not able to stick as a full-time catcher.

  5. Kevin Appleby said...

    I’d bet most of it is that once these guys are playing every day in the pros, coaches start to worry more about the wear and tear on the knees of the good hitters and start thinking about moving them to less-demanding positions so they can keep them in the lineup.  They’re not being moved because they can’t play defense (because they often can).  They’re being moved because they can hit enough to warrant having their bat in the lineup 150 games instead of 110 games.

  6. Paul said...

    I think Kevin has a very good point here.  I do not remember there being much concern about catchers getting worn down.  The penalty for having a good hitter at catcher is far less on the college level.  There is little incentive to move him to another position from a coach’s perspective, unless he is bad defensively or they have two good catchers.  And from the player’s view, being a catcher improves his chances of being drafted, so he would not want to move either.  Then throw in the fact that the the defensive demands on the college level are not as high, you get a lot of good hitting catchers.

  7. Colin said...

    Andrew Giobbi at Vanderbilt has been throwing runners out at an absurd clip. Did he come up at all in your research of current catchers in college baseball?

  8. Omar Rodriguez said...

    I just sugjest that you take a look at CSUB Starting Catcher Jeremy Rodriguez. He was know last year as the only FRESHMAN starting catcher in NCAA calling games, Behind the plate on every on of them.
    This year he continue the same route:
      On Defense :
        Pup Time 1:8 or better
        SBA% .611 – 21 of 33
        Call games, Block , Frame, outstanding arm
        and foot work

      On Offense:
        SW hitter ( AVE. POWER on both sides)
        Bat average .386 in ( 140 AB, 33 R Sored,
        54 H,8 doubles, 2HR (one from each      
        side) ,23 BB,14 SO, 486 SLG%, 500 OB%

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