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.
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.