Catching Upby Dave Studeman
July 12, 2004
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.
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 30This 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)
1950's: 6 (Berra and Campanella)
1960's: 4 (Freehan)
1970's: 10 (Bench and Fisk)
1980's: 4 (Carter)
1990's: 5 (Piazza)
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.
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 0.221The 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 0.435Mike 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 0.609Kevin 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 0.643Last 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 0.189Henry 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 0.332The 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 0.729Wow. 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 0.980Warning: 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 0.338Gerald 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 0.273Mike 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 0.259Mike 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 0.304Brian 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 0.413These 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 and 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.
Dave was called a "national treasure" by Rob Neyer. Seriously. Comments about this article can be sent to him through the miracle of e-mail.