Minor League Guns

Young catchers are somewhat unique among prospects: a reputation as a good or bad defender can be the difference between a career spent as a backup catcher and one that tops out with a failed transition to first or third base. However, like so many issues in prospect analysis, there aren’t a lot of numbers to back up those reputations.

As David Gassko pointed out in his article on measuring catcher defense, there are three basic elements of the backstop’s job: controlling the running game, keeping the ball in front of him, and calling a good game. The first two are measurable; the last one is, at least so far, not. For the minors, however, the first two haven’t been easily measurable, either.

Using play-by-play data from the 2006 minor leagues, I focused on the first one of those elements. While a full season’s worth of data is not the final word on a catcher’s skill at gunning down would-be basestealers (or keeping them from running in the first place), it’s a large step in the right direction.

As is so often the case, this is a somewhat one-dimensional study. The effectiveness of a running game is a function of many variables: the catcher’s arm strength, the catcher’s reputation, the pitcher’s pickoff moves, his repertoire, his time to home plate, and the aggregate skill level of basestealers in the league. This analysis makes no attempt to filter out the effect of the last four of those variables. That’s a project for another column.

Stolen Base Percentage

The most common statistic used to measure a catcher’s effectiveness at controlling the running game is stolen base percentage (SB%). It’s simply the number of steals against the catcher divided by the number of attempts. It’s the same thing as a batter’s stolen base percentage, so we can use many of the same rules of thumb. The “break-even” point is somewhere around 70%, meaning that a catcher who stops more than 30% of attempts is benefiting his team while one who stops fewer than that is hurting it.

In the majors last year, the overall stolen base rate was between 71% and 72%, but the rates were several percentage points lower in the minors, between 64% and 68%, depending on the league. (For reference, at the end of this article I’ve presented a table with the averages at each level for the three stats I’ve used.) Here are the 10 best performances in the minors last year (minimum 500 innings), according to SB%:

First   Last    Lev     Org     IP      SB      CS      SB%
Chris   Stewart AAA     Chw     674.7   35      39      47.3%
Korey   Feiner  A+      Min     668.7   36      39      48.0%
Landon  Powell  A+/AA   Oak     821.3   51      55      48.1%
Dane    SardinhaAAA     Cin     571.7   30      31      49.2%
Brian   BormasteA/A+    Tor     605.7   43      44      49.4%
Brett   MartinezA       Laa     755.7   48      46      51.1%
ChristiaLopez   A/A+    Tam     716.3   58      55      51.3%
Jake    Muyco   A/A+    Chc     675.3   58      54      51.8%
Patrick Arlis   AA      Flo     552.0   28      26      51.9%
Kurt    Suzuki  AA      Oak     795.7   36      33      52.2%

As one might expect, the list isn’t exactly riddled with top offensive players. However, Oakland fans may take heart in the fact that Landon Powell and Kurt Suzuki—two prospects who have lost some of their luster—are so effective in this aspect of their game. While I haven’t yet looked at how well these numbers translate to the majors, it would seem that many of these players would be credible MLB backstops, at least when it comes to controlling the basepaths. It’s especially galling that the Reds gave Chad Moeller a guaranteed contract with Dane Sardinha, a similar good-field/no-hit catcher, in the organization.

And the Worst…

On the flip side, not every poor-hitting catcher is a defensive stud. To wit, here are the 10 worst catchers in the minors last year, according to their SB%:

First   Last      Lev     Org     IP      SB      CS      SB%
Chris   Gimenez   A       Cle     511.7   42      11      79.2%
Juan    Apodaca   A/A+    Lad     708.0   110     32      77.5%
J. R.   House     AA/AAA  Hou     565.0   92      27      77.3%
Emerson Frostad   A+      Tex     608.0   80      25      76.2%
Curtis  Thigpen   AA/AAA  Tor     746.7   70      22      76.1%
John    Otness    A+      Bos     735.7   108     34      76.1%
Salomon Manriquez AA      Was     778.3   98      31      76.0%
Mike    Mahoney   AAA     Tor     526.7   44      14      75.9%
Brad    Davis     A+      Flo     863.0   101     33      75.4%
Kyle    Dahlberg  A       Bal     518.0   64      21      75.3%

The most familiar names on the list are J. R. House and Curtis Thigpen; the others may be your future bullpen coaches. If we assume that it is more difficult to prevent stolen bases at higher levels, these players will require some serious offensive production to fill any role behind the plate in the major leagues.

Reputation and Inertia

It’s wonderful for a catcher to cut down half of the attempts against him, but there are other ways of looking at the issue. The best defensive catchers not only keep runners from advancing, they prevent runners from thinking about advancing.

This is similar to an analysis of outfield arms: outfield assists (like caught stealings) are great from a run-expectancy perspective. For instance, if David Eckstein is on second base when Albert Pujols singles, it’s better for the defensive team to throw out Eckstein at the plate than for him to play it safe and advance to third. However, assists are often racked up by those fielders who don’t enjoy great reputations—those guys who third base coaches are always tempted to test. The same is true, at least to some extent, for catchers.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the catchers whom opposing managers fear the most. This I’ve measured by dividing attempts (SB+CS) by innings. It isn’t a perfect representation (it would be better to count the exact number of times opposing teams have an opportunity to steal) but I suspect than any improvements would be relatively tiny. Here are those catchers who allowed the fewest stolen base attempts per inning:

First   Last    Lev     Org     IP      SB%     ATT/I
HumbertoQuinteroAAA     Hou     695.7   63.3%   8.6%
Kurt    Suzuki  AA      Oak     795.7   52.2%   8.7%
Chris   IannettaAA/AAA  Col     644.7   70.2%   8.8%
Rob     Johnson AAA     Sea     607.7   56.1%   9.4%
Matt    Tupman  AA/AAA  Kan     759.0   69.9%   9.6%
Patrick Arlis   AA      Flo     552.0   51.9%   9.8%
Carlos  Ruiz    AAA     Phi     675.7   63.2%   10.1%
Erik    Kratz   AA/AAA  Tor     607.7   67.7%   10.2%
Ryan    JorgenseAAA     Cin     621.0   59.4%   10.3%
Hector  Gimenez AAA     Hou     533.3   63.6%   10.3%

Somewhat surprisingly, there’s very little overlap between the first list and the second one. Only Suzuki and Patrick Arlis appear on both. Also of note: at least two of these catchers (Chris Iannetta and Matt Tupman) cut down attempts at worse than a league-average rate, despite apparently enjoying something of a positive reputation. That could be interpreted very favorably: against a catcher like Iannetta, perhaps managers very carefully pick their spots. Regardless of why the numbers come out the way they do, all of these backstops keep baserunners in their places, allowing fewer than one attempt per nine innings.

Overall Effectiveness

An even simpler measure combines the two stats we’ve discussed so far. If the ultimate goal is to prevent stolen bases, it doesn’t matter how a catcher does that: keeping runners from trying is just as good as cutting them down at second. (Again, in a run-expectancy framework, that’s not the case, but to measure a catcher’s effectiveness, I would argue that they are equivalent.)

So, instead of looking to attempts per inning, let’s look at stolen bases per inning. That way, catchers who don’t enjoy fearsome reputations (but still throw out a high percentage of runners) are on an equal playing field with those who might not score as many caught stealings, but prevent attempts. Here are the top ten:

First   Last    Lev     Org     IP      SB%     ATT/I   SB/I
Kurt    Suzuki  AA      Oak     795.7   52.2%   8.7%    4.5%
Patrick Arlis   AA      Flo     552.0   51.9%   9.8%    5.1%
Chris   Stewart AAA     Chw     674.7   47.3%   11.0%   5.2%
Dane    SardinhaAAA     Cin     571.7   49.2%   10.7%   5.2%
Rob     Johnson AAA     Sea     607.7   56.1%   9.4%    5.3%
Korey   Feiner  A+      Min     668.7   48.0%   11.2%   5.4%
HumbertoQuinteroAAA     Hou     695.7   63.3%   8.6%    5.5%
Iker    Franco  AA      St.     756.3   52.3%   11.4%   5.9%
Gustavo Molina  AA      Chw     806.0   56.5%   10.5%   6.0%
Bobby   Wilson  AA      Laa     703.0   56.0%   10.7%   6.0%

Suzuki and Arlis, of course, top the list. Behind them are a smattering of names from the first two rankings, following by three newcomers, Iker Franco, Gustavo Molina, and Bobby Wilson. What impresses me is how far ahead of the pack Suzuki is. A SB/IP rate of 4.5% is equivalent to allowing one stolen base per 22 innings—almost two and a half games. There are some variables we haven’t analyzed here (notably, the effect Midland pitchers had on the running game), but even a substantial regression keeps Suzuki well above average.

And Now, the Guys You Care About

It takes a devoted prospect watcher to know names like Brian Bormaster, Erik Kratz, and Bobby Wilson, but these measurements, of course, apply to all catchers. Here are SB%, attempts per inning, and stolen bases per inning for 25 recognizable players, including prospects, possible 2007 MLB backups, and Rule 5 picks.

First   Last           Lev     Org     IP      SB      CS      SB%     ATT/I   SB/I
Jeremy  Brown          AAA     Oak     530.0   37      24      60.7%   11.5%   7.0%
Ryan    Budde          AAA     Laa     317.3   22      10      68.8%   10.1%   6.9%
Jeff    Clement        AA/AAA  Sea     389.3   21      8       72.4%   7.4%    5.4%
JD      Closser        AAA     Col     465.3   33      18      64.7%   11.0%   7.1%
Adam    Donachie       A+/AA   Kan     791.0   48      40      54.5%   11.1%   6.1%
Jesus   Flores         A+      Nym     883.0   65      44      59.6%   12.3%   7.4%
Robby   Hammock        AAA     Ari     436.0   32      14      69.6%   10.6%   7.3%
J. R.   House          AA/AAA  Hou     565.0   92      27      77.3%   21.1%   16.3%
Nick    Hundley        A/A+    Sdp     868.0   77      48      61.6%   14.4%   8.9%
Chris   Iannetta       AA/AAA  Col     644.7   40      17      70.2%   8.8%    6.2%
George  Kottaras       AA/AAA  Sdp     825.0   75      32      70.1%   13.0%   9.1%
Jeff    Mathis         AAA     Laa     723.7   59      31      65.6%   12.4%   8.2%
Chad    Moeller        AAA     Mil     318.0   18      17      51.4%   11.0%   5.7%
Lou     Palmisano      AA      Mil     827.7   61      28      68.5%   10.8%   7.4%
Brayan  Pena           AAA     Atl     703.0   61      26      70.1%   12.4%   8.7%
Jason   Phillips       AAA     Tor     464.0   54      9       85.7%   13.6%   11.6%
GuillermQuiroz         AA/AAA  Sea     382.0   14      16      46.7%   7.9%    3.7%
MaximiliRamirez        A       Cle/Atl 480.3   72      29      71.3%   21.0%   15.0%
Mike    Rivera         AAA     Mil     441.0   29      16      64.4%   10.2%   6.6%
Carlos  Ruiz           AAA     Phi     675.7   43      25      63.2%   10.1%   6.4%
Angel   Salome         A       Mil     642.0   56      38      59.6%   14.6%   8.7%
Jarrod  Saltalamacchia AA      Atl     717.0   56      35      61.5%   12.7%   7.8%
Maxwell Sapp           SS      Hou     236.7   6       18      25.0%   10.1%   2.5%
Geovany Soto           AAA     Chc     855.7   88      37      70.4%   14.6%   10.3%
Neil    Walker         A+      Pit     449.7   44      20      68.8%   14.2%   9.8%

The most impressive performance on that list is that of Maxwell Sapp, the Astros #1 draft pick last year. He went straight to the New York-Penn League out of high school, and gunned down 75% of would-be basestealers. It’s a small sample, but an impressive performance nonetheless. Two Rule 5 picks also are coming off of strong years: Jesus Flores killed more than 40% of attempted steals, and Adam Donachie finished just outside of the top ten in the overall measure of stolen bases per inning.

There’s also some evidence here that a few offensively-minded catchers are, well, offensively minded. J.R. House lit up the Texas League with his bat last year, but allowed almost one and a half steals per game. Jason Phillips had a better end result, but threw out fewer than 15% of attempts in his time behind the plate.

Level Averages

As you might expect, basestealers increase in skill and/or decrease in recklessness as they get closer to the major leagues. To judge the numbers presented above, especially those of the prospects in the previous table, it’s useful to compare them to the average performance for their level.

LEV     SB      CS      SB%     ATT/I   SB/I
AAA     3052    1470    67.5%   12.1%   8.1%
AA      2862    1571    64.6%   12.1%   7.8%
A+      3631    1822    66.6%   15.0%   10.0%
A       3816    1993    65.7%   16.0%   10.5%
SS      1337    713     65.2%   14.2%   9.2%
RK      2565    1214    67.9%   17.8%   12.1%

References & Resources
The play-by-play data used is the same set that powers MinorLeagueSplits.com, and is drawn from the (imperfect) game logs at the official site of Minor League Baseball. At some point in the future, I’ll have this data available at that site for all minor league catchers.

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