Catcher ERA is a horrible stat

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According to Ben’s breakdown of Jorge Posada’s CERA, the long-time Yankees backstop has completely forgotten how to handle a pitching staff. After residing in the mid-4s for most of his career, Posada’s CERA has jumped to 6.31 this season. This, of course, means that pitchers don’t like throwing to him and that the Yankees should DH Posada a lot more, because Posada and Cervelli is better than Posada and Matsui.

I’ll knock off the sarcasm there, though I still hold contempt for the idea that Jorge is suddenly a lot worse at handling a pitching staff than he has been in the past. Still think Jorge’s not a good catcher, based on his CERA? Give this BtB article by R.J. Anderson a quick read. He’s not even talking about Posada in this instance. Rather, he’s talking about the league-wide obsession with backup catchers.

Fans seem to fall in with reserve catchers. I don’t know why. I suspect it has to do with the mystique of being a defensive stalwart, one immeasurable by metrics known to man. Perhaps having to sit in the bullpen and warm pitchers up is something worthwhile. These guys are usually horrible hitters, the worst bats on the team that actually get paid to hit. Why? Because if they hit well, they would be playing.

So, you have a player on each team who has writers, fans, and television folk talking up his game calling abilities and whatnot because saying that his entire value comes from squatting for four hours a week isn’t something you take pride in. Eventually it melts in. People start looking for things that feed this confirmation bias of Johnny McBackstop being a human computer. It becomes mainstay knowledge, and now every team in the league needs one of these veteran catchers, good at absolutely nothing outside of history lessons.

He goes on to throw an enormous monkey wrench in the case of CERA, starting with the abstract — there are other factors like ballpark, the pitcher himself, and the defense behind him — and concluding with the concrete — Michael Barrett and Jason Varitek have comparable CERA numbers over their careers.

Jorge might not be the best game-caller. He might not handle a pitching staff the way other catchers do. Those points are up for debate. However, to use CERA in the argument does it no service. The stat simply doesn’t reflect what happens on the field.

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  • Andy in Sunny Daytona

    Now that you destroyed this statistic, it’s time to tackle the much-used-incorrectly BABIP.

    • Ellis

      Amen!!! BABIP can’t be as simple as some people make it out to be, I’d love a closer look at it. All this “Return to the mean” talk seems flawed or incomprehensive

      • Kyle

        Posted by Ellis on June 20, 5:08 PM

        “Amen!!! BABIP can’t be as simple as some people make it out to be, I’d love a closer look at it. All this “Return to the mean” talk seems flawed or incomprehensive.”

        It’s not, but it’s very close.

        Just look at the league average BABIP from year to year. It’s almost always around .297-.300. Almost always. Usually, a league average LD% is around 17%. Since players are usually pretty consistent with the rate in which they hit line drives (based on their own skill set), the BABIP will rise and fall over/under .300 based on LD%. Most usually without fail, anything over 20 points above or below the hitter’s career threshold is solely a matter of luck and will be subject to regression.

        Of course, if a player is hitting a ton more line drives (or less), then you know whatever the player’s BABIP happens to be (assuming it’s not around career normals), it probably is legit.

        My point is: for an average hitter, anything way over or below .300 BABIP will more times than not regress. .300 is a good monitoring point for average hitters, though above or below average hitters might be in the .340, .330 range at the high end or .260 or .270 at the low end. It’s really actually relatively consistent.

  • radnom

    First off – I think the “Posada can’t call games anymore” is crazy panic. That being said, Im not sure that some of these criticisms are valid. For example,

    He goes on to throw an enormous monkey wrench in the case of CERA, starting with the abstract — there are other factors like ballpark, the pitcher himself, and the defense behind him

    Well that is a great argument to avoid comparing catchers over two teams…but 90% of the time this stat is brought out to compare a starting catcher to his backup catcher – and in that case all of these “factors” are actually constants (unless there are personal catchers for specific pitchers).

  • Ivan

    To me Catcher ERA falls under “unnecessary baseball stat, that delves into something that’s not that deep, complicated and significant”

    I agree Joe, it’s a dumb, dumb stat.

  • evilhubie

    When folks talk about Posada’s catcher’s ERA, they are contrasting him with Cervelli, Molina, and other Yankees backup catchers. This minimizes the differences in pitchers, defense, and ballpark that make comparisons of Barrett and Varitek difficult.

    If you’re objectively analyzing the performance of Yankees catchers in regard to their defense and handling of pitchers, catcher’s ERA is as good a place as any to start.

    • JP

      evilhubie:

      You’re going to have to prove it, because I can’t think of any way that CERA is a good place to start in evaluating catchers’ ability. A priori it’s a terrible stat to evaluate a catcher, because it doesn’t reflect anything a catcher actually does…it reflects what a pitcher does.

      If a catcher catches every inning of every game for a team, his CERA is equal to the staff ERA. If he does the same thing next season, his CERA will likely be different. Did he become a worse catcher between the two seasons?

      If a catchers CERA is low, it means he has been fortunate to catch pitchers who were throwing well.

      A longtime sports book editor and writer, Jeff Neuman, who now writes baseball articles for RealClearSports.com, told me about a study he read on backup catchers. Apparently, in this study, the author concluded that there is a tendency for ALL backup catchers to outperform their regular counterparts, judging by the pitchers’ performances. The reason is unknown, but probably has something to do with managers’ tendencies in using backup catchers. Maybe they only tend to be used with a team’s better pitchers, or in situations where pitchers have an advantage (day games?).

      • Yanks99

        A pitcher could make the same pitches the next season and he probably wouldn’t have the same ERA. Jorge doesn’t seem like he’s very good at blocking pitches – that’s the part that annoys me. He seems like he turns his glove to the side instead of getting his body in front of the ball.

        • JP

          I’ve noticed that, too. And his career PB rate is a little higher than Varitek’s, who is a good comparison because they’ve both played on good teams, same league, same opponents, for about the same number of years.

    • http://www.beyondtheboxscore.com Sky

      Start with CERA and then throw in something like 90% regression given the crazy small sample size compared to how wildly pitcher performance varies.

      Try this, compare a starter’s ERA on even-numbered days to odd-numbered days. I bet you’d often get variations you’d think were significant if there was an obvious connection between the two things.

  • Michael

    It doesn’t minimize sample size. Posada catches more games than the other two. Posada’s numbers are inflated by Wang’s first 3 starts which clearly aren’t the fault of Jorge. That’s why CERA is terrible. It depends more on the pitcher than the catcher.

    Just looking at CERA, you don’t know if Cervelli is mostly catching the better Yankee pitchers, you don’t know if Cervelli is catching against teams with weaker lineups, and it doesn’t figure in Posada/Matsui’s offensive numbers over backups.

    Should Cervelli get credit when CC was lights out in May? Would CC be a worse pitcher just because of the catcher? No. It’s ridiculous.

  • JP

    I don’t think anyone could ever prove any catcher is a bad game caller. A pitcher can throw the right pitch and get hit, or the wrong pitch and get an out. I don’t know how you assess what the right or wrong pitch is.

    I think catchers probably have a general, maybe emotional overall effect on their pitchers, if anything. I suspect when a pitcher is feeling it and is in “the zone,” they probably don’t care who the catcher is or even pay much attention to him other than get the sign and aim.

    But I do think a catcher can probably screw a pitcher up. If the catcher looks lost defensively, and the pitcher starts worrying about PBs and SBs. Or the pitcher gets it in his head that the catcher doesn’t know the hitters and is not calling the “right pitches.” Or, if the catcher gets an attitude and argues with the pitcher or otherwise tries to meddle. If the catcher does anything to upset the pitcher’s rhythm, or destroy his composure or confidence, that’s bad.

    The only knocks on Posada as a catcher that I’ve heard that I can believe might be true are of this sort – things like pitchers not being very confident in him as a receiver or calling a game. While I doubt Posada’s actual pitch calls or his defensive ability is a serious liability in terms of allowing runs, the fact that the issue comes up alot suggests, to me anyway, that he might have a problem inspiring confidence in pitchers.

    There will never be a number that you can calculate to prove this. But if I’m the manager, and a pitcher comes to me with a concern like this, Jorge is DH’ing for that pitcher and Matsui is riding the pine for a game.

  • Drew

    Jorge was a good catcher yesterday… lol

  • YankeeScribe

    While I agree that CERA is a flawed stat, the only reason Jorge has employed for so long as the Yanks’ catcher is his offense. There are lots of catchers who would be defensive improvements over Posada. However, his offense is irreplaceable at his position(unless Joe Mauer is available).

    The only reason I advocate having his time cut at playing Catcher this season is because he’s 38 and runs a higher risk of hurting himself from catching 80% of the games. While he’s been durable most of his career, Posada’s spent a significant amount of time on the DL in the last season and a half…

    • JP

      I agree with all of that. We have plenty of reasons to rest and DH Jorge, alot, without trying to prove it with CERA.

    • Michael

      Now that’s a more valid argument than CERA. With Matsui’s departure after this season I think we will see more of Posada as DH next year. They’ll have to carry 3 catchers, but like you said, Posada can’t keep catching this many games at his age. You can’t really afford to take his bat completely out of the lineup 2 or 3 out of every 5 days though.

  • Ed

    Yanks miss playoffs n posada misses year. Not a coincidence

    • YankeeScribe

      So you’re saying the Rays and Red Sox wouldn’t have won as many games if Posada didn’t miss most of last season?

      • Josh from NC

        No, but the Yankees would have won more games, so the race would be closer

        • King of Fruitless Hypotheticals

          …and therefore, if any of those games the yankees won were against the sox or the rays, then yes, thtat’s exactly what he’s saying…

        • YankeeScribe

          Would they have been a better team in 08′ with Posada? Yes. But to say they wouldn’t have missed the playoffs is a stretch.

          • Bob Stone

            Why is it a stretch? The Yankees only missed the playoffs by two games. I have to believe that if Posada was playing all year he could have picked up three game winning hits.

            That doesn’t seem like a stretch to me.

            • YankeeScribe

              They could have picked up three more games OR they could have missed the playoffs by 4 games instead of two. The point is, it’s impossible to say for certain how many they would have won or loss with Posada in the lineup most of last season.

    • JP

      The Baseball Prospectus article on the Yankees this year had some interesting things to say about ’08 and Jorge. The Yankees made the playoffs in ’07. Giambi’s better year in ’08 compared to ’07 made up for a good deal of the offense they lost with Posada in ’08. ARod had the monster year in ’07 and practically carried them, and he didn’t do nearly as well last season. Anyway, they did score alot fewer runs in ’08, but they also had terrible stretches from Jeter, Cano, and Melky, and so it’s hard to pin the whole thing on Posada.

  • V

    Posada caught Wang’s disasters. Cervelli tends to catch CC (my speculation – you don’t need your top offense when CC is pitching).

  • Charlie

    looks like johan has recovered okay from his last start

  • Joba-to-the-pen

    Wow.Jorge Posada is a great catcher with three rings and diva’s like Joba and overrated pitchers like AJ don’t give respect to one of the only four true Yankees like Jorge(MO,Jeter and Pettitte) on this team.How sad everybody kisses Jeters’ @$$ and Jorge and MO are seen as pass their prime guys losing their touch.

    And people think that crappy catcher Cervalli can take on Posada position which he can’t.Also Hughes is the better pitching prospect back then and now then Joba.Sad really.How fast players can fall in some Yankees fans minds.

    • JP

      You honestly think “rings” matter? What does that matter? Jorge was a part time catcher for the first of those rings.

      Players deserve respect for what they do or don’t do, not the fact that they were on a WS team. Who said AJ doesn’t respect Posada? If he doesn’t, it can’t be for any other reason than he doesn’t like his catching, and you can’t blame a pitcher for having his preferences and opinions.

    • TheLastClown

      Leave it to “Joba-to-the-pen” to miss one of the World Series that Posada was a part of winning.

      Mo is past his prime. Sorry to tell you, but 39 years old is past approaching, already on the hump. Mo’s mo-like durability &, well, Mo-li-ness has kept him going as still perhaps the best closer out there, and has earned him top $$ of all relief pitchers.

      Jorge, on the other hand, perhaps didn’t deserve the entirety of the monster extension he signed after a career year. I’m not saying I didn’t agree with the move, or that he’s not worth it, but he does look like his body is starting to give way *later than expected* and he may not be anywhere close to as productive as he was in ’07.

      • Tony

        Jorge’s 290/380/550 line isn’t what you expected?

        • TheLastClown

          No, I take no exception to Jorge’s performance.

          Now, ol’ J2TP above seemed to be criticizing the attention that is lavished on Jeter while lamenting the “fall from grace” in the minds of some fans vis-a-vis Jorge & Mo.

          I was pointing out that both of them are on the decline, because they’re getting older. This is just a recognition of fact. They haven’t lost any kind of spot in my mind.

          But, Jorge’s line in ’07, clearly a career year, and also the year that earned him 4/$52.4M was .338/.426/.543/.970

          Obviously his current line is great, even above his career mean, but my issue with the deal he got is mostly the fourth year. He missed most of last year, some of this year already, and to think that he’ll play as even the most-of-the-time starting catcher until the end of 2011 without getting injured again for a substantial amount of time is naive. And we don’t know how the injuries, in 1 or 2 years time will affect his production, which is due to decline anyway due to age.

          But again, I love the guy, the move had to be made, and CERA is lame. For all the advanced metrics, *which I have RAB to thank for my introduction into* one does not have to waste one’s time with rubbish like that.

          • blilnkey

            You’d have to think that by 2011 and maybe even the end of next year Posada would be platooning with a younger catcher like a Cervelli/Montero/Romine and become the primary DH on the yanks. Considering that Jorgie is a switch hitter and has a pretty good bat to go along w/a good obp I’m sure the 4th year was given with a move to DH in mind.

  • donttradecano

    I would like posada to work on his blocking of pitches, otherwise hes fine by me behind the plate.

    • YankeeScribe

      Do you think he’s going to get better or worse at blocking pitches at 38 years old?

  • Bob Stone

    About two weeks ago, Sweeney Murti reported on the Mike Francesa show (yeah – I do listen to it sometimes despite how obnoxious he has become) that there was talk among the Yankee pitchers that Posada calls pitches based on what he would do or think as the batter. The best game calling catchers research hitters to figure out their weaknesses and call their pitches based on that data.

    If this rumor is true, it could explain some of the perception about Posada’s reputation as less than a stellar game caller. I think there could be something to it. I love Posada, but I do find his game calling frustrating at times.

    Has anyone else heard about this problem with Posada?

    • JP

      Never. But it wouldn’t surprise me. Looks can be deceiving, and no matter what he looks like, Jorge is a great player. But he doesn’t look or sound like the sharpest knife in the drawer, and it wouldn’t be hard for me to believe that he didn’t do the “studious” thing like research the hitters and base his calls on his research.

      Kay and Singleton said something the other night about Mick Kelleher studying scouting reports and positioning Jeter in the field this year, which they are crediting with his improved range numbers this season.

      • Bob Stone

        Your reference to Posada’s level of native intelligence or “studiousness” is an interesting point that I had’t considered. It certainly would contribute to ambivalence to pregame preparation (studyinig opposing hitter tendencies).

        Knowing the tendencies and habits of opposing batters through thorough (or even competent)research seems awfully important to calling a good game. One could even say that, at the major league level, it should be a requirement.

        As an example, on the other side of the pitcher/catcher duo, look how much people credit part of Schilling’s success to his “book” on hitters and his studious, diligent research.

  • Joe

    I agree that CERA is probably not the best way to evaluate catchers. That being said, a few points bear mentioning.

    1. Catchers DEFINITELY affect a pitcher’s performance. It might come from calling a good game (or more likely, knowing the pitcher well enough to call a game tailored to his skills/preferences) or from giving your pitcher confidence that if he throws a 60 foot slider, it’s going to be handled. When I played in HS and College, there were definitely pitchers for whom my game calling just clicked (which then added another layer of confidence/comfort to them on the mound, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that boosted performance) or who told me after an inning that the great slider/curveball they just threw felt like it was stopping at 50 feet and they were glad I blocked it. Pitchers can certainly be headcases, so having a calming influence behind the plate shouldn’t be overlooked. This might not be a huge effect at all, but I really do not think that all catchers are created equally.

    2. The whole backup catcher argument seemed flawed to me. Let’s take a cue from Malcolm Gladwell’s latest pop-psychology masterpiece, Outliers, and assume that for the most part, there is a cutoff in terms of defensive ability, at which point you’re able to be a major league catcher. Catcher A might be a 70 and Catcher B might be a 95, but for all purposes, they both qualify as “passable” by having a certain level of ability.

    It’s painfully obvious that at any given time, the number of quality offensive catchers who hit that skill plateau is usually less than 30 and definitely less than 60. So at a certain point, there just aren’t enough catchers to go around in order for backups to be really effective hitters. And once a team accepts that its backup is highly unlikely to be an exceptional hitter, it seems perfectly reasonable to say that maximizing defense adds more value than the marginal increase in offense. Think Jose Molina vs. Josh Bard. I’m not saying Molina or any other defensive catcher is definitely more valuable, but you would have to be crazy to say that the idea of a defense-minded backup is wrong. Anyway, that’s my two cents, enjoy.

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  • Joe

    CERA is simply a stat that, by its self is not powerful, but when combined with observations it becomes useful. We know a bad cera cannot be used to disqualify the poor defensive play we see on the field. Nothing supports Jorge being behind the plate this much.

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