Looking at the defense of Yankee catchers

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The case of the missing change up

One of the Yankees’ obvious weaknesses this season is their defense behind the plate. Jorge Posada has long been a butcher back there, and even though Frankie Cervelli was voted as the organization’s best defensive catcher several years in a row by Baseball America, extended playing time in 2010 has exposed him as no better than average defensively. At least for now, I mean, he could always improve with more reps and experience.

Posada has thrown out just 19% of attempted basestealers this year, Cervelli even less at 14%, and that’s just part of it. The passed balls have allowed countless runners move up, and there’s no better example of it than this game against the Mariners two weeks ago. Posada allowed two runners to move up on a passed ball in the 8th inning, and one pitch later a two run single tied the game. While not completely responsible for the blown lead, the defensive miscue was certainly a big factor.

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

Considering how much we’ve talked about catcher’s defense this year, I wanted to try and come up with an actual number for how many runs the Yanks’ backstops have cost them defensively this season. Because there are so many immeasurables when to comes to catcher’s defense, we’re going to have to stick with the basics: stolen bases, caught stealings, wild pitches, and passed balls. Of course this isn’t perfect, because it’s not just catchers that factor into those four stats, pitchers have a say as well. The broad assumption in this analysis is that the pitcher’s effect will even out when looking at the 30 teams across the first half of the season.

Stolen bases and caught stealings are nice and easy to understand, a guy either successfully stole a base or he didn’t. There’s a little more of a gray area with wild pitches and passed balls because official scorers and their sometimes questionable decisions come into play, and there are certainly wild pitches that a catcher doesn’t even have a chance to make a play on (say a pitch over everyone’s head to the backstop). I’m looking at it in a bottom line kinda way, did the catcher stop the ball or not? Good catchers will still stop a fair share of would-be wild pitches, and even then we’ll assume the number of plays a backstop had no chance on will even out given the sample.

I tallied up each teams total in the four stat categories for the 2010 season, then assigned run values to each event based on The Book. Defensively, a stolen base against costs a team 0.16 runs, but throwing a runner out trying to steal saves 0.45 runs. You don’t need to be a sabermetric whiz to understand that losing a baserunner hurts a team more than moving one up 90 feet helps. Wild pitches cost 0.26 runs, passed balls 0.28. It makes sense that those two are close in value, since they’re basically the same thing with two different names. I turned everything into a rate stat for comparison purposes, arbitrarily selecting 180 innings as my unit of time (20 games).

The big league average is exactly two runs lost defensively per 180 innings, which passes the sniff test because it’s tough for a catcher to prevent runs in this analysis. He’d have to throw out a ton of runners to actually save runs, which just isn’t realistic. It basically comes down to who gives up the fewest runs. The AL average is 2.2 runs lost, the NL 1.9. I ran the numbers just to see if the small ball NL approach had a big impact in the numbers, but it’s good to see that they’re close. I’m going to use ML average for the rest of the post.

You can see my entire table of results here. The table’s too big to embed, so just click the link if you want to see the full breakdown by team. My fancy acronym for this stat is cRSAA/180, which stands for catcher’s runs saved above average per 180 innings. Yes, I just wanted a nerdy name, so sue me. All I did was figure out how many total runs a team lost defensively per 180 innings, and compared it to that 2.0 ML average. The Cardinals have the game’s best defensive catching corps, saving 1.9 runs above the league average per 180 innings. This passes the sniff test because Yadier Molina has a reputation as a studly defensive backstop. The Diamondbacks are on the other end of the spectrum at 2.4 runs below average. Apparently they’re bad at everything.

The Yankees came in at 1.4 runs below average, tied for fourth worst in the game. The only teams below them are the D-Backs, Pirates (-1.6 cRCAA/180) and Angels (-1.5), and they were tied with both the Giants and Red Sox. Over a 162 game season, assuming nine inning games, the Yanks’ catchers will cost them 11.34 runs defensively, which is basically one win. For comparison’s sake, St. Louis would pick up a win and half because of their catcher’s defense, Arizona would lose another two games. The different between the best and worst teams is three and a half wins, hardly insignificant.

It probably didn’t surprise you that the Yanks came in towards the bottom of the pack, or at least it shouldn’t have. Let’s break it down individually for Posada and Cervelli…

First of all, apologies to Chad Moeller. Secondly, as you can see neither Posada or Cervelli are assets on defense. Posada has cost the team 1.8 runs below average with his glove for every 180 innings he’s caught this year, Cervelli a touch less at 1.1. If Posada were to catch 120 nine inning games, his defense would cost the team 10.8 runs, or one win. Of course his offense, even at 2010 levels, would provide just over 17 runs, so the next gain is six runs, for all intents and purposes.

Cervelli, on the other hand, would cost the team 6.6 runs below average if he played 120 nine inning games, and his bat would also be another 7.4 runs below average assuming 2010 levels of production. All told, the Yankees would be 14 runs in the red with Cervelli as their starting catcher compared to six runs in the black with Posada. It’s a 20 run difference, two wins in a tight AL East. This assumes a set designated hitter and that only one of the two catchers play per game.

Yes, this is an extremely oversimplified way of looking at things. There are parts of catcher’s defense that we can’t even begin to quantify, but the information we do have tells us that the Yanks’ catchers are hurting them with the glove. Posada mitigates all of that damage with his stick, Cervelli not so much. He’s supposed to be just a backup though, so in theory it shouldn’t hurt as much. You expect those guys to be below average. The real problem is that Cervelli has had to play so much this season that both his bat and glove have become detriments to the team in a very real way.

Catching issues are hard to hide just because of the nature of the game. The catcher is in on every play, every pitch. The demands of the position are so extraordinary that most of the time you’re just looking for the least harmful option. You don’t expect offense, you just hope for something more than complete incompetence.  The Yankees’ catchers are holding them back a bit this year, but their pitching and offense is good enough to more than make up that lost win in the standings.

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Catch RAB on the Pulse Network's Sports Buzz
The case of the missing change up
  • A.D.

    Interesting to see the Nats so high, guess Pudge does still have it.

  • ZZ

    Nice post. Good to have some sort of comparison to other teams.

    The funny part about the game you linked where Posada didn’t catch the pitch is that I bet few people remember Cervelli doing the exact same thing the next night. The only difference was Joba (I think he was the pitcher) didn’t let the player now on 2nd score.

  • Colin

    The neverending quest for a back up catcher that can hit even replacement level

  • Andrew

    I really hope Jorge’s body doesn’t keep betraying him in the 2nd half. It’s amazing to think that during his out-of-his-head hot streak there were calls for Cervelli to be the full-time C with Posada DHing when healthy, since it looks like such a bad idea right now.

  • Pete

    This post is just full of owned.

  • Chris0313

    I’ve always said that Cervelli was absolute garbage behind the plate. Send him down to the minors please or trade him.

    • Tom Zig

      Trade him for what? Hugs?

    • http://mystiqueandaura.com Steve H

      If he’s garbage behind the plate, and clearly can’t hit, how much trade value would he have?

      • Tom Zig

        I doubt this would affect much but is it a pick off or a CS if the catcher picks the runner off first. Also what about pitcher pick offs that get counted as CS, does that get counted?

        • Tom Zig

          ugh clearly not supposed to be a reply.

    • ZZ

      This is a bit harsh. If I recall correctly from Cervelli’s minor league days he was not an everyday catcher and injuries derailed his playing time as well.

      A possibility is that Cervelli is just tired behind the plate from the unexpected amount of playing time as he has looked strong defensively often at times during his career.

      • ZZ

        And I was being kind with the “bit” part.

      • JohnnyC

        I think that extended period where he played every single game contributed to his sloppiness defensively. The Yankees’ penchant for having catchers share duties at each stop in the minors can’t be helping their endurance.

      • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

        A possibility is that Cervelli is just tired behind the plate from the unexpected amount of playing time as he has looked strong defensively often at times during his career.

        But he’s not playing more now than he did before. He’s playing less, because he’s a backup. He’s got 451 innings behind the dish this season. In his last full season in the minors, 2007, he had 756 innings behind the dish at Tampa.

        The idea that a 24 year old backup catcher is “tired behind the plate” after only 48 games caught seems a bit odd, no?

        • ZZ

          That was 3 years ago though and even 756 innings is not a lot for a catcher.

          Also Jared Greenwood caught in 46 games to Cervelli’s 89. 89 is 64% of the games played that year.

          Even with his age, your body still has to be conditioned to handle the workload and I’m not sure Cervelli’s is at this point considering his history in the minors. Especially to that stretch when Cervelli was catching everyday.

  • Kevin Ocala, Fl

    Mike, where you able to factor in the size of the ballpark area behind the catcher? It seems to me that it would have a large effect on perceived catcher effectiveness.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

      That’s a good point, it would factor in with regards to the backstop and what not. I did not consider it.

    • Pete

      I think just about every park has a solid 60-70 feet behind the plate. Past balls and wild pitches are what they are. The only difference would really be on foul pop-ups, which aren’t considered in this post (and probably shouldn’t be, since they almost never drop in, and an uncaught foul ball is a minuscule event in terms of linear weight)

      • Rick in Boston

        This. Plus, it is rare to see a runner advance more than one base on a passed ball/wild pitch.

        • Chris

          If you’re going to include pop-ups to catcher then I think it comes into play, but I agree that for this analysis it wouldn’t come into play.

  • Rick in Boston

    Awesome job Mike. The Yankees stolen bases allowed figures are pretty bad throughout the system. I could see the problem existing in the low minors when the team wants the pitchers to just pitch and not worry about the runners, but there is a concern when the issue extends all the way up to and including the MLB squad.

  • Jose the Satirist

    This seems a little bit like you tried to reinvent the wheel. Why not just use Total Zone data for catchers? It also includes pick offs and catcher errors, in addition to factoring the handedness of the pitcher.

  • ZZ

    The one thing Cervelli absolutely needs to stop doing is throwing from his knees.

    It is just a terrible attempt to throw out a baserunner and can lead to bad habits/mechanics.

    Not to mention he is throwing from a lower angle and risks hitting the pitcher with the ball.

    • JohnnyC

      Tony Pena’s calling card. No?

  • Ross in Jersey

    Good catchers will still stop a fair share of would-be wild pitches, and even then we’ll assume the number of plays a backstop had no chance on will even out given the sample.

    I’m not so sure about this assumption. Is it really fair to compare a staff of low bb/K control pitchers (ie, Twins) to a staff of more wild, high K pitchers (ie, Giants)? Something doesn’t seem right about the Giants being so bad defensively at catcher, considering Molina (before he was traded) is supposed to be a top receiver and Whiteside wasn’t known for his bat either.

    • JohnnyC

      Good point.

  • JGS in sunburn-inducing Jerusalem

    The White Sox have no passed balls? Impressive

  • Chris

    In the minors, Cervelli threw out 41% of base stealers (21 of 51). Last year, he threw out 43% (10 of 13). This year, he has thrown out 14% (5 of 36).

    Posada’s 19% caught stealing rate would be the second worst of his career – right behind 2008 when he tore up his shoulder on opening day. His career average is 29% (and he was at 28% last year).

    I could certainly see Posada showing significant decline because of his age, but I wouldn’t expect Cervelli to be this bad. I wonder if there’s more to it than both catchers just happening to have bad years throwing out runners at the same time.

    • Bill in Boston

      My conclusion is small sample sizes all around for this. Small sample sizes are usually thrown around but the variability is usually not described. I’ll attempt to here using 95% confidence intervals.

      Minors: 21/51 (41%; 95% CI: 28%, 56%)
      Last year: 10/23 (assume you meant 23 and not 13) (43%; 95% CI 23%, 66%)
      This year: 5/36 (14%; 95% CI 5%, 30%)

      Combined: 36/110 (33%; 95% CI 24%, 42%)
      Combined using random-effects meta-analysis – which assumes some correlation within season you get 32% (95% CI: 11%, 52%)

      What does this mean?
      –Has Cervelli been poor this year throwing runners out? Yes
      –Is there enough data to support that he has somehow changed and we can expect this in the future? I would say no.

      Really I just wanted to show off my statz skillz

  • David

    I know this is centered around the defense of catchers, but when determining what other stuff they do to make up for costing runs on D (ie Posada can hit), whatabout looking at the so-called “catcher ERA”? That data is fairly available (I think) so it would be interesting to put it alongside the defensive data here to see if there is actually a reason the pitching staff all seem to be in love with Cervelli.

    • http://mystiqueandaura.com Steve H

      Catcher’s ERA is a very poor stat for a myriad of reasons. Poor defensive catchers who have great pitchers have a good cERA. Great defensive catchers who have poor pitchers have a bad cERA. If a catcher calls for the perfect pitch, and the pitcher doesn’t hit his spot and gives up a HR, that’s not on the catcher.

      • http://theyankeeu.com Matt Imbrogno

        Exactly. cERA takes the credit for good pitching and blame for bad pitching away from it belongs: the pitcher.

        • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

          Pudge is the perfect example. His defense is still stellar, but his cERA is horrid. Is that his fault for “calling a bad game”, or is it the fault of the Natinals pitchers for sucking balls irrespective of whatever game he’d be calling?

          • http://mystiqueandaura.com Steve H

            Miraculously Pudge has a cERA of 2.45 with Strasburg pitching……

            So when Strasburg is on the mound Pudge knows how to catch. When he’s not, he doesn’t. Funny how that works.

          • Thomas

            While I agree with your premise, I would disagree with the fact that Pudge is the perfect example. It has been well documented that he calls a horrible game; mainly due to the fact, he calls for only fastballs when men are on base in order to give himself a good chance to throw out any would be basestealers. Now I know the pitcher has the final call, but it has led to some pitchers refusing to throw to him (e.g Mussina) and I suspect some of the younger pitchers he has caught in Texas and Washington would be afraid to repeatedly shake him off.

            Again though, I agree with your premise that cERA is a poor stat.

            • Chris

              It has been well documented that he calls a horrible game; mainly due to the fact, he calls for only fastballs when men are on base

              No it hasn’t. It’s been speculated on ad nauseum to the point where it is not accepted as fact. Just look at the two Nationals starters that are held over from last season:

              Stammen: 2009: 45.7% FA, 16.5% FT
              2010: 34.1% FA, 24.7% FT

              Lannen: 2009: 54.5% FA, 11.5% FT
              2010: 31.9% FA, 34.8% FT

              • Chris

                *where it is not now accepted

              • Thomas

                I guess I am wrong then. I just remember some pitchers saying they did not like pitching to him, because he called too many fastballs.

        • David

          But couldn’t it still be used to compare catchers on the same team, since they both catch for the same pitchers? I see how it would be pretty meaningless to compare across teams but it might help us figure out Posada/Cervelli relative to each other?

          • Rick in Boston

            Only if the catchers caught the same pitchers for the same number of innings. If Posada is catching 2009 Wang while Cervelli gets 2010 Pettitte, Cervelli would have a better cERA no matter how much he sucked and how well Posada did.

            • http://mystiqueandaura.com Steve H

              This. I mean, if you had a 3 year sample size and two catchers caught identical innings from the same pitchers, it would likely tell us something, but that’s probably the only way, and won’t ever happen.

  • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

    Looking at the teams at the top of your catcher defense rankings, the presence of the Nationals, Astros, and Athletics is intriguing.

    The Astros gaudy rating is primarily the work of Kevin Cash, who’s had an outstanding year behind the dish (which is why the Sox picked him back up) and the work of their young catchers of the future Castro and Towles. The A’s numbers are the product of Kurt Suzuki, who’s one of their cornerstones.

    The Nats great catcher defense is entirely the result of old friends Pudge Rodriguez and Wil Nieves. Pudge is also hitting .296/.325/.389 (.311 wOBA, 90 wRC+). He’s obviously not in their long-term plans, with Derek Norris and Jesus Flores the designated catchers of the future.

    Pudge has a 1.1 WAR this season. Cervelli’s at a 0.6.

    Interest in getting back on board the Pudge train?

    • Tom Zig

      As long as he doesn’t catch any of Joba’s appearances. I still blame him for Joba’s injury.

      • Chris

        Why?

        • Pete

          he threw down to 2nd to try to pick somebody off and joba dove out of the way, landing awkwardly on his shoulder. Two pitches later, Joba’s out until september. Of course, you wouldn’t know this, because “Joba can’t handle a starter’s workload” fits much better with the BJobber narrative

    • Jose the Satirist

      “The Astros gaudy rating is primarily the work of Kevin Cash”

      Nah. Humberto Quintero.

      • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

        True, he’s been great as well.

        • Jose the Satirist

          Too bad his bat essentially makes him a replacement level player.

          • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

            All four of the ‘Stros catchers have been great defensively. Castro looks to have a playable bat though, which is nice, Mo knows that franchise needs some quality young talent in the worst way.

    • Rose

      What about old friend Dioner Navarro?

      38%

      • Jose the Satirist

        His bat is brutal. It would almost negate any defensive value.

  • CS Yankee

    However,

    1) They had the weakest Molina (catching wise).
    2) I don’t know anything about Whiteside, but no bat does not equal a glove.
    3) Posey has looked lost behind the plate, in a few games that i’ve seen. He is billed as the next Mauer…time will tell.

    • CS Yankee

      Fail…was to tag onto Rossinjersey comment.

    • http://mystiqueandaura.com Steve H

      2) I don’t know anything about Whiteside, but no bat does not equal a glove.

      It probably means scrappy though.

    • Ross in Jersey

      Well, again something just doesn’t seem right. The Giants have thrown out 28 baserunners, tied with the ‘stros for most in baseball. Allowed 77, far from the worst. Yet their catching defense is ranked as bad as the Yankees? As for your points…

      1) The ‘weakest’ Molina is still very good compared to your average ML catcher.

      2) Agreed, I haven’t checked his stats but from what I’ve seen he’s mostly a defensive catcher used to spell Molina when he was still here.

      3) I haven’t really watched Posey yet, so it’s possible he dragged down their defensive value.

      • Rick in Boston

        Posey’s allowed 8 of 13 runners to steal so far, with the Rockies doing the most damage to him earlier this month.

  • http://mystiqueandaura.com Steve H

    Caught stealing numbers are always so tough because the pitcher is a huge part. Below are the caught stealing percentages for Yankees’ starters throughout their careers. It’s clear that the Yankees’ catchers are underperforming in throwing runners out. Interesting to note that Hughes, who has only pitched to Yankee catchers, has the lowest percentage.

    CC 34%
    Andy 33% (includes a ton of pickoffs)
    AJ 25%
    Javy 35%
    Hughes 22%

    • JGS in sunburn-inducing Jerusalem

      I can’t believe Andy’s years in Houston would have pushed up his CS% that much. It was probably very high from his Yankee years too

      • Jose the Satirist

        Andy in Houston: 33%
        Andy in New York: 33%

      • Rick in Boston

        A quick look at his numbers in Houston had Brad Ausmus doing a lot of catching for him. Ausmus wasn’t that great – high-20’s/low-30’s for the three years Pettitte was there.

      • http://mystiqueandaura.com Steve H

        His CS% in Houston was 33%, in NYY it’s been 32.9%. Pretty good example how much the pitcher matters.

        He’s had 4 catchers catch >200 innings in his career.

        Jorge 28%
        Girardi 35%
        Ausmus 33%
        Leyritz 33% (doesn’t include rundowns, if you know what I mean)

        • CS Yankee

          LOL, that Leyritz comment is cold, just cold.

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=9370232 Mike HC

            haha, yea. I’m laughing and shaking my head at the same time.

  • pat

    This is a rather elementary approach, but perhaps the pitchers care about runners even less when Frankie is catching, knowing he has a gun. Maybe they’re more apt to throw a nasty breaking ball in the dirt knowing Frankie is a lot more flexible than Jorgie at this point. The stat’s aren’t that crazy, Cervelli has almost exactly 50% more innings caught than Posada and only three more WP’s two less PB’s and one more SB against.

  • Chip

    The problem is, it’s hard to peg CS% solely on the catcher. A ton of factors come in to play including the pitchers holding runners and what not. In fact, the coaching staff can also have an effect. How do we know that Girardi and/or Eiland hasn’t been telling guys like Hughes and AJ to just worry about getting the batter out rather than spending all of their time worrying about the runner. Obviously playing the Rays a lot doesn’t help the Yankees and Red Sox numbers at all either

    • Chip

      Doing a quick check on this also passes the sniff test. Teams run wild against AJ and CC because neither have a very good move to first (AJ’s is atrocious) and are power pitchers that are probably more concerned with striking guys out.

      Teams don’t even bother trying against Pettitte and Vazquez for the most part as they’re veterans who know how to hold runners. Hughes also appears to be fairly good at holding guys on and pretty quick to the plate.

      Furthermore, teams are running wild on our relievers which makes sense as relievers don’t typically work on things such as holding runners on like the starters do. They don’t slide step, hold the ball extra long to distrupt timing, have a good move, ect. They have their normal delivery out of the stretch and that’s that. Hard to put really any of that on the catchers when the Yankee pitchers have been in the league long enough for teams to know who they can run on and who they can’t.

  • bebop

    How do Montero, Romine and the other catching prospects project defensively?

    • Chip

      Romine is considered by many to be ready defensively right now for the majors but has had problems throwing out runners this year (which is probably more on the pitchers than him as the scouting reports are still good), Sanchez projects as average from what I hear and Montero is Piazza-level defensively and might end up taking the Delgado/Konerko route and moving from behind the plate.

      • rbizzler

        I am not so sure that Romine is as far advanced defensively as you think. I am not trying to rain on your parade but the scouting reports heading into this year were that he still had a ways to go behind the dish. The caveat being that he has the tools to be an average defender (at least).

        • brian

          Apparently the Yanks will not be able to replace Posada and will be doomed to becoming the Diamondbacks because their minor league prospects all of whom are projected to be very good players and average to below average defensively.

  • jon

    Well if anything at least it proves that the yankees can still win with a subpar defensive catcher. Maybe we can live with montero behind the plate.

  • Chris0313

    Can Montero be any worse than Cervelli or Posada?

    • jsbrendog (returns)

      there is no way that montero can be worse than piazza…..

  • brian

    I am pretty sure the Yanks can survive with Montero behind the plate since his bat is being talked about in elite terms and Posada isn’t an elite hitter.

    Out of curiosity is there anyway to add to this equation how many runs are scored when the catcher doesn’t protect home? Posada is awful here and usually stands behind the plate allowing the runner to slide safely, while I notice Cervelli is more aggressive in protecting the plate, surely this is something that can be added to the equation.

  • CN

    Can you break down each pitcher? If its all on Burnett’s high leg kick that isn’t the catchers fault.

  • FishJam

    Many more factors to a catcher’s defense than CS/SB and WP/PBs.

    There’s a reason why the pitchers all prefer throwing to Cervelli. He moves around more, gives a better target (Posada doesn’t even put his glove up until ball is thrown much of time) and is significantly better at receiving. Cervelli has soft hands which frame the pitches better while Posada tends to stab at the ball, often making strikes appear to be balls.

    Also, other teams take notice, attempting SBs more often vs Jorge:

    Jorge – 37 attempts in 300 ip – 1 attempt per 8.1 innings
    Cisco – 36 attempts in 451 ip – 1 attempt per 12.5 innings

  • Abbey

    I am not much of a statistician, however some of the numbers published have to do at least in terms of caught stealing, to differences in pitching styles. If anyone tries to compare Posada to Cervelli, it has to relate to the same pitcher on the mound and with a significant number of games to acquire statistical significance. Otherwise those numbers don’t have much worth.
    I believe Cervelli is a much better defensive catcher than his numbers are showing this year SO FAR! Quite possible, Cervelli is having a subpar season similar to Jeter’s at the plate. What’s wrong with that? He is only 24 years old.
    I feel that Cervelli is significantly better than his numbers are showing and the team pitching staff loves having him behind the plate.Certainly, there has to be a reason for it.