Yankees Catchers & Passed Pitches

Update: RAB Goes To Washington
Like Daisuke, only good
(Al Bello/Getty Images)

Catcher defense is incredibly hard to quantify, but there’s been a lot of research done on the subject and a lot of progress made in recent years. Back in October, Bojan Koprivica published a ridiculously in-depth analysis on blocking pitches using PitchFX data, determining just who the best catchers were at keeping the ball in front of them. It’s an intense research piece but a surprisingly easy read, so I highly recommend checking it out. Even if you read it back in October, it’s worth re-reading for a refresher.

Since the start of the 2009 season, Yadier Molina has saved a total of 16.0 runs by blocking pitches, the most in baseball. That’s not a surprise since he’s generally regarded as the best defensive catcher in the game. Brian McCann (14.2) and Matt Wieters (13.3) round out the top three. Based on Koprivica’s work, pitch blocking is similar to base running in that its impact isn’t as significant as we may think. The best pitch blockers save about seven runs per season while the worst allow seven runs. Most catchers are within two runs of average. Yeah, every bit does count, but on the whole it’s not a huge part of the game.

FanGraphs now carries pitch blocking data using Koprivica’s algorithm, so it’s nice and easy for us to dig up the stats. Here’s how the Yankees’ two primary catchers have fared at blocking pitches over the last three seasons…

Expected Passed Pitches, CPP
Actual Passed Pitches, APP
Runs Saved, RPP RPP MLB Rank
Frankie Cervelli 59 59  0.0 27th
Russell Martin 142 159 -6.5 51st

I used a minimum of 1,000 innings caught over the last three seasons, giving us 58 qualifiers. Cervelli has performed exactly as expected during that time, which is pretty neat. Martin has been much worse however, which goes against pretty much everything we know and have heard about him defensively. It’s only 6.5 runs across 3036.2 innings, but only seven qualified catchers have been worse at blocking balls in the dirt than he has over the last three years*.

* One of those seven is Jorge Posada at -8.2 RPP in 1,469.1 innings (54th out of 58 qualifiers). Former Yankee Jose Molina isn’t much better believe it or not, he’s at -7.2 RPP in 1,200.1 innings.

Breaking it down by the individual seasons, we can see that most of the damage came back in 2009. Russ was expected to allow 48 balls to get by him based on what his pitchers threw that year, but he actually allowed 69 passed pitches. Those 21 extra passed pitches resulted in a -5.8 RPP for the season, the worst in baseball. Martin was pretty much league average in both 2010 (-0.1 RPP) and 2011 (-0.6 RPP) when it came to blocking balls, and the improvement since 2009 can probably be attributed to a million different things. I guess he seemed so much better than average last year because we were stuck watching Posada all those years.

Like I said earlier, passed pitches typically have a very small impact in the grand scheme of things, just a handful of runs each year. It seems a lot more when you’re watching a game and a passed ball allows the tying run to move into scoring position in the late innings, but that stuff evens out over the course of a 162-game schedule. Martin’s real defensive value comes from his ability to frame pitches according to the various catcher defense studies, but over the last two years he hasn’t killed his team with his pitch blocking skills either.

Update: RAB Goes To Washington
Like Daisuke, only good
  • SEHumphrey

    It’s interesting that some of the guys who are considered great at framing pitches (e.g., Martin, Jose Molina) are considered the worst at blocking pitches.

    I wonder if these are related. The ability to frame pitches has a lot to do with not moving the glove very much (if at all). The downside of that is that when you are caught off guard with a really bad pitch (or a pitch that moves much more than expected), you can’t stop it.

  • Monterowasdinero

    No AJ, no worries.

    What about Kuroda? I doubt he gave Martin trouble.

  • Este15

    Would be interesting to know if an erratic pitcher like AJ would have a negative effect on Yadier or McAnn. Pitching staff must matter. But how much?

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

      Koprivica’s algorithm adjusts for difficulty of the pitch based on where it hit the ground, its velocity, rotation, etc. Someone like A.J. would lead to more expected passed pitches, but the system wouldn’t be overly harsh on the catcher if they were ridiculously tough pitches to stop.

      • Mike K

        I do wonder if there’s something to the difficulty of catching the *pitcher* rather than just the pitch. That is, CC may put as many balls in the dirt (and in similar places) as AJ. But CC (more or less) intended to put them there, so Martin was in a good spot to block it. While AJ, may put a ball in the dirt outside…but was supposed to be high in in to the batter. Seems that would be a lot harder to block.

        Not something where you necessarily want to change the algorithm, but something where it might be nice to know when trying to separate talent from results.

  • Slugger27

    full disclosure: i skimmed the link very quickly so if this is uncovered I apologize…. but does it take into account the context of the game?

    say the yankees are up 8-0 in the 7th inning. theres 2 outs, nobody on, and lets say cory wade throws a curveball to a righty that bounces towards the left hand batters box. theres no incentive at all for martin to even bother trying to block this pitch. he’ll likely just take a stab at backhanding it and if he misses, he’ll get a ball from the umpire to throw back to wade.

    are situations like this accounted for?

    • mike

      its difficult with all these stats to really deterine ultimate value, which is why defensive metrics are not universally accepted/valued at this time.

      not turning a DP when could have? Maybe it was raining and ball was wet in a blow-out game…..ball got thru the IF? Maybe scouting report had someone shaded differently…

      its interesting how the article ultimately was framed by old-school scouting ( Martin looked competent and we had confidence in his abilities) and despite the data, it concludes he still is pretty good – and i agree with the conclusion as well.

    • CP

      He only considered situations where there was a runner on base or there were two strikes on the batter.

  • RkyMtnYank

    I like that they use “passed pitches” to remove the ambiguity between passed balls and wild pitches. I am curious how “Runs Saved” is calculated since there are so many variables on how a run can be saved?
    If a catcher actually blocks a ball but the runner still moves up into scoring position, and later scores on a base hit an out or two later, is that still factored in if he would not have scored without that extra base? Can be very subjective.

    • 28 this year

      The runs aren’t based on actually physically scoring. If a runner moves up, regardless of whether he scores, Martin is still charged with allowing “runs”. Every situation has a certain run expectancy based on data so when the situation changes due to an event, the event is charged with a certain fraction of a run to account for the different situation. So man on 2nd with 2 outs and the man moves up to 3rd results in a certain amount of runs regardless of whether he actually scores, its just based on the likelihood of him scoring. At least, that is how I believe it is calculated.

      • RkyMtnYank

        Yep, sounds good, thanks! I hadn’t had my coffee yet and think I took it a little too literal. hehe

  • Peter North

    Passed balls might not make a difference over the course of a season but in a one-game WC play-off, it could make all the difference in the world.

    • MannyGeee

      hell, one passed ball at any point after September 15th has the potential to cause sizemic shifts in someones season.

    • KL

      So does one pitch you frame properly to get a strike three called.

  • Jesse

    Wow, I thought Martin would be a lot better in terms of RPP, especially last year. It seemed as though nothing got by him, but I guess the eyes can fool you sometimes.

  • chmch

    I think Martin ‘looks’ like a good Yankee catcher, so our perception of him is he’s a good catcher. We spend a lot of time looking at catchers, since they are featured almost in every single play in the game. Looks count. Posada always looked worried, so I used to worry a lot during games. Martin looks easy going. so that relaxes me. When I was kid Munson looked beat-up and dirty and pissed off, so I spent my childhood watching games dirty and pissed off. Yogi looks confused and ditzy and black and white in those classic games I watch on YES, so I tend to watch those games in my underpants and think in black and white terms during the broadcast.

  • CJ

    Plank, how did mike Napoli grade on the new defensive stat you are following? Napoli’s defense is very confusing, poor reputation but he looked like Johnny bench behind the plate in October. Catcher defense is really hard to figure unless they are really bad or outstanding in which case you can see it with your own eyes.

  • Brian in NH

    is there any work out there currently that looks at runs saved for framing pitches? Or is it just inferred from pitcher performance?