Apr
11

Catcher defense, starring Jose Molina and Tony Pena

By
He might be boneheaded sometimes, but maybe Cervelli isn't the worst defender. (Elsa/Getty Images)

He might be boneheaded sometimes, but maybe Cervelli isn’t the worst defender. (Elsa/Getty Images)

You’re already familiar with the standard defensive stats. Load up any player’s FanGraphs page and you’ll see plenty of them laid out for you: UZR and DRS primarily, along with some other experimental stats and of course the traditional ones. Where these stats have always fallen short comes at perhaps the most important defensive position. Other than stolen base rate, we don’t have many solid ways of measuring catcher productivity.

Part of the problem in evaluating catchers involves the number of variables involved. Does he call a good game? (Does he call the game at all?) Can he frame a pitch to steal his pitcher strikes that would have, with a less skilled framer, be called balls? How many potential wild pitches can he keep in front of him? Does he have the footwork necessary to make quality throws to second — and does he have a strong and accurate arm in general? And then we have the general, overarching question: how does he handle the pitching staff? That can be reworded as, do the pitchers like throwing to him?

While stolen base numbers are readily available, they don’t reflect solely on the catcher. If you read Jonah Keri’s article on stolen bases, you see that runners go on pitcher movement. If the pitcher has any deficiencies when delivering the ball with men on base, the catcher will likely have poor stolen base numbers. If a staff has more than one or two pitchers who are poor at holding on runners, a catcher could have numbers that teach us nothing about his true throwing abilities. That leaves us with even less an understanding of a catcher’s true defensive abilities.

In the past few years a few researchers have attempted to quantify some aspects of catcher defense. In 2011 Max Marchi got the ball rolling on catcher framing. (Though my main man Dan Turkenkopf attempting framing analysis three years earlier.) A few months later Bojan Koprivica studied catcher blocking skills. In between those two Mike Fast released his extensive report on catcher framing. Somewhere along the way, Baseball Info Solutions started tracking how many runs catchers can save by throwing out runners and preventing them from stealing in the first place (Stolen Base Runs Saved, or rSB, which can be found on FanGraphs). A little over a year ago, Max Marchi tried to put it all together. So we are making progress. It’s just difficult to tell what’s accurate at this point.

Earlier this week, James Gentile of Beyond the Boxscore explored a simpler catcher framing metric. While the results are interesting, there was one part of the article that stuck out to me. Via a Ben Lindbergh article Gentile points to a recent Baseball Tonight podcast, in which Jose Molina discusses his framing. Remember, Molina comes out on top of almost every framing study, which is presumably a big reason why the Rays signed him to a two-year contract after the 2011 season, despite his flaws on offense. For his part, Molina credits none other than Tony Pena and Joe Girardi with his phenomenal receiving skills.

It was 2008. Mike Mussina and Tony Pena, with Joe Girardi, the coaches there. But mostly Tony told me that if I turned a little bit side to side, either way, either corner, I’m going to get more strikes. With Mussina, he wasn’t throwing that hard at the time. So I was always open to learning new things. We worked on it, I got a little bit better at it. And it started working. I guess it worked, right? It was 20 wins for him that year, so it just worked, and from that point on, I think I took advantage of that.

This should come as little surprise. Pena has always been known as a knowledgeable guy who works extensively with the Yankees’ catchers. Molina had always carried a reputation as a quality defender (but that could have been the Nichols Law of Catcher Defense). But given the numbers Gentile presents, it does appear that he picked up a little something from Pena and Girardi. Of the top 10 catching seasons since 2002, Molina holds four spots, and all but one came after the Yankees acquired him. The lone standout is 2007; Molina became a Yankee that July.

One of the reasons people lamented the loss of Russ Martin centers on his framing abilities. He ranked right behind Molina in Mike Fast’s study, and watching him everyday in 2011 and 2012 helped confirm that evaluation. The man was swift behind the plate. At the same time Francisco Cervelli, Martin’s replacement, is seen as a poor receiver who stabs at the ball rather than cradling it — not to mention his poor stolen base results. And forget Chris Stewart. The Yankees acquired him last year with an eye towards his defensive reputation. Yet in a season-plus I haven’t noticed Stewart display any standout skills behind the plate.

A look at Gentile’s numbers yields a different result. In his top 10 catchers since 2002, the list that Jose Molina owns, you’ll see both Cervelli and Stewart. Cervelli’s 2011 season ranks No. 2, while Chris Stewart’s 2012 ranks No. 8. So perhaps there was a reason the Yankees let Martin walk after last season without as much as a courtesy offer. Perhaps they believed that they already had two capable catchers on staff.

(And maybe, though we’ll hardly know it, the pitchers prefer throwing to Cervelli over Martin. It sure seems that way for CC Sabathia, who used Cervelli in 2010 and 2011 and Stewart in 2012.)

This isn’t to say that these stats are definitive. Again, the position of catcher involves more complexity than any other. But it is nice to see that at least one method of evaluation appreciates the catchers the Yankees currently carry. Though having Pena and Girardi work with them could be the most valuable aspect of all.

Categories : Defense
  • trr

    Catcher Defense: an oft overlooked facet of the game

  • Jim Is Bored

    It’s always nice when people realize that maybe the Yankees aren’t making moves for no reason, and that maybe the information we have at the time of the move isn’t the same information they’re using.

    • Tyler

      YES.

    • Rick

      +100012

    • Slugger27

      agreed. the thread a while back about russell martin willing to take a 1 year deal was the epitome of whats wrong with this site. hypocrites, trolls, reactionary morons, etc etc….. you wouldve thought cozmo kramer was running the yankees and that they let go yogi berra in his prime.

      and im sure martins -14 wRC+ would be going over well right now.

      • Jim Is Bored

        Especially if, as many people wanted, we spent what we spent on Ichiro to sign Martin.

        • Tyler

          Make no mistake….the Ichiro signing was dumb and it was plainly obvious that was not Cashman’s decision, which was, I guess, recently confirmed in those reports Mike posted. But all the hoopla about not signing Martin, he of the 95 wRC+ and 2.0 WAR last year, is misguided in my opinion. I think it is probable that by the end of the season that Cervelli, Stewart, possibly Romine, or whoever we play at C this season accumulate the WAR Martin puts up this season and maybe even more. For a fraction of the cost.

          • Jim Is Bored

            Oh I agree, but plenty of people were saying we should have spent the money on Martin instead of Ichiro.

            Personally I wish they hadn’t spent the money on either.

            • Tyler

              Agree 100%. Torii Hunter was the man I wanted for the RF job, and seeing what he got from Det and what we gave Ichiro, Cashman would have made that happen but for Levine screwing things up, as usual.

      • Kramerica Industries

        I resemble that statement!

    • OldYanksFan

      HOW DARE YOU insinuate that Cashman and Company know more about running the Yankees than I do!
      Are you TRYING to pick a fight?

  • Eddard’s Dad

    I’m just waiting for this site to finally jump on the Cervelli bandwagon that my son created. It seems like you’re going out of your way to bash Frankie when my son and I both agree that he should have been starting for this team last year. Martin hit .180 for most of last season and people are still defending him! Frankie will outperform Martin this year, and I stake mine and my son’s reputation on that.

    • Jim Is Bored

      Poor effort. C-

    • Robinson Tilapia’s Mom

      It wasn’t just you 2. It was me too.

      • jjyank

        And this was an even worse effort.

        • Robinson Tilapia

          If you’ve ever met my mom, you’d know how shitty this effort, in fact, was.

    • Slugger27

      this was a bit of a reach….

    • jsbrendog

      what reputation?

      • Rick

        Don’t try to go against the opinion of his son!!!

    • Bob Buttons

      Bet this bandwagon is as sturdy as the Blue Jays bandwagon.

    • Bo Knows

      Didn’t realize you even had reputations beyond saying crazy things and possibly being that homeless guy that waves his junk at traffic

  • Virginia Yank

    Hey, an article by Joe Pawl! Good to see, a little variety and a breather for Mike.

    • Bob Buttons

      IIRC Mike rated it a 7 on how stupid it was letting Martin go. Not saying that he would ignore facts, but if it was me it would certainly not make me feel good to write something like this about a move I was so set against.

      • Craid Maduro

        Its early, but hard to disagree with this. Can’t picture Mike writing this after his rants about how awful the Yankees handled the catching situation. It appears at least early on that he is eating some serious crow.

        • Jim Is Bored

          And, if Martin turns it around and Cerv/Stewie suck going forward, I’ll be happy(well, not happy because it means bad things for the Yanks) to admit he was right.

        • MannyGeee

          While I don’t particularly (and haven’t historically) agreed with Mike’s stance on the catching situation, I think the book is FAR from written on how this thing plays out and if “Cashman Failed”. A little early for the eating crow (serious, comical or otherwise) on the catching situation.

  • Mo

    Also interesting is that Pena himself shows up on the best seasons list in Gentile’s post. It sure seems like he had the skill himself, and passed it on to the non-Posada catchers the Yankees have had.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joe Pawlikowski

      You can only work with what you’re given and with Posada, Pena wasn’t given much.

      • Steve

        How is life, Joe? Was it you who was in law school or was that Ben?

        • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joe Pawlikowski

          Ben. He’s lawyer now. I just play on the internet.

      • Dave M

        Right. Posada was an offense first type of catcher. We all knew that.

        • RetroRob

          I’ll happily take Posada and his offense-first approach to catching every day.

  • Paco Dooley

    I’m still waiting to see how many games it will take for Martin to get his second hit of the season. All those that whined when he was not re-signed seem to forget that he looked horrible at the plate for long stretches last season. He has 1 hit for Pittsburgh thus far and has not looked good. I said it before and I will say it again, I am betting Cervelli can out-WAR Martin this season, including offensive and defensive contributions (and I am not a big Cervelli fan or bandwagon jumper).

    • MannyGeee

      yes. HE sat dangerously under the Mendoza line for a lot of 2012.

  • LarryM Fl

    I’m quite pleased that the Yanks did not resign Martin. I felt the expectations and his rating as a superb catcher were a bit over rated. He has a solid bat and hit in some bad luck in 2012. I just did not belief he was worth the length of contract and money.

    In 2011 Frankie Cervelli showed me good catching ability and with more at bats could produce. I was shocked at Stewart being selected over him last year. I would still be shocked if Cervelli doesn’t catch 60+% the games. He has worked on his throwing as he displayed during ST. Also his maturity is a bit more aware but still has that emotional flare which is good to see. More work behind the plate he and Romine could give us a good catching core at reasonable rates.

    Nice to see Girardi and Pena get some credit for helping Molina. In time Cervelli may get proficient in framing pitches. Some day Girardi may want to move and get closer to his Chicago hometown. Two guys that I would like to see get another shot at the Yankee job are Pena and Mattingly both of them have that fire from within which is good for a team.

    Catching is my favorite position on the field. The Tools of Ignorance are such a poor explanation of the position.

  • JGNYC

    I feel like Joe and Mike are Good Cop/Bad Cop.

    • jsbrendog

      joe: “hey man, i know it’s tough, here have a doughnut”

      mike: ::slaps doughnut out of his hand:: no he can’t have a doughnut til he tells us what we want to know! WE KNOW YOU DID IT!!!

      • Robinson Tilapia

        *Ben picks donut off subway platform while no one’s looking. Blogs about the conditions of said platform.*

        I wish Larry was around to write an incredibly detailed statistical analysis of said donut.

        • LarryM Fl

          Hey Robinson: I was just thinking about writing a detail description of the doughnut. I have to decide on the Dunkin, Tasty creme and all types of ethenic bakery doughnuts. I have to research the history then compare all aspects of the doughnut and the efficient use of the dough in the middle. It’s just thrilling.

  • Govin

    I’m pretty happy with what Cervelli has done, hopefully he plays tonight. Well thats if they can get a game in tonight, the weather is predicting 100% rain from seven till eleven. Not looking good.

  • http://riveravenueblues mississippi Doc

    You guys have to stop beating up on each other. This site is kind of like group therapy for devoted, neurotic Yankees fans. I was not a Cervelli fan and have not felt that the front office has prepared well for the changing of the old guard. I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong.

  • NYYROC

    As Mark Twain once said, “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.”
    Anyone who watches Stewart catch can tell he is not a good defensive catcher. Pitch framer..maybe, but overall D. No way. He’s at the backstop so often he knows the front row of fans by first name.

  • Barry

    I still don’t buy any of the pitch framing analysis as reliable. Too many factors that can’t be accounted for.

    • Jim Is Bored

      And while on the surface I agree with you, I’m going to trust the guys who have studied it instead. Not 100%, but more than I’ll just dismiss it altogether.

      • Barry

        It’s not that I dismiss it altogether. I find the attempts interesting but there are way too many factors to say that Russell Martin saved 15R/120G framing as an example. Umpires zones constantly changing, garbage time strike zones, pitcher reputation, etc.

        • Jim Is Bored

          Yeah, I agree.

          It’s reasons like that why I tend to trust MLB scouting staffs over metrics when it comes to things that aren’t clearly defined, and why I wasn’t upset that the Yanks went with Cervelli/Stewie over Martin.

          Well, Cervelli at least. I won’t lose any sleep when we let Stewart go.

          • Barry

            Stewart doesn’t bother me as a back up. It’s a gruelling position and we’ve had worse back-ups.

            I also trust the talent evaluators. We can all see pitch framing from time to time, but we can also see when it does nothing.

            I like Cervelli, he has flaws but he also seems to have some heart and you can see how much he loves playing, not that it means anything I suppose.

            • Robinson Tilapia

              He wouldn’t bother me if he was really getting a BUC’s playing time.

              Also, we all love Cervelli right now, but let’s give this some more time to play out before we anoint him light years better.

  • dkidd

    saltalamacchia cost the red sox the game last name with lousy framing in the 9th inning. farrell might start using david ross as a late-inning defensive replacement

    it’s impossible(?) to quantify, but framing matters

    • MannyGeee

      Anyone who watches Saltalamaccia on any sort of regular basis know that he’s not really good. He’s the poor man’s Martin with less pitch framing and a slightly better arm. I don’t expect him to be in the AL East next season.

    • Barry

      It’s ridiculous to say that a catcher cost a game because of his framing. I didn’t watch it but seems ridiculous to say such a thing.

    • Jim Is Bored

      Actually it’s hard to make the argument that he cost them the game with poor framing. The Sox GOT a few calls that they shouldn’t have earlier in the inning; so if you demerit him for the late calls you have to credit him for those.

      • dkidd

        2 outs, top of the ninth, sox up by 1, 2 strikes on mclouth, hanrahan throws 2 strikes in a row that salty awkwardly stabs at that are called balls

        hanrahan stank, but it’s reasonable to say bad framing cost them the game

        • Barry

          Doesn’t seem reasonable at all, actually.

        • Jim Is Bored

          You apparently just completely ignored my post, I guess.

        • Bob Buttons

          Because we all know when a pitcher stinks like hell it should be blamed on his catcher.

          • dkidd

            didn’t mean to ignore any posts. the loss is definitely on hanrahan, i was just using last night’s (extreme) example to support my believe that pitch framing matters (despite the difficulty in quantifying how much)

            also: i nominate hanrahan and salty for “ugliest battery in baseball”

            :)

            • Bob Buttons

              Well that is rather too extreme. My take is that pitch framing matters only over a long period of time; the effects might be negligible even over a couple of months.

              And I don’t know, I don’t exactly find Yadier Molina and Fernando Salas nice looking. Not to sound racist but it just happens that I really dislike how Yadier looks and I find Salas the ugliest pitcher on the Cards.

  • Jerry Jersey

    I never got the Cervelli hatred. He costs peanuts compared to Martin and will probably be his near equal by years end.

    • Robinson Tilapia

      As reactionary as it was in its existence, it’s not becoming equally as reactionary in its disappearance.

      • Jim Is Bored

        People are always quicker to believe in crappy things than they are to believe in happy things.

        • Robinson Tilapia

          I just realize that an errantly placed “not” completely had that read the opposite than I intended. Hope you still agree.

          #editbuttonaxisa
          #itsagoodthingmymomcommentedabove

  • Jeff

    I’m on board with Cervelli as a solid (maybe even sneaky good) starter or a very solid backup. I think Martin was/is overvalued and as someone posted above, I won’t be surprised at all if Cervelli has the better year. But what I’m not on board with is Stewart starting close to half the games. I’m not on board with him even being a Yankee at all. Really hoping we trade for a decent alternative or Romine gets promoted, so Stewart can be DFA’d.

  • CS Yankee

    I wanted Martin & Cerv’ last year and the same for this year.

    I hated his throws to 2B in 2011 as he looked like one of those grenade throws you see in an old WW2 movie; the ones where they get shot as they pull the pin and just heave it. Enjoy to see that action corrected.

    Still believe he is a great (gazoo) option for 60-70 games but would much rather have a better starter, but realize that one isn’t in the fold yet. Never a Jesus Montero believer…Hopefully Romine or Murph’ come calling for Stew’s replacement around August.

  • Moonimus

    Has anyone done any ump tendencies to see if they can be taken advantage of and influence catcher ratings?

    • Roadgeek Adam

      When the home plate ump isn’t pulling a Marty Foster?

      • CS Yankee

        which begs the question, does the catcher get credit for the framing or stopping a likely passed ball.

    • Bob Buttons

      Pretty sure there was this thing they done (fangraphs?) where they took a bunch of umps and recorded who generally had the largest/smallest strike zone. Might have been this past offseason too.

  • Manny’s BanWagon

    I read where Keith Law opined the runs saved by pitch framing seem to be significantly overstated by some of these recent studies so while I do think it has some value, I just think just how much is very questionable.

    • Tom

      There have been quite a few decent pieces of work done by Jeff Sullivan over at Fangraphs.

      He has looked at things like pitch type and count… obviously these greatly affect whether an ump calls a ball or strike on a marginal pitch. And of course there are now scouting reports on individual umpires that teams look at. But the framing studies will determine that AJ Pierzynski framing that 3-2 Nathan pitch to end the game against TB the other day.

      The problem with the framing studies and I think why guys like KLaw and Dave Cameron opine that it is overstated, is that other than doing a loose control for the pitcher, all other variables are essentially ignored. And even the pitcher variable gets pretty iffy when dealing with backup catchers who play behind someone who get the a lot of the playing time.

      The problem as is usually the case with complex statistics is people see #, people believe #, people don’t consider the error bar of the #. WAR is another good example.

    • RetroRob

      He could be right. When Fast’s first study came out it was always mentioned (and by Mike Fast) that it was very early days. Everyone agreed, and then everyone ignored that and treated it as gospel. I think one of the sites, either B-R or Fangraphs, now even incorporates catcher defense into their defensive metrics.

      I’ve always believe that catchers can impact ERA, even though there hasn’t been a way to calculate it. I can certainly see framing as part of that. How much, though, is an open question.

      Give me Jorge.

      • Tom

        I think Fangraphs has incorporated ability to block pitches (I forget who does this work)

        I’m pretty sure neither has touched framing as both realize there are a lot of questions on how accurate it is.