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Doumit’s Rough Defensive Season

Since the Pittsburgh Pirates selected him out of a Washington prep school in the second round of the 1999 draft, Ryan Doumit‘s calling card has been his bat. The switch-hitter compiled a .293/.366/.454 line in the minors, managing to stay on the prospect periphery despite numerous injuries and a defensive reputation that produced an unfortunate nickname: “Ryan No-Mitt.”

Pittsburgh’s previous front office regime, led by Dave Littlefield, appeared ready to pull the plug on Doumit’s catching career. The club had Doumit log considerable time at first base and right field over the 2006-2007 seasons, while the injuries (including a torn hamstring and a sprained wrist and ankle) continued to pile up. Neal Huntington and company had a different philosophy, however. While Doumit wasn’t considered a defensive standout, they reasoned that his positional value was still greatest behind the dish. At first base or a corner outfield spot, Doumit’s bat didn’t stand out near as much.

The Pirates were rewarded handsomely for that decision in 2008, as Doumit posted a .367 wOBA in 465 plate appearances. According to Sean Smith‘s Total Zone defensive system, which grades a catcher by stolen bases, caught stealing, errors, pick offs, passed balls and wild pitches, splitting the data by handedness and comparing a catcher to the league average, Doumit cost the Bucs five runs defensively. Catcher defense remains a hazy area for sabermetrics, but the trade-off appeared to be well worth it — even with -5 D, Doumit rated as a three-and-a-half win player. After the season, the Pirates inked Doumit to a three-year, $11.5 million contract that locked him up through his arbitration years. The deal also included a club option for the 2012-2013 seasons (at a total cost of $15.5 million) that must be exercised or rejected after the 2011 campaign.

Since then, things haven’t gone near as well for Doumit. He suffered a wrist injury that required surgery in 2009, putting up a .306 wOBA in 304 PA and rating as a -1 defender in limited playing time. This season, his bat has bounced back (.331 wOBA in 296 PA), as he’s not hacking as much as last year and his BABIP has climbed more toward his career average. Normally, a backstop hitting better than the league average would be a very valuable commodity. But, from the metrics we have on catcher D, it appears that Doumit is sadly earning that prospect nickname this season.

In 2010, 74 runners have taken off with Doumit behind the plate. Sixty-six of them (89 percent) have come up safe. Among qualified big league catchers, Doumit’s 11 percent CS rate is by far the lowest. He also leads the NL in passed balls, with six. According to Total Zone, Doumit has already been nine runs worse than the average MLB catcher. Matt Klaassen has developed his own defensive rankings for catchers (methodology here), grading backstops by linear weights above or below average on fielding errors, throwing errors, passed balls, wild pitches and caught stealing. His most recent update in late June had Doumit dead last among all catchers. Even though Doumit is┬áhaving a good offensive year and has remained healthy aside from a few games missed with a concussion, he has yet to crack the one WAR plateau.

Chances are, Doumit’s not this bad defensively — Total Zone has the 29-year-old as a -8 run catcher per 135 games during his career, while he’s currently at -17 runs per 135 games in 2010. But the re-emergence of “No Mitt” has been an unwelcome development during yet another trying season in Pittsburgh.