Is Jesus Montero More Valuable at Catcher or DH?

There are a lot of opinions out there about the deal over the weekend that shipped Michael Pineda and prospect Jose Campos to New York in exchange for Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi. A lot of people think the Yankees got a steal, while others point to the risks associated with young arms and argue that the Mariners might have done well to transfer some of that risk to a team that could more easily live with the consequences should Pineda’s arm blow up. However, if there’s a consensus on the deal, it seems to be this – how well this deal turns out for the Mariners is directly related to how many games Montero spends behind the plate.

Everyone thinks Montero is going to be a good hitter, maybe even a great one – though, I’d suggest that if Brian Cashman really thinks he’s Mike Piazza or Miguel Cabrera, as he stated over the weekend, then he simply shouldn’t have traded him – but Montero’s been evaluated as an elite prospect based on the premise that he might be able to catch in the big leagues. After all, the average catcher hit just .245/.313/.389 last year, so having a guy behind the plate who can provide real offensive value can be a significant advantage for a Major League club. As a catcher, Montero could be the best offensive player at his position. At DH, that’s a lot less likely.

So, clearly, the upside play is to stick him behind the plate – the best possible outcome for the Mariners is that Montero’s defense improves to acceptable levels and he becomes their version of Mike Napoli, who was perhaps the key figure in the Rangers run to the World Series last year. However, looking at the potential reward of two different options is only half of the question that needs to be asked, and chasing upside is not always the correct decision. Are there reasons for the Mariners to pass on Montero as a catcher and just move him to designated hitter full time now?

The answer to that question requires us to look at a variety of different factors. We’ll start with the factor most often discussed – just how bad would Montero’s glove need to be to make the switch to DH a lateral move if that was the only variable?

From a WAR standpoint, the answer is about -30 runs per season; that is the difference in the positional adjustments between catcher (+12.5 runs) and designated hitter (-17.5 runs). And, let’s be honest, 30 runs is a huge gap, and based on things we’re currently able to measure with some degree of certainty (errors, passed balls/wild pitches, controlling the running game), it’s hard to imagine a catcher being 30 runs below average. Venus De Milo might not be 30 runs below average behind the plate based on those three things. Our own Matt Klaassen has done some work at valuing catchers based on those variables, and the worst regular catchers in baseball (last year, that would be Miguel Olivo and J.P. Arencibia) grade out as about eight runs below average. Eight runs is not 30, nor is it particularly close to it.

Still, we have to remember that there’s a pretty significant selection bias issue here – Major League teams have a pretty low tolerance for bad defensive catchers, so the guys who would grade out worse than that don’t get captured in the data – they simply don’t get the playing time required to show how bad a truly awful defensive catcher could actually be.

So, let’s try to extrapolate out from Matt’s data a little bit, and we’ll use Olivo as the example since he’s the guy that Montero would theoretically be replacing if the Mariners did choose to stick him behind the plate. Of the -8.1 defensive runs that Olivo accumulated last year, -6.7 of those were from passed balls and wild pitches. As anyone who has watched Olivo with regularity will tell you, he’s absolutely atrocious at keeping the ball in front of him. He’s led his league in passed balls in four of the last six years – last year, he finished second (to Arencibia), and he was hurt in 2008. It’s hard to imagine anyone could be worse than Olivo at this aspect of catching, so we’ll set the floor for WP/PB at -7 runs per season.

Let’s move on to errors. Because catchers just don’t make that many errors, there’s not a ton of negative value to be found here – Geovany Soto graded out as the worst in 2011, costing the Cubs -2.7 runs based on his error totals from last year. In Soto’s case, though, those were almost all throwing errors, and he was pretty much average on fielding the balls that were hit out in front of the plate. To get a better idea of how bad a truly awful all around catcher could be in this area, we should give him worst-in-the-league marks in both throwing and fielding errors (remember, this guy is supposed to be a disaster behind the plate) – doing that, we come up with -4 runs in values based on throwing and fielding errors.

So, we’re at -11 before we even get to the running game. Here, we’re going to have to do a little more extrapolating, because while A.J. Pierzynski‘s throwing arm is certainly an issue for the White Sox (his 20% caught-stealing percentage cost them -7.3 runs last year), his struggles at holding the running game aren’t so severe that other teams are willing to exploit it on a daily basis; opponents ran on him 118 times last year, less often than they ran on Brian McCann, Kurt Suzuki, Russ Martin, Alex Avila, and Geovany Soto. Our hypothetical disaster catcher would be so bad that not only would he post a league worst CS%, but that his deficiencies in the area would encourage opposing baserunners to go nuts and maximize the harm his inability to stop them could inflict.

So, let’s give Disaster Catcher not only Pierzynski’s 20% caught stealing rate (Montero’s rate in the minors is 21%, for context) but also increase the rate of attempts to account for the adjustment managers would make in playing against him. This isn’t the kind of thing we can definitively quantify, so you can pick how many SB attempts you think is reasonable, but I’ll go with 175 – it’s about 30% higher than the most frequently run on catchers from a year ago. So, a 20% CS rate on 175 attempts would result in 140 successful stolen bases and 35 caught stealings. A caught stealing costs the running team about 0.5 runs, while a successful attempt generates about 0.25 runs in value, so a catcher who threw out 35 of 175 baserunners would be worth about -18 runs through his inability to stop the running game.

If you add it all up (-7 from PB/WP, -4 from errors, and -18 from SB/CS), you get a catcher who would be 29 runs below average. So, the theoretical catcher who is the worst in the league at each of these three areas would still seem to gain no value from moving to DH. Thus, any player capable of squatting behind the plate and not being a total embarrassment should remain at catcher, yes?

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Catcher defense is more than just blocking pitches, avoiding errors, and gunning down opposing baserunners. Those might be the only things we’re all that comfortable quantifying today, but good work is being done to further our understanding of the rest of the things catchers do behind the plate. Bojan Koprivica’s piece on blocking pitches is one of the best articles anyone in our community has published in a while, and Mike Fast has published some potentially groundbreaking research on pitch framing. While the work is still in its early stages, it would be foolish to assume that all catchers are actually equal in all regards that we can’t measure that well to date, and these pieces show that we may not be that far away from being able to understand why teams have been so reluctant to stick with bad defensive catchers, even in light of the large potential offensive rewards.

If Disaster Catcher was also a below average pitch framer, for instance, his negative value behind the plate would then be higher than the position adjustment difference catcher and DH. He’d actually be more valuable not playing defense than trying and failing at the most demanding position ont he diamond – the same conclusion teams have been coming to for years about guys with this skillset.

There are other factors beyond defensive value that also need to be considered – specifically, the expectations of offensive development for a catcher and a non-catcher, as well as the long term health issues related to the physical demands of catching.

In regards to offensive levels (and I’ll try to make this brief, since this piece is already running quite long), it has been clearly observed that players hit worse when asked to catch than they do when they’re asked to play any other position on the field. The energy required to put on a suit or armor and squat behind the plate for three hours has a tangible effect on how well a player performs at the plate, and being freed from that burden increases offensive output. The depressed offensive performances from catchers aren’t simply about a weaker talent pool, but are also directly related to the physical toll of the effort required to play the position. If the Mariners decide to keep Montero behind the plate, they should expect a lower level of offensive performance than if they move him to DH. The amount of the surge differs for each player that is moved to another position (some players can handle the load better than others before wearing down), but it is generally estimated to be in the +5 to +10 run per season range. We’ve also observed that DHs hit worse than when they play a non-catcher position on the field, so the effect would be smaller by moving him there than if they put him at first base, but there’d still be an uptick in offensive performance if he had to turn in tools of ignorance.

Finally, there’s the issues related to career longevity. Even for those who can hold up to the rigors of catching, the position shortens their careers. Knees wear down, backs give out, they get run over at the plate… there are a litany of reasons why catchers simply don’t age as well as players at other positions. In fact, it’s a rare site to see a catcher remain productive past age 32 or so, as the position is simply a young man’s game.

When faced with the decision of whether a team should keep a premium hitter behind the plate, career length has to be taken into account. The Mariners acquired Montero with the hopes that he would become a franchise hitter, and if he develops as expected, they’ll be exploring a long term contract with him within a couple of seasons. Even if they believe that Montero would provide maximum value behind the plate, they’d have to factor in the long term value they’d expect to receive if he was moved to DH that they wouldn’t get if he stayed behind the plate.

While the value of future year performances need to be discounted to some degree, those years represent some amount of value to the franchise. If Montero can play an extra three seasons from ages 32-34 at a +3 win level because he didn’t thrash his knees in his early 20s, those +9 wins of value need to be accounted for. How many future wins would you give up to increase his value from a +3 win player to a +4 win player in the present? The answer is different for each franchise, based on their spot on the win-curve and their financial situation, but the Mariners are clearly not in win-now mode, so maximizing Montero’s on-field value in 2012 probably shouldn’t be their top priority.

We’re 2,000 words into this, so I’ll wrap this up as quickly as I can, but I think that what we know about baseball – and perhaps more importantly, what we realize that we don’t know – requires us to realize that deciding Montero’s future value isn’t as simple as quoting position scarcity and talking about the value of a good hitting catcher.

If Montero is a truly awful defensive catcher, as most scouts seem to suggest, it seems fair to assume that his glove could cost the Mariners in excess of 15 runs per season behind the plate. When you add in the extra offensive value that would be gained from moving him out from behind the plate and the long term effects of not having his body wear down from catching, then the expected value going forward from either decision seems to be defensible.

If you think Montero can be better than the worst defensive catcher in baseball, it is probably worth taking the risk on trying him behind the plate and evaluating further – the Rangers are certainly happy they did so with Napoli after the Angels gave up on him beind the plate, after all. However, if you believe that Montero’s physical limitations will prevent him from being decent behind the plate, then moving him to DH now might very well be the right decision.

This isn’t an open and shut case. There are reasonable arguments to be made for either decision – let’s just be willing to acknowledge that a lot more should go into the decision than simply pointing at how awesome Montero’s offensive value could be relative to the average catcher. Frank Thomas‘ bat would have been amazing relative to other shortstops, too, but Major League teams had good reasons for not putting him there.




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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


85 Responses to “Is Jesus Montero More Valuable at Catcher or DH?”

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  1. Drakos says:

    You discuss the effect of career longevity but what about number of games per season? I would think that as a DH Montero would be able to play more games than if he played the majority of his games as a catcher. Or is this covered in the +5 to +10 adjustment for not playing catching? I guess what I’m asking is the +5 to +10 adjustment based on equal playing time or does it assume that the player will have more PAs at a position other than catcher?

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    • Dave Cameron says:
      FanGraphs Supporting Member

      Odds are pretty good that Montero will DH most days he’s not catching, similar to how the Twins have used Mauer in previous years. So, the bulk of the at-bats that would be lost in the C vs DH scenario would likely end up going to him at DH anyway.

      To answer your question, though, the +5 to +10 run estimate is measured on rate stats, not playing time. I’m just not sure he’d actually play that much less if he was a catcher.

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      • BurleighGrimes says:

        Unless there is a way to quantify for the average wear and tear a catcher received throughout the year, and the number of games he could reasonably be expected to need fully off in order to recover.

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      • Nathaniel Dawson says:

        How does that scenario play out for the Mariners bench? If you have a catcher that DH’s 30 games a year, is only one other catcher good enough? Most managers don’t like having only one catcher available to them for a game, no matter how unlikely an unfortunate situation comes up. Are the Mariners going to be okay with no catcher on the bench for 30+ games? If they decide they need to carry three catchers, what does that do for their flexibility at other positions?

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      • Barkey Walker says:

        I don’t recall Mauer having a season where he got in 150 games. I think he is more of a 140 G type player (when healthy). I think there is more wear and tear that you are admitting to there.

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      • Dave Cameron says:
        FanGraphs Supporting Member

        Yeah, in actually looking into the matter, I’m just wrong. Even during the DH era, catchers just don’t rack up 600+ PA very often. Of the 3,400 catcher seasons (50% or more games at C) since 1973, only 77 of them have resulted in a player getting 600+ PA.

        There’s selection bias issues here, too, but you’re right, even guys like Mauer are only playing 130-140 games per year.

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  2. Chris from Bothell says:

    This is subjective and not likely measurable, but: any challenges around focus or maturity here, in asking a young 20-something to DH fulltime? IIRC, a bunch of the challenge of DH for some guys was similar to pinch hitting – sit around for however long on the bench, then snap into total focus and be able to hit relatively quickly. I thought that e.g. Edgar battled that by being in the cages, hitting the stationary bike, watching video, etc. in between at-bats. Relative to the amount of focus any professional athlete has, is it going to be asking a lot of a new guy and young guy to not just be the heart of the order, but to do nothing but hit every 40 minutes or so?

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  3. The Rajah says:

    I saw Montero play a triple-A game last season and he was the worst defensive catcher I’ve seen since I coached 9 and 10 year old kids. His defensive prowess is perfectly suited for the DH role. The Yankers knew how bad he was behind the plate and traded him and $24 in trinkets for something worth a LOT more. Nice play, Cashman.

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    • jim says:

      can i try it, too?

      I saw Montero play a triple-A game last season and he was the best defensive catcher I’ve seen since I coached johnny bench and gary carter.

      look, i did it!

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    • Seideberg says:

      It’s a good thing that Seattle’s whole scouting department never had a chance to see him catch then!

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      • bender says:

        Well, you don’t know that Seattle’s scouting department doesn’t think the same thing about Montero’s defense at Catcher. The plan could be to have him as a 1B/DH

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  4. Slartibartfast says:

    One comment on the Disaster Catcher scenario:

    “So, let’s give Disaster Catcher not only Pierzynski’s 20% caught stealing rate (Montero’s rate in the minors is 21%, for context) but also increase the rate of attempts to account for the adjustment managers would make in playing against him.”

    Why? If AJP throws out 20% of runners and we then apply the same 20% to our Disaster Catcher, why balloon the steal attempts by 30%? I know managers are stupid, but…

    At the very worst I’d give our DC the league high steal attempts. Since steal attempts are a function of the pitcher’s delivery/awareness and the catcher’s arm, I don’t see how going any higher than that is warranted, since we should assume the Yanks rotation’s influence on steal attempts is average (without looking at any numbers).

    In any case, this reduces the -18 throwing arm runs to a more reasonable -13.

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    • bstar says:

      Dave’s point was that opponents didn’t run as often against Pierzinski as they did against other catchers(McCann, Soto, R Martin, etc.). What if they had? That’s what the extra 10% is about.

      How good/bad Seattle pitchers are at holding runners on/delivering the ball quickly to the plate will determine a lot of that.

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    • Matthias says:
      FanGraphs Supporting Member

      It seems like Dave was just looking at worst-case scenarios for each measurable component. In the end, he states, “it seems fair to assume that his glove could cost the Mariners in excess of 15 runs per season behind the plate.” -29 was seen as the overall worst case, while -15 is maybe the best-worst case?

      In any case, using only estimates, there’s at least reason to believe he could be as valuable to the club playing DH over Catcher.

      However, at catcher he would keep Olivo (and his .253 OBP) out of the cleanup slot, and off the diamond. That’s gotta have some extra value, right?

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  5. PR says:

    seems to me this deal will work if one of two things happens: Montero can be a serviceable catcher for the M’s with a good bat or he turns into a great slugger. Curious Dave, which you think is more likely and what are the odds one of these happen for the Mariners?

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  6. thefatkid says:

    Great article, and a good bit of nuanced analysis.

    As a Mariners fan, you may find the pitching splits for Felix Hernandez throwing to Kenji Johjima and Rob Johnson interesting, or, for that matter, the splits for various Mariners pitchers with Johjima behind the plate. If the Mariners decide that Montero belongs behind the plate, I might anticipate a similar effect.

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    • Ben says:

      that may have also had to do something with a language barrier…Johjima struggled with his English. I know that’s not all, but it’s worth considering that at least Felix and Montero wouldn’t have that issue at all

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  7. TheGrandslamwich says:

    Would a move to a corner position be possible or is Montero considered too lead-footed for that?

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    • The Rajah says:

      Montero is a liability with a glove on. You don’t want him anywhere near 3B. I wouldn’t want him anywhere near 1B either, but what do the M’s have to lose by letting him play in front of Smoak?

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    • Preston says:

      If by corner you mean first base. He probably can’t play LF, definitely not 3b. Since the Mariners already have Smoak at 1b, that leaves DH for Montero.

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  8. Anon says:

    Still, we have to remember that there’s a pretty significant selection bias issue here

    This is the key. It may seem ridiculous to evaluate Montero as league worst defensive catcher in every area, but he might be getting favorable comparisons due to the “low tolerance for bad defensive catchers” in MLB.

    I expect Seattle not to put him at catcher mostly due to the abuse catchers take (injuries and daily wear). The Posey injury being so recent only highlights the risk.

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  9. M.Twain says:

    One thing a little different about poor defense at catcher is that teams can proactively exploit it. Other than possibly laying down a bunt (e.g., bunting against Jim Abbott), you can’t do that in any significant way with other defensive positions. In addition, teams are more likely to attempt to exploit the weakness in higher leverage situations.

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  10. Doc Milo says:

    Why does Montero have to play in Seattle this year? The M’s have 3 catchers. One has one year on his deal, one will be 28 and still has 5 years of team control and the third is coming into his age 27 season. I would like to see the M’s move Olivo, let Jaso and Moore fight it out over spring training and let Montero work on his catching skills in Tacoma for at least the first half of the season.

    If Mike Piazza is the comp for Montero, let’s remember Piazza got a taste (23 gams0 at age 23 and became the full time backstop at 24. That’s 2 more years for Montero.

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    • Chris from Bothell says:

      You don’t appreciate how badly the M’s need his bat in the lineup right now.

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      • Westside guy says:
        FanGraphs Supporting Member

        Yeah, plus I suspect the Safeco fans would definitely revolt if we started Montero in AAA.

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    • jim says:

      he’s already spent 2 full years in AAA in the international league, how would spending another year in AAA in the PCL help at all?

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      • Doc Milo says:

        It could help his defense. If his greatest value is at catcher then it makes sense to give him more time to develope. Mike Piazza’s first year at starting catcher was his age 24 year. Mike Napoli came up at age 24. Could there be a reason for this?

        Give Montero a half year in Tacoma while the other roster answers are figured out and that gives Montero a half year at catcher. If Moore breaks out then there might not be the need to bring Montero up this very moment.

        Carp at DH at the age of 25 could very well be as productive as Montero at 23. I would like to see Wells get a shot in LF with a possible move to CF if Gutierrez is not productive or traded.

        There is no rush to bring Montero up to the big leagues at the start of the season.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        There is no rush to bring Montero up to the big leagues at the start of the season.

        I can think of a few reasons.

        1. Fans – seriously who else are fans going to come to see? I knoe Mariners fans are loyal, but how many anemic seasons can they reasonably expect to tolerate?

        2. Offense – They need it, he has it.

        3. Team Control – They likely only have him for 6 years. Why waste any of that time having him repeat a league he’s already dominated? He had two very good season in the IL, why does anyone really need to see him put up a 1.000+ OPS season in the PCL? Granted it’s 60 PA, but he’s already hit well in the majors. I would operate under the assumption that if he is really good for 6 years, he’ll go somewhere else once he hits FA.

        4. Jack Z’s job – Is he really going to keep him in the minors as SEA struggles to score … again? I think it’s safe to say that Jack would rather have this job than not. The moves he has made have not exactly paid off in a good way. He’s traded away more WAR than he’s brought in. His signings have not produced like expected.

        FWIW, I thought the same thing about Shelby Miller and StL when Wainwright was injured for the season. Instead, they chose to have McClellan start with a terrible bullpen.

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      • Ian R. says:

        Actually, team control is one reason to keep him down. The Mariners aren’t going to contend in 2012, and they have him for six Major League seasons regardless of how much time he spends in the minors. They may get more value out of him in his age 23-28 seasons, when they’re a year closer to contention, than in his age 22-27 seasons.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        Ian, that’s a very good point.

        I thought playing in MLB last year started the clock, but evidently it doesn’t work that way.

        My thinking though is that we don;t really have a good idea on what’s going to occur 3+ years from now. King could be gone, as could Ichiro and Jack Z.

        If they’re wanting all of these guys to play together, I would just start him at MLB now.

        They can’t just “waste” the King Felix (and I suppose Ichiro) years, thinking about how good they’ll be 3 years from now. A LOT of things will have to go right for them, including great drafts, good acquisitions, and great player development.

        If they were to start him in MiLB, I don;t know they wouldn’t trade Felix for 2-4 prospects that might include 1-2 really good prospects that could all be playing in MLB together and under team control.

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    • Eric says:

      I think there is probably an argument to be made for not having him come up and play immediately, but in this case it’s just not gonna happen. Not saying that letting him play a year in AAA wouldn’t be the best option, but Seattle is thirsting for a bat and I don’t know if logic is the only thing to consider right now.

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    • Jerome310 says:

      You’re crazy to think the Mariner’s should start Montero in AAA after giving up the #2 pitcher in the organization. Besides, Seattle needs Montero’s bat yesterday.

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    • Bandit23 says:

      Montero doesn’t have anything else to prove in Triple-A. After two seasons there already, he is ready to take the next step. The Mariners aren’t going to compete next year so why not let him try to improve his catching while he gets used to major league pitching and life in general. If the plan is to compete in 2013 wouldn’t you want him to come into the season with a year in the big leagues under his belt? His bat is ready, the Mariners need it. I see no problem with him working on his catching in the majors for a team that isn’t going to compete for the division this year.

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  11. Mike Newman says:

    Fascinating piece Dave. There’s really no other way to approach a piece on the catching position other than a nuanced approach. So many things go being a successful field general that it could be a statistician’s life’s work and he might not come up with a statistic which could be well-defended.

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  12. I would alternate JM and MO behind the plate and DH. Keep both bats in the lineup and reasonably fresh.

    I don’t know what’s the best rotation scheme, 3 on 2 off, or catch your worst catcher when the best control pitchers are pitching or what.

    But, there’s only one way for JM to get better and that’s practice and innings at catcher.

    They have JM for 6 years. They need to get max value out of him during those years. If they play to extend his career when he *may* be more valuable, even part-time behind the plate, then they may just be doing a favor for the team that signs him when he hits free agency.

    Mike Piazza was a “bad” catcher that caught a lot of years and was very productive. Mike Napoli improved with playing time. I haven’t seen JM catch and as a former pitcher and StL who gets to watch Yadi a lot, I have great admiration for catchers.

    As one that lives in “Cub Country”, I saw what Soto had to do to provide good value and I’d like to see what JM can do in a full season catching a good deal of the time. The possibility of really good value is just too great to pass up.

    Dave, good article. You answered my question from the other thread. If JM is the DC, then any improvement can increase his value as a catcher. I think you have to at least try it, even part-time. Having JM and MO split catching/DH duties may be the best overall value for the team. You’re dead on about Napoli and he and Piazza were the examples that came to mind about all bat no glove catchers. If I’m the M’s I hire a catching coach just for these guys and work them. A good hitting adequate catcher is simply too valuable to not try everything.

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    • The Ancient Mariner says:

      You’re forgetting John Jaso, who isn’t amazing but is a lefty, which suits the park well.

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    • Mike Newman says:

      One of my biggest pet peeves is the idea Piazza was simply a “bad” catcher. Without a doubt, Piazza was not good a throwing which is the easiest thing for the average baseball fan to identify and point out. However, Piazza was a fine defender in other areas and handled pitching staffs quite well.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        That’s why I put “bad” in quotations.

        He seemingly earned the rap as a “bad” catcher and people just kept repeating it. He certainly wasn’t great, but perhaps average when all things are considered.

        He also played during the era when catchers like mike matheny were considered elite because of his “pitcher handling” and things of that nature.

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    • Corey says:

      Did Carp die?

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      • Chris from Bothell says:

        Per interview at the winter meetings, Wedge sees Carp as the everyday first baseman. I doubt he’s going to get to rotate through DH much unless Guti is healthy.

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    • Westside guy says:
      FanGraphs Supporting Member

      I would alternate JM and MO behind the plate and DH. Keep both bats in the lineup and reasonably fresh.

      Given Olivo’s plate approach, especially as the season progressed – maybe Mariner fans would benefit if the team didn’t keep his bat fresh. He might even take a walk occasionally.

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      • bstar says:

        Whatever position he ends up playing, he simply HAS to play. He will not start the season in the minors. Put Montero behind the plate and let Venus de Milo DH and your offense still improves.

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    • Chris from Bothell says:

      I don’t know what’s the best rotation scheme, 3 on 2 off, or catch your worst catcher when the best control pitchers are pitching or what.

      The obvious approach seems to be to pair Montero with the experienced pitchers (Felix and Vargas) and Olivo with the others (new-to-league Iwakuma, plus whoever wins out of spring training).

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      • joser says:

        Uh, no. Felix already has one of the highest Passed Ball + Wild Pitch rates in the majors, and that’s with non-Disaster Catchers blocking the plate (though Olivo and Johnson were definitely not good, they would seem to be better than Montero is reputed to be). Having Montero catch Felix would result in either every baserunner getting gifted a base or two, or forcing Felix to throw nothing but fastballs with men on base (which is a good recipe for giving up runs). And while Felix generally doesn’t allow that many men on base in the first place, that’s still asking a lot.

        Let Montero catch the guys who don’t throw pitches that fall off the table.

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    • Bandit23 says:

      Having Olivo serve as DH would be a waste. I think you are grossly overvaluing his bat. All he has is some power but not enough to make up for his terrible approach at the plate. We need that DH spot when Montero is catching to be filled by either Carp, Smoak, or Wells. If you have Olivo as the DH, you are sitting one of Carp, Wells, Smoak, or Guti (Wells would play CF and Carp LF). Any of those guys are not only better hitters than Olivo, but also have a future with the team. So I pray that Olivo is either catching or has his ass on the bench.

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  13. mickeyg13 says:

    I had Mike Fast’s study on catcher framing in mind the whole first half of the article, so I was very pleased to see you mention it later on. Notably Doumit and Posada had observed values in the neighborhood of -25 runs per season, so the worst case there might be pretty bad. Of course those are *observed* stats and I have no idea what the actual true talent limit would be.

    I like when a writer anticipates points the reader is going to make and addresses them outright, so thanks for the nice article.

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    • Anon says:

      Well said.

      Also, selection bias and weakness in evaluating catchers are two problems that don’t get acknowledged much. Kudos to Dave for the good article.

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    • Eric says:

      Now I absolutely have to read the article. -25 runs per season? That is amazing to me.

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    • jim says:

      don’t put too much stock in that mike fast piece. wait until there’s been a little more research into it before we accept it as anything more than a curiosity

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  14. Robbie G. says:

    Here is the key for me, I think:

    “When faced with the decision of whether a team should keep a premium hitter behind the plate, career length has to be taken into account. The Mariners acquired Montero with the hopes that he would become a franchise hitter, and if he develops as expected, they’ll be exploring a long term contract with him within a couple of seasons. Even if they believe that Montero would provide maximum value behind the plate, they’d have to factor in the long term value they’d expect to receive if he was moved to DH that they wouldn’t get if he stayed behind the plate.”

    In a nutshell, here is the question that the Mariners must answer: Would you rather have 5-6 MONSTER offensive seasons from the catcher position that results in a career cut short by the wear and tear (and the potential for a Buster Posey-type disaster of an injury) of 130+ games/season behind the plate or would you rather have 10-12 very good (i.e., non-monster) seasons from the DH position? This is the age old quality vs. quantity dilemma, more or less. Would you rather have five seasons of Tim Lincecum or ten or twelve seasons of, say, Mark Buehrle?

    If you are the Mariners, and you have a guy who you may or may not be able to re-sign in a few years–I’m sorry, but if he’s a perennial MVP candidate in a few years as a catcher, he’s a prime candidate to return to the Yankees as a free agent on a $125+ mil contract–then the temptation is very, very strong to sacrifice career longevity and play the guy at catcher, where he will presumably be light years better than nearly all of his peers as a hitter. At which point the Yankees or whoever can gamble on whether or not he can continue to play at an MVP level into his thirties after several years behind the plate. It seems to me that, from management’s perspective (and this can be applied to non-sports work environments, obviously), you want to extract as much value/labor from the player/worker as possible since you know in advance that the individual player/laborer is a fungible commodity. Sounds harsh but isn’t this true?

    I think the most logical thing to do here is to play him 80-100 games/season at catcher and DH him the rest of the time. It will be very interesting to see how the Mariners handle this. A lot is riding on the line, obviously. The other scenario that we may see is not getting much discussion: Justin Smoak turns out to be a dud and Jesus Montero is handed the every day 1B job. Of course, the Mariners offense is so incredibly bad that an underwhelming Smoak is still one of the 4-5 best hitters on the team, so there’s that.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      The Mariners have Jesus Montero signed for 10-12 seasons?

      No, they have him for 6 seasons.

      If he turns out to be a beast with the bat, what are the odds they resign him once he hits FA?

      If he has the chance to go to a more batter friendly ballpark, why wouldn’t he do that? Certainly he’s going to look around the league and see that being a DH in Texas, Boston, or NYY is going to be better for his stats (and probably playoffs) than continuing to try and hit well in a pitcher friendly park. I’m certain his agent will be telling him that.

      He’ll hit FA entering the prime of his career.

      That was my point earlier. Why should SEA sacrifice possible additional value to them to increase JM’s longevity for another team, perhaps even a rival?

      Don;t you have to try and get max value from the players on your team while you have them under contract?

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      • Robbie G. says:

        We are making the same argument. I am agreeing with you. Seattle should play Jesus Montero at catcher as much as possible over the next six years so as to extract maximum value from him. Montero would have to truly godawful behind the plate to justify moving him to full-time DH or to 1B. I do think that he’ll play a fair amount of DH but only to give him some rest. I think we’ll see Seattle use Montero about the same way that Texas used Mike Napoli this past season. Seattle should not concern itself with how well Montero is going to be playing in 2018 and beyond after six years behind the plate. No pro sports team really needs to be thinking that far into the future, there are way too many variables at work.

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  15. Baltar says:

    There is a larger context to be considered here. The Mariners are nowhere close to being contenders at the present time. If they are ever going to risk playing Montero at catcher, the time is now. It is possible, after all, that he might improve.
    I grant that there is a downside in the “wear and tear” aspect of catching, but I find it difficult to believe that the risk of that is high for a 20-year-old for a year or two.
    In addition, with Olivo at backup, Montero would not have to play full-time at catcher during this tryout.
    I say, “Go for it!”

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    • Baltar says:

      Make that “22-year-old.”

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    • hk says:

      The counter argument is you don’t want to catch a 22- year old in search of adding wins to a team that’s not ready to contend such that the wear and tear might negatively impact him later when the team is ready to contend.

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  16. Nate says:

    Hmm, 2300 words and you don’t even touch cERA? what if Monstero is the “disaster catcher” but handles the Pitching staff such that they all have great years?
    (wait, this is FG. scratch that thought)

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    • Slartibartfast says:

      cERA….

      lol.

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    • Eric says:

      Either sarcasm over my head or you’re a troll.

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    • juan pierres mustache says:

      did you guys know that jimmy rollins has the best ssERA in the league

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    • TheGrandslamwich says:

      And on the third day god invented the shake-off…

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    • Mekias says:

      While I’m not a fan of cERA, I whole-heartedly believe that a catcher can affect a pitcher’s performance. I think if you asked any major league manager, they will tell you the same. Just because something isn’t quantifiable doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Sort of the same thing with a Quarterback’s “intangibles”.

      Now if a manager wants to base his decisions primarily on how they perceive a catcher to handle pitchers (i.e. Wakamatsu), that’s a VERY subjective and flawed approach. As always, a combination of statistics and scouting is necessary to make the best decisions.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        I whole-heartedly believe that a catcher can affect a pitcher’s performance.

        This is where someone would ask “List the ways a catcher can affect pitcher performance” and then we start seeing if we can measure those individual ways.

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      • fergie348 says:

        Well, one way a bad defensive catcher affects pitching performance is by taking away certain pitches in certain situations that can be effective but won’t be used. An example: Pitcher A and catcher B know that a hitter has a tendency to swing at breaking balls in the dirt in two strike counts, but pitcher A won’t throw said breaking ball to catcher B with men on base because he thinks a passed ball is likely because of catcher B’s obvious and well known defensive shortcomings. Over time, hitters stop looking for that pitch in those situations and pitcher A becomes less effective with men on base and thus his ERA goes up. That’s one example. I can think of at least three others.

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  17. maqman says:

    The M’s have Roger Hansen as a special adviser to the GM and he is one of, if not the best, catching instructor in the game. If anyone can make Montero a better catcher he can. Montero also seems to very much want to be a catcher and seems willing to put out the effort required. The kid is 22, I think he still is capable of improving. How much is the question. When the M’s figure that out they can make a decision. Hopefully Edgar can talk to him about the value of DHing if it comes to that.

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    • Mike Newman says:

      Without a doubt, Montero has improved as a catcher between 2008-2011. However, at the time I first scouted him in Charleston, he was the equivalent of a good JV catcher at the high school level.

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    • joser says:

      I keep hearing how great Roger Hansen is, but I sure haven’t seen the results. He’s supposed to have been brought in to help pretty much every catcher the M’s have had the past few years, and yet they’ve all been among the league leaders in passed balls (among other dubious defensive achievements). Maybe they were even worse before he applied his magic, but his magic seems to be pretty limited.

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  18. Bookbook says:

    Olivo should only DH for the kind of manager who thinks batting Adam Kennedy cleanup is a good idea… Seriously, when you have a bad bat for a catcher, DH is not the answer.

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  19. hk says:

    I would think the M’s could maximize the benefit from Montero by starting him at C ~30 times per season and playing him at DH in the other games. Doing this will reduce the effects of wear and tear on his body and allow the team to seek optimal situations for ~30 those starts. Optimal situations may be those in which the M’s SP does a great job of holding runners (if the M’s have such a SP) or when they are facing a team that does not run much at all (i.e. Detroit) or particularly well (i.e. the ChiSox).

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  20. hoser says:

    2366 words to say “maybe”? You’re going to ruin both the interweb and sabermetric reputations for stridency. Seriously, as both a Mariner and Dave fan, I am very impressed. I feel much better informed about the tradeoffs for the team and the player. What a fascinating trade and gamble for Z. At the very least we get less F-bombs this year. Color me very grateful.

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  21. Dan Gayle says:

    I don’t care how bad of a catcher he is, he can’t be worse than Miguel Olivo, defensively and offensively. Olivo was a stop-gap only. In an ideal world, if Moore had stayed healthy, we would never have been forced to watch him.

    Keep working Carp at the outfield corners, Smoak at first, and rotate Moore and Montero as catcher. When Montero is catching, DH Carp and put someone else in at LF.

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  22. Colin says:

    Is there not an inherent flaw in this argument by starting with positional adjustments as an assumption of what is true and then working backwards for value based on that?

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  23. Doc Milo says:

    Of all the catchers listed in the above post, this was their age when they became a full time backstop in the bigs:
    A.J. Pierzynski: 24
    Brian McCann: 22
    Kurt Suzuki: 24
    Russ Martin: 23
    Alex Avila: 23
    Giovani Soto: 25
    I’m talking over 100 games in a season. There is no rush to put the break on Montero getting reps in the minors next season and lets us figure out things better with the rest of our roster.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      So basically, if a catcher can hit, he’s a MLB starter by age 23.

      Jesus Montero is currently 23yo.

      It’s still difficult for me to understand why SEA wouldn’t trade Felix if they are this concerned about “the future”?

      This is also why I REALLY don;t like the team-controlled aspect for players with his ability. Even though he’s MLB ready, he may be down in the minors again so that his employer can benefit off of his MLB performance for an additional year.

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    • Ste1ngrabber says:

      He will gain nothing from being in the hitter-friendly PCL, if he isn’t playing in the bigs right away the entire trade was absolutely pointless.

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  24. algionfriddo says:

    Montero’s greatest value (assuming he is indeed a future offensive force) is… in-the-lineup-as-much-as-possible. Whatever takes away from that main factor detracts from the equation.

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  25. Tom says:

    Good article Dave.

    The one major issue I have with catcher defense conversations is the general lack of acknowledgement of the pitching staff’s impact on it.

    I know most people realize this and there is no way to effectively separate this out but tossing around CS%’s can be misleading and trying to translate that directly into runs is a bit problematic. I know there is currently no better way of doing it, but I think the error bar on catcher is even bigger than suspected.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Not just CS%, but SBA.

      This is what is so impressive about the catcher’s with the best arms. Not only are they throwing out a high %, but they often have fewer SBA. So, it’s reasonable to assume that only the best baserunners steal on them … and they still throw out a good %.

      I was going to say that not having runners attempt steals is good for the defense, but really with a strong throwing catcher, you might want them to steal more often given that they’d be giving away outs more than they should.

      Likewise, the bad thing about poor CS% catchers is that they often have larger numbers of SBA. So, more players are running against them AND making it safely.

      ———————————

      There was also a good study piece done on passed balls and wild pitches by location. Basically, the further from the catcher AND the further from their glove side, the lesser the chance of the ball being blocked.

      So, RHP’s the dirt a lot of curves and sliders are going to be nightmares for catchers … especially if they dirting them a foot in front of the plate, and even more especially low and away.

      IIRC, something like 68% of pitches in MLB get blocked by the catcher. That number stuck with me because, as a coach, I should keep that in mind when I’m/we’re getting all over a 10yo catcher that *only* blocks 8 of 10.

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  26. hernandez17 says:

    I don’t know that his defense will be that big of a consideration in whether he catches or not. Olivo is so bad in every phase of the game. If he’s an even half-competent defensive catcher then it makes sense to play him there. The Mets kept on putting Piazza behind the plate and it worked out well for them. Rotating him in and out of the DH slot makes some sense though.

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  27. Al says:

    Just a thought- given today’s market, wouldn’t it be cheaper to get a valuable, great defensive catcher than a DH who can rake? The hypothetical debate seems as though there are two reasonable sides. Maybe Catcher Montero + Realistic DH option for the Mariners isn’t as good as DH Montero + Realistic C?

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  28. Jack Burton says:

    Sorry to do this, since this is just a small detail in your article, but there’s a correction: Arencibia was the league leader in PB for QUALIFIED catchers with 12. Saltalamacchia was actually in first with 26. I know a lot of that is Wakefield, but still, that’s pretty scary to not even have the required PA and be in the lead by that much.

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  29. Adam Sampson says:

    Its odd that the M’s now have Olivo, Montero and Jaso, all terrible defensive catchers. Either they dont care about defence or they think they can turn it around?

    nice article though.

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  30. Kevin Garrett says:

    Would anyone here trade Montero at $1 for Ackley at $6 in a keeper league?

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