You probably are well aware that offensive levels in baseball have collapsed over the last few years. We’re well past the “Year of the Pitcher” and are now at a point where run scoring is as scarce as it was back in the 1970s. It seems like no one can hit anymore, or at least, no more than one or two guys per team anyway. For various reasons, the recent trends in baseball have almost all gone in favor of the pitchers.
But not quite all. There is one place in baseball where offense is actually trending upwards, and that trend is behind the plate.
Last March, Mark Smith wrote about the improved offensive levels of catchers in recent years, but with another year of data and our new by-position split leaderboards, I think it’s worth pointing this out again. Especially because, for the first few weeks of 2014 at least, the trend seems to only be accelerating.
First, let’s start off with some data, pulled from the site using our new positional split leaderboards. The top section is hitting by players while catching from 2002 to 2014, the second section is hitting by all position players from 2002 to 2014, and the third section is the difference between the top two sections.
A decade ago, catchers regularly posted a wRC+ about 15 points lower than league average, and this double digit deficit persisted through 2010. In 2011, the gap shrunk to nine points and has stayed in single digits for the last three years. Through the first few weeks of 2014, there has been no difference; catchers have hit at a level equal to the average of all other positions.
From the third section of the table, you can see that almost the entire change in catcher offense relative to position player offense can be explained by ISO. In graph form, here is average ISO for both catchers and all position players since 2002.
The differences between catchers and other positions have been pretty stable in BB%, K%, and BABIP, but the gap has consistently diminished in ISO since 2002. The 20-30 point gap that persisted from 2002 to 2010 basically just disappeared in 2011, and for the first few weeks of 2014, catchers actually have a very slightly higher ISO as a group (.146) than the average of all position players (.145). The downwards trend in power at other positions has intersected with an upwards trend in power from the catching position, for the last few years, there’s been little to distinguish catchers from hitters at other positions other than a 10 point BABIP gap.
A upwards fluctuation in catcher BABIP over the first few weeks of 2014 is why catchers have caught up with the league average wRC+, and that shouldn’t be expected to continue, so odds are that catchers will again finish with a below average batting line when all is said and done. However, we’re probably looking at another year of catchers posting something like a 95 wRC+ instead of the 85 wRC+ that was the old norm.
This brings up a few questions, with the obvious one looking for an explanation as to why catchers haven’t suffered from the effects that have driven down offensive levels at other positions. The easy explanation is that teams have moved towards prioritizing offense over defense behind the plate, and as Mark showed in his post last year, the rate of runners getting gunned down trying to steal supports the idea that there has been a change in catcher’s defensive skills.
The league average caught stealing rate so far this year is just 24%, which would easily go down as the lowest CS% in Major League history if it stayed that low for the entire year. And this recent era of mid-20% average caught stealing rates are historically unprecedented; runners have never gotten thrown out trying to steal as rarely as they have over the last 10 years.
However, the catcher isn’t the only variable in throwing out runners — Max Weinstein has argued here, in fact, that pitchers are the primary variable in whether a runner is thrown out or not — so we can’t simply conclude that reduced caught stealing rates mean that catchers are worse defenders now than they used to be. It seems intuitive that better hitting catchers would also be worse throwing catchers, but a reduced CS% isn’t enough to conclude that today’s catchers really are worse defensively than they used to be.
In fact, even if the total reduction in caught stealing rate was due to weaker armed/slower release catchers getting more playing time, we still couldn’t conclude that today’s catchers are overall weaker defenders simply because it is possible that the reduction in caught stealing rates is being offset by a different kind of defensive value; pitch framing.
For instance, guys like Brian McCann, Jonathan Lucroy, and Hank Conger have rated very well by framing estimates, and all have been below average at throwing out runners over the last few years. There are certainly some defensive specialists who are great at everything that has to do with receiving and throwing — Ryan Hanigan and Yadier Molina, for instance — but not every good framer is also a good thrower. And while I remain skeptical about the spread in runs saved or allowed based on current framing estimates, it is almost certainly true that the spread in framing is larger than the spread in throwing out attempted base stealers. If given a choice between a weak-armed framer and a strong-armed guy whose glove bounces all over the place, you probably want the weak-armed framer.
So the decline in caught stealing rate could be attributable, in part, to a shifting emphasis on what catcher defense actually is. And if arm strength is being de-emphasized — without a complete measure of catcher “pop times”, we can’t say for sure that it is — in favor of receiving skills, it is possible that the pool of potential catchers has grown, and some players who would have been moved off the position for low caught stealing rates are now being allowed to stay behind the plate because of their receiving value.
As Jeff noted last night, it is apparent that framing can be taught, and if that skill is as or more valuable than gunning down runners, than perhaps MLB can now select from a better hitting crop of players to stick behind the plate while teaching them to receive well enough to offset their mediocre arms.
This is heavily speculative, of course; what we’re seeing could simply be the result of baseball’s cyclical talent distributions. This could just be an extraordinarily talented group of offensive catchers, with guys like Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, and Brian McCann representing an unusual wave of good hitting backstops all playing at the same time.
Maybe in a few years, this will all reverse, and we’ll get back to catchers hitting like middle infielders, as has been the norm in baseball for a very long time. However, if the catcher profile is changing, and the pool of potential catchers has grown, there could be a shift in offense to the position away from players who would have been moved to other spots on the field. And if that’s the case, we may need to consider a new replacement level baseline for catchers. The positional adjustments that go into WAR assume that catchers can’t hit; now that they can, you could make an argument that WAR might be actually overrating catchers relative to other positions.
We don’t have enough information to make any strong conclusions here; just theories and hypotheses. But the data certainly makes it look like the catcher profile is changing, and this trend doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon.
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