There was what seems like a relatively unremarkable trade today, that went down between the Braves and the Twins. The Twins sent to the Braves one Ryan Doumit, in the last year of his contract. The Braves sent to the Twins one Sean Gilmartin, 23 years old and still in the minors. Doumit is expected to fill some kind of role on Atlanta’s bench. Gilmartin might be a Twins starting rotation candidate down the road. It’s a competitive team maybe exchanging a little longer-term value for a little shorter-term value, and it’s a rebuilding team doing the opposite of that. Perfectly understandable, ordinary trade that does very little to capture the imagination.
There might be something buried here, though, beneath the immediate layers. Something nothing more than statistical, but then numbers are so much of everything. It depends on how Doumit ends up being utilized by the Braves, but there’s a chance this could mark the end of an era, beyond just the era of Doumit playing for Minnesota. On the surface, the trade is mildly interesting. Below the surface, it’s a little bit more so.
To touch on the players real quick: you know the story with Doumit. He’s a 32-year-old switch-hitter who’s versatile on paper. In theory, he can catch and also play a few other positions, and he’s got a decent amount of power. Last year was his worst at the plate since 2009, but there’s still some thump in the bat, and the Braves wanted to upgrade the offense on their bench. Not only will Doumit be available — his presence will free up Evan Gattis to pinch-hit on days he’s not catching, since Gerald Laird is also around and under contract. Doumit’s no defender, no matter where you put him, but if the Braves play this right, Doumit won’t see the field too much.
The interesting thing about Gilmartin is that he was a first-round draft pick as recently as 2011, by these same Braves. On that basis alone, he’s a good get for a Twins team just looking to shed Doumit’s salary. Doumit meant nothing to them; Gilmartin will probably never mean anything to them, but there is a chance. He’s gotten blasted so far in Triple-A, and the lefty went through some shoulder things this past season, but what the Braves saw in him is still in there somewhere. Gilmartin has an underwhelming fastball but a fine change and a useful curve, or slider, depending on the day. He’s one of them prepared, “polished” types, as opposed to an overpowering type. Interestingly, the line on Gilmartin is that he pounds the zone but doesn’t miss enough bats. Last year, he posted a worse-than-average strike rate yet a better-than-average contact rate.
Whatever you make of him, Gilmartin has a very low ceiling, and he struggles to crack 90 miles per hour. He might never get much time above the level he currently occupies. In a sense, he’s a classic fit for the Twins organization, but this is still a fine roll of the dice considering what went away in exchange. The Twins turned what didn’t matter to them into a possible back-of-the-rotation starter, who would be cheap for years.
It’s interesting to see Gilmartin get dealt for so little so soon after being drafted so high by so capable an organization. It also makes sense, given what Gilmartin apparently is. And for me, the more interesting part involves Doumit, and the implications of the possibility he might not really catch anymore.
Used to be Doumit was something of a stathead favorite, because he could get on base and hit for power and swing from both sides while playing catcher. It seemed like Doumit was supremely valuable, and perhaps undervalued by the Pirates while they had him. Then we learned more about defense, and catcher defense, and Ryan Doumit as a catcher, specifically. With Doumit, it was always about swapping defense for offense, but pitch-framing research revealed Doumit as the bad kind of outlier.
All subsequent data is courtesy of research by Matthew Carruth. In 2008, setting a minimum of 2,000 called pitches caught, Doumit was baseball’s worst pitch-framer. In 2009, he was baseball’s worst pitch-framer. In 2010, he was baseball’s sixth-worst pitch-framer. In 2011, he was baseball’s worst pitch-framer. In 2012, he was baseball’s worst pitch-framer. In 2013, he was baseball’s worst pitch-framer. Ryan Doumit has proven himself to be one terrible pitch-framer, at least relative to the rest of the regular or semi-regular pitch-framers.
We have limited PITCHf/x data going all the way back to 2007. Since then, 169 different catchers have caught at least 1,000 called pitches that the cameras recorded. Here are the worst pitch-framers, by added strikes per game:
- Ryan Doumit, -3.02 strikes/game
- Paul Hoover, -2.50
- John Hester, -2.40
- Mike Lieberthal, -2.39
- Luis Martinez, -2.39
- Bryan Anderson, -2.37
- Max Ramirez, -2.17
- Rob Johnson, -2.02
- Brandon Inge, -2.01
- Kenji Johjima, -1.96
Doumit’s the worst, by half a call a game. And the guys closest to him have pretty small samples of data. Doumit’s caught nearly 32,000 called pitches. If you set a minimum anywhere higher than Hester’s 5,094, then it goes right from Doumit to Johnson, a full call a game better. One call is estimated to be worth about 0.13 runs. While Doumit’s done good things at the plate as a catcher, he’s effectively hemorrhaged runs behind it. At least, according to pitch-framing research, which does seem to be capturing a real thing. All such investigations turn up Doumit as the worst. Just as he was cult-famous before, he’s cult-famous today, for far less flattering reasons. The strike zone has a way of looking smaller in Ryan Doumit’s hands.
So, here’s what we have:
- Ryan Doumit has been, easily, the worst pitch-framer in baseball
- Ryan Doumit has been traded, and might just about stop catching
I doubt that Doumit will catch literally zero innings with the Braves, but he’ll serve as a third catcher, corner substitute, and pinch-hitter. So his time should be limited back there, after having not caught fewer than 370 innings since 2007. Doumit might not be even a semi-regular backstop anymore, and then if he’s still around in 2015, it’s unlikely his role would be re-expanded. We might have reached the end of the era of Ryan Doumit being baseball’s worst pitch-framer, among catchers who catch. He’ll probably still be bad when he does catch, but if he doesn’t catch much, it doesn’t matter. To be baseball’s worst pitch-framer, it feels like you need to reach a certain playing-time threshold.
And that means, if Doumit gives up his spot, someone else will take his place. If Ryan Doumit will no longer be baseball’s worst regular or semi-regular pitch-framer, some other catcher will be baseball’s worst regular or semi-regular pitch-framer. That player presumably won’t score as poorly as Doumit has, but one wonders who’ll emerge, particularly with the game more aware of framing research than ever. Perhaps it’ll be Josmil Pinto, who rated poorly as a rookie. Perhaps it’ll be Hester, if he ever returns. Perhaps it’ll be somebody else. Without Doumit, the race would be wide open. With Doumit, no one else really ever stood much of a chance.
Say this for Ryan Doumit — over the course of his career, he’s captured a lot of Internet attention. He’s always been a pretty reasonable hitter, and he could have some years left in that bat. If he’d had his career just a little bit earlier, we never would’ve known about the framing, and we would’ve continued to consider him underrated. As is, Doumit might be done catching much, and that would be in everyone’s best interests. And if that turns out to be the case, there’ll be an available statistical crown that nobody should want to fight for.
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