The most underrated catchers in the game

except during October.

Evaluating catchers is notoriously difficult. Offensively, it’s no different than evaluating other position players so when discussing the best catchers in the game, we tend to look to catchers who are productive at the plate. This is true particularly because so many catchers simply aren’t productive offensively. Thus, we are most aware of the very good offensive catchers: Joe Mauer, Brian McCann, Victor Martinez, and Jorge Posada.

When looking at the defensive side of the ball, we hear anecdotal evidence about how good Catcher X is at calling a game or how good Catcher Y is at blocking the plate but it’s difficult for most to quantify which catchers add value to their teams behind the plate and which catchers detract from their teams defensively. There is ample evidence out there to tell us that, for example, catchers ERA is a poor way to evaluate catchers because there are so many variables involved: ballpark effects, different lineups, and of course, which pitcher is on the mound while a certain catcher is behind the plate. Jason LaRue‘s catcher ERA (4.46) was nearly a run higher than Yadier Molina‘s. Molina’s clearly the better defensive catcher; he clearly calls a better game, right? Of course, LaRue’s 26 starts included 10 games started by Todd Wellemeyer, 5 each started by Kyle Lohse and Mitchell Boggs, and 2 games started by Brad Thompson. Total number of games started by Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter among those 26 starts? ZERO. Nada. Zilch. Catcher ERA is, therefore, a poor way to evaluate catcher defense.

Catchers truly only get noticed defensively if they are outstanding at throwing runners out attempting to steal. Today, Molina is widely regarded as the premier defensive catcher in the game. He is the heir to the legacy that Ivan Rodriguez maintained for so many years. In fact, even suggesting that Molina has competition among the premier defensive catchers in the game is tantamount to blasphemy in the Midwest. Yadi won his second Gold Glove this year and most Cards’ fans believe that he’s owed at least one or two others.

Molina’s defensive reputation is well deserved. His caught stealing percentage since he entered the league has been 47 percent, 64 percent, 44 percent, 54 percent, 35 percent, and 41 percent. Teams are wary of even attempting to steal a base against him and base runners need to be cognizant of their secondary leads from first base because if they stray too far from the bag, Molina is liable to throw behind them and pick them off. Right now, he is the catcher against whom all others are compared defensively but there are two others in the National League who hide in Molina’s shadow and are at the very least nearly as good behind the plate as he is.

Carlos Ruiz is known more for his postseason offensive exploits than for his work behind the plate but he is an outstanding defensive catcher. While he’s not quite Molina throwing out base runners, he has few peers blocking balls in the dirt as Dan Turkenkopf and Harry Pavlidis pointed out recently. They determined using Pitch F/X data that Ruiz saved the Phillies between 3.73 and 4.67 runs last season by blocking balls in the dirt. Over a 120 game span, that would have equated to between 5.56 and 6.19 runs saved over a season simply by preventing wild pitches and passed balls. Molina, no slouch himself, saved the Cardinals between 6.5 and 8 runs but the Cardinals allowed Molina to amass nearly 300 more innings than the Phillies allowed Ruiz in 2009. Over the same 120 games, Molina’s total runs saved would have been between 4.55 and 5.13.

Ryan Hanigan isn’t quite as good at blocking pitches in the dirt as Ruiz is but no catcher in the big leagues, Molina included, was better at throwing out base runners than the Reds’ backstop. Unfortunately, Dusty Baker allowed (and will in 2010 as well) Ramon Hernandez to get too much time behind the plate.

**Do you know the man on the left? Apparently, his manager doesn’t.** (Icon/SMI)

While Hanigan was slightly below average in blocking pitches in the dirt, he saved his team nearly five runs by his ability to throw out potential base stealers. His caught stealing percentage was a robust 43 percent. Had Dusty allowed Hanigan to play 120 games rather than the 670 innings he was permitted in 2009, Hanigan would have saved the Reds nearly eight runs simply by throwing out base runners.

Catcher Runs per 120 games in 2009
Catcher CS% BR runs Block runs Runs/120
Molina 41 4.674 7.22 9.13
Ruiz 27 .066 4.2 5.96
Hanigan 43 4.91 -0.77 6.35

The numbers tell us that Hanigan and Ruiz aren’t quite as good defensively as Molina is, but they both would add at least half a win to their respective teams’ total if their managers would allow them more time behind the plate. More importantly, the availability of Pitch F/X data allows us the opportunity to better evaluate catcher defense than ever before. When fangraphs calculates catchers’ WAR, for example, they don’t include defensive data. This is an obvious shortcoming that exists because of the difficulty of measuring catcher defense and while it can’t be perfectly captured through caught stealing percentage and blocked pitches, this can go a long way toward telling us that it’s not just the great offensive catchers who bring value to their teams.

Print This Post
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted

Before criticizing the manager for not playing Hanigan more, it might be worth seeing who he is throwing out, just like checking the pitchers when looking at catcher ERA.  If Molina has the big rep and is throwing out mostly the better basestealers because the average ones stay put except botched hit-and-runs, then maybe Hanigan’s runners aren’t as difficult to cut down.  And there is also the small sample size warning even over a year-after all, Jason Kendall threw out 43% in 2008 in a full season and back to 20% in 2009.

John Walsh
John Walsh

Nice work.

Another important issue to consider: just like for CERA, CS % is quite dependent on who the pitcher is. In fact, I think there is some evidence that the pitcher has more influence on CS % than the catcher.