Evaluating How Catchers Control the Opposition’s Running Game

One of the toughest things to quantify in all of sports is a catcher’s value on defense. Their are so many responsibilities and subtle nuances that go into being a quality Major League backstop. The best of the best are able to deftly juggle the responsibilities of managing a pitching staff, framing borderline pitches, blocking pitches, holding base runners, throwing said runners out when they attempt to steal, and much, much more. Recently I’ve been doing some research into catching defense and I have been somewhat unsatisfied by both the traditional statistics (caught stealing %, passed balls, and so on) and by the advanced metrics (URZ and defensive runs saved). A few excellent studies in particular have been done to analyze a catcher’s ability to frame pitches, but otherwise most analysis is left to judgment. I’ve been compiling some of my own numbers relating to catchers controlling the base running game in order to gain a better understanding of who the best backstops in baseball really are, and I’d like to share some of my findings today.

The spreadsheet below contains the 30 Major League catchers who have spent at least 450 innings behind the plate, or the equivalent of about 55-60 games. I’m looking specifically at a catcher’s ability to limit an opposing team’s running game, so we have some of the traditional stats (caught stealing %, stolen bases allowed) mixed in with some numbers I’ve been working on.

The first of which is innings caught per stolen base allowed. This statistic is simple. All it does is let us know how frequently a catcher is giving up stolen bases. Elite catchers allow 1 steal for every 20 or more innings caught. The worst backstops allow about one stolen base per every 10 innings with the group average for the 30 most used catchers falling somewhere between one steal per every 14-15 innings caught.

The 2nd statistic I created is stolen bases allowed per 1200 innings, which is about the equivalent of 140 games behind the plate. This number is based on a catchers current innings caught per stolen base allowed, and is rounded to the nearest whole number. It creates a nice even number which allows us to get a true idea of the difference between the elite catchers in baseball and the below average ones. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s take a look at the numbers:

A few note:

-The first thing I hope you notice is the man at the bottom of the list. Yadier Molina is hands down, no-doubt-about-it, the best catcher in baseball at controlling his opponents running game. Molina has won the past 4 National League Gold Gloves at the position, and he has the strongest throwing arm in the league at the position to go along with fantastic pitch blocking skills. Year in and year out Molina consistently ranks at or near the top in base stealers caught and caught stealing percentage, while ranking in the top-10 in fewest passed balls allowed. This year is no different with the St. Louis Cardinal nabbing 24 out of a potential 52 base stealers, good for a 46% caught stealing rate.

But with Molina, as with any catcher, the percentage of runners he catches stealing is less important than the total number of stolen bases allowed. Molina has caught 895 innings (105 games) for St. Louis this season, and is allowing just 1 stolen base per every 31.96 innings caught, which is absolutely out of this world. The average MLB catcher will allow about 89.1 steals per every 1200 innings behind the plate. Molina on the other hand only gives up an absurd 38, which will single-handedly add to the Cardinals win total at the end of the season. Fewer runners in scoring position leads to fewer runs, it’s that simple.

The primary reason nobody steals off of Molina is because runners have such respect for his excellent arm. Molina is notoriously good at picking runners off of 1st base (ask Ian Kinsler about that), and even when they do try to take 2nd base, he’s so accurate with most of his throws that stealers have no chance. Molina is also near the top of the list in innings caught as well, which makes his fantastic play all the more impressive, and makes him a dark horse MVP candidate.

-It’s also probably safe to say that Matt Wieters is the best catcher in the American League. We’ve already taken a look at his fantastic ability to block the plate this season, and his ability to limit base running opportunities is nearly as impressive. Wieters has thrown out a very solid 34% of base stealers this season, while only allowing 1 steal per every 19.5 innings behind the dish. His defense has been a big reason in Baltimore’s successful 2012 campaign.

-Pittsburgh could use some catching help. Rod Barajas listed above has thrown out just 7% of all base stealers this season and has allowed 63 stolen bases already. He’s been atrocious on offense this season as well (68 OPS+), which has forced  The Pirates  to turn to Mike McHenry. The 27-year-old hasn’t been any better on defense, throwing out just 13% of base stealers while allowing one stolen base per every 10.8 innings behind the dish. He has provided some pop with the bat however, hitting 11 homers in just under 200 plate appearances, an excellent rate for a catcher.

-The Rockies may have a future All-Star in Wilin Rosario. The 22-year-old Dominican has hit 20 homers this season (3rd among all MLB catchers) while showing the potential to one day win a Gold Glove for his work behind the plate. Rosario still needs work on blocking pitches in the dirt, as evidenced by his 14 passed balls allowed (2nd most in the NL), but he’s shown the ability to throw runners out at a good clip despite the fact that his pitching staff is constantly under siege. He’s already earned some respect around the league too, ranking slightly above average at preventing steals.

-Buster Posey still has a lot of work to do on his defense. No catcher has gotten his pocket picked more than the Giants young backstop this season, which may have something to do with his ankle injury from a year ago. He’s a little bit slow getting out of his crouch in order to make a snap throw to 2nd, and base runners have taken that as a license to run wild. He may just be the best offensive catcher in baseball, but until Posey improves on defense any thoughts of him winning the MVP award are a little farfetched.

-Speaking of leg injuries, Joe Mauer, a former 3-time Gold Glove winner, is seriously struggling this season. He had a mysterious ailment known as bilateral leg weakness in 2011, which took the Twins a month to diagnose, and it has severely impacted his defense. Mauer has thrown out 33% of base stealers while only allowing 1 steal per every 23.27 innings behind the plate coming into the 2012 season, which makes his 12% and 1 steal per 11.25 innings rate this season absolutely shocking. Runners have noticed that he’s very slow to get from the catching crouch into the throwing position, and they are taking advantage.

-In addition to Yadier Molina, the other 2 elite catchers at limiting a running game in baseball (1 steal in 20 or more innings caught) are John Buck and Miguel Montero. Both posted rates of better than 1 steal per every 20 innings and Montero in particular is throwing out a Molina-like 44% of base stealers.

-Teams should be running more often on these catchers: Chris Snyder, Jonathan Lucroy, Buster Posey, Joe Mauer, Nick Hundley, Rod Barajas, Mike Napoli, Juan Castro and Jared Saltalamacchia.

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5 comments

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  4. CT

    One glaring omission is Kansas City’s Salvadore Perez. He was out with a knee injury suffered in spring training until after the all star break so he doesn’t meet your innings criteria to qualify, but in less than half a season, he picked more runners off of 1st and 3rd than even your lover boy Molina.

    • David Hruska

      I didn’t omit Perez he just hadn’t met minimum requirement of 450 innings caught way back in mid-Auguet. I’m in the process of updating the numbers and Perez is included so look for that to come out over the next couple of days. He’s a plus defensive catcher with a bright future in my opinion, especially if his bat comes along as well as it did this year.

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