Rob Johnson’s Catching

Dave · April 23, 2009 at 7:23 am · Filed Under Mariners 

Much has been made over the last few years about Kenji Johjima’s game calling, how the pitching staff doesn’t like throwing to him, etc… Much has also been made about Rob Johnson’s work with the pitching staff, how great of a communicator he is, how well he handles a pitching staff, his leadership, and all of that stuff.

Their reputations couldn’t be more opposite. A lot of people think that having Johjima behind the plate really hurts the pitching staff, while having Johnson behind the plate really helps the pitching staff.

Let’s insert some facts into the discussion, shall we?

Team with Joh behind the plate.

Team with Johnson behind the plate.

Opposing hitters have fared slightly better against the M’s when Johjima is behind the plate, posting a .650 OPS versus a .613 OPS when Johnson is behind the plate. However, let’s look at the breakdown by pitcher.

Felix: 56 PA, .702 OPS with Joh, 27 PA, .638 OPS with Johnson
Bedard: 22 PA, .747 OPS with Joh, 56 PA, .448 OPS with Johnson
Washburn: 12 PA, .000 OPS with Joh, 68 PA, .608 OPS with Johnson
Silva: 51 PA, .836 OPS with Joh, 0 PA, NA with Johnson
Jakubauskas: 17 PA, .639 OPS with Joh, 43 PA, .931 OPS with Johnson
Rowland-Smith: 20 PA, .733 OPS with Joh, 0 PA, NA with Johnson
Morrow: 15 PA, .500 OPS with Joh, 11 PA, .282 OPS with Johnson
Aardsma: 15 PA, .298 OPS with Joh, 11 PA, .273 OPS with Johnson
Corcoran: 16 PA, .648 OPS with Joh, 18 PA, .914 OPS with Johnson
Batista: 13 PA, .615 OPS with Joh, 12 PA, .817 OPS with Johnson
Kelley: 4 PA, .500 OPS with Joh, 12 PA, .727 OPS with Johnson
Lowe: 7 PA, .452 OPS with Joh, 15 PA, .533 OPS with Johnson
White: 0 PA, NA with Joh, 17 PA, .301 OPS with Johnson

Johnson hasn’t caught Silva at all this year. Think that matters? Yea, me too. Selection bias is the glaring problem with catcher ERA. If Roy Halladay had a personal catcher, I’d bet the farm on him leading the league in CERA, even if he wasn’t very good defensively. Likewise, the best defensive catcher of all time couldn’t make Brandon Backe into anything other than a crappy pitcher.

That problem manifests itself here. Joh only caught Bedard for five innings and only got four innings with Washburn before he had to leave with his injury. By the way, if the situation had been reversed, and Joh replaced Johnson while Wash had a perfect game, only to immediately give up a base hit and a home run as soon as he entered, that would have been a story in the news, yes? It would have fit the narrative. That it happened the other way means it doesn’t get mentioned. This is how myths are created.

But, getting back to the point at hand – look at the breakdown of pitchers who have been caught by both Joh and Johnson.

Felix: Marginal difference in favor of Johnson
Bedard: Big edge to Johnson
Washburn: Big edge to Joh
Jakubauskas: Big edge to Joh
Morrow: Big edge to Johnson
Aardsma: Push
Corcoran: Big edge to Joh
Batista: Big edge to Joh
Kelley: Big edge to Joh
Lowe: Marginal difference in favor of Joh

This is all ridiculously small sample stuff, but five pitchers have gotten significantly better results with Johjima behind the plate. Two, Brandon Morrow and Erik Bedard, have gotten significantly better results with Johnson behind the plate, and of course that comes with the caveat that Johjima caught the still-working-stuff-out version in Minnesota, while Johnson caught the okay-now-I’m-ready-for-the-season version lately.

What should you conclude from this? Absolutely nothing, because the sample sizes are basically worthless and there are all kinds of problems with using both catcher ERA and OPS against for a pitcher. But that’s the point – the “Rob Johnson is awesome” crowd has created this idea that the team pitches significantly better when he’s behind the plate, and want you to extrapolate actual abilities from those results, even though you shouldn’t. I’m simply pointing out that even the results that those conclusions are based on don’t support the idea that Joh is ruining the pitching staff and Johnson is working miracles behind the plate.

By the way, opposing hitters had an .886 OPS against the Mariners last year when Rob Johnson was behind the plate – easily the worst of any catcher the M’s used last year.

Don’t buy into the myth. Rob Johnson can work hard, be a great communicator, an awesome leader, a nifty teammate, and all that goes along with the praise for his work ethic, and no one still has any idea how much it matters. What does matter is that he can’t hit, and the Mariners aren’t in a position where they can afford to be giving regular at-bats to a guy with no bat and a question mark surrounding his defensive contributions.


72 Responses to “Rob Johnson’s Catching”

  1. eponymous coward on April 23rd, 2009 2:27 pm

    I welcome everyone’s comments, it’s really such a small deal. The Mariners are winning at this point, and I’m excited for them as an organization.

    It’s not a small deal that the Mariners, being in the bottom third of offense in MLB from their Cs in 2008, are on pace to repeat that in 2009. Basically, the Rob Johnson/Johjima/Burke triumvirate at C gives you about the same offensive contribution as playing Willie Bloomquist every day (Bloomquist is a slightly worse hitter, but far better baserunner). This offense already has enough issues with playing a lot of light-bat, heavy glove players, and there’s a fair amount of evidence that Rob Johnson isn’t really a superior defensive catcher. Giving away outs by playing bad players could mean the difference between postseason play and July deadline deals to blow up the team.

  2. Mike Snow on April 23rd, 2009 2:38 pm

    The traditional statistics in baseball are typically pretty indicative of a team’s W-L performance, no?

    Right, that’s why we determine who wins the World Series based on batting average and ERA.

  3. eponymous coward on April 23rd, 2009 2:42 pm

    I have yet to see how sabermetrics (i.e. predictive analysis) can be translated to results.

    Seriously? If you have yet to see this, you’re not paying attention.

    Sabremetric analysis could have told you that Jarrod Washburn, Carlos Silva and Miguel Batista were poor ways to spend 30 million and change a year, whereas traditional analysis would have said “Hey, we have three veteran starters! One coming off of an ERA title when we signed him! What could go wrong?”

  4. Jeff Nye on April 23rd, 2009 2:49 pm

    Yeah Dave, stick to data so it’s easier to dismiss you as a basement dwelling stat geek with no athletic background.

    Otherwise, people might have to strain themselves to come up with new ways to be incredibly rude to you on your own site.

    Seriously, the comments over the last few days have been awful. Post smarter or go elsewhere.

  5. BiC on April 23rd, 2009 2:51 pm

    [try making at least one post where you don’t act like an utter jerk]

  6. BiC on April 23rd, 2009 2:52 pm

    Wow Nye, did you even bother to note that I agreed with him? If you thought that was rude, you’re being a little sensitive. I meant no disrespect towards him, and in fact offered him agreement.

  7. Tuomas on April 23rd, 2009 2:55 pm

    Dave, at what level did you play catcher? Stick to data.

    I guess I’m sensitive.

  8. msb on April 23rd, 2009 2:56 pm

    I only give a shit whether or not we win or lose. All the other stuff is extraneous when examining W/L.

    But shouldn’t you have a base of knowledge to determine if the personnel you hire will get you those wins (or losses)?

  9. BiC on April 23rd, 2009 2:57 pm

    [metacommentary, and your definition of respectful needs serious work]

  10. BiC on April 23rd, 2009 2:58 pm

    But shouldn’t you have a base of knowledge to determine if the personnel you hire will get you those wins (or losses)?

    Definitely. But to what extent does this base of knowledge predict team performance?

  11. Benne on April 23rd, 2009 3:06 pm

    Speaking of Johnson, Wak has him hitting 6th today. With Jamie Burke at 1B. Yeah…..

  12. BiC on April 23rd, 2009 3:08 pm

    Any word on Sweeney? I was first baseline last night and he looked pretty bad on that swing he hurt himself on. Back? Oblique, maybe?

  13. Benne on April 23rd, 2009 3:09 pm

    Any word on Sweeney? I was first baseline last night and he looked pretty bad on that swing he hurt himself on. Back? Oblique, maybe?

    Strained back, from what I heard. Not in the lineup today.

  14. cdowley on April 23rd, 2009 3:17 pm

    The gushing over him has always been about how he handles a staff.

    The problem, of course, is that no one really has any idea if that actually matters or not, and if it does, how much so

    As a former pitcher, I’d say that there is definitely some effect in this regard. I primarily just pitched to two catchers. The first, who was around for my sophomore and the start of my junior year, basically sucked. Poor defensive catcher (I know, not the point, but bear with me), and when things went sideways, he refused to do anything more than shrug.

    My out pitch was a forkball, and the next best was a hard slider, so his defensive shortcomings sapped my confidence in being able to use those pitched without getting myself in trouble with runners on. And since he, again, refused to do much more to inspire confidence than shrug, I had to rely on my (well) below-average fastball to get people out, which meant I got knocked around alot.

    Then he got hurt (got hurt in a car accident I think?), and we got a new catcher. This guy… I liked him. Always kept the ball in front of him (I know, again, not the point, but still!), and always, ALWAYS, made sure he and his pitcher were on the same page. If something wasn’t right, he immediately popped up and came running up to see what was up.

    First game we were paired up, I got knocked around some in the first. After a couple of hits and a walk, he came running up and asked, rather bluntly, “where the fuck is that forkball?” I told him I’d had issues with it getting past the old guy. He smacked me upside the head and told me to throw it anyways, if he missed it it’d be his fault, not mine. So I started throwing the forkball, and got through the next couple of innings with only a walk, then started throwing my slider and struck out all but two of the remaining batters.

    The rest of that season was like that (didn’t play my senior year because I blew up my shoulder playing football), and with the work that the new catcher did with me and our other pitchers, we wound up winning our conference and making State. That catcher, and the confidence he helped instill in our pitching staff, was the #1 thing that put us there.

    On a side note…

    Yes, but your opinion is not automatically irrefutable simply because you hold it.

    God, I used to mod an NFL board and we just about had to fly to Detroit to beat that concept into a guy’s head a few years back…

  15. BiC on April 23rd, 2009 3:17 pm

    Wow Bill Wixey wants more fastballs from Felix. I hate FSN.

  16. Graham on April 23rd, 2009 3:40 pm

    As an example of how well advanced statistical analysis predicts team performance…

    We called the Rays being great last year and the Mariners being bad when every traditional talking head had the teams flipped.

    There are more hits I could mention, and plenty of misses, too, but generally we’re better at predictions (sometimes significantly more so) than traditionalists. You can actually do better than most of the ESPN analysts’ picks by predicting that every team will play .500 ball for the season.

  17. Graham on April 23rd, 2009 3:45 pm

    As a former pitcher, I’d say that there is definitely some effect in this regard. I primarily just pitched to two catchers.

    I accept that there is plenty of anecdotal evidence from pitchers of all levels that catcher defence has a large impact on the way that they pitch. I also accept that this makes sense.

    What’s confusing about this though is that we haven’t found evidence of a positive/negative effect of catchers on pitchers at the major league level. If it’s important, shouldn’t it have shown up by now?

  18. et_blankenship on April 23rd, 2009 3:50 pm

    Definitely. But to what extent does this base of knowledge predict team performance?

    Another example to add to Graham’s post: Modern statistical analysis has radically changed the philosophy and structure of almost every organization – not because it’s a fad, but because it is a better indicator of future performance than traditional statistical analysis.

  19. Paul B on April 23rd, 2009 3:52 pm

    My question, once more: has any brand of statistical analysis connected performance in any particular statistic to team results?


    Want an example? OPS+ correlates much better with team win loss than BA.

    Want more examples? Do some research. Lots of great web sites and books out there. You could start with some of the links in the reference material section to the left.

    As a statistician, I really liked Curve Ball: Baseball, Statistics and the Role of Chance in the Game, by Jim Albert and Jay Bennett. But that is just one of many fine books on the topic.

    You might also check the web site Fangraphs for some wonderful articles, quite a few of which were written by Dave.

  20. hub on April 23rd, 2009 6:00 pm

    Listed below are two sabermetric sources that forever changed my life as a ‘traditionlist’ baseball fan.

    1) The Book: Playing The Percentages In Baseball (great for beginners to follow)

    I found out about both of them from visiting USSMariner. Careful though. Reading these works may cause one to never again view WINS, SV, ERA, AVG, RBI, or ‘Clutch’ in the same way.

  21. Mike Snow on April 23rd, 2009 7:45 pm

    Vaguely related, Rob did pick up his first career walk today, so congratulations to him on that.

  22. catcherwatcher on April 23rd, 2009 8:16 pm

    [and you are……… outta here]

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