The Mariners and Catcher Defense
Think back to the heady days of 2010. The M’s were wallowing through a soul-crushing season after the false-dawn that was 2009. The M’s had two youngsters manning the catcher position that year, Rob Johnson and Adam Moore. They’d moved former #1 prospect Jeff Clement to Pittsburgh the year before, getting Jack Wilson and Ian Snell in a deal that somehow everyone lost. The M’s youngsters weren’t playing to bolster the offense – they combined to hit…you know, *don’t* look it up. It’s actually worse than you remember. For a brief moment, Moore had some offensive promise, but given the trade and Clement’s poor defensive reputation, the M’s implied that Johnson/Moore had MLB-quality defense (given that neither would’ve been projected to out-hit Clement).
Even in 2009, the M’s seemed to see something in Johnson’s receiving that got him playing time in front of the established Kenji Johjima and the “can’t miss” prospect, Jeff Clement. Some pitchers complained about Kenji Johjima’s receiving, but we had no way to quantify that. What we *could* quantify told us that Rob Johnson wasn’t exactly Ivan Rodriguez. His SB/CS% was a step behind Johjima’s. His PBs/WP allowed were hide-your-eyes terrible. The less said about his batting, the better. It’s like the M’s somehow believed there was an absolutely massive, yet hitherto un-measurable trait catchers had that could both influence runs scored, and the magnitude of which *dwarfed* things like passed-balls and caught-stealing. It seemed so bizarre.
Enter Mike Fast, Max Marchi and Dan Turkenkopf (with Marchi’s hiring this year, all of them are now in the employ of big league teams). Turkenkopf’s initial 2008 study of a skill called catcher “framing” made a lot of waves, but even in sabermetric circles, it seemed far-fetched. The idea that Kenji Johjima gave up 0.6 runs *per game* with his receiving seemed completely impossible. Our own Matthew Carruth investigated this through the Johnson-vs-Johjima lens in 2010. Then Mike Fast’s definitive 2011 study came along, which was reenforced by Max Marchi’s whatever-is-beyond-definitive work later in the year. Each of these studies of framing found that certain catchers were clearly better, year after year, than others, and that the effect was huge – many multiples of the range in, say, controlling the running game or blocking pitches. So the M’s were right then? Well….
It’s early, but 2014’s definitive study of catcher framing came out this week at BP, as Dan Brooks and Harry Pavlidis (of Brooks Baseball/Pitch Info) used a new method to control for pitcher, count, and (crucially) pitch type. That they found the same size effect is no longer noteworthy. But they also included tables of the best/worst framers in total and on a rate basis for the pitch fx era (2008-2013). Of the 10 worst pitch framers of the past half-decade, HALF played for the Mariners. Five. Rob Johnson comes in at 3rd worst at -26 runs per season, saved by John Hester and the most consistently-cited “bad framer,” Ryan Doumit. Jesus Montero comes in behind Johnson, and he’s followed by Johjima. Adam Moore’s at -22.5, and John Jaso comes in 10th at -20.8.
There are any number of objections to this – none of these guys actually got a full season behind the plate. The M’s saw Jaso and Montero were poor defenders, so they moved them across the diamond or across the division. And hey, what about Miguel Olivo? He’s not on the list. It’s true – he’s not. But he checked in at -12.2 runs in his half-season in 2013, and I think you’ll all believe me if I say that the new metric doesn’t rate his pitch blocking very highly. You can lodge a meta-critique and say that the entire business of assigning such large run values to catchers is suspect, especially when it’s hard to track in actual runs allowed. This is either damning, or way overblown, so forget the numbers – you don’t have to believe that basically every catcher in the past 5 years took away more runs than Brad Miller added above replacement overall. Forget run values for asecond though: how could *everyone* the M’s trotted out between Yorvit Torrealba and Mike Zunino rank so poorly?
My point in this isn’t to blast M’s management for being behind the times, or for poor player development, or any of that. The problem pretty clearly spanned both the Zduriencik and Bavasi regimes. I’m legitimately curious as to how results like this could happen, particularly in an organization that seems to value defense overall and defense from the catcher’s spot more than most. It’s not mystifying that they were frustrated with Jaso or Montero. It’s mystifying that they grab an Olivo or, yes, a John Buck to fix the problem (John Buck ranked dead last in framing runs in MLB in 2010, and finished 3rd from the bottom last year).
So clearly, the M’s don’t put too much stock in these new-fangled metrics. That’s fine, reasonable people can disagree about what they’re showing – about the signal to noise ratio embedded in these numbers. I’d just like to know what the M’s look for in a catcher. They’ve got two ex-catchers as assistant GMs. They USED to have an ex-catcher as the player development coordinator. It’s not that they don’t believe that framing matters at all – they practice it (when I was ranting about this on twitter,* Ryan Divish noted that he’s *watched* the M’s go through framing drills). Do their internal/proprietary numbers agree with…every public sabermetric study on the subject? Or are they looking for a subtly different skill set, one that isn’t picked up by pitch fx-based studies, but that still affects counts (and runs)? If so, what is it? The M’s have trotted out the worst hitting (miss u Jaso), worst pitch-blocking, worst pitch-framing catchers in baseball, if the publicly-available data is to be trusted.
Several of you responded with theories of how this could be on twitter, and I’d like to hear any others in the comments. Is there a flaw in how they instruct their catchers? Is there some bizarre park effect? Are we fundamentally getting the allocation of blame wrong, and not even Jose Molina could frame a, say, Jason Vargas pitch? Are the M’s catchers systematically undervalued because the run values ascribed to different counts don’t work in Safeco’s run environment? None of these seem remotely satisfactory.
If everyone’s on the wrong track with this stuff, I’d love to hear about it. If there’s *another* hidden-yet-incredibly-important skill that everyone’s missing, that would be a revelation. But I have no idea what that would be. The fact that every single player** has looked so bad (except Jesus Sucre!), the fact that you look up each newly-acquired player they sign and it’s the same horror show…it almost looks like they are targeting poor pitch framers, as if shorting pitch framing was a bizarre market inefficiency.*** If the M’s wanted to punt defense and focus on offense, that would be a philosophically defensible position, but one that running John Jaso out of town at the first opportunity seems inconsistent with. The M’s care deeply about catcher defense. They just care about it differently than everyone else, and essentially opposite to the ways we can measure.
* I wanted to write this up last night, but my laptop wouldn’t cooperate, so I grabbed my phone and chunked much of this into 140-character bites. I’m glad I did, as Divish’s input was important, and it was great to hear folks’ theories. But it does mean some of you are getting kind of a repeat here. I’m still completely baffled by this, if you haven’t noticed.
** This brings us to Mike Zunino, of course. He could be the best framer the M’s have had, but then, an Ivan Rodriguez baseball card, a potted plant or an oatmeal stout could be the best framer the M’s have had. He got good marks on his defense in college, struggled slightly with blocking in the minors, and looked OK in MLB in limited duty last year. I think it’s telling, though, that the one guy who could buck this trend is the one guy unambiguously selected for his bat. It’s when they really focus on defense that they select such poor defenders.
*** As many have noted, the free agent/trade markets do not seem to price framing into player values; baseball as a whole seems not to buy in to the whole concept, which may be telling. That also means you can’t get a “bargain” by picking up someone the new metrics have unfairly slighted.