Catchella: What the numbers tell us about our catchers

It's time to get excited about defensive catching statistics, my friends. Unless you've been burrowed away somewhere, you're probably aware of the release of some new defensive measures for catchers on Baseball Prospectus that have been dubbed "Catchella." These are the work of Harry Pavlidis and Jonathan Judge, and especially in light of the stats glossary that John published yesterday, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at what these new numbers can tell us about the three main catchers on our roster and a bit about how they stack up in comparison to the rest of the league.

I try not to get too stats-heavy here, so I'll strive to present the numbers as cleanly as possible and then attempt to offer some bit of reaction/opinion/insight based on them. There are numbers available beyond what I have included here, and if you'd like to dig into them yourself, take a look here.

The stats are broken down into three different basic categories with a subcategory in the first: the running game, blocking pitches, and everyone's favorite: framing. I'll borrow straight from today's article on Baseball Prospectus to define these a bit further:

1. Running Game

a. Swipe Rate Above Average (SRAA) – the effect of the player on base-stealing success;

b. Takeoff Rate Above Average (TRAA) – the effect of the player on base-stealing attempts;

2. Blocking Pitches

a. Errant Pitches Above Average (EPAA) – the effect of the player on wild pitches and passed balls;

3. Framing (AKA “Presenting”)

a. Called Strikes Above Average (CSAA) – the effect of the player on strikes being called.

And then from Matthew Trueblood's piece on BP Wrigleyville, here's another look at what these things mean:

  • CSAA stands for ‘Called Strikes Above Average,’ which is, in short, framing. That number measures the value a catcher delivers by getting extra called strikes, either on the edges of the strike zone, or just beyond it. Our team has carefully determined the league-wide probability of a pitch in a given location being called a strike, and we credit or debit a catcher accordingly. This is (by a mile, by a mile and a half) the most important dimension of catcher defense.
  • EPAA is for ‘Errant Pitches Above Average,’ a shorthand for wild pitches and passed balls. Guys who save runs in this area are very good blockers of balls in the dirt (or any other location in which pitches are prone to get past a catcher and cost the team a base).
  • TRAA captures intimidation factor. It stands for ‘Takeoff Rate Above Average,’ and is our way of accounting for the catcher’s role in deterring runners from even attempting steals.
  • SRAA tells us what happens when runners do take off. Catchers who throw runners out at a higher rate than we’d expect, correcting for other factors, will rack up run contributions under ‘Swipe Rate Above Average.’

I would encourage taking a look at the article on BP's main page for a deeper definition of how some of these numbers are measured, but I hope to take somewhat of a look at how at least Miguel Montero, David Ross, and Kyle Schwarber impact the Cubs while they are behind the plate. First, a look at Montero, as he logged the most innings at catcher in 2015, and will very likely do the same in 2016. I'll break these down based on the numbers given above, and then attempt to make some sort of summary from it, keeping in mind that these stats are still very fresh, and our understanding of them will develop as we move forward:

Miguel Montero

Innings (2015): 825

SRAA:  0.054

TRAA: 0.006

EPAA: 0.000

CSAA: 0.020

Framing Runs: 16

Blocking Runs: 0.2

Throwing Runs: -2.2

Montero generally sits near the top of the league in most of these numbers, with his throwing runs being the most notable exception. For some perspective, former Cub Welington Castillo is nearly at the bottom of the rankings in every category. There is a 27 run difference between him and Montero in terms of framing runs (16 to -11.3) Not to digress too far from my own topic, but with this in mind, trading Castillo makes a lot more sense with some of his defensive numbers in mind. Whatever he might add potentially at the plate, he is costing his team runs with his defense. Montero's value to the team comes primarily from his work behind the plate, with whatever pop he provides on offense really kind of being icing on the cake. All things considered, he is quite a bit above average nearly across the board.

David Ross

Innings (2015): 402.1

SRAA:  0.004

TRAA: 0.002

EPAA: 0.000

CSAA: 0.010

Framing Runs: 4.3

Blocking Runs: -0.1

Throwing Runs: -0.1

While it might not be entirely fair to compare Ross to Montero directly based on these numbers because of the clear difference in terms of number of innings spent behind the plate (Montero also had double the amount of "framing chances" that Ross did in 2015), it is worth acknowledging the obvious difference in what we see between the two of them. Ross is often lauded for the intangibles that he can bring to a team, and that his defense is at least somewhat worth the cost at the plate (he had just one error in 434 chances last year), it should be noted that his defense last year was at least enough to make him just above replacement level (fWAR of 0.1). I should point out too that when looking at some of these numbers by themselves, they may not look all that impressive, keep in mind that again, Castillo's would be much, much worse if I were to include them here, and backup catchers as a whole don't usually wow anybody (remember Koyie Hill?). It's easy to harp on Ross and his putrid output on offense, but he is still ranked above most of the league in terms of his defense.

Kyle Schwarber

Innings (2015): 136

SRAA:  0.020

TRAA: 0.002

EPAA: 0.000

CSAA: -0.006

Framing Runs: -0.9

Blocking Runs: 0.0

Throwing Runs: -0.2

I include Schwarber's numbers here with the obvious caveat that his time behind the plate is significantly lower than either Ross or Montero, and given the defensive outlook for 2016, I don't expect that to change. In 2015, he spent more than twice the number of innings in the outfield than he did at catcher, and other than an occasional start behind the plate in 2016, I don't see that looking much differently. The question of Schwarber's development on defense is an interesting one, and probably one for a different day, but Ross is very likely out the door after this season, so the depth chart will change going into 2017. This is where someone like Willson Contreras becomes an intriguing option, but he has not yet played above AA, and his defensive performance so far is not yet close to the level where I'd want to see him behind the plate with any sort of regularity. He'll likely spend all or most of 2016 in AAA, and I would imagine that his catching defense will be a big part of what he will work on. In terms of Schwarber, his future as a catcher is very hard to see at this point, but I don't see any indication that the Cubs are looking to abandon that just yet.

As a whole, Montero not only tops the list for our rostered catchers (I didn't include Taylor Teagarden here, as his 34 total innings behind the plate in 2015 didn't strike me as worth it), but he is also among the better defensive catchers in the league. The SRAA, TRAA, EPAA, and CSAA numbers don't actually range too widely for the most part - CSAA, for instance, ranges from 0.030 at the top to -0.059 at the very bottom - and these are also based on just 2015. I think some of this is worth keeping in mind, especially perhaps in Montero's case, as his largest value added to the team can often come from what he does with his glove, and not necessarily his bat. We should be happy though, as our two primary catchers are easily among the best in the league, at least defensively.

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  • The numbers reflect what I see with my eyes. Both guys are good receivers that are no longer premier throwers in their advanced age.

    Montero is not going to sniff the middle of the order this season barring a rash of injuries unlike last season when the guy hit in the 4 or 5 hole quite often, especially early in the season. He can slide into the #8 spot (or 7 depending on where Maddon hits the pitcher) and work some walks, hit the occasional HR and everyone should be happy. I'm not sure how pitchers haven't come to the realization that he can't hit a fastball above thigh high, but as long as teams continue to throw him the occasional low fastball he can still contribute some occasional power.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    The Cubs catchers right now are here strictly for those nuances of catching -- especially important with a veteran staff. They're going to have to find a way to ease young catchers in.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Yeah, it will be interesting to see how they handle it, especially with potentially two catchers (Contreras/Schwarber) trying to break in at roughly the same time. I think it is safe to say the club will be carrying 3 catchers for the next couple of years. I expect Montero finishes his contract in a Cubs uniform as he slowly hands the reigns to Contreras and Schwarber (or Caratini). If they decide to keep Schwarber in LF full time than I could see them eventually bringing in another veteran to support Contreras once Montero departs.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    It's possible that Ross doesn't make through the season on the roster if Contreras is ready to move up. I can see Theo moving him on to the coaching staff mid-season.

  • I have to think that Ross' throwing numbers are affected by the pitcher on the mound. Being the personal catcher for Lester probably hurts his throwing numbers. But maybe they account for the pitcher???

  • In reply to Gerald:

    Don't quote me on this, but it does appear that these numbers do factor in the pitcher, but more so in terms of blocking and framing.

  • In reply to Gerald:

    Great point. Seems like it would effect not only the rate of runners thrown out, but the more dramatic effect would likely be the "intimidation factor" piece. There were certainly games last year where it seemed like every runner who reached first against Lester was looking to take 2nd

  • In reply to Gerald:

    I agree. If you think much about it, Ross' numbers are remarkable given that he primarily catches the pitcher who is the easiest guy in the league to run on. The fact that his "intimidation factor" to base runners is even above average is pretty incredible.

    On the flip side, since Montero usually doesn't catch Lester, his number may be slightly over-rated (?). Not trying to rag on him, I love what Miguel brings to the team. Just saying that life is definitely easier on him in the run-stealing department since he doesn't have to catch Lester.

  • In reply to Gerald:

    I would think every one of these numbers is affected by the pitcher. A lot.

  • In reply to Kramerica20:

    The catchella stat takes into account the pitcher. No additional analysis is necessary. There seems to be a lot of conclusion selective analysis of Montero with the assumption being that he's not very good. I'm a fan of Montero and even I was shocked by the framing numbers.
    It might be time to accept that Montero is really good. His defense was way above average, his wrc+ was 107 which is way above average for a catcher. He's tough as nails, playing the last quarter of the season with a bad hand that almost certainly affected his offense. He hustles out of the box like no catcher since maybe Jason Kendall, and he's a big-time leader, taking Schwarber and Contreras under his wing and even working with Schwarber for a week or two before 2016 spring training begins. It seems like he's everything we could have ever hoped for in a trade for just a couple buckets of balls. #Monteroisgood

  • In reply to Kramerica20:

    I would be curious to see what Ross' SRAA ad TRAA would be if you took Lester out of the formulas? I feel he is a better catch and throw guy than Montero. Why I do not know, but Montero's throws fade a lot toward RF. Yet in video his footwork looks lined up w/ 2nd base, not opened up stepping toward SS, and his weight is not falling toward 3rd base. I don't get it unless his elbow is dropping. Spin should reveal that.

    As a result I wish we had an analysis of the weighted value of framing, blocking, and catch and throw.

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    Great article as usual. I would just like to add that we would have lost the game in DC without the throw Ross made to end the game in DC. For that game alone I give him a 1.0 in TWTW which we all know is the only stat that counts.

    Jokes aside I am constantly amazed how much I learn about baseball everyday from this blog. Fascinating article and I look forward to following your writing in 2016.

  • In reply to Daniel Rosenberg:

    Thank you Daniel!

  • Do/could framing runs (or framing runs above replacement), etc, correlate to RAR and thus WAR. I'm not sure what factors from catching defense are currently being consider for a catchers defensive contributions to WAR.

  • In reply to kb60187:

    Because these stats are just being released, they are not currently directly factored into WAR, from what I understand.

  • More good info! A couple of questions:

    1. If the league were to go to an automated strike zone, the CSAA stat should become irrelevant since the human factor would be eliminated, right?

    2. Since we still have the human factor.... Do you think the CSAA stat may work against some of the current leaders this year? I.e. Do you think umpires look at this stuff and think, "I can't be fooled by this catchers framing ability?"

    3. From yesterday's article, WAR accounts for a players position when it is calculated. Is this why Kyle Hendricks WAR is so high? Because it accounts for him being a 4/5 starter and therefore his results have more value there?

    Just some random questions I've been thinking about while I should be working......

  • In reply to Cubsinfl:

    1. In theory, yes
    2. Umpires have always been aware of catcher framing abilities and they don't seem to have ever used the catcher's skill at it against them
    3. No, WAR does not take a pitcher's rotation spot into account since the whole idea of a 1-5 slot is essentially meaningless until the postseason. Hendricks has a high WAR because he stayed healthy and threw a decent amount of innings while having a several stretches of the season where he pitched above average and never had an extended rough stretch.

  • In reply to Cubsinfl:

    As far as question 2, I do have to wonder the same, to some extent, but I think umpires already know who the better "framers" are, so it's hard to tell what impact having these numbers on it will have.

  • In reply to Jared Wyllys:

    Yeah, all of the Braves catchers from the 90s would set up behind the opposite batter's box and then push their mit toward the strike zone and get ridiculous amounts of calls for Maddux and Glavine. Umpires knew exactly what they were doing and never held it against them (and never inforced the catcher's box rule to boot). Catchers and pitchers will continue to get reputation and mistake calls as long as the human element is involved.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Makes sense, thanks guys.

  • I don't want to jinx anybody, but with Montero and Ross, there is the possibility of an extended injury. Of course Schwarber helps, but I'm not sure Contreras is ready defensively for significant big-league playing time, especially early in the season. Taylor Davis has hit real well for a couple years, but again, we seem to value defense. We could use a Teagarden-type at Iowa. Shouldn't be much of a problem. Hell, maybe that's the break Contreras needs to run with it.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    They picked up David Freitas as a veteran minor league guy with AAA experience in the minor league rule 5 draft. He hasn't played in the majors, but between Contreras, Davis and Freitas they seem to have plenty of options at AAA for any short term injury. In the event of a season ending injury to Montero or Ross the team would likely go outside the org to find a replacement if they don't feel Schwarber/Contreras is ready. A contending team isn't going to run with a Teagarden type in the playoffs if it can be avoided, even in a backup role.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    Between Schwarber and Contreras you cold likely make do, especially if it's Ross. You lose Montero you might have a bigger problem but there are potential answers. A lot of teams don't have even that.

  • For 2016, does it make sense to have Schwarber be the catcher for Hendricks like Ross is for Lestor. Reduces Montero workload (catches 3 out of 5 days) and gives Schwarber defined catcher inning to develop skill set. Plus frees up LF for Coglan or Zobrist every 5th day.

  • In reply to kenilworth:

    I'd like to see him get 1 start at C per week and get one day on the bench to sit next to Ross and absorb. I'd like to see him get a mix of pitchers to work with though rather than one assigned guy. If for instance he has difficulty receiving the velocity and movement on Arrieta's stuff than it can provide info on whether the C experiment is worth continuing or not.

    Coghlan should start in place of Schwarber and Soler each at least once per week to keep everyone fresh. Early in the season in the cold and in the height of summer in the humidity in particular I would like to see every starter get one day off per week, even Rizzo and Bryant. This team has versatile, starting caliber bench players. Lets utilize them.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Even if Schwarber only catches every Hendrick start, will still get to catch other pitchers with more velocity / movement as Hendrick only typically lasts until 5 or 6th inning so will catch Cahill, strop, Rondon, etc.

  • I have the sense that Hendricks ' ERA was much higher with Schwarber than Montero but I'm far too lazy to look it up

  • In reply to ericccs:

    It was. It was 4.40 for Schwarber over 28 innings, while 4.00 (so not significantly) with Montero over 110.1 innings. Ross had a 2.00 ERA over 18 innings.

    Yes, I remember looking at Schwarber's receiving ERA last year when he took over while Montero was injured, and it wasn't good. It seems to at least have improved a little by the end to 4.70 by season-end for all pitchers. Since he didn't receive Arrieta or Lester, it's obviously a little skewed, but not very impressive.

    Hendricks splits:
    http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/split.cgi?id=hendrky01&year=&t=p

    Schwarber's Fielding:
    http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/s/schwaky01-field.shtml

  • In reply to Antone:

    thanks Antone for looking that up. I also feel we have to consider that Schwarber was catching most of his games in the heat of the summer when the wind was blowing out and he was catching the 3-5 starters and Hammel was bad with everyone during the 2nd half. Schwarbs has a lot of modifiers of responsibility there. Also, he absolutely raked while catching.

  • If Kyle is going to catch in the majors, he will need catching experience. His bat was so good that he lost valuable time behind the plate in 2015. It is more difficult finding on the job work playing time behind the plate on a competitive team. Injury is likely with ageing catchers so Schwarber might be forced to sink or swim in 2016 at some point.

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    This is really a question from your article on SabreMetrics but I waited too long to read it and didn't think my question would be answered. I always thought BABIP should include the 'hard hit ball' stat + 'line drive' stat. That would make the BABIP stat really useful. John did say 'quality of contact factors in' but I don't know how. Can someone please tell me? Anyone?

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    Where are the numbers for this from? Where does Castillo rank in the throwing categories?

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    These came straight from the BP article. It has embedded links to the statistical tables you can sort.

    For Castillo, here's what it shows:

    CSAA: -0.029
    Framing Runs -11.3
    EPAA 0.000 (this stat was a bit weird to me, because the range is tiny)
    SRAA 0.005
    TRAA -0.017
    Throwing runs 0.2
    FRAA -11

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    In reply to Jared Wyllys:

    So Castillo, unsurprisingly, makes up some of the difference with his throwing but not nearly enough to cover the gap in framing. The numbers are all believable. (And Harry does exceptional work, period.)

    My real fear with Contreras is that we're essentially using a version of the guy we couldn't wait to get out of town because his framing and game calling were sub-par.

    Nice article.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    Thanks, Mike. I have fallen victim myself of falling victim to Contreras' bat and missing the weaknesses on defense. I hope they'll just leave him at Iowa for 2016 and let him really work on that.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    Its possible for Contreras to make up some of the difference with his bat as well. Potential for more contact and obp with Contreras over Castillo. Contreras doesn't necessarily have to be amongst the best in the league like Montero and Ross to be valuable, if he can just be average defensively he can be a good player. Castillo's defensive issue is that he is one of the worst framers in the game and unless a guy has a bat like Schwarber teams are not going to put up with that level of defense.

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