It is really hard to evaluate the defensive ability of a catcher, especially for us when we don’t see the players often enough if ever. Defensive statistics like UZR have become popular, but don’t apply to catchers. Since the White Sox have three catchers that were in our top 11 prospects, I wanted to keep track of whatever catching stats I could. Take a look at the results.
I tracked the basics (steals, caught stealings, errors and passed balls) and matched the baserunning statistics to each pitcher. This also allows us to see which pitchers are able to hold runners and which are easy to run on. Obviously, it’s barely more than a month into the minor league season, but let’s take an early look.
*Donny Lucy, Chase Blackwood and Logan Johnson each have played less than three minor league games so their numbers were not included.
Before I over analyze the table, I feel required to note that there are a lot of factors that go into the ability to throw out a runner. The pitcher’s ability to hold the runner, the speed of the runner, the type of pitch thrown when the runner tries to steal and the location of the pitch are all factors that the catcher has virtually no control of. This may seem obvious, but it is a necessary disclaimer before trying to make some sense of the numbers.
With that said, the first thing that stands out to me is Miguel Gonzalez seems to be living up to his hype. Baseball America called him the best defensive catcher in the system and throwing out 16 of 36 baserunners supports that. I also thought it was odd that despite Gonzalez’s reputation, teams are running on him that much. Word may be spreading though; 26 runners tried to steal on him in his first 11 starts behind the dish and only 10 have tried in his last 11 starts.
Gonzalez’s teammate in Kannapolis, Kevin Dubler also has thrown out a high rate of baserunners. This leads me to think that either teams in Low-A are running more assuming the catchers aren’t as polished (which is probably true) or the Intimidators’ pitching staff is good at holding runners (which may be true). It’s probably somewhere in the middle, but Joe Serafin (6/11 thrown out), Cameron Bayne (6/7 thrown out) and Matt Wickswat (4/5 thrown out) seemed to show an ability to hold runners. Wickswat and Serafin are lefties so that shouldn’t be a surprise, but Bayne is a righty so that’s more impressive. When I take another look at these numbers in a month or so I will focus more on pitchers’ abilities to hold runners, but for now I don’t think there is enough data to look too much into it.
The next thing I noticed was that the catchers seemed to be grouped together by team. This makes sense considering they will be dealing with mostly the same pitchers and pitchers are almost as important as the catcher in throwing out runners because of their pickoff moves and time to the plate. Gonzalez and Dubler were next to each other at the top, the three Dash catchers (Phegley, Sierra and Bour) were next to each other in the middle and Flowers and Ricks of the Knights had the two lowest percentages. The only difference was Birmingham teammates Jared Price and Cole Armstrong. Price threw out half of his baserunners while Armstrong threw out just 24%. Armstrong was Baseball America’s top White Sox defensive catcher entering 2009, but that’s not a good way to support that.
Tyler Flowers and Josh Phegley are top prospects in the system with questionable defensive abilities and it’s hard to read too much into these numbers, but they mostly line up with the scouting reports. Both are probably on the bubble to stay at the position (and that doesn’t even factor in Phegley’s recovery from ITP). Meanwhile, infielders turned catchers Ricks and Sierra struggled. Sierra is below his Dash teammates in CS% and has five passed balls in 12 starts.
To summarize, encouraging stuff behind the plate from Gonzalez is probably the reason he won’t be sent to extended spring training before rookie ball starts (assuming he continues to struggle at the plate and the Sox send him to Great Falls). For the most part it’s hard to determine how much the catcher influences the ability to throw out runners because most of the teammates have similar CS%. As we get more data the picture should become clearer and next time I’ll try to determine which pitchers are able to hold runners.