I’ve long been an advocate of the offensively inclined catcher. This, I tend to think, is not the most radical stance I’ve ever taken. Those who disagree find themselves in the awkward position of saying they’d rather not field a catcher capable of an .850 OPS who can hit 25 home runs a year. That’s not a particularly winning argument.
Of course, there’s a bit more nuance to it than that. By playing a strong offensive player at catcher, you’re necessarily not playing him somewhere else on the field (or not on the field, in the case of the DH). To use an example from yesteryear, by playing Victor Martinez at catcher, the 2007 Indians were able to use Travis Hafner at DH and Ryan Garko at first. Since it’s fairly easy to find strong offensive first basemen and DHs, the Indians were able to field three offensive threats from a trio of positions that typically yields only two. In other words, a catcher who can hit lengthens a team’s lineup and adds runs. Scoring more runs means winning more games. What’s not to like?
This analysis is obviously leaving something out: Winning baseball games is not solely about scoring runs. It’s also about preventing them, which is achieved by way of both pitching and defense—two acts intrinsically tied to the catcher position. My argument has long been that as long as we didn’t have compelling evidence that a strong-hitting catcher’s defense was actually negating his offensive contributions, I’d rather keep the longer lineup and hope the improvement in run-scoring would outweigh any deficits in run prevention.
This is, more or less, the Victor Martinez argument. Sure, Victor could have played first base in 2007, effectively moving Ryan Garko and his .842 OPS to the bench1 in favor of Kelly Shoppach’s defense and his .780 OPS. But by exactly how much was Shoppach’s defense superior to Victor’s? How many runs would be prevented that Victor may have cost us? Was it worth the easily identifiable swing of 62 points in OPS? Not only did we not know the answer to that question (i.e. how many runs better was one catcher than another, defensively), but plenty of people couldn’t even agree on which guy was actually better. Throw in leadership and management of the staff and weird relationships with specific pitchers, and I tended to throw my hands up. Give me the guy who can hit. At least we know who that is.
Which of course brings us to Carlos Santana. For years, I’ve applied roughly this same logic to Santana’s situation. Sure, he’s not the greatest defensive catcher out there, and he’s likely costing us runs because of it. But keeping him behind the plate frees up first base for someone like Swisher, which frees up right field for someone like David Murphy (or a defensive game-changer like Drew Stubbs). A rolling DH spot prevents the sort of inflexibility we had near the end of Travis Hafner’s contract, where the lineup spot is basically lost to an aging player incapable of playing anywhere else. By keeping Carlos behind the plate, the argument goes, we are increasing our versatility while lengthening our lineup.
Two things have thrown this equation off-balance for me. The first is that Yan Gomes appears to be able to hit, lessening the impact of moving Santana from behind the dish. Gomes likely isn’t as good as he was last season (.826 OPS; 131 wRC+) nor is he likely as good a hitter as Santana (career .814 OPS; 128 wRC+), but he’s still a real, live hitter who isn’t Lou Marson (career .609 OPS; 74 wRC+). Even if Gomes is a league-average hitter, there’s considerable value in that behind the plate. On average last season, catchers were seven percent worse than a league average hitter, meaning that a league-average hitter would actually be an above average hitting catcher. In other words, we would likely be more than happy with Yan Gomes even at a 100 wRC+, which would represent significant regression from his 2013 campaign.
The other reason I’m ready to move Santana off catcher has to do with recent research on the impact pitch-framing and how particularly awful Santana is at framing. For the uninitiated, pitch framing is essentially a catcher’s ability to get a ball called a strike. Some are very good at this:2
Some are not:
It may or may not surprise you that Santana happens to be bad at pitch framing. It will almost certainly surprise you how many runs and wins being bad a pitch framing will cost you. There are various methodologies here, but the basic approach is to assign a run value to a called strike or a called ball and then give credit when a catcher turns a ball (from pitch f/x data) into a strike, or vice versa.3
Let’s look at the framing leaderboard last year. I’ve limited the list to AL catchers with at least 6,000 pitches caught. All data from StatCorner’s calculations:
Some quick terminology. When Yan Gomes was catching, 10.3% of pitches in the strikezone (according to pitch f/x) were called balls. 8.0% of pitches that were out of the strikezone were called strikes. On the aggregate, Gomes got about 115 “more calls” than the average catcher in 2013 did, which meant about 1.5 pitchers per game better than average. That amounted to more than 15 runs saved over the course of his season (which, remember, was partial, as both he and Santana had more than 6,000 pitches caught).
Looking at the swing from Gomes to Santana and assuming that a “full-time” catcher would have about twice these sample sizes, we end up with a difference of almost 45 runs (positive 30 for Gomes and negative 15 for Santana)—somewhere between four or five wins, just on framing along. The difference between 90 wins and 95, just on pitch framing.
Of course, half a season of data is hardly enough to hang one’s hat on, compelling though it may be. So I created a list of all catchers with at least 700 innings caught in at least two of the last three seasons. I included their defensive runs saved—which does NOT incorporate framing—along with framing numbers from StatCorner. I combined them into a categore called “CATCHER RUNS”, converted that to wins, and Voila:
Santana has cost his team, on average, more than two wins per season compared to the average defensive catcher—more than any other catcher on the list by a not inconsiderable margin. He’s bad at framing. He’s bad a blocking pitches. He’s bad at holding runners and preventing stolen bases. And taken together, he’s so bad at so many things that he’s costing his team a considerable number of wins each season.
What’s troubling about all this is that Santana could be good at any of the things I’ve outlined above. He has a great arm. He’s athletic and by no means slow-footed, at least compared to some of his Molina-based colleagues. Many of the things he stinks at just require effort to improve. Framing and footwork aren’t mysteries—they’re effort-driven.
But Santana either hasn’t been taught properly or is a recalcitrant student. Either way, he’s negating a good portion of his offensive value simply by donning the tools of ignorance most days.
Which I guess means that I’ve finally got the evidence I need. The cost-benefit equation for keeping Santana behind the plate just doesn’t make sense to me anymore. Not now that we know just how costly his defense has been. So maybe Lonnie Chisenhall rides the pine for a bit or we lose the flexibility of a rolling DH. Maybe Santana plays more first than Swisher and Giambi finally becomes the bench coach he should be.
Regardless, I think we know enough about Yan Gomes to trust him. And enough about Santana not to.
- I do not acknowledge the proposed sobriquet “Ryan Garko, Left Fielder”. [↩]
- GIFs taken from this wonderful piece last year on Grantland. There have been other great pieces, especially here and here that are worth your eyeball time. [↩]
- For instance, there is a change in run expectancy from a 0-0 count to 0-1 count. Were a catcher to frame a ball that would’ve resulted in a 1-0 count into a strike resulting in a 0-1 count, the value of that framed pitch would be the difference in run expectancy between a 0-1 count and 1-0 count—a fraction of a run to be sure. But do this thousands of times in a season, and you see how the numbers can add up. [↩]