Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Defense at Catcher

Similar to the situation at shortstop, much was made this off-season about the perceived downgrade the Cardinals were going to have at the catching position.

Most felt that Yadier Molina would likely be able to match the offensive production of Mike Matheny (although we're still waiting.) Most even felt that, eventually, Molina would be as good or better than Matheny with the glove. But in 2005? A 21 year old starting catcher trying to take a veteran team back to the playoffs? The Cardinals were all but certain to miss the veteran leadership, the handling of pitchers, blah blah blah. I didn't bother to look up any of these gloom and doom quotes last night - after all, the season is barely at the 10% mark and the Cardinals could still end up being wrong on this one. But I have looked up the defensive statistics, and the results may surprise you a bit.

"Normal" Defensive Statistics

First, let's look at the old standby numbers of Fielding Percentage, Range Factor, and Zone Rating. I'm not going to spend much time on these since, frankly, range factor and zone rating for catchers doesn't really tell you a whole lot.

Matheny - 1.000 FP, 6.35 RF, 1.000 ZR
Molina - .983 FP, 7.42 RF, 1.000 ZR

Molina has committed two errors which actually ties him with 5 other catchers for most in the majors. With that being said, one of the guys he's tied with is Brian Schneider who has a great glove. In other words, 2 errors this early may just be a fluke - we'll see.

Molina's RF is the 9th best in baseball, with Matheny coming in 21st. How important of a factor is RF for a catcher? Mike Piazza ranks 1st. This from the guy that's allowed 20 steals while throwing out just 1 base runner.

Zone Rating is equally useless. Out of 27 catchers listed on ESPN's defensive website 23 have a ZR of 1.000. Next.

Caught Stealing

This is the area that first caught my eye and caused me to write this article.

Molina - 2 Stolen Bases Allowed, 4 Caught Stealing, 67% CS
Matheny - 11 Stolen Bases Allowed, 3 Caught Stealing, 21% CS

We all know that Molina has a cannon for an arm, but he's only allowed 2 steals this year? That's pretty amazing, as is his MLB best 2/3 rate for throwing out base runners. His great arm, combined with a high early success rate, may deter teams from even thinking about running on him.

Meanwhile, Mr. Matheny has already allowed 11 stolen bases. At that pace, he'd allow in the neighborhood of 90 steals this season. Over his career, he's allowed as many as 69 in a season, but had kept teams to 44 or fewer since coming to the Cardinals in 2000. Interestingly enough, his CS percentage isn't much worse than it had been over the past 2 seasons when it was under 30%. Supposedly, teams were afraid to run on him because his arm was so good, thus only top notch base stealers were running on him and skewing his caught stealing rates. Maybe the NL West didn't get the memo that he couldn't be ran on?

Handling of Pitchers

Ignore Matheny's bat. Ignore is ability to block balls in the dirt and (supposedly) throw out base runners. The real, real aspect of Mike Matheny that the Cardinals were going to sorely miss was his ability to handle the pitchers. After all - how could anyone reasonably expect a mere kid like Molina to know how to call the right pitches, settle down the hurler, etc?

Matheny - 5.28
Molina - 3.11

Molina has the 2nd best CERA (catcher's ERA) in the majors, while Matheny comes in at his uniform number of 22. In other words - every 9 innings that each of them catch, Molina's pitcher's are allowing 2 fewer runs than Matheny's.

Obviously this isn't a great comparison, considering that they have two different pitching staffs to work with, not to mention 2 different parks to play half of their games in. Heck, for that matter the Giants may have played a few games in Coors Field already, thus skewing the numbers. On the other hand, Matheny is playing his home games in more of a pitcher's park than Molina.

To take it a step further, I looked up the starting pitcher's for each team. Listed below are each player's current ERA, along with their career ERA.

Jason Schmidt - 3.41, 3.90 Career
Noah Lowry - 5.09, 3.57 Career
Bret Tomko - 5.70, 4.53 Career
Kirk Rueter - 7.20, 4.18 Career
Jerome Williams - 6.48, 3.77 Career

Matt Morris - 2.45, 3.53 Career
Jason Marquis - 2.77, 4.16 Career
Mark Mulder - 3.10, 3.92 Career
Jeff Suppan - 3.42, 4.80 Career
Chris Carpenter - 4.15, 4.59 Career

Interesting, don't you think? The Giants rotation is worse than their career across the board, while the opposite is true of the Cardinals. Disclaimers abound, of course. Mulder, Suppan, and Carpenter spent the bulk of their careers in the AL, thus should have better ERA's in the NL. Not to mention, when you're talking about 3 to 5 starts per pitcher, one lousy one can badly inflate an ERA (thus Carpenter's rotation high ERA in St. Louis...for now.)

With those things being said - if a catcher really, really has an effect on the performance of a pitcher (which is open for debate), and if Matheny really, really is so gifted in that area - wouldn't you expect at least 1 or 2 of the Giants rotation to be showing an improvement over their career marks? Or better yet, wouldn't you expect more than 1 member of their rotation to have an ERA under 5.00?

Wrapping it up

Overall, there are still a lot of games to be played. I suspect the pitching will get better in San Francisco, and likely will get a little worse in St. Louis (unless you think Marquis and Morris can keep it up all year.) What will really be interesting to keep an eye on will be if teams continue to run on Matheny like mad. Even if they don't - Yadier is showing in the early going that his $323,000 2005 salary is very likely to be a much, much better value than the $10.5 million the Giants are paying Matheny over the next 3 years.


At 10:47 AM, Anonymous bittergradstudent said...

Interesting post. The only other thing that I wonder about is passed balls--Molina seems to be letting a few get by him compared to what Matheny used to do, but I don't really see anyone keeping track of them.

At 10:51 AM, Blogger Robb said...

According to ESPN, Molina only has 1 passed ball this year.

You're either having flashbacks to the ones given up by Diaz, or the scorer's are being nice.

At 9:17 AM, Anonymous Eleven said...


What about the effects that pitchers have on stolen bases? Do the pitchers that Matheny is handling now suffer from giving up more SB per year than the Cards pitching staff?

At 9:36 AM, Blogger Robb said...

I'm sure that the pitching staff has something to do with it. (I suspect that the coaching staff might as well if they are better at stealing signs - who knows?)

If Matheny continues to give up a lot of steals, I'll look into that aspect at a later time.


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