Monday, December 12, 2011

Matt Wieters: Awesome Catcher

Guest Post By Albert Lang

(Bill note: Ah, the holidays. I'm sure you'll hear a lot more from the TPA staff between now and the end of the year, but for now, we've got a second consecutive guest post from Albert Lang, who you can typically find over at H2H Corner. Albert sent this to us a while ago, and the original title was "A Thanksgiving Miracle: Orioles fans have something to look forward to." That's probably more descriptive than my headline above, but it's not quite timely anymore.)

It’s been an incredibly tough season/off-season for Orioles fans. After the way the club finished 2010 and a pretty good 2010 offseason (sure they made their share of bad signings, but, this time, they were limited to one-year deals!), which saw them deal fringy relievers for solider major league players, Orioles fans could smile a little smile that the team was at least sort of going in the right direction.

On April 9, the Orioles were 6-2 and 5.5 games ahead of Boston and Tampa Bay. Of course, reality set in and the Orioles continued to completely and utterly fail to develop minor league talent at the major league level and finished 69-93, 28 games behind the Yankees. Then, the 2011 off-season came and GM candidate after candidate turned them down. Eventually, they hired Dan Duquette (who has been out of baseball almost as long as it has been since the Orioles finished above .500), and, sadly, it didn’t seem nearly as embarrassing as it could have been.

Of course, the one joy Orioles fans had throughout the season was the defense of Matt Wieters. It was beautiful to watch him play baseball well. Then, when the Fielding Bible and Gold Glove Awards recently came out, we had validation for our love of Wieters.

Nevertheless, a bit of controversy came with the Fielding Bible awards, namely that Wieters was named above Yadier Molina (the recipient the last four seasons) – and it wasn’t really close. Given the “statistical nature” of some of those on the panel, this was labeled as another egregious oversight by beatniks in basements.

As is often the case with baseball, both sides have their merits, so I’ve decided to set-up a hypothetical scenario to test who the best catcher in 2012 will be.

It is game four of the 2012 ALCS, bottom of the ninth, the home team down by one. The team’s fastest runner, say, I don’t know, Andy Fox or Dave Roberts is on first. Tony “The Apollo of the Box” Mullane is your pitcher. Which catcher would you want behind the plate?

Let’s look at the tale of the tape:

Typically, the more data, the more complete story we can tell. I went back three years to try and establish some typical performance measures which could reasonably be applied to 2012. There are a couple of caveats. For instance, 2009 was Matt Wieters first year, whereas 2009 was arguably in Molina’s prime sweet spot. It is possible Wieters is approaching his “prime” while Molina is moving away from it.

In addition, the nature of the question demands we focus on the future. There is no doubt that Molina has been the better catcher over the last two, three, four, etc. seasons. However, there appears to be some doubt who was the best in 2011, which clearly makes 2012 an open case.

Back to the fielding awards: after Molina won the first unanimous victory in 2010 in Fielding Bible History, Wieters somewhat demolished Molina in 2011, obtaining 97 points to Molina’s 74.  Molina has captured the last four Gold Gloves in the National League, whereas Wieters collected his first piece of hardware in the American League this season. Had both catchers been in the same league, I have to imagine Molina would have gotten the nod this season, rather easily, over Wieters based on a variety of silly (made-up) criteria.

So, it looks like popular opinion would be vehemently split on who they’d designate as the best defensive catcher. Based on history, Molina would be the backstop, but, based on age and trends, Wieters would likely get the call.

A few studies on catcher’s defense have been released lately. Mike Fast, of Baseball Prospectus, wrote a fascinating piece on a catcher’s ability to frame pitches and generate strike calls. Yadier Molina (along with his family) scored quite well. Molina ranked fifth at saving runs, while Wieters came in 21st.

Meanwhile, Bojan Koprivica wrote a seminal piece at The Hardball Times on the ability to block pitches. Molina came in second in his ability to block pitches, but Wieters was right behind him.

Again, it appears the two catchers are quite close, making this an interesting debate.

In digging a tad deeper, we see that Molina is a bit more adept at picking runners off base. He had nine non-caught stealing (CS) runner kills last year alone, while Wieters has seven total over the last three years. It is possible that Molina’s ability to gun the ball down to first base behind the runner shortens the potential thief’s lead just a smidge and, with such a close race, every smidge matters.

In addition, there is the “caught stealing leverage index,” which measures “the importance of the context in which the runner was caught.” Obviously, in the not-so bizarre, yet highly unlikely, scenario above, this might play an important role in the ability to gun a runner down. Clearly, Molina had an exceptional year at this metric, however Wieters was just as good in 2010, and their three-year averages are nearly identical.

While I hope the question of the best living defensive catcher spurs a lot of debate, I don’t think you can go wrong with either choice. That said, I’m going to put my chips on Matt Wieters. He is younger and has been improving. Obviously, this line of reasoning makes Molina older and potentially declining, which does scare me a bit (as it is largely based on one year of performance, defensive performance at that).

The aspect that really concerns me in picking Wieters is that it certainly is possible that Molina’s reputation has created a bias in the quality/number of his defensive opportunities: it is plausible that there are fewer teams willing to run on the Cardinals with more marginal base runners.

At the same time, with Wieters coming into his own defensively in 2011 (and not having a sterling defensive reputation until now), it’s possible he faced more less skilled runners this past season than he will in 2012. So we could see a decline in attempts against Wieters in 2012 and, possibly, a worse CS percentage.

However I do have a slight bit of solace. Molina has actually seen an increase in the amount of people running on him each of the last two years and, with that, his percentage has gone down. It could just be that he is seeing much higher volumes of strong base runners, but some of that has to be decline, right?

Baseball fans, let us thank whatever deity for whatever substance he/she put in Wieters’ golden arm – and also be thankful for Yadier Molina’s continued brilliance.

Lastly, with all the equivocating out of the way, I’m taking Wieters. Who do you got (the wrong answer is Jesus Montero/Jason Veritek)? I will accept write-ins for Derek Jeter.

To clear any potential bias out of the way, I love baseball and I love the Baltimore Orioles, but the losing has left me nasty, brutish and short. 


h2h Corner said...

Thanks for reading and stopping by. How wrong am i?

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

The numbers prove your case. My only hesitance is with that pitching staff. Does a catcher catch any of the blame when a pitching staff is like the worst in the league? Maybe not and maybe so. I've never seen the two tied together except in the no-hitter morality tale of: "My catcher called a great game...blah, blah, blsh."

I remember hearing some whispers last year that the pitchers were upset because he was so tall that they didn't feel the ump was giving them a fair shake. Do you remember seeing that or am I all wet?

Anyway, great piece. Enjoyed it.

Bill said...

Can't prove a negative, but there's a lot of work out there trying to show that catchers have some impact on pitcher performance, and until this pitch framing stuff came out, there was nothing at all that found any evidence they did. "Catchers' ERA" and stuff all looks pretty random.

h2h Corner said...

William - dont remember seeing that about the pitchers being upset -- they certainly had their own problems between suckiness, home ball park and opponents.

That said, Wieters ranking 21st in framing pitchers might have something to do with that and its a good initial step toward understanding a catcher's affect on pitching performace.

Still, i've never bought into a catcher having much impact on a pitcher's performance (and havent seen any data that supports much relation). So, basically, like what Bill said.

But it's definitely something to take into account. Appreciate you reading and commenting!

Brandon said...

Very, very anecdotally, I can tell you from watching the Cards this year that we had some blown tags down at 2nd base which may or may not have been related to Ryan Theriot. That felt like a bigger problem than usual, but I have no darn idea whether it's actually a problem.

But it's at least plausible to me that poor defenders at the middle infield positions can account for at least a few SB per year.

h2h Corner said...

Brandon- that's certainly possible, but entirely impossible to quantify. Further, it's not like Orioles were blessed with outstanding fielders up the middle either, so it probably ends up being a wash, given the scant amount of attempts both backstops saw.

However, it could have had an impact on Yadi's CS percentage as he saw so few attempts. An interesting thought!

Brandon said...

Yeah, I imagine every fan in the league probably sees stuff like this. And that's without even getting into "what percentage of tags should a league-average SS make?" Probably the worst thing about loving and watching one team all year is that you get severe tunnel vision. You pick up on little stuff like poor execution at second base on steal attempts and miss the big picture that there are guys out there doing a whale of a job in places like Baltimore.

On a side note, this is great for Wieters, given the unrealistic offensive expectations he had and the criticism that came along with just being a decent offensive catcher. Decent offense plus great defense plus 25 years old? That's a keeper for sure.

h2h Corner said...

Hey brandon - would have responded sooner but blogger was having some issues for me...

I have no problem with tunnel vision, it shows passion and love. I wish i could get tunnel vision on the Orioles, trust its far better than borderline apathy.

Agreed on Weiters. He's still so young and his offense appears to be coming along. If his defense is as good as it appears, he is on his way to being a stalwart -- the Orioles really havent developed a blue chip player in I dont know how long, either. It's pretty much the most exciting thing for me in baseball right now.