With the 2019 MLB season now in the books, it’s time to look back at the state of catching in the major leagues. In July 2019, I analyzed the relative impacts of different aspects of a catcher’s skillsets in “Deconstructing the Catcher: Valuating the Five Tools of the Backstop”,
In one of the later sections of the article, “Reconstructing the Catcher”, I explored using each catcher’s skill spectrum scores to created weighted Overall Spectrum Scores. In the weighted overall score, each skill is weighted by their relative impact to team success to create an overall score for the catcher, roughly on a 0 to 100 scale.
For full details on the methodology and exactly how these scores are calculated, please refer to the original article.
- Data is taken from Baseball Prospectus.
- Catchers who caught 500 innings and had 250 PA’s are used to create the skill spectrum.
- Batting skill is derived from BRAA per PA, applied to 400 PA.
- Baserunning skill is derived from BRR per PA, applied to 400 PA.
- Pitch framing skill is derived from Framing Runs per Framing Chances, then applied to the number of Framing Chances the average catcher included in the spectrum would have over 825 innings.
- Throwing skill is derived from Throwing Runs per Inning Caught, applied to 825 innings.
- Blocking skill is derived from Blocking Runs per Blocking Chances, then applied to the number of Blocking Chances the average catcher included in the spectrum would have over 825 innings.
- The 10th percentile catcher in a skill is set at 0. The 90th percentile catcher is set at 100.
- For the weighted Overall Spectrum Score, the five skill scores are combined. Weighting is determined by the relative difference in impact between the five skills (illustrated in pie graphs)
- The tighter a spectrum is (for example, baserunning does not have a very large differential between the 90th and 10th percentile catchers), the more volatile a catcher’s score may be in that skill from year to year. But the tightness of the spectrum also leads this skill score to be weighted less in the overall score.
Without further ado, here is the end of season analysis for the 2019 season: the relative skill differentials between the 90th and 10th percentile catchers at each skill, and spectrum skill and weighted overall scores for each of the 32 catchers included in the 2019 skill spectrum.
(For 2016-2018 breakdowns and scores, see this link. 2019 numbers are also included in that link, but are only calculated through the All-Star Break.)
- Similar to the 2016, 2017 and 2018 Pie Charts, batting and framing remain the most impactful aspects of a catcher’s game. Throwing out baserunners remains the least important, as the difference between the 90th and the 10th percentile catcher as throwing out baserunners amounted to only 2.1 runs over the course of 825 innings.
- When 2019 relative skill differentials were calculated midseason using half-season data, batting skill comprised over 54% of the pie at the end of June. While it seemed as if the hitting was becoming a more impactful aspect of the catcher’s game in 2019, with what looked like a widening gap between the 90th and 10th percentile hitting catchers, I theorized that the apparent increase in skill gap was more a function of small sample size, using half season data, and that once a full season of plate appearances were available, the 2019 pie chart would appear more similar to previous years.
- That ended up being the case, with batting settling in at 45.4% in 2019 after a full season, more in line with the 44.7%, 40.2% and 46.3% seen in 2016, 2017, and 2018 respectively.
- The relative impact of each of the catcher skills stands to change dramatically in the next few years with Major League Baseball testing and experimenting with new rule changes in the Atlantic League and Minor League, including implementation of an electronic strike zone and the ability for a batter to “steal” first base on any passed ball or wild pitch. In the coming days, I will quantitatively explore the impact of these rule changes.
Using the calculated weightings of each of the skills, spectrum skills scores assigned to each catcher (on a rate, not cumulative, basis) are combined to generate overall scores. Below are the 32 catchers who had >250 PA and >500 Innings Caught who were used to generate the skill spectrum:
- With an incredible .995 OPS, 2019 AL Silver Slugger winner Mitch Garver had a phenomenal batting score of 150, head and shoulders above the next two closest: Yasmani Grandal and Willson Contreras both at 106. This combined with a dramatic improvement in Garver’s framing, which in 2018 had him aligned towards the bottom of the framing spectrum, propelled Garver to the top spot in the Weight Overall Catcher Scores.
- The Minnesota Twins had strong catching overall, with Garver’s teammate Jason Castro coming in as the #7 overall catcher. Castro was his usual strong framing self, but in 2019, he paired this with an above average year at the plate.
- New York Yankees Gary Sanchez remains one of the top hitting catchers in the game, but his offense was offset by a career worst framing year. It should be noted that the Yankees recently hired Minnesota Twins system catching coach Tanner Swanson to be their major league catching and quality control coordinator. 2020 may see an improvement in Sanchez’ overall game.
- Chicago Cubs’ Willson Contreras, rumored to be shopped around, had a great season at the plate as usual. But his framing remains so poor that despite his offensive prowess his overall score comes in at just 58. This is among the top half of catchers, but it’s not amazing. 58 is also the highest Contreras has rated in these spectrum scores, rating a 57 overall in 2017 and a 48 in 2018.
- Robinson Chirinos’ strong offensive season with the Houston Astros was enough to make him the #6 overall catcher in the spectrum. There was discussion before the season that the Astros were trying to work on improving the poor framing he exhibited in Arlington. His framing score of 23 didn’t really improve much compared to previous years (-18 in 2016, 29 in 2017 and 4 in 2018), but he remains one of the top blocking catchers in the game, with a 2019 123 blocking score.
- Teammate Martin Maldonado had a strong season in blocking as well with a blocking score of 100, and despite his poor blocking in the 2018 ALCS for which he was much maligned, this is actually the norm for him with strong scores of 98 and 70 in blocking in 2016 and 2017 as well. Unfortunately, that was the only catcher skill he excelled at, and poor offense and unusually low framing and throwing made him #26 out of the 32 catchers.
- Yasmani Grandal is a stud. Consistently excellent at hitting and framing, the two most impactful skills, Grandal has been near the top of the leaderboards in weighted overall spectrum scores for the last 4 years. In 2016 with an overall score of 100, Grandal was the #1 overall catcher. In 2017, Grandal was #4 overall with a score of 76. In 2018, Grandal was #1 overall with a score of 99, and in 2019 a score of 90 puts him at the #2 spot.
- 3 catchers excelled in all 5 skills: #3 overall catcher JT Realmuto, the Phillies’ prize trade target of last offseason, had no score lower than a 73 (framing) and an insanely strong season throwing out baserunners (203! Although this didn’t alter his overall score greatly as throwing was the least impactful of the 5 skills in 2019.)
- Roberto Perez in his first full season as an everyday catcher for the Cleveland Indians, also was above average in all five skills. But what was most striking about Perez was that in all 3 defensive categories (framing, throwing, blocking), he had no score lower than 100. The fact that he was at or above the 90th percentile in all 3 defensive skills of the most defensive position in baseball (apart from the pitcher) is impressive, and his 2019 Wilson Overall Defensive Player of the Year award is well deserved.
- Tom Murphy of the Mariners was a surprise “five-tool” catcher. It should be noted however that Murphy’s hitting score may be inflated, as he was part of a platoon with Omar Narvaez and preferentially hit against left handed pitching. Murphy’s splits are striking as well, His sOPS+ against LHPs is 182, constrasted to his sOPS+ against RHPs of 71.
- Future Hall of Famer Buster Posey was Buster Posey in every way in 2019 except at the plate. But despite a poor year at the plate with .688 OPS, the rest of his game was still strong enough to rank him in the top half of catchers within the spectrum.
The Houston Astros have some questions to answer this offseason at the catcher position, with both Chirinos and Maldonado free agents. Next week, in collaboration with editor Brian Cohn, we will look at the available free agent catchers and what kind of contracts they might expect to command.