Judging the Royals

What’s more important, a catcher’s offense or defense?

Houston Astros catcher Brad Ausmus (right, catching as Cincinnati’s Ken Griffey Jr batted in 2007) was known more for his defensive abilities than offensive prowess.
Houston Astros catcher Brad Ausmus (right, catching as Cincinnati’s Ken Griffey Jr batted in 2007) was known more for his defensive abilities than offensive prowess. The Associated Press

The website Grantland recently posted an article by contributor Ben Lindbergh called “Frame Jobs” describing how good catchers manipulate the strike zone. It’s a very good article and makes lots of interesting points, but I’m going to zero in on just one of them: how new information changed Lindbergh’s mind.

Lindbergh got a job as an intern with the New York Yankees, and here’s part what he had to say about it:

“It was my first day as a baseball operations intern, and my last day as a catcher defense doubter.

Sports fans spend a lot of time wondering what their teams aren’t telling them. If a player signs for more than his WAR suggests he’ll be worth, we wonder what WAR might be missing. If a top prospect is traded for a disappointing return, we wonder whether his old team became concerned about his makeup or discovered a hidden hole in his swing.”

Give Lindbergh credit for realizing WAR might be missing something. Despite claims to be “all-inclusive” no one number reveals everything worth knowing about a player. Back to Lindbergh and what he learned:

“It’s not out of the question that some teams, at some times, are acting on proprietary knowledge that could completely change our perception of a player.”

If you can get players and coaches to talk openly, it becomes clear that teams are acting onproprietary knowledge” all the time. I’ve heard of teams avoiding players because they were about to go through a divorce, partied too hard, hung out with a bad crowd or spent the winter putting on weight. I’ve also heard of team’s going after a player with a flaw in his game because a coach thought he knew how to fix that flaw.

Teams know things about ballplayers that fans and those of us in the media don’t. They don’t always guess right, but teams have all the information we have and more. So what don’t we know about a catcher’s defense and its worth?

Here’s Lindbergh talking about current Detroit Tigers manager and former big league catcher Brad Ausmus:

“In 2003, Baseball Prospectus wrote, “Like an old-time medicine man, Ausmus peddles the elixirs of veteran leadership and game-calling skills to an Astros organization all too willing to buy.” And in 2006: “There are few players in the history of baseball who have been as consistently bad and consistently on the field as Ausmus.” By 2008, the 12th time Ausmus appeared in the book, BP was out of interesting insults. “He’s just so bad,” the comment read. “Ausmus’ defense doesn’t come close to making up for his utter lack of offense. He has been killing the Astros for the better part of five years.”

But now pitch-tracking technology reveals that certain catchers use catching techniques to manipulate the strike zone, and that get calls for their pitchers. And as Lindbergh says: “That can work wonders over thousands of pitches.”

Apparently Ausmus was a genius at subtly shifting his body as the pitch was on its way. That meant a pitch that was going to be just off the plate now appeared to smack dab in the middle of his chest protector — that will get you calls.

And that’s not the only trick veteran catchers employ: Catchers who receive the ball with their mitts moving toward the strike zone get more calls than catchers who receive the ball with their mitts moving away from the strike zone. Catchers who let the high breaking pitch travel deep and drop into the strike zone are more likely to get the call. Catchers who receive the ball quietly are more likely to get calls than catchers who lurch and stab at the ball.

The best receivers use techniques that are too subtle for most of us to recognize.

Because of the new pitch-tracking technology we can see which catchers are getting borderline pitches called strikes and which catchers are turning those same pitches into balls. Because of that, some metric advocates have changed their minds; they now consider Ausmus a very good catcher, but let’s not forget the guys who actually play the game were way ahead of the numbers guys.

“In the spring of 1994, Ausmus’s first full season, Padres manager Jim Riggleman said, “Brad can hit .220 and have a long career in the major leagues.” Pitcher Doug Brocail thought Riggleman had been too conservative, adding, “I don’t care if [Ausmus] hits .110, he can catch for me any day of the week.”

In short, the guys who play the game think what a catcher does behind the plate is much more important than what a catcher does at the plate, and they’ve thought that for a long time.

A final quote from Lindbergh:

“If there’s a lesson to be learned from the uncannily accurate masters of the strike zone, it’s that the players and their employers often have something to teach us. Sometimes they spout nonsense, and it’s appropriate to respond with silence or snark. But once you’ve been burned by one Ausmus or Molina, it’s easier to keep an open mind about the next perplexingly long-lasting player whose value might manifest in mysterious ways.”

Good for Lindbergh, but remember that before pitch-tracking technology, many people thought a catcher’s pitch-receiving ability outweighing his offense was nonsense, so maybe holding off on the snark would be a good idea. There’s always more to be learned, and ridiculing something we don’t fully understand is a good way to look like an idiot a couple of years down the road — and I know that from personal experience.

If you already know everything, you can’t learn anything.

So now we know: pitch-tracking technology lets us know which catchers get borderline pitches called strikes, right?

Nope.

Learning about any complex subject is like peeling an onion: Remove one layer and you find another one underneath. Ask players and coaches about “framing reports” and pitch-tracking technology and you hear why we shouldn’t take this stuff as gospel.

If an umpire doesn’t like a pitcher, that pitcher might not get the borderline pitches called strikes. That will make the catcher look bad, but it actually has nothing to do with his receiving skills.

And it also works the same way in reverse: If a pitcher bound for the Hall of Fame keeps hitting the mitt four inches off the plate, he might start getting that call. The catcher will look good, but he really didn’t have anything to do with it.

The guy at the plate also matters. As one big-league coach asked me, “If Miguel Cabrera turns around and glares at a rookie umpire for calling a borderline pitch a strike, do you think that pitch will be a strike after that? Will a rookie umpire ring up David Ortiz on a 3-2 pitch if the game’s in Fenway?”

So pitch-tracking technology might help us understand some things, but it doesn’t reveal everything — there’s always more to be learned. We shouldn’t jump to conclusions and think we might have been wrong before, but now we know. New information might change our thinking.

And we might want to give a little more credit to the guys on the field; if we listen with an open mind, we just might learn something.

To reach Lee Judge, call 816-234-4482 or send email to ljudge@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @leejudge8.

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