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More tools, less ignorance…reconsidering catcher adjustments

I’d be surprised if any catcher still has his original knees when they die. As we’ve mentioned previously, catchers and their performance are ground to bits by squatting, taking foul balls off their face and fingers and shoulders, and colliding with baserunners.

Therefore, we’ve both been adjusting catchers upwards in an effort to see them as closely as possible to other positions. My adjustments were based on games played. For each season, I compared the third highest games played by a catcher to MLB’s third-highest games played by any player.

A pretty good system. All the guys who should have jumped forward did. But the bottom third of the position still seemed awfully thin. Not to mention that all catchers still didn’t match up well with peers at other positions.

What Miller and Biggio taught me

Miller and I have recently been grappling over which of our backlog catchers to vote for. None appealed to me because they all seemed so far away from even the tail end of other positions. A couple times, however, in a separate conversations about second basemen, Miller kept saying that he likes Craig Biggio more than I do. Why? He told me, “My catcher adjustment is bigger than yours.” Which on a fifth-grade playground would lead to a fistfight.

Had I been too conservative with catchers? I tend to like conservative adjustments. Plausible deniability, you know. But during some back and forth about Biggio, the thought occurred that a leadoff-hitting catcher is most unusual. And thus did light finally dawn on Marblehead.

The problem with my previous catcher adjustment was that it only went part of the way to solving the issue. Catchers’ statistics get penalized in two ways. First they play fewer games, as I’d been adjusting for. Second, however, they tend to hit lower in the order. Why? Three reasons come immediately to mind. First because Johnny Bench and Mike Piazza are anomalies, and most catchers don’t hit well enough to bat higher. Second because most backstops run like a piano with a catcher on its back, and managers prefer speed in the first two spots in the order. Third because conventional baseball wisdom says that managers may protect their catchers, give them breathers, and reduce their exposure during a game by reducing their plate appearances.

Doffing my tool of ignorance

So it was obvious that I needed to recalibrate to account for the in-game penalties that catchers accrue. I used the same basic principle as before with a couple of twists.

A. For every season, take the third-most PAs by a catcher.
B. Divide A by the league’s scheduled games.
C. Divide 4.0 by the result of B.
D. Create a rolling five-year average weighted 50% to the year in question.

OK, so why 4.0? Simply because 4.0 x 162 equals 648 PAs. In most seasons the leaders of the league get 680 to 720 PAs. If we make that our benchmark for adjustment, in some cases we’re creating catchers with truly unrealistic PA totals. By using 4.0, we cap the expansion of PAs at a reasonable threshold for nearly all catcher seasons. Those that may seem out of whack are nearly always the Johnny Benches—and it’s not like I’m not going to vote for him in 1989 anyway.

The typical adjustment in my previous system was about 12 percent. In my new system it’s about 20 percent. In modern seasons, those numbers are lower. In pre-War seasons, they are higher.

Broadly, all the catchers move up a little bit. The change isn’t so sweeping that they suddenly resemble their peers elsewhere. I suppose no adjustment based on the statistical record will do that because catchers just can’t sustain the kind of playing time that other positions can, and that ripples through no matter what.

Still I got a little more clarity about a few guys. The main beneficiaries of this change are Wally Schang, Roger Bresnahan, and Roy Campanella. Schang’s peak now looks voteable for me. Roger Bresnahan gets enough of a boost to appear viable as well. Campy’s peak jumps and with it his relative rank among his catching colleagues. Probably not enough to get a vote, but very close.

I’ve updated my methods document, and you’ve already seen the results of this reconsideration in my voting as well.

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Discussion

2 thoughts on “More tools, less ignorance…reconsidering catcher adjustments

  1. I presume in this you are only counting games in which the guy is behind the plate. I recall Bench did a lot of work at third in the final few years of his career and Piazza did some first base work. Should be interesting to see how the move to first will change Joe Mauer’s numbers.
    Really thoughtful piece.
    v

    Posted by verdun2 | May 16, 2014, 11:21 am
    • Correct. I only do this for games behind the dish. Agreed that Mauer’s career from here on out will be interesting. His batting has been well above average in his healthy seasons, but his wins above average (and thus his WAR) benefit greatly from the position-difficulty adjustment. Now, at 1B, he will be debited for his position, which will eat into his value. With luck, it proves to be an relatively even exchange. Even though he’ll give back runs by going to the least demanding fielding position, increased durability and better overall health might pay back a large part of the cost of in positional value of making the switch.

      Posted by eric | May 17, 2014, 1:33 pm

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