Roy Campanella lives on. Way back in 1990, we thought Campy was done for. Today we bring him back. In fact, both of us independently arrived at this decision.
Behind the scenes, we have banged our heads against the catcher-backlog wall for weeks. Lombardi, Tenace, Bresnahan. Bresnahan, Lombardi, Tenace. Tenace, Bresnahan, Lombardi. None of whom has inspired us. None of whom has that one clear reason to draw a vote.
For Miller, it was that simple. Eric took a more byzantine path to Campy. For him, Campanella’s Lazarus moment comes thanks to Bill Freehan.
The Unknown Knowns
When you think about it, in October of 2014, analysts have only managed to put a fairly definitive run value on about half of a catcher’s defensive contribution:
- defending against the stolen base
- preventing wild pitches and passed balls
- fielding bunts and pop-ups.
Then there are the “unknown knowns” of catching:
- handling pitchers
- calling pitches
- framing pitches
Framing? But what about all those stories about Jose Molina??? Studies have put a run value on framed strikes occurring when a catcher is on the field, but no one yet has figured out how to properly attribute those runs. Are these runs subtracted from the pitcher then added to the catcher? Do they belong exclusively to the catcher, or does a pitcher who hits a spot just off the edge get some credit too? Everything has to balance out to zero in the end after all. Until that breakthrough, framing remains an open question.
So we asked ourselves whether we might be able to put a SWAG on these unknown knowns. At first we just wanted to know what percent of a catcher’s job might they be in today’s game. Turns out that today’s best catchers may earn as much as 15–20 defensive runs a year, and typically the leader is around 12 or 13 runs. The framing studies tell us that the best catchers can reach 25–30 runs a year, but as noted above, we don’t completely know what that means yet. But even at half that amount, framing equals or exceeds all the stuff we can put a value on.
Then there’s pitch-calling and pitcher-handling. To keep all this stone simple, let’s merely say that the unknown knowns are half of catcher defense in today’s game. We ranked them in importance as framing > pitch calling > pitcher handling. We guessed at a 40/35 /25 split for them for the sake of this thought experiment.
Catching a Break
We told you this would lead to Bill Freehan, who would lead Eric to Roy Campanella, and here’s how.
Once we’d created this little rubric, we needed to figure out how to use it. We kept it simple again. We’d rate the backlog catchers on the three unknown knowns based on a survey of sources both online and off. For each of the three unknown knowns, we’d have a rating system of POOR / FAIR / AVERAGE / GOOD / EXCELLENT. For simplicity’s sake, we’d allocate runs for the unknown knowns in every season based on the recent average of about 13 runs in a 162 season. Which leads to this:
UNKNOWN TOTAL KNOWN RUNS POOR FAIR AVG GOOD EX ================================================== Pitch framing 5.2 - 5.2 -2.6 0 2.6 5.2 Game calling 4.6 - 4.6 -2.3 0 2.3 4.6 Pitcher handling 3.3 - 3.3 -1.7 0 1.7 3.3 -------------------------------------------------- 13.0 -13.0 -6.5 0 6.5 13.0
When we went through our current backlog catchers, only Bill Freehan got consistently high marks for handling and game calling. For others, there were scant or scattered mentions of these abilities. Using this scale, we assessed him as EXCELLENT at handling and GOOD at calling a game. When we applied this to his number of games caught each year, he racked up enough runs this way that we could imagine him climbing up the rankings. Suddenly Freehan looked a lot more likely to get a vote than we thought.
This made us check in with some of our deeper backloggers to make sure we hadn’t overlooked someone adept in these black arts of catching. Among them, only Roy Campanella had much narrative support. It was for handling pitchers. It potentially gave him enough runs that he would step up into a virtual tie with Schnozz Lombardi.
Oops. Eric had to undead him too.
We got to the same place at the same time through very different paths. As we’ve thought about it a little more, Campanella began to look better to us. As we compared him with fresh eyes to the other guys, we saw a few things:
- He’s got a monster peak for a catcher, and with such uninspiring choices at the bottom of the barrel, we can see going for a peak performer.
- None of the remaining catchers has a peak nearly as good.
- He’s probably got a little defensive value with the unknown knowns, which would boost him up near or past Lombardi.
So Campy is back. A doomed candidate one year, and just a few short HoME years later (or weeks in real time), he may have a real shot at our votes. So too may Bill Freehan. Stay tuned….