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Catchella: The Cubs’ Catchers in Statistical Perspective

Today is the day, on our national parent site, on which we unveil our new and polished catcher framing, blocking, throwing and slowing (of the opponent’s running game) stats. It’s a festival of nerdiness we’re calling #Catchella, and you should head over to get a broader sense of what it entails.

In the meantime, though (since you’re probably a Cubs fan, having landed here), consider this an introduction (or re-introduction, or update to your former introduction) to these vital numbers, delivered through a Cubbie-blue prism. The 2015 Cubs are one of the best examples of the power of embracing holistic, advanced evaluations of catcher defense, and in order to understand both that team and its future iterations, you need to understand the concepts.

First of all, an update to something I first wrote about in mid-October, when the Cubs were waist-deep in their playoff run: the Cubs’ primary catchers were 40.5 runs better in 2015 than they were in 2014, based solely on defense. That’s up 10 runs or so (likely a full win’s worth of marginal tallies) even from what the numbers showed prior to this latest update. We’ll discuss the specific ways they were better momentarily, but let’s start by just laying out the numbers:

Principal Cubs Catchers, 2014-15, Defensive Stats

Player CSAA Runs EPAA Runs TRAA Runs SRAA Runs Total
Welington Castillo -15.6 0.7 0.0 -0.8 -15.7
John Baker -3.7 -0.2 0.0 -2.7 -6.6
Eli Whiteside -1.0 0.0 0.0 -0.1 -1.1
2014 Total: -23.4
Miguel Montero 16.0 0.2 0.0 -2.2 14.0
David Ross 4.4 -0.1 0.0 -0.1 4.2
Kyle Schwarber -0.9 0.0 0.0 -0.2 -1.1
2015 Total: 17.1

To quickly define the terms in that table:

  • CSAA stands for ‘Called Strikes Above Average,’ which is, in short, framing. That number measures the value a catcher delivers by getting extra called strikes, either on the edges of the strike zone, or just beyond it. Our team has carefully determined the league-wide probability of a pitch in a given location being called a strike, and we credit or debit a catcher accordingly. This is (by a mile, by a mile and a half) the most important dimension of catcher defense.
  • EPAA is for ‘Errant Pitches Above Average,’ a shorthand for wild pitches and passed balls. Guys who save runs in this area are very good blockers of balls in the dirt (or any other location in which pitches are prone to get past a catcher and cost the team a base).
  • TRAA captures intimidation factor. It stands for ‘Takeoff Rate Above Average,’ and is our way of accounting for the catcher’s role in deterring runners from even attempting steals.
  • SRAA tells us what happens when runners do take off. Catchers who throw runners out at a higher rate than we’d expect, correcting for other factors, will rack up run contributions under ‘Swipe Rate Above Average.’

The beautiful part of each of these stats, of course, is that they don’t look only at the number of runners who took off, or the number of balls blocked, or the numbers of times catching an opponent stealing. Rather, they place each such event in thorough context, accounting for (and individually crediting or debiting) the pitcher with whom the catcher is working, the opposing baserunner, and other factors. That’s a huge part of what makes these numbers special, and especially reliable.

Anyway, to dig into the data itself, look at the Cubs’ framing improvement. Each of Montero and Ross were much, much better than the guy they replaced. Kyle Schwarber was no better than Eli Whiteside, but given what he could do at the plate, matching Whiteside’s defensive production was more than enough. It took some positive, proactive steps, including trading two pitching prospects for the right to pay Montero an eight-figure salary, and they had to enter 2015 in the unenviable roster fix of having three catchers for two spots, but the team made catcher defense a priority, and they absolutely nailed it.

With all three of the 2015 backstops due back in 2016 (albeit, in Schwarber’s case, in a modified role), the team need not do anything to substantially upgrade that facet of run prevention this time around. The aging curve of framing skills is extraordinarily gentle, so although there might be injury or offensive concerns around the combination of Montero and Ross going forward, there’s no particular cause to believe that they’ll stop being great defensive catchers.

Obviously, if one of those two does either go over a cliff or suffer a serious injury, things get a little stickier. To that end (and because we can now, thanks to the new data!), let’s take a look at the alternatives the organization currently holds in the event of a new need for a regular backstop. The most famous of those alternatives, of course, is 2015 breakout catching prospect Willson Contreras, who might be both the best catching prospect in the minors and the top prospect in the Cubs’ farm system right now. In addition to Contreras, the team has two non-roster catchers with significant experience behind the plate in the high minors: Taylor Davis and David Freitas. Then there’s the possibility that Schwarber would step behind the plate in the event of an injury, even if it means a haphazard patch of the corner outfield spots. Here’s how those four players each did as defensive catchers in 2015, at the levels at which they played the most:

Cubs 2016 Catching Depth, Catcher Defense, 2015

Player (Level) CSAA Runs EPAA Runs TRAA Runs SRAA Runs Total
Kyle Schwarber (AA) 5.9 -1.1 0.0 -1.2 3.6
Willson Contreras (AA) -6.4 1.3 0.0 -0.8 -5.9
Taylor Davis (AAA) 3.3 0.2 0.0 0.0 3.5
David Freitas (AAA) 10.7 -0.1 0.1 -0.7 10.0

First of all, this table indicates that we’d better tap the brakes on the enthusiasm about Contreras. While he’s a big and athletic player with a lot (a lot) more offensive upside than either Davis or Freitas, if Montero or Ross were to sustain a serious injury, Contreras would represent a major defensive step down. He might yet grow into a solid defensive catcher, but right now, his big body (great for blocking pitches) doesn’t allow him the quiet, steady receiving mechanics that make for a good framer. Davis would be a much sturdier defender, though he’s been in the Cubs organization since 2011, has risen slowly, and doesn’t appear to have a starting-quality big-league bat. Freitas’ numbers should catch your eye; only three catchers had better overall defensive stats at the Double-A level (where he spent most of last season) in 2015. He’s as old as Davis, was playing at a year and a half older than the average Eastern League player, and also can’t hit, but the Cubs’ choice to snatch him up in the Triple-A phase of the Rule 5 Draft last month looks like a sound investment in defensive catching depth.

Schwarber, though, is the real revelation here. Despite the shortcomings in footwork and raw arm strength and ability to stay in front of erratic pitches, Schwarber was a plus defender in the Southern League. Now, those skills didn’t shine through as cleanly once Schwarber reached the majors (we wouldn’t expect it to, would we?), but that’s still interesting. Watching Schwarber during his big-league turns behind the plate, it’s not hard to see how this is possible. The way Schwarber sets up behind the plate is designed to maximize stability and minimize movement. It’s an imperfect crouch out of which to climb to make a throw down to second, and a tough one from which to move, cat-like, to block and corral a slider in the dirt. When a pitcher is working the corners, though, Schwarber is surprisingly good at remaining quiet and making pitches look good. He might never be more than an average overall defender at the MLB level, but average defense behind the plate from a hitter of his caliber would be staggeringly valuable.

That’s not enough to make supplanting Montero with Schwarber an advisable course. The Cubs should stick with their excellent pair of great framers behind the plate, as long as it’s possible. If injuries or sudden, violent aging makes either player unplayable, though, the combination of solid minor-league depth and Schwarber’s (perhaps surprising) competence as a framer ensure that the team will maintain a strong defensive presence behind the plate throughout 2016.

Lead photo courtesy Anthony Gruppuso—USA Today Sports.

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