When I was 10 years old, I remember sitting in the TV room on Saturday mornings throwing a tennis ball against the wall and catching it with my catcher’s mitt. I would do this for hours while whatever early-morning TV (European soccer, mostly) played in the background. I was never a catcher growing up—I just thought catching was different and cool.
Those Saturday mornings were spent trying to catch the tennis ball without moving my glove. I’d pretend it was perilously close to the edge of the strike zone and then, if the ball happened to come in outside of the zone, I would keep the glove where it was and try to catch it with as much of the webbing as I could.
If the pitch was low, I’d make sure that my thumb curved under the ball as much as possible so I could catch it without stabbing down at the ball. I didn’t want it looking low if it really wasn’t.
Why I did this for hours on end is beyond me—it was just another one of the many weird things I did as a kid. I had no idea that that 24 years later I’d be writing about “framing” during an era where these types of things were knowable and quantifiable. And I think that’s what draws me to both the idea of pitch framing and the underlying numbers: it reminds me of that little boy catching tennis ball after tennis ball with European soccer on mute, dreaming dreams of playing major-league baseball for a living while everyone else in the house was sound asleep.
So when Baseball Prospectus came out with their new catching stats (code name: Catchella), I was beyond excited. While Matt Trueblood already took a look at the current Cubs catchers (and their minor-league backups), I got curious about the catchers of old. The ones I used to watch on that same TV when I was a kid on WGN.
I have vivid memories of Scott Servais—the stoic, big-bodied catcher—slowly lumbering around the field but being very quick to block pitches and throw runners out. I remember seeing Robert Machado play and thinking, “Wow, this guy is amazing—if only he could hit a little bit.” And then there was Joe Girardi, whom I always equated with the legendary Yankee legacy. When he came back to the Cubs near the end of his career, I figured I was watching one of the greatest at his craft and considered myself lucky to do so.
But I was a kid and these memories are the most unreliable of narrators. So I decided to look at them through the lens of these new statistics and see what I could discover that was interesting. So, who were the best Cub catchers, defensively, as of 1988 (when we have available data)?
First I decided to look at the top five and bottom five catchers to see if there were any surprises. Here’s the top five split out by each individual skill. These stats are cumulative, so the longer a player played, the more chances he had to gain (or lose) runs. A positive number means the catcher saved runs via a particular skill and a negative number means they lost run (a positive number is good and a negative one is bad):
And the bottom five:
Who knew Rick Wilkins was the Cubs’ best defensive catcher? Wilkins is best known for his out-of-nowhere, 30-homerun season in 1993, which to this day still counts as one of the greatest offensive seasons by a catcher. But Wilkins rates as an elite framer, second-best in the throwing department, and an average blocker. He never even came close to replicating that 1993 season and was later traded to the Astros for Luis Gonzalez and Scott Servais.
And how about Girardi? Look at those framing numbers—ouch! While his career with the Cubs took place at the beginning and the end of his career, I was surprised to see him at the bottom of the list. What’s also odd is that he has the best throwing rating of the group (+8.2). My guess is that his reputation preceded him even after his arm wasn’t nearly as effective. Either way, said reputation wasn’t worth much due to that terrible framing number.
Let’s dig into the framing number a bit. Did you notice how all the top catchers all have high framing numbers? Same with the bottom dwellers: bad framers live at the bottom of the list. It’s something that helps explain why the current Cubs front office (and most of baseball) has been quick to jump on the framing bandwagon: it has a disproportionate impact on the overall quality of the catcher position. Have a guy that can’t block very well or throw runners out but is an elite framer? Probably worth keeping him on the team. Jason Kendall, for example, rated as an above-average catcher (+3, 8th overall) thanks to his top-five framing (+8.3). And that’s despite his terrible blocking (-0.6) and throwing (-4.7).
Which brings me to blocking pitches. This has typically been used as a shorthand way to identify a “good” catcher. A pitcher throws a pitch in the dirt and the catcher slides to his right, dropping to his knees, curls his shoulders around the ball, and ensures it stays in front of him. The runners on base stay where they are and everyone nods in unison, “Nice stop…good catcher.”
But according to the numbers, that doesn’t matter very much if your framing is awful. Take Scott Servais, Koyie Hill, and Welington Castillo. These guys are all at the bottom of the overall rankings despite having top-5 blocking numbers. In fact, Servais was the second-best blocker (+3.5) in the whole data set—but that didn’t matter. The memories I have of him blocking pitches seem pretty accurate, but my assumption that it made him a good defensive catcher was off.
Speaking of Castillo, he’s another guy worth mentioning. He’s the second-worst catcher overall and the second-worst framer. The only reason he ever got into the lineup is because Geovany Soto (Rookie of the Year and an All Star in 2008) was traded away by Jed Hoyer. But wait—Soto is near the top of the list (3rd overall, and the best framing numbers of all!), so why would this front office (who we know place a high value on framing) trade away an elite framer (who had hit well in the past despite his decline) in order to make room for one of Steve Clevenger (who is also an above-average framer at +5.1) or Castillo?
Here’s one answer: Soto was traded away in 2012, when the Cubs weren’t very good. Castillo was doing well in the minors and they decided to give him a shot. Soto, despite his plus defensive numbers, was deteriorating at the plate and once he tested positive for marijuana use it’s possible the front office decided it just wasn’t worth it to keep him on. Did they know or care that Castillo wasn’t a good framer? Eh, it probably didn’t matter much to them at that point—they knew it was a rebuilding season.
But once they realized the team was going to be competitive (around the end of the 2014 season), they knew they had to put a good framer back into play. It’s why they went after Russell Martin and eventually settled on Miguel Montero and David Ross—both very good framers. That’s when they eventually gave Castillo away for nothing.
What does all this data tell us? Well, it gives us enough information with which we can create our ideal defensive catcher:
- Must be a good framer—this is non-negotiable.
- Do not assume that good blocking skills a good catcher make—they don’t.
- Even if they have an elite arm or are amazing at blocking pitches, it doesn’t matter. Resist the urge to overvalue a catcher who is “the best” at either of those two skills. They’re overrated. Henry Blanco, for example, was a top five blocker (+0.3) and thrower (+4.5), but his framing was so bad (-8.8) that he falls near the bottom of the list (-4, 44th overall).
Before I wrap up, I’d like to spend a little bit more time on Machado. He only spent 74 games with the Cubs, and I didn’t get a chance to see a lot of him—but he did stand out to me as a fantastic catcher. It’s gratifying to know that the data backs me up: his +5.1 overall rating ranks him as the sixth-best defensive catcher, with very good framing numbers (+5.2), above-average blocking (+0.2), and slightly below-average throwing (-0.3). In my memories of him, he was the best thrower I ever saw, so while I was wrong there it’s nice to see some validation of those memories of a player that was on the team for such a short period of time.
24 years ago, framing wasn’t even a word in the baseball lexicon. Now it’s all the rage, and I hope the next generation of early rising, tennis-ball throwing kids can take their weird obsession with catching a ball just right and parlay that into a long and fruitful career in the major leagues. A boy can dream, can’t he?
Lead photo courtesy Jim Brown—USA Today Sports.