There’s a certain joy in baseball players that make the game look easy, but for me, nothing tops a player who is obviously putting all of their available effort into performing at their highest possible level on the field. Kyle Schwarber is the archetypal example of that type, and like many of those players, he has also experienced failure in painful public fashion. I derive no schadenfreude from that failure, but it does humanize him, and make me think that he understands just how precarious everyone’s place in the game is.
That’s a roundabout way of saying that I like thinking about Schwarber’s defense. As he blazed through the minors in 2015, he went from catching full-time to spending roughly two-thirds of his innings in left field, likely aware of the criticism of his defense there, and aware as well of the commonly-held perception that he didn’t have the defensive capability to stick behind the plate. That used to be the end of the story; someone failed the eye test, and moved off the position. Luckily, Harry Pavlidis and Jonathan Judge have done the world the tremendous favor of developing the most accurate and comprehensive model of catcher defense ever seen, and we can go much further than the eye test.
These new catcher statistics cover minor league performance, so they can be used to see how Schwarber performed defensively when he was catching on an everyday basis. When looking at his stats, the word that first comes to mind is decent; above average, but not by a ton. In 3,588 framing opportunities at Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa, Schwarber’s receiving was worth a total of 6.7 runs. He was less apt at blocking (-1.2 runs over 2,111 opportunities) and at controlling the running game (-1.2 runs over 65 steal attempts). As the most visible aspects of catcher defense, it’s probable that those deficiencies are responsible for his reputation as a poor defender. Still, we now know how much more valuable framing is than either blocking or throwing, and Schwarber’s overall fielding runs above average (FRAA) reflects that, at the solid figure of 4.3 runs above the mean.
But that’s not quite enough, if we want to guess how Schwarber will do in the majors. The minor league framing data uses a baseline based on the performance of players in that given league, as does the major league data. In other words, a positive minor league performance might not be a positive major league performance.
In general, however, the translation holds pretty well. I took all players with both minor and major league defensive data, and ran a simple linear regression between their total defensive value per 7,000 framing opportunities at both levels, weighted by the harmonic mean of their minor league and major league framing opportunities. On average, a player’s rate of minor league defensive value predicted about 75 percent of his rate of major league defensive value, and this “model” without any control variables was fairly robust on the whole (with an adjusted R-squared of .42).
So, on a general level, we can predict that Schwarber’s defensive performance will probably decline from the minors to the majors, but only slightly. However, the regression I ran considers all catchers evenly; we can get more specific than this. As discussed above, Schwarber arrives at his overall defensive value in a specific fashion, and other players with the same overall value can feature a totally different skill set. Carlos Ruiz, the Phillies catcher, had a very similar rate of defensive value as Schwarber in the minors, but generated it via excellent blocking, good throwing, and mediocre framing. Assuming those different skill sets will cross over to the majors in the same way is probably dangerous.
The next thing I did, therefore, was take the whole time period for which minor league framing data is available, 2006-2015, and searched for minor league careers similar to Schwarber’s: above-average overall defensive ability (between 5 and 15 runs per 7,000 framing opportunities) due entirely to their framing (negative combined blocking and receiving). After eliminating players with less than 1,500 framing opportunities (too small a sample to draw any meaningful conclusions), this yields 33 comparable players, plus Schwarber himself. Behold, a giant table:
|Name||Framing Chances||Framing/7000||Blocking Chances||Blocking/4000||Steal Attempts||Throwing/55||FRAA/7000|
Of these players, only 12 have caught in the majors, which is already telling (and not particularly positively so). These are mediocre minor league defensive catchers; things need to go right for them to see playing time in the big leagues. Those that did make it didn’t change much from the minors—they remained, for the most part, above-average framers and average to below-average blockers and throwers—but were perhaps slightly worse than expected, as compared to the whole pool used in the regression above. Their average combined defensive value per 7,000 framing chances was 8.5 runs in the minors; the regression estimates a major league figure of 6.4 runs per 7,000, which is substantially higher than the actual figure of 4.8.
There are 68 minor leaguers in the sample who had similar defensive value to Schwarber in their minor league careers (again, between 5 and 15 runs above average per 7,000 framing opportunities) but didn’t qualify as comps because they relied more heavily on blocking and throwing to generate that value. Among those players, a higher percentage made it to the majors (49 percent vs. 36 percent in the narrower sample), and their average defensive production declined less (9.5 runs in the minors, 6.5 in the majors). What this would seem to suggest is that framing, Schwarber’s main defensive skill behind the plate in the minors, doesn’t transition as well to the majors as blocking and throwing do. Players like him who rely on it might lose more value when graduating to the big leagues.
In sum, Schwarber would likely be a competent defensive catcher in Chicago, but not great. He’s been good and will probably continue to be decent at framing, the most important aspect of catcher defense, and passable at the blocking and throwing. When that’s paired with a True Average of .300ish, the result is a very good catcher.
What this means is that when Cubs personnel say they still see Schwarber as a catcher, they’re probably not just trying to inflate his trade value, as some have suggested. Any level of offensive production is going to be worth much more from a catcher than from a left fielder, so even if Schwarber does decline to average or below-average defensively, as this data suggests he very possibly could, it makes a lot of sense to keep playing him behind the plate. If he does get some number of reps there in 2016, we’ll know much more about who he is defensively, but his minor league data suggests it isn’t out of the question. If he does turn into a passable catcher, Schwarber will probably be quite the valuable player over the next six years.
Lead photo courtesy Matt Marton—USA Today Sports.