In response to the news that Wil Myers would officially be moved from behind the plate to the outfield this spring, a reader asked if Myers could be another Mike Piazza or if his defense would be much worse.
Piazza certainly had a rough go of it behind the plate defensively, but his bat was solid enough to keep him there because it was so strong relative to other catchers. Myers projects to be a similar type of hitter (though more of a pure hitter with power than a power hitter like Piazza) and his bat would probably enable him to stay behind the plate and still be an elite player at the position, but he, like Jesus Montero of the Yankees, was never expected to stick as a backstop.
But back to the question. Would Myers turn out worse defensively than Piazza?
First, here are Piazza’s career numbers defensively:
I’m not going to delve too deeply into the advanced fielding statistics for catchers. To me, it’s most important to see how a catcher impacts the running game (throws out basestealers) and prevents opportunities for a free base (wild pitched and passed balls). Range factors and everything else is pretty noisy to me for the catching position – not that it’s not a factor, just that, well, it’s a lot of things that are better at measuring defense at other positions.
Additionally, there isn’t a handy reference for those numbers for Myers, since a) he has a very small sample size in the minors and b) there’s little of that information on Baseball-Reference. This is a simple exercise of comparison.
Piazza’s career against basestealers was pretty rough as 77% were successful against him. Sure, it’s not all the catcher’s fault, but of the 1823 attempted steals, you can’t tell me that the pitcher was slow to the plate or ignorant of the runner on base and that’s the cause of Piazza’s poor numbers.
He allowed a wild pitch once every 4.58 games. Every 15.98 games, he’d allow a passed ball. Altogether, he was a -8.1 WAR fielder as a catcher.
Let’s look at another catcher who is known as a poor defender. And hey, he’s a former Royal. Miguel Olivo, ladies and gentlemen!
Olivo jumps out way ahead of Piazza at working the running game. Piazza caught almost exactly twice as many games as Olivo, yet nearly four times as many runners tried to steal against him (1823 attempts vs. 593). With Olivo’s 35% success rate at throwing out runner’s done a better job of nailing those who do attempt to run on him. At a game by game level, he acts as a deterrent to the runner – maybe they take a half step smaller lead to not get picked off first, maybe the manager’s less likely to call a play with Olivo’s arm behind the plate. That’s worth something, even if it’s hard to quantify.
Olivo is a 0.2 dWAR catcher, according to Baseball-Reference.
How about another catcher? This guy is known as a strong defensive catcher – at least he carries that reputation. He’s a gamer. Gritty. Tough. A ballplayer’s ballplayer. He is Jason Kendall.
First, let’s dispel that idea of Kendall being a superstar defensively. Maybe I’ve just heard too many Royals press conferences raving about his value to a pitching staff. According to Baseball-Reference, he’s a -2.9 dWAR player over the course of his career. Even omitting the two seasons where he played some outfield, he’s still at -1.8 dWAR.
His success rate at catching basestealers falls between Olivo and Piazza, and he’s much better at squeezing the mitt than both with a G/PB ratio of 19.47. Last year the Royals brought him in with the idea that he’d prevent a lot of wild pitches, but he still allows one every 3.62 games on average. Even Piazza was better than that (though again, that’s not all on the catcher – they aren’t the ones putting it in the dirt to begin with).
One more catcher – this time a legitimately solid one defensively: Ivan Rodriguez.
The thirteen time Gold Glover winner (I know, I know) has a 16.4 dWAR over his career. That’s incredible relative to the other three catchers above.
That’s pretty good. That 46% success rate at catching basestealers is particularly eye-popping. He, like Kendall, has done well at preventing a passed ball, though Pudge has a lot more wild pitches on his record – but again, it’s tough to blame the catcher since they aren’t throwing the ball themselves and can only try to block it. I have to imagine what Kendall, Piazza, or Olivo would have been able to do with the amount of (apparent) 59 foot throws that Pudge had to face. You might see a wild pitch number closer to 900.
So with those players in mind, where would Myers rate?
The immediate disclaimer is that Myers has just 86 games behind the plate as a professional. He played all over in high school, so one must keep that caveat in mind. Myers really isn’t a catcher, anyway.
He has a strong arm and still made good throws and had raw ability to play the position, but he had 26 passed balls in just 86 games – almost one every third day. That’s just way too much. His arm is better than Piazza’s and Kendall’s for sure so if he were to return to catcher in some scenario, that’d be his best asset behind the plate. He’s the most athletic of the group as well, so that could help him make more plays.
Still, catcher traditionally is taxing on a player’s body and Myers has the kind of bat that could be the best in a loaded Royals farm system – better than Eric Hosmer‘s or Mike Moustakas‘s perhaps. Do the Royals really want to risk that kind of potential behind the plate where a foul tip could crack a finger or two, or where back and knee injuries could hamper a solid young prospect? The Washington Nationals had the right idea when they drafted Bryce Harper in 2010 with the first overall pick. There wasn’t even a question in that case – the draft announcers called him an outfielder even though he caught in high school.
If forced to stay behind the plate, I’m sure Myers could figure it out enough to be adequate behind the plate. Again, he’s only caught 86 games as a pro. Perhaps with experience he’d be able to pair the defensive development with the offensive skills he already possesses.
I’d suggest that Myers would be on par with Piazza as a fielder, though with a better arm. What Myers has that Piazza didn’t is the athleticism to play elsewhere. That move will hasten his advance to the major leagues and if he hits well enough, he may even see Double A this season – all before his 21st birthday.