Catching Decisions

One of the murky questions in baseball, despite the cadre of researchers and baseball minds out there, is finding a universal way to define a catcher’s ability to, well, catch a major league game.

Catcher is a position that requires physical skill, game knowledge and a keen feel for the game and players, especially the pitchers involved.  The last two elements are what lead to many former catchers becoming coaches and managers. We can measure things like fielding percentage (even if it’s fairly weak way to judge a fielder’s true ability, sabermetrically speaking), caught stealing percentage, passed balls and wild pitches, but there’s no solid way to judge the intangible elements – game calling, pitching staff development, and all the other little things.

This issue will be especially significant in a few weeks (possibly) when Jason Kendall (possibly) returns to action after August shoulder surgery.  Currently, Brayan Pena and Matt Treanor have been donning the tools of ignorance and doing a fine job of it.  Kendall probably has his spot back (if he comes back), so we have to decide on Treanor or Pena as the backup.  One way to judge a catcher’s ability is looking at the ERA of the pitchers they match up with.  So how are Treanor and Pena in that area?

Conveniently, the Royals have devised a natural split.  Treanor, with years of experience, has caught the right-handed starters – Luke Hochevar and Kyle Davies – who have less experience than the left-handed starters – Jeff Francis and Bruce Chen – who have more experience.  Pena catches the lefties.  The thinking by Ned Yost is that the older pitchers can get a feel for things on their own and don’t need as much guidance from their catcher, while the younger pitchers will benefit from a veteran’s experience and expertise behind the plate.

That also makes it convenient to measure Treanor and Pena in respect to the ERA of those starters, since Treanor hasn’t caught Francis or Chen and Pena hasn’t caught Hochevar or Davies (this year).  The groups are isolated and it makes it easy to compare their catcher ERAs. After twelve games, each starter had three starts under their belt:

  • Davies/Hochevar (caught by Treanor): 32.2 IP, 26 ER, 7.16 ERA
  • Chen/Francis (caught by Pena): 39.2 IP, 11 ER, 2.49 ERA

That’s about as drastic a difference as you can find between two groups.  Francis has had three great starts and Chen has had two of his own.  Hochevar’s pitched well but not great and Davies…well he’s Kyle Davies.  If we add Hochevar’s 7 excellent innings yesterday, both groups have 39.2 innings pitched but the righties have given up 16 more earned runs.

Here’s a problem with trying to judge catchers by their pitchers’ ERA.  Matt Treanor could be perfect at preparing pitchers before starts, perfect at judging matchups and perfect at calling a game, but if Kyle Davies is walking a batter every other inning and giving up hits at the same time.  Carlton Fisk couldn’t turn a staff of Jim Pittsleys into a staff of Jim Palmers.

Likewise, how much credit does Greg Maddux‘s catcher get? There are cases where a pitcher has a certain rapport with a catcher and, more or less, that catcher is their personal backstop.  Maddux had a few that he preferred working with, but was his dominance due to his own obsessive preparation and control or the fact that Eddie Perez or Charlie O’Brien were calling the pitches instead of Javy Lopez?  In 2009 it seemed like Zack Greinke and Miguel Olivo were in tune.  Some of Greinke’s 2010 struggles could be attributed to Olivo’s absence from the team.

In the Royals case, it looks like Pena is doing a better job with his side of the staff than Treanor.  How much of that credit should go to Francis and Chen, though?  Francis has been solid every time out and Chen is a smart pitcher who’s made adjustments from his first start.  For that matter, how much blame should Treanor shoulder?  Kyle Davies is likely in his last year with the Royals and has never been able to match the scouting reports and rave reviews of his Atlanta Braves days with his performance on the field.

It’s almost not worth trying to evaluate catchers based on the criteria of the ERA in games they’ve caught.  The combination of Chen, Hochevar and today, Sean O’Sullivan have surrendered one combined earned run against the Mariners in this series.  Is that due to Treanor and Pena’s influence or that fact that a lineup of replacement players plus Ichiro could score more than the current lineup in Seattle?  Kyle Davies isn’t going to face Seattle in his next turn in the rotation, so how do you weight that?

Even the stats that seem to isolate a catcher’s skills are inconclusive.  If a pitcher throws a wild pitch, it also counts against his catcher, even though the catcher didn’t throw it into the dirt.  If a pitcher’s slow to the plate, it limits a catcher’s ability to throw out a runner trying to steal.  They don’t have control of where the pitch will actually go in execution, they can only set the target and get in position.

Here’s probably the best way to measure a catcher, and it’s not fun for those who are stat-minded.  I just think there are too many immeasurable factors in play (should we have a Rapport Factor, or how about a Calmness Quotient?).  But if a catcher can maximize a pitcher’s stuff and determine his best approach before a game, if the pitcher executes physically, there should be a reasonable expectation of success.

When Jason Kendall comes back, I want to see how Luke Hochevar‘s doing.  Of all the pitchers in the rotation, he’s the only one that is penciled in to any Process-inspired future lineup.  If he continues to get groundballs and limit his walks and, more importantly, keep his composure and focus, it’s a good bet that Treanor’s a good guy to help transition Mike Montgomery and Danny Duffy to the big leagues.

I do think those intangibles come into play.  Think about your own performance at whatever job you have.  No doubt you have your set of skills, just like a starting pitcher.  If you’re in a situation that gets the most out of those skills, odds are someone evaluated you and decided that’s where you fit best.  If you’re comfortable in that position, all the better.  It’s not much different with a pitcher.  A good catcher can put them at ease, help them plan the best course of action to get through a game and set them up for success.

Then again, Pena has called the pitches that have led to the lefties’ early success.  Perhaps he does get some credit for that.   Treanor seems to have an effect on Hochevar’s performance and has been solid defensively.

The bullpen, at least, has been strong with both catchers, so there’s no advantage either way.  This is the problem the Royals are going to face at some point this year.  Maybe there’s no wrong answer.

Unless that answer is Jason Kendall.

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Tags: AL Central Baseball Brayan Pena Jason Kendall Kansas City Royals KC Matt Treanor MLB Royals

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