Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Nationals Review: Catcher

There's probably no more misunderstood position than catcher. There's probably also no more lionized position than catcher. It's because the things that a catcher does is so hidden, tucked away in the corners, immune from any meaningful statistical analysis, that we're left with nothing but appeals to authority. We have to trust those "insiders" who fill us with stories about how great they are in the clubhouse.... how many runs they save by blocking the plate... the value of framing a pitch properly to steal a strike from a dozing ump... and the ability of a veteran receiver to shepherd and develop a pitching staff.

We saw all those this year with the Nats. And certainly much of it is warranted. Brian Schneider IS a terrific defensive catcher, with a strong, accurate arm. But those other things? I'm sure he contributes and is an asset there, but to what extent? and how much over what a different catcher would do?

When the Nats started the season, they carried 2.5 catchers in the lineup. Brian Schneider earned the starting job. And with a young 22-year old Rule 5 pickup who had never played above A-ball in the lineup, the Nats brought Robert Fick back to be the emergency catcher -- though he'd never see an inning behind the plate.

It seemed like the perfect situation to break in a young catcher, at least offensively. Since Schneider swings from the left side, spot starts of Flores against tough lefty pitchers would play to his strengths, while eliminating one of Schneider's weaknesses.

But the team was not focused on offense at all. For this season, at least, catching was purely about developing a relationship with the starting staff of castoffs and emphasizing defense. The team didn't quite trust Flores -- given his age and inexperience -- and rode Schneider hard... early and often.

He ended up starting 14 of the first 15 games the Nats played there. Flores' first start came against right-handed Livan Hernandez while Schneider would bat against a lefty four times in that stretch.

The team seemed to be emphasizing Schneider's work with the rotation, and the numerous quotes from various people affiliated with the team, praised his work. But after the fourth pass through the rotation, things started breaking down. Patterson and Williams went out as did Hill. Simontacchi, Bacsik and Speigner came in. With the jumbling in the staff and none of the replacements being purely long-term guys, Flores got handed the keys a few more times, getting a start at least once a week, usually every 5-6 games.

Schneider struggled mightily in that first month, but during May, he rebounded a bit, hitting about what you'd expect him to hit: .277 .333 .410. Good. Not great.

Meanwhile, Flores was tantalizing us all. Through the end of May he was hitting .244 .380 .341, showing a decent batting eye and patience at the plate, but also a strong, accurate throwing arm.

As Flores took on a more regular role, however, he struggled. The adjustment from A to NL is a giant one, especially for such a young kid and at such a demanding position. It especially doesn't help that Acta didn't spot him against lefties, instead doling out his starts based on when Schneider needed a rest. From the end of May to the end of August, Flores barely hit. (.222 .255 .333). But when he did hit, they were usually important hits.

It was around the beginning of August, though, that Acta changed their roles up. Flores took on an increasing share of the starts, starting once for every 3-4 games that Schneider played and getting the assignment more often than not when a tough lefty like Cole Hamels was on the mound. It wasn't a platoon in the strictest sense, but it was pretty close.

Schneider was making this an easy decision with a dreadful .161 .309 .232 line in July. He wasn't hitting for power, but he was showing a decent batting eye and ok selectivity at the plate. It seemed like he had decent pitch recognition, just that his body didn't have the skill to do much with it besides flip the occasional fliner over the second baseman's head.

Down the stretch, it was a full job-sharing arrangement, and Schneider hit reasonably well (.283 .400 .377) as did Flores (.250 .313 .386). The Nats had a pretty good two-headed monster (note: not actually scary) for a few weeks, and it gives one some hope for next year.

  • Offense
    Neither catcher particularly stood out. Schneider ended up at .235 .326 .336, a 77 OPS+. Flores was basically the same, .244 .310 .361 with a 78 OPS+

    But the whole there, is a whole lot greater than the sum of its parts -- if assembled in the right way.

    Both players had pretty extreme platoon splits.

    Schneider (career) versus righties: .254 .325 .389
    Schneider (career) versus lefties: .247 .313 .336

    Flores versus righties: .220 .276 .297
    Flores versus lefties: .270 .343 .427

    You thinking what I'm thinking?

    Here comes stupid, incorrect math: If we weight 2/3 of Schneider v righties and 1/3 of Flores versus lefties, we get a catcher who hits about .259/ .331/ .402

    I'll take that! The league average catcher hit .257/ .318/ .394, so the platoon 'o doom would outpace that by a considerable margin... even more when you factor in their rocket arms.

    But that's the world of wishing. Not reality.

    In the real world, Flores had more plate appearances against righties than lefties. And Schneider came to the plate 50 more times against lefties than did Flores. Add it up and it's still kinda ugly.

    As with the other positions, I'll compare them to league average using Runs Created. The average NL catcher stinks, creating .149 runs for every out they make.

    If we multiply that .149 figure by the 338 outs Schneider made, an average catcher would've created 50 runs. Schneider created 46. As bad as he was, he wasn't THAT much below league average.

    If we do the same for Flores (.149 * 142), we get 21 runs created versus his... 21 runs created. Flores, with a 77 OPS+, was basically league average.

    Wow, catchers suck.

  • Defense

    I'm not even going to attempt to quantify a catcher's defense. I'll just throw some random stats that may or may not interest you.

    Nationals pitchers had the 4th most wild pitches. They're "pitches" of course, but there's a school of thought that a good catcher can take away some of those.

    Only 2 regular catchers saw fewer SB attempts against than Schneider -- they respect his arm.

    He tied for the highest CS% in the league. So the few times they did run, he nailed them. He's as good at shutting down the opposing running game as any C in the league.

    Only 4 NL catchers had a higher rate of WP+PB per game than Schneider did. Some of that can be explained by a terrible Joel Hanrahan and sinking and diving breaking pitches by Bergmann, but...

  • Few other bullets....

    Much was made about how Schneider sacrificed his offense for the good of the pitching staff (and the team) this year. It's a nice story, I guess, but it doesn't pass the smell test when you see that he was just as terrible offensively in '06.

    The other myth that took on a life of its own was that Schneider helped to develop all the Nats young starting pitching talent. Is that true?

    First, I'd question who those young starting pitchers who developed were.

    13 pitchers started a game for the Nats.

    We can strike stopgap crap and flameouts from the list: Bacsik, Simontacchi, Hanrahan, Bowie, Patterson, Williams, Speigner and Traber.

    That leaves us with Hill, Bergmann, Redding, Chico and Lannan.

    I'll pull Lannan out of that list; he started only 6 games and any developing he did came in the minors.

    Perhaps you could argue that they "developed" Redding, especially since his ERA went down when he got promoted. (But I'd point out that he's 29 and that his ERA is much lower than it should be given his BB/K and HR numbers).

    I like what Bergmann did in the first half, but he had a 5.60 in the second half. Did he develop? or did he just have a hot run of games?

    I'm comfortable with saying that Hill and Chico developed. Not really anyone else. And perhaps Schneider deserves credit there -- he caught the majority of Chico's starts. But there weren't nearly as many young pitchers developing as the team liked to portray, and there were certainly many more who crapped the bed. So there's not an overwhelming mountain of evidence to support that assertion either, even if there may be a grain of truth in it.

  • 22 Comments:

    • So we straight-up platoon them next year? With Brian getting the start when the other team is known for its baserunning?

      Ridiculous question. Best future manager of our current players? I’d say Brian, for no real reason.

      By Blogger Ironic Goat, at 10/24/2007 3:19 PM  

    • I was calling for a platoon since about Day 1, so yeah. ;)

      (Actually... if I had my way, I'd trade Schneider and Cordero to the Brewers since they want a defensive catcher and can't afford their Cordero, then take taht $10 MM or so in savings and apply it towards Jorge Posada -- you'd net prospects, and upgrade your catching, with only a slight drop off in the pen!)

      Catchers usually make the best managers. Not sure if he has the personality for it, but Kearns seems like he knows and understands the game.

      By Blogger Chris Needham, at 10/24/2007 3:24 PM  

    • You sign Posada, I assume you're giving up your second round draft pick, right?

      By Blogger John O'Connor, at 10/24/2007 3:32 PM  

    • Good point. You gotta assume that the Yankees are going to offer arb. (and Posada's not going to sign here anyway, so what's the point?)

      That being said... losing a second round pick for the right guy really isn't the end of the world, especially if the team is going to continue to draft best available regardless of signability. They could still hypothetically get a second round talent in a later round by throwing cash his way like they did with McGeary.

      (It also goes to show you one of the problems with the team's overall strategy this year; they won't get a single draft pick for any of the players they lose)

      By Blogger Chris Needham, at 10/24/2007 3:36 PM  

    • Posada would probably want to long a deal. By the time we were competive we'd having a 41 year old DH behind homeplate, right? Or do you think he'll last like they say he will, less years catching and all that.

      Who would you want from beer land? Sheets is too much to hope for, right?

      By Blogger Ironic Goat, at 10/24/2007 3:52 PM  

    • Yankees are supposedly offering 3/$40 for him. If he comes on a 3-year deal, it's not terrible. Your point about how he has less mileage on him is right. He's worked hard in-season, but had a late start to his career because he was initially a second basemen, than once he made it to the majors, Joe Girardi ate half his career.

      From the Brewers? I dunno... nothing necessarily MLB ready. Just give me some kids to help make up for that lost #2! Getting out from under Schneider's contract would be nice!

      By Blogger Chris Needham, at 10/24/2007 3:58 PM  

    • Pointless roster shuffling is fun.... sometimes!

      USS Mariner's blog takes comments like that and deletes them with the tag [rosterbation].

      By Blogger Chris Needham, at 10/24/2007 4:00 PM  

    • Hey Chris, thanks for these great posts. About the argument that Schneider sacrificed his offense to develop the young pitchers, I agree that the argument seems a little overstated. After all, as you point out, none of the young guys had a truly break out season.

      But maybe the argument is a little different: namely that Brian carried a much heavier defensive load with all the young pitchers and retreads, and that his game prep, game calling and intangible "pitcher handling" helped those (largely) sucky pitchers get better results than they would have with a more offensive-minded catcher.

      I mean somebody should get some credit for posting as many wins as the Nats did with that pitching lineup. Maybe Brian should get a couple of win shares, along with St. Clare, etc. Not that any of those intangibles are obviously quantifiable, of course.

      By Blogger Art L, at 10/24/2007 4:01 PM  

    • I'll get to that at some point when I start addressing the pitchers.

      The thing is that none of the Nats starting pitchers really did much better than expected.

      Well, Hill did. Bergmann surprised for a stretch, but in the end was no better than a 4/5 starter. Chico held his own, but was also no better than a 4/5.

      The reason the pitching looks so good is because they didn't ask their starters to pitch past the 5th inning, and they let the relievers pitch a HUGE percentage of the team's total innings. The relief corps has always been strong, and they leveraged that into a stronger than expected pitching performance.

      But the quality of the SP had little to do with it.

      By Blogger Chris Needham, at 10/24/2007 4:05 PM  

    • Chris,

      Top blog, and fantastic read. I think what the whole catcher debate boils down to is this: If you have a young, inexperienced pitching staff, Schneider is probably the best catcher to catch and develop them not only because he calls a great game but because stealing and errors can get inside a young pitchers head. This is partially demonstrated by fact that our staff massively over-achieved this year. The other side is that the team will not/cannot move forward with a catcher as bad at the plate as Schneider. He is a great mentor for Flores and a great stable pony for the pitchers, but the band-aid will have to be ripped off sooner or later. Trade him now? Platoon for a year? I'd give it a year of platooning year, but I have an irrational and unwaivering support for Schneider even though the best thing might be to trade him and give Flores a chance without the training wheels...

      P.S. Posada is too old and too expensive and Flores will be better than him in about a year as one get better and the other gets worse.

      By Blogger Ben, at 10/24/2007 4:25 PM  

    • When it comes to catchers I think I must be a graduate of the Stan Kasten School of Low Expectations. I just assume the catcher is going to hit 8th and contribute minimally to the offense. Therefore I'm not too disappointed in Schneider and am even a bit surprised he was close to league average in anything as I expected so little.

      The thing that kind of bothers me about paying a bunch of money (10 mil plus) to a catcher who can hit in the middle of the order is that even if he’s healthy he will miss 20% of his games and that there is a chance he can be injured on every pitch. I’d rather put that money into a player who has less risk of getting injured and who should play in more games in a season. Cheap I am. I want my money's worth. But it sure would be nice to have a McCann or Martinez and get a boost in offense from a position that normally doesn’t contribute much.

      By Anonymous Tulsa Fan, at 10/24/2007 8:56 PM  

    • Here here Tulsa fan!

      By Blogger Ben, at 10/24/2007 9:07 PM  

    • I understand what you mean about all the time being missed.

      But you're also comparing his play to other people who miss time. When compared to his peers, Posada is so far above the others offensively, it's silly.

      If the Nats had had Posada instead of Schneider, they'd have scored something on the order of 50-60 extra runs.

      By Blogger Chris Needham, at 10/24/2007 9:10 PM  

    • Come on guys!

      Posada is coming off a career season with a team notorious for over paying. If the Nat's were to bid for him they would be competing with the Yankees which means they would have to sign him for longer than he will be good, for more than they can afford. We have a great defensive catcher and a highly coveted prospect. Does anyone honestly think Posada is where we should be spending our money? Long term deals go to young guys. Signing Posada (besides being practically impossible) goes against everything this club is trying to build.

      By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10/24/2007 11:13 PM  

    • We already stated it was a pipe dream, so relax.

      Does anyone honestly think Posada is where we should be spending our money?

      Sure. You've gotta improve somewhere. I'm not saying its' going go to happen or that it even SHOULD happen, just that that's one place where the Nats COULD improve.

      As far as blocking Flores, you could say the same of Schneider. He's under contract for two more years anyway. If you could get Posada for 3 (and that might not even be possible), there's really not much difference. Send Flores down for a year or two to work every day and to develop properly; that wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. If he excels down there and is ready, unload Posada somewhere.

      By Blogger Chris Needham, at 10/25/2007 8:52 AM  

    • Posada will turn 37 during next season. Let's not turn the Nats into the O's. That would be a typical O's move (like signing Brady Anderson, Melvin Mora, Albert Belle, etc. to long term contracts at advanced age).

      By Anonymous EdDC, at 10/25/2007 8:57 AM  

    • No. Other than Belle -- whose contract would've been fine had he not contracted a degenerative hip condition at an early age -- the problem with the Orioles has been signing mediocre old players and marginal players.

      In Posada's case, he could decline and still be a great player because he's so far above what an average performer does at that position.

      Mora had already had two down years before they signed him to the extension. And they'd rather throw $5 million at mediocrities like David Segui than spending real money on superstar level talent.

      By Blogger Chris Needham, at 10/25/2007 9:00 AM  

    • The O's have spent lots on mediocre talent, true. That's ONE of their problems. But they have also wasted big money on talented players in their declining years.

      You knew Brady Anderson was going to be a liability soon after he signed the big contract in his later years. The Bosox went out and signed a young Perdo Martinez that same off-season for the same money as Anderson plus the four mediocrities the O's also signed that year (like old Joe Carter). As a result, Boston forever passed the Orioles by.

      Albert Belle's signing in his decling years would have yielded a bat-slowing and slower runner even if Belle didn't "prematurely" physically degenerate. But we'll neve know on that one.

      Melvin Mora had a good year before he signed his long term contract, hitting 27 HR and .283 (with a .348 OBP). But you just knew old age would catch up with him, and turn him into a liability before very long. The O's would take a ham sandwich for him now.

      The deal to get an older star Glenn Davis (remember him?) for young guys Schilling, Finley and Harnisch, is STILL backfiring for the O's, almost 20 years later.

      You knew Javier Lopez would be an old beat-up bust in his last year or two. Catchers (like Posada) age earlier than others.

      The point is that wasting money on mediocrities or wasting money on decling superstar talent would not be good strategies for a team building future success. But it would make going to the ballpark more fun next year, for sure, and that has to be considered too, I guess. It depends what your priorities are.

      By Anonymous EdDC, at 10/25/2007 9:59 AM  

    • You're right in that you don't want to build a team around those kinds of guys.

      But it goes back to the same things from last year... the Nats could spend more money on FA without really harming their long-term fortunes because there are so few upper-level prospects in the minors. They just don't have kids who can step in over the next year or two.

      (Also... in my rosterbation scenario, keep in mind that the Nats would be unloading roughly $9-10 million in salary from Schneider and $7 million + for Cordero... so Posada's contract wouldn't increase the team's yearly payroll by all that much, and certainly would be a better use of that money than Schneider/Chief... but again, it's pointless roster moves, just for the hell of it)

      By Blogger Chris Needham, at 10/25/2007 10:03 AM  

    • Schneider doesn't block Flores because Schneider will accept being benched for two to three games in the rotation. Somehow I don't think Posada would...

      Anyway this is silly. The Nat's don't want him and her certainly doesn't want us.

      By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10/25/2007 11:31 AM  

    • Anyway this is silly

      NOW you're getting it!

      By Blogger Chris Needham, at 10/25/2007 11:32 AM  

    • By Blogger Sneakers hobbies, at 10/29/2009 8:57 PM  

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