Sunday, February 19, 2006

Are They The Tools of Irrelevance?

Courtesy of The New York Times
By Alan Schwarz
February 19, 2006
New York Times

With apologies to Punxsutawney Phil, whose eye is not what it used to be, winter officially returned to its hole last week with baseball fans' favorite words: pitchers and catchers report. Pitchers and catchers are as symbiotic as hot dogs and beer. From now through October, they will form their teams' most vital partnership.

In a rare partnership of their own, common baseball wisdom and common sense suggest that some catchers are better than others at helping their pitchers — whether by calling better pitch sequences, blocking potential wild pitches or practicing arm-guard psychology.

Pitchers contend that they feel more comfortable and perform better with certain catchers, the best example being Steve Carlton and Tim McCarver, who joked that their tombstones would someday lie 60 feet 6 inches apart. Japanese teams so respect the pitcher-catcher alliance that they have been known to change batteries in the middle of an inning.

"You look at production," Los Angeles Angels Manager Mike Scioscia, a former catcher, said. "Some pitchers execute better with one catcher or another. You see it on the field."

Fair enough. But when baseball statistics analysts have measured the tools of ignorance with their own tools, they get an anticlimactic and rather counterintuitive result: Catchers appear to have scant effect on pitchers' performance, or certainly far less than most surmise.

Catchers are primarily judged on the flash of their throwing arm, but no conventional statistic assesses their primary charge: to help their pitchers post low earned run averages. But if earned run averages were kept for catchers, too, wouldn't that help pinpoint some sort of talent? Presumably, a catcher whose team posts lower E.R.A.'s with him behind the plate is, at least comparatively, good at his job. And those with the largest differentials would be the best.

Over the past three seasons, the Astros have had a 3.67 E.R.A. with Brad Ausmus behind the plate and a 4.44 E.R.A. without him; Ausmus's 0.77 reduction leads the major leagues among catchers with at least 2,000 innings. Paul Lo Duca, recently acquired by the Mets, has a reputation for offense, but he was second at 0.73. Mike Lieberthal of the Phillies was last; his pitchers posted an E.R.A. 0.62 higher with him.

Catcher E.R.A. can be misleading, though. Like the catchers themselves, it makes some errant pitches look like strikes.

First, some star pitchers almost always throw to a backup — as Carlton did with McCarver (over Bob Boone), or as Randy Johnson did with John Flaherty (over Jorge Posada) last season — making the starting catcher look undeservedly bad. Second, some managers, like the Cardinals' Tony La Russa, call all pitches from the bench.

Keith Woolner, the director of research for Baseball Prospectus, developed a more sophisticated Catcher E.R.A. several years ago to assuage those and other concerns. But he still found something remarkable: A catcher could indeed appear to have a major effect on his pitchers' E.R.A., but that effect often reversed itself the next year. Catcher E.R.A.'s bounced around as if at random. Although that doesn't prove the absence of true catching talent, it suggests that whatever exists does not manifest itself to a detectable degree.

"Something that's ability is relatively consistent, like home run power," Woolner said. "You can be pretty sure that if Adam Dunn hit more home runs than Juan Pierre last year, he will next year, too. But when you look at catchers who prevent runs well one year, they are not more likely to prevent runs well the next year. They're just as likely to be bad. It's really not what I expected to see.

"We're told that catchers have a real impact on the final score, but it doesn't show up. This is an exaggeration, but compared to the batters and the pitchers, the catcher is just a guy who makes sure the ball doesn't go to the backstop."

Perhaps some teams are sensing this. Bengie Molina, considered a fine defensive catcher for the Angels, received little attention in the free-agent marketplace and signed for only a year with the Blue Jays. And Mike Piazza, who was thought to be retiring a glove many considered as useful as Michael Jackson's, was signed by the Padres — to be their starting catcher.

Piazza has always considered criticism of his defense to be out of proportion with his overall value, at least compared with the praise showered on Gold Glovers like Mike Matheny.

"When I see someone steal a couple bases off Matheny or a guy like that, I go, 'You got to change him to first!' " Piazza said last year. "I think it's funny."

Although catchers take pride in their importance, some of the best try not to get as worked up about it as outsiders do. The nomadic catcher Damian Miller can claim to have called pitches for a gaggle of All-Stars from 2001 to 2004: Johnson and Curt Schilling with the Diamondbacks; Kerry Wood and Mark Prior with the Cubs; then the vaunted Big Three with the Athletics, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. Yet Miller laughed his influence aside.

"I like to think it's the catcher," Miller said. "But I think I know better."

Courtesy of The New York Times

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