15 October 2012

Can we assume Wieters will hit better next time in the playoffs?

Jon Shepherd contributed to this article.

There has been some data that suggests that catchers peak later offensively in their careers than the average player. The narrative often attached to that late boost in offensive prowess is that a catcher has to deal with the mental hardships that come with taking care of a MLB staff and that exhausts a catcher from developing quickly from an offensive standpoint.  A second competing narrative is that a catcher's appearance in the majors is not a product of his offensive game, but of his defensive game.  As such, catchers with under developed offensive skills are more likely to be promoted and learn at the major league level than catchers with under developed defensive skills. 

The former idea of mental adaptation comes up a lot though in a variety of ways.  In a playoffs-related chat at Baseball Prospectus last week, Dan Evans suggested that the first time a catcher goes to the post-season his offensive production can suffer because he's focusing so much on his pitching staff. To put it another way, he is thinking so much about his pitchers that his mind is dulled for handling his own offense. This came up in reference to Matt Wieters, who ended up batting a dismal .125/.197/.167 in the playoffs. Jon was nice enough to provide me with a non-exhaustive list of catchers who had multiple post-season appearances over the last couple decades, so I could preliminary look at how they did their first time there versus their second (counting "first time" as the first year in which they had at least 10 plate appearances in the playoffs.)  The was not intended to be an exhaustive study on the subject, but a quick pilot study to see if there was any indication as to whether this truly is a topic to invest more time.

The list: Javy Lopez, Sandy Alomar Jr., Jason Varitek, Jorge Posada, Dan Wilson, Chris Hoiles, AJ Pierzynski, Yadier Molina, and Carlos Ruiz.

The first time this group of players were exposed to handling pitchers in the playoffs, they had an average OPS of .692. In the season preceding that post-season, they had an average OPS of .784. So, while acknowledged that the playoffs do only provide a small sample size, the catchers fared worse in the playoffs than they did in the regular season by an average of about 91 points or a reduction of 12%. This decrease would be in line with general conventional wisdom about offensive performance decreasing in the playoffs for all players in that pitchers in the playoffs tend to be better as a function of the best teams being in the playoffs. Worse teams with likely worse pitchers are not present for hitters to beat up on. 

The second time the catchers went to the playoffs, they had an average OPS of .674 - so that is a little bit worse than the first time. That isn't that bad though, when you account for their average OPS during the regular season on .742. So their OPS fell by only 69 points, on average, or a 9% decrease in performance.

This is only nine players, of course, likely with different levels of responsibility when it comes to handling their respective pitching staffs and the quality of pitching each of them faced while hitting may not be the typical quality of post-season pitchers. Again, this is a pilot study. A difference between a 12% decrease and a 9% decrease in relation to their regular season stats does not appear to be incredibly significant.  At least, it does not seem to be an interesting enough result to look more deeply into the numbers.  The idea is interesting and likely merits greater study, but nothing immediately emerges from this pilot study to indicate there is something really meaty here. A major problem for many statistical-minded folks is to be at arms with established lines of thought.  Where this has made sense in order for this approach to gain a strong foothold in every front office, it can sometimes overlook great ideas and concepts that statistical analysis has difficulty in assessing.  Perhaps there is truth to the mental hardship being placed on a playoff newbie catcher or maybe there is a general narrative that is being forced on catchers who happen to do poorly in a handful of plate appearances.

The work done here is largely inconclusive.  Maybe someone else can find much more merit to the idea than we did.  Our personal opinion is that Matt Wieters' line during the playoffs this year will not mean much to what he will do the next time he gets into the post season, fingers crossed, in 2013.

The full data (with an extra year for some catchers who were fortunate enough to see October over and over):

Javy Lopez:

1995 - .315/.344/.498, .842

1995P - .300/.302/.525, .827 OPS, 43 PA

1996 - .282/.322/.466, .788

1996P - .365/.426/.625, 1.061 OPS, 61 PA

1997 - .295/.361/.534, .895

1997P - .125/.207/.250, .457 OPS, 29 PA

Sandy Alomar:

1995 - .300/.322/.478, .810

1995P - .220/.233/.366, .598 OPS, 43 PA

1996 - .263/.299/.397, .696

1996P - .125/.125/.125, .250 OPS, 16 PA

1997 - .324/.354/.545, .900

1997P - .274/.303/.507, .809 OPS, 76 PA

Jason Varitek:

1999 - .269/.330/.482, .813

1999P - .220/.227/.512, .739 OPS, 44 PA

2003 - .273/.351/.512, .863

2003P - .294/.351/.706, 1.057 OPS, 37 PA

2004 - .296/.390/.482, .872

2004P - .245/.295/.472, .767 OPS, 61 PA

Jorge Posada

1998 - .268/.350/.475, .824 OPS

1998P - .227/.414/.500, .914 OPS, 29 PA

1999 - .245/.341/.401, .752 OPS

1999P - .182/.217/.409, .626 OPS, 23 PA

2000 - .287/.417/.527, .943 OPS

2000P - .204/.353/.278, .631 OPS, 68 PA

Dan Wilson:

1995 - .285/.330/.3444, .774 OPS

1995P - .061/.114/.061, .175 OPS, 35 PA

1997 - .270/.326/.423, .749 OPS

1997P - .000/.000/.000, .000 OPS, 13 PA

Chris Hoiles

1996 - .258/.356/.474, .830 OPS

1996P - .158/.292/.316, .607 OPS, 24 PA

1997 - .259/.375/3419, .794 OPS

1997P - .143/.280/.286, .566 OPS, 25 PA

AJ Pierzynski:

2002 - .300/.334/.439, .773 OPS

2002P - .344/.371/.500, .871 OPS, 35 PA

2003 - .312/.360/.464, .824 OPS

2003P - .231/.333/.462, .795 OPS, 15 PA

2005 - .257/.308/.420, .728 OPS

2005P - .262/.313/.571, .884 OPS, 48 PA

Yadier Molina:

2005 - .252/.295/.358, .654 OPS

2005P - .286/.286/.371, .657 OPS, 35 PA

2006 - .216/.274/.321, .595 OPS

2006P - .358/.424/.547, .971 OPS, 59 PA

Carlos Ruiz

2007 - .259/.340/.396, .735 OPS

2007P - .333/.400/.444, .844 OPS, 10 PA

2008 - .219/.320/.300, .620 OPS

2008P - .261/.346/.391, .737 OPS, 52 PA

2009 - .255/.355/.425, .780 OPS

2009P - .341/.474/.591, .1.065 OPS, 57 PA


Bret said...

I'm not really worried about the playoffs. I'm worried about his stagnant performance the last 4 years over 162.

Wieters is also extremely tall for a catcher which means more wear and tear on knees and probably a shorter back end of career as a result.

I don't think the team should be in a rush to sign him long term unless he wants to do something reasonable and Boras is not reasonable. I would give him Adam Jones money or Molina money but he will want more.

This year I definitely take him to arbitration and maybe light a fire under him to get a bigger contract. If he has a great year then we can talk. I just haven't seen much in the way of advancement. He was a tremendously talented player when he came up and still is and I thought maybe in April he had turned a corner but then in May he went 3 for 106 or whatever it was. That tells me he is either giving up at bats or not adjusting to pitchers or something. He is too talented to be this poor a hitter and maybe he does need to only hit right handed. At some point there needs to be progress and if there isn't any the O's don't need to give him an Albert Belle contract. I never have a problem letting players who are 30 walk, especially when draft picks come back.

Jon Shepherd said...

I cannot recall a switch hitter successfully going one sided at the MLB level. Maybe 10 years ago he saw a bad high school pitch break away from him. I assume he would be incredibly succeptible in same handed situations.

Bret said...

I actually think his left handed swing is more sound and fluid than his right handed swing but we now have two years worth of data showing a huge split.

He rolls over a lot left handed for some reason, seems to stay back and use the entire field much better from right side.

I haven't completely given up on him, Posada wasn't an excellent player until age 28. Varitek was 30 before he really turned a corner. There is something to catchers developing late, but I expected much more progress by this point.

Philip said...

Why all the fuss about Catcher? The Orioles have several more pressing needs.
And really.... if you don't want Wieters, who else is there?
Napoli is a good hitter(though his offense this year mirrored Wieters' almost exactly) but he's not nearly as good defensively, and will be very very expensive.

I'm much more interested in which guys will be gone.
I guess you're just waiting a while before commenting on guys who will be leaving the team.

Ford and Thome will most likely be gone, but there's lots of maybes still on the roster.

Jordan said...

I notice many of the comments are arguing over his offensive production and his apparent lack of progres at the plate, but John made a good point that a catcher's performance is more measured by his defensive abilities. It's hard to argue against Yadier Molina being the best overall catcher in baseball, but after that who else is there who really compares to Wieters overall? He hit .250 with 23 home runs and should win his second consecutive gold golve. keep in mind he only debuted in 2009. He's only 26. That means in three full seasons, he will likely have two gold gloves, and be a 20 + home run hitter. Also if you compare his batting average to that of the entire Oriole's roster, he is one of the more consistent hitters with a .250 batting average. How . Does he have weaknesses? Of course. But as far as I'm concerned there's nobody I'd rather have other than Molina or maybe Posey, but we know that's not going to happen. He's really matured behind the plate with the pitching staff and I'm sure his bat will come around eventually. They say a player's prime is around 28-30 years old, so hopefully the best is yet to come