28 May 2014

Receivers in Name Only

You may have never heard of the baseball term RINO (Receivers in Name Only).  The likely cause of this is that I think I just made it up.  What it is trying to make clear is to communicate what is a popular perspective in several front offices throughout baseball: catchers without sufficient defensive skills when drafted are highly unlikely to acquire those skills during their career.  Maybe the term sticks, maybe it does not, but hopefully this article addresses whether or not this sentiment is true.

The way I decided to test this was pretty simple.  I took all draftees listed as a catcher from 2004 through 2008.  I decided to ignore any position switches because what we are interested in are catchers at the MLB level.  Whether or not they hit well enough to assume another position (e.g., Gaby Sanchez) does not resolve the issue of catching depth in a system.  I gave them credit for service at a level (e.g., MLB, AAA, AA, A, Hi A, A, Short A, Rookie) if they had over 100 games played at that level or accumulated at that level and a above.  For instance, if a player had 70 games caught at AA and 40 at AAA, that player would be credited with having reached AA with 110 games at or above that level.  All this was how the study measured performance, nothing more.

To determine how a catcher's ability was viewed at the time of being drafted, I consulted Baseball America's draft database scouting reports.  I decided to be conservative in what I labeled as a defensive catcher.  The following are several of the terms used that would result in a player being classified as such:
best defender in the class, pure catch and throw, solid average, at worst fringe average, best defensive catcher seen since Charles Johnson (a label that adorned Matt Wieters' scouting report, which is contrary to my memory)
Draftees labelled as poor defenders included labels like these:
needs improvement behind the plate to stick, defense remains his nemesis, passable, adequate, no scouts see him at catcher, deserves a look behind the plate, will move to third
These designations left us with 37 catchers labeled as defensive drafted in the first five rounds and 28 labeled as non defensive.  This may not be the most robust data set, but it might be able to yield some answers if the differences between these two groups are large.

How well do defensive catchers advance through the levels?

 If you simply count each level attained as a single point, sum them up for each player individually, and group them by their defense, then defensive catchers significantly (p=0.001) rack up levels played as a catcher in professional baseball.  The table below shows the total number of players in each group that are credited with time spent (100 games or more at that level and above) and the percent of that group that made it to that level.

Defensive Non Defensive

Total 37
MLB 16 43% 5 18%
AAA 24 65% 9 32%
AA 29 78% 13 46%
Hi A 31 84% 15 54%
A 36 97% 20 71%
Short A 36 97% 21 75%
Rookie 36 97% 22 79%

As you can see, defensive catchers are likely to make it to the Majors 2.4 times more likely than non-defensive catchers.  Keep in mind that this success rate does not include defensive catchers Kyle Skipworth, Austin Romine, and Travis D'Arnaud who all stand a very reasonable chance of achieving that 100 game MLB mark in the next year or two.  That would raise the success rate to 51% and increase of probability to 2.8 times more likely to make the big show than non-defensive catchers.  In other words, if you are an organization looking to improve catching depth within your system then you should stick to the amateurs who already show proficiency in the position.  However, if you really love a bat and the player just happens to be listed as a catcher then feel free to select him knowing that it is highly likely that he has to exchange his catching mitt for a fielding one.

One question that may be asked would be whether or not non-defensive catchers are more likely to be selected in the later portions of the five round database of drafted catcher that I put together.  In fact, the average round players were drafted in was higher for the non-defensive catchers (2.5) than the defensive catchers (2.8).  For the most part, defensive and non-defensive catchers drafted in the first two rounds were in similar proportion in their groups.  The non-defensive catchers attained a higher average draft round because teams drafted few of them in the fifth round in comparison to defensive catchers.

Below is a table parsing out the round data for each group as well as the MLB attainment rates for those groups.

Defensive Non Defensive
Round Success n Success n
1st 64% 11 14% 7
2nd 57% 7 0% 5
3rd 33% 6 14% 7
4th 33% 6 29% 7
5th 14% 7 50% 2

A first round catcher with existing professional defensive skills is 4.5 times more likely than a non-defensive catcher.  If you add Skipworth and D'Arnaud in that then the percent goes up to 82%, 5.9 times more likely than a non-defensive first round catcher.  Romine's addition would put the second round at 71%.  Keep in mind that these are small sample sizes, but these are rather impressive differences that suggest that there is a trend here.


The conclusion is this: if you want a catcher, then draft an individual who has already displayed professional catching skills.  If you really like a bat and the player just happens to have played catcher in high school or college, then do not talk yourself into dreaming about him as a catcher and respect him simply for his bat.  Otherwise, an organization may just find itself a few years down the road with no internal solutions behind the plate.


Scott said...

Could it simply be that it is easier to teach hitting than defense? Also - I am pretty sure that through the history of baseball, I could find a 4 year window that would COMPLETELY contradict your numbers. So you are correct about the sample size being small. As in - way too small to produce any meaningful "answers". Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics.

Jon Shepherd said...

Why is not what this study tried to figure out, but, yeah, catching is hard. Swinging a bat is also hard. If you want to look at hitting, a study on drafted 1B would probably be ideal.

No with the results of this study...Since posting, I am now aware of a more thorough proprietary study that came to the same conclusion with a lot more data than I have. It seems rather definitive that the population of drafted defensive catchers are much much safer bets. Again, this is why several organizations avoid bad defensive catchers if they are drafting someone to beef up their organizational strength behind the plate.

Ryan Solonche said...

An interesting take on popular adages like: needs to improve defense to stick behind plate, bat will play at 1b/3b if prospect does not improve, etc.

It would seem that the research is fairly definitive -- if not for talent evaluation -- at least in terms organizational depth and likelihood a prospect will continue progression.

Given that you're likely to see what 150+ pitches per game behind the plate but only get 4 AB's leads me to believe that even working with only 4 year windows, it would be very difficult for anyone to find completely contradictory stats. Catcher is a position that that allows for far more opportunities to contribute to the team on defense per game.

I also believe there are more MLB Executives in the Hall of Fame than Catchers -- and even amongst that group you have guys like Gary Carter and Carlton Fisk who had lifetime .269 avgs. Great hitters, but not elite compared to other positions.

SOOOO, my question is: given that this quick study should not be viewed as controversial, what do we make of the Orioles selecting Chance Sisco ahead of where most thought he was draftable. His dossier was pretty much a carbon copy of what you have mentioned: + hitting potential with work to be done on defense. Also given his pretty strong progress thus far for his age, do you think he will be part of that 18% of Hitting first catching prospects that makes it?

Jon Shepherd said...

Ryan - That is the next question, right? I took a few steps to try to answer it, but thought that my sample size was dwindling too much to write anything noteworthy on Sisco. As in the data describes the population, but does not discern differences with individuals. I am wondering whether I can open up the time period to get a larger sample to track and see how improvements in defense are noted. The issue there is that there would be an assumption that scouting a catcher's defense has not improved during a longer time frame, which is an assumption that becomes harder and harder to believe as that time period expands.

Ryan Solonche said...

Jon -- while there are definitely complications in sample size and trying to extrapolate the accuracy of scouting catchers; I think at a minimum it points to Duquette/Rajisch must have thought they could develop defense quickly -- I think he had only played like 20 games behind the plate in high school?

Maybe they see a disparity in the supply of Offensive-minded catchers to Defensive-minded. They might see the Salvador Perez', Jason Castro, Wilson Rosario, and of course Buster Posey and think that's the prototype -- not the Jose Molina's. Maybe they're hedging their bets hoping to strike lightning as opposed to the safer route through the system?

It's interesting to note because it just does not seem likely they retain Wieters.

Jon Shepherd said...

Someone like Lou Marson comes to mind who did not have a lot of experience, but was quite athletic.

It may well be that catchers who have not put in the time to show they can catch are more open-ended in terms of what they can do as opposed to long-term catchers who have repeatedly shown trouble handling those duties.