Catching Nothing But Grief

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It’s been a tough few games for Dodger catchers, but then again, it’s been a tough season for Dodger catchers. Tim Federowicz not only went 0-5 in the loss to Arizona, he let the go-ahead run score when he couldn’t handle Chris Withrow‘s wild intentional walk throw (which, to be fair, is largely on Withrow as well), let another Withrow pitch get past him — his second Withrow passed ball in four days — and then ended his night by taking a ball off the groin after committing catcher’s interference against Paul Goldschmidt.

I’m not writing an entire post about Federowicz’ night, because Eric Stephen already did that, and he did it well. But what it does make me need to do is point out just how ineffective the Dodger backstops have been over the first few weeks of the season. Here’s how the three catchers have performed at the plate:

A.J. Ellis: 29 PA, .167/.310/.167 53 wRC+
Federowicz: 29 PA, .074/.107/.111 -42 wRC+ (not a typo!)
Drew Butera: 11 PA, .200/.273/.200 40 wRC+

Immediately, this is unfair, and I know that. Ellis more than likely was affected by his knee before he actually had surgery, and judging the second and third catchers against the first and second catchers of other clubs isn’t really fair, in addition to these being minuscule sample sizes.

But… 

MLB catching stats by team:
1) Reds — .375.438/.643 187 wRC+
2) Brewers — .350/.435/.500 161 wRC+
MLB AVG — .248/.316/.396 99 wRC+
29) Nationals — .161/.224/.258 29 wRC+
30) Dodgers — .131/.221/.148 11 wRC+

Right there, you can see how much losing your starting catcher hurts, because Washington lost Wilson Ramos on Opening Day, forcing them to go with Jose Lobaton and Sandy Leon. And we knew that Butera was never going to hit, and we were pretty certain that Federowicz wouldn’t either. They haven’t, and this team wasn’t built around requiring offense from behind the plate, so it’s just a disappointment, not a surprise.

But what is disappointing is what’s happening on defense. Butera has built an entire career around being a superb defensive catcher, but pitch framing just hates him. Federowicz is here almost entirely because he’s supposedly a solid defensive catcher, but we’ve seen several times in the last week alone where he’s cost the team back there — and framing doesn’t love him either. As catchers across the sport are hitting better than ever, the black hole from behind the plate in Los Angeles looks even worse, and the seeming lack of defensive value isn’t helping.

The good news? Ellis is progressing well in his return from surgery, participating in all baseball activities other than running, and it seems like he may be back on the low end of the original four-to-six week estimate. Based on what we’ve seen so far, it can’t happen soon enough.

A.J. Ellis to have surgery on left knee for meniscus tear, what now?

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In a reveal that seemingly came out of nowhere, the Dodgers official Twitter broke news that A.J. Ellis would be undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee for a meniscus tear. He also underwent in operation for a meniscus tear in the same knee back in October of 2012.

There’s no information on his recovery timetable yet, but it depends a great deal what type of meniscus tear we’re looking at. For Ellis’ previous tear, he was given a timetable of six weeks and was ready to begin 2013. And while Derrick Rose famously was ruled out for the 2013-14 season with the tear, Russell Westbrook was on a typical timetable of 4-6 weeks.

So we’re not quite sure yet how much time we’re looking at without A.J. until they release more information or until the surgery actually happens. According to Dylan Hernandez though, we may be looking at the optimistic side of 4-6 weeks:

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Now about that move the Dodgers are talking about: This will inevitably be Tim Federowicz. I can’t imagine them bringing up Miguel Olivo when he was shown to be a clear fourth in the pecking order (and isn’t even on the 40-man roster).

Through 193 MLB plate appearances, T-Fed’s line checks in at .227/.283/.341/.624. Steamer doesn’t project much better, predicting a line of .224/.290/.343/.633. But the hope is that he’ll put up better numbers with consistent playing time. By comparison, Steamer projected Ellis to be a .235/.331/.340/.672 hitter and a 3.0 WAR player.

Defensively, A.J. was one of the better catchers in the league at controlling the run game in 2013, but was a mediocre pitcher framer, something he himself admitted to working on. The problem is that in limited time, T-Fed graded out even worse as a pitch framer and wasn’t as effective at throwing guys out. Drew Butera, expected to remain as the backup, is renowned as a plus defensive catcher. Of course, that comes with the downside of being one of the worst hitters in baseball history. No, really.

So while there doesn’t appear to be a massive drop-off in store at the position — it’s not like Ellis was hitting — it could get uglier if Federowicz doesn’t hit better than expected. Everything else at the moment points to a clear downgrade at the position going forward, and that doesn’t even factor in the potential effect this has on the pitching staff. Unfortunately, there’s just nothing available as far as catchers on other teams, so Butera/Fed is what we’ll have to make due with. Come back soon, A.J.

What Baseball Prospectus’ New Framing Data Means For The Dodgers

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On Monday, Baseball Prospectus published an article introducing new methodology to quantify the impact of catcher framing. Dan Brooks and Harry Pavlidis collaborated to create the numbers, which they have been working on for most of the offseason. The analysis of pitch framing, which uses Pitch F/X data to see when a catcher “changes” a ball to a strike, has been an area of intense focus among the sabermetric analysis community. Since the analysis of the impact of framing is in its early stages, it is exciting to follow along with the development of new measurement methodologies. And, since this is a Dodgers blog, we can see how the new framing data views Dodger catchers.

First, the caveats:

1. Since the analysis of framing is so new, the magnitude of the impact of framing vary depending on who you ask. A new analysis might come out tomorrow that says that framing is worth half the magnitude or there might be other influences that this new analysis does not take into account. There’s a reason why catcher framing is not yet included in WAR or WARP.

2. BP’s summation of catcher defense does not include control of the running game, an area of strength for the Dodgers. Part of this is pitcher influenced, but catchers also have an impact. The BP catcher evaluation model also does not include anything on pitch calling or how a catcher handles a pitching staff. These are things that A.J. Ellis does well, from everything that we’ve heard.

What does Baseball Prospectus’ new framing analysis do differently than what we’ve seen before?

Previous framing analyses have assumed that all strikes which are changed to balls (and vice versa) have the same impact. This new analysis assigns an individual run value to a frame on each count. A successful frame on a 3-2 count (changing a walk to a strikeout) counts more than a successful frame on the first pitch. The run value assigned also depends on the probability that a pitch in a particular location is called a ball or a strike with “neutral” framing.

The analysis also takes other new factors into account. Based on a pitcher’s arsenal and control, their impact on a catcher’s framing can be determined. Per the article, Brandon League has the worst impact (on a rate basis) on catcher framing. Essentially, this means that he has one of the smallest strike zones in baseball. Dan Haren is on the opposite side of the leaderboard, creating one of the largest positive impacts on framing. Brooks and Pavlidis have stated that they will publish the full leaderboard in the future, so we will get an opportunity to see the influence of other Dodgers pitchers as well.

The BP framing analysis also accounts for the umpire and adds a bit of regression. They have also applied all of the above methods to pitch blocking, another significant portion of catcher defensive value.

What does this mean for the Dodgers’ catchers? As the figure below shows, it isn’t pretty.

Dodger_Catcher_Defense

*For catchers who split time between the Dodgers and another team, I scaled their framing results by the amount of innings caught for each team.

The overall defensive contribution of the Dodgers catchers has dramatically declined since Russell Martin‘s departure. In 2011, the team’s overall defensive value was nearly neutral, thanks mostly to Rod Barajas‘ 9.3 blocking runs above average. In 2012 and 2013, the overall defensive value has been amounted to nearly two lost wins per season.

Let’s break down the last two years a bit more. Below is a table of each player who has caught for the Dodgers during that time period, both on a counting and rate basis. 7000 framing opportunities (as noted in the “/7000″ statistics) is approximately one season for the primary catcher, so that is what the rate stats are based on. Each /7000 stat corresponds to the raw counting stat on its left. Catchers with less playing time (Butera, Hernandez, etc) will have a bigger difference between their rate stats and counting stats and will have higher small sample volatility.

Year Player Framing Runs Above Average FrRAA/7000 Blocking Runs Above Average BRAA/7000 Total Receiving Runs Above Average RRAA/7000
 2013  A.J. Ellis -12.0 -13.73 -3.0 -2.9 -15.0 -16.1
 2013 Tim Federowicz -1.1 -3.1 0.4  0.8 -0.7 -2.4
 2013 Ramon Hernandez -1.7 -18.9 0.0 0.0 -1.7 -18.9
 2013  Drew Butera -0.1 -4.4 0.0 0.0 -0.1 -4.4
 2012 A.J. Ellis -14.9 -13.8 -0.5 -0.3 -15.4 -14.1
 2012 Matt Treanor -5.1 -18.4 1.3 3.3 -3.8 -15.2
2012 Tim Federowicz -0.1 -10.6 0.0 0.0 -0.1 -10.6

As you can see, A.J. Ellis’ defensive numbers are pretty disappointing. He was worth -12 framing runs above average and -3 blocking runs above average last season. By raw counting value, he was the sixth-worst framer, the seventh-worst blocker, and the fourth-worst combined defender. By rate, his defense was fifth-worst last season. He wasn’t much better in 2012; fifth-worst by overall defense.

Ellis’ back-up, Tim Federowicz, fared a bit better last season. He’s listed as a below-average framer, but a slightly above-average pitch blocker. This adds up to a slightly below-average combination of the two defensive numbers, which is counter to his reputation.

The new model at Baseball Prospectus has different evaluations on Ellis than an older model found at StatCorner. Baseball Prospectus evaluates Ellis’ 2013 framing value to be -12.0 runs, while StatCorner evaluates it as -7.4 runs. StatCorner (-16.0 runs) is harsher on Ellis’ 2012 framing than BP (-14.9).

Searching through the Baseball Prospectus numbers show a few examples who were at or below Ellis’ level improving their framing numbers. Carlos Santana was worth -34 FrRAA/7000 in 2012, but was worth -7.7 in 2013. Dioner Navarro went from -23.4 FrRAA/7000 in 2008 to -6.4 FrRAA/7000 in 2009. Despite the two positive examples, big improvements from a large negative framing value are relatively rare among catchers with significant sample sizes. Teams could be recognizing the value removed by poor framing and substituting better catchers, but it’s more likely that they haven’t recognized (or, perhaps, disagree with) the impact of framing.

No matter which model you ask, they draw the same conclusion: pitch framing is a weakness on the Dodgers. The magnitude of its importance is still being determined, but hopefully A.J. Ellis will take steps to improve his receiving in 2014.

This post uses the following statistics:

  • FrRAA/7000: Framing runs above average per 7000 framing opportunities
  • BRAA/7000: Blocking runs above average per 7000 blocking opportunities
  • RRAA/7000: Receiving runs above average per 7000 framing opportunities. Sums framing and blocking inputs

2014 Spring Training Preview: Catchers

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Age BA OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ WAR
A.J. Ellis 33 2013 .238 .318 .364 .304 95 2.2
’14 ZiPS .244 .337 .367 .306 n/a 2.4
’14 Steamer .243 .337 .367 .313 102 3.4
Tim Federowicz 26 2013 .231 .275 .356 .266 69 0.0
’14 ZiPS .233 .295 .362 .285 n/a 1.6
’14 Steamer .228 .298 .352 .287 83 0.3
Drew Butera 30 2013 (AAA) .187 .228 .281 bad n/a n/a
Miguel Olivo 35 2013 (Marlins) .203 .250 .392 .280 73 -0.1
J.C. Boscan 34 2013 (AAA) .232 .297 .270 also bad n/a n/a

 

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2014 Los Angeles Dodgers catchers, also known as “oh please oh please oh please A.J. Ellis stay healthy,” because… there’s not a lot of depth here behind him, is there? (In addition to these five, Griff Erickson and Chris O’Brien will be in camp just because the Dodgers have 32 pitchers and they need someone to catch them. This is not meant to make you feel better.)

Ellis is coming off a bit of a downer year, because while he maintained his power by popping another 10 homers, his OBP dropped by 55 points, thanks to a walk rate that dropped three percent and a BABIP that fell 60 points. On defense, reviews of his ability to frame pitchers were rarely kind. Both ZiPS and Steamer forecast slight rebounds in OBP, but it doesn’t seem like anyone thinks he’s going to get back to the heights that made him the hero of 2012.

Still, he doesn’t need to be what he was in 2012 to be a valuable piece, and the constant rave reviews about his role in the clubhouse and to prepare the pitching staff count in some of the ways that don’t show up on the stat sheet. That’s partially why despite the down year, we never heard a peep about any particularly serious effort to upgrade at the position, which makes sense. If he is merely a somewhat above-average catcher, which isn’t really unreasonable to expect, Ellis is a valuable member of this team,  no matter what Kirk Gibson says.

But really, he has to stay healthy, and he reportedly lost weight this winter in an attempt to do so. You can live with Federowicz as a backup, because he’s got a solid enough defensive reputation that getting him in there once or twice a week is fine, but it’s a real problem if he’s forced to play every day. In parts of three seasons — which to be fair, is still only 193 plate appearances — his line sits at .227/.283/.341. That’s poor, the projection systems don’t really see him improving much, and he’s shown little indication in the minors that there’s much more offense to come. (No one start pointing to his Triple-A numbers, because for the umpteenth time, .348/.416/.592 at home, .255/.338/.390 on the road.)

Beyond that… well, avert your eyes. Take small children out of the room. Butera is arguably the worst hitter in recent history, while at least Olivo can go deep every now and then, on the extremely rare occasion that his bat touches the ball. Boscan is a minor league lifer, with 30 big league plate appearances in a pro career that started back in 1997.

The only intrigue is this: Butera is out of options, which means that he’d have to pass through waivers if and when the Dodgers attempt to send him to Triple-A. (Federowicz has an option remaining, but I’m not ready to delve into those conspiracy theories just yet.)

The good news is that FanGraphs has the Dodger catchers as the 10th best group in baseball, but that comes with an appropriately enormous grain of salt. That projection in based on 3.5 WAR, which I imagine we’d all take, but WAR is not meant to be used down to tenths of a point, and the span of teams that look to be between 3 and 4 WAR include 15 clubs, or half the sport. That’s a pretty big error bar, but it does keep the Dodgers comfortably in the middle of the pack at the position. It does all depend on Ellis, however. If anything happens to him, this could get pretty ugly.

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