This past offseason, the Miami Marlins' most critical move was the signing of free agent catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. "Salty" was picked up in large part because his power bat could provide the team with the sort of offense from the catcher position that it has not seen since the days of Ivan Rodriguez. Saltalamacchia had gone a long way since his Texas Rangers days when he had the throwing yips and could not get the ball back to the pitcher, but he was well-known for not handling the running game well.
But fans intuitively know that the running game is not the only defensive responsibility that a catcher holds. Blocking pitches, calling games, and framing strikes for pitchers all play a role in the complicated defensive role of the catcher, and in certain of these aspects, Saltalamacchia may actually provide a surprise benefit. According to the latest developed methods for calculating catcher defensive contributions, Saltalamacchia has been a net positive in terms of framing pitches and blocking them at the plate.
The latest work done by Dan Brooks, developer of the awesome Brooksbaseball.net, and friend of Fish Stripes Harry Pavlidis brought us Baseball Prospectus's new advanced catching metrics, detailed in this article from last week. The new methodology, based on a regressed probabilistic model (RPM), goes a step beyond what simpler framing metrics have attempted to do since Pitch F/X came out in 2008. The new system calculates the value of getting a strike call above the average amount of strikes received in any given count, with any given pitcher, and with any given umpire.
This new methodology is different and revolutionary because it accounts not only for different counts, but for the abilities of pitchers to get their own strikes as well. As the authors wrote in the article, Yadier Molina benefited a great deal from working with control experts like Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright who were well-respected by umpires, so the credit that should go to those pitchers on average was taken out of the results seen from the raw framing data. Similarly, umpires with bigger strike zones (think Eric Gregg circa Game 6 of the 1996 NLCS) give catchers less credit than stingier umps.
If you are interested in this sort of ground-breaking research in player and defense valuation, I suggest you take a read of this exciting new work in the linked article. But friend of Fish Stripes and the always educated Juan C. Rodriguez of the Sun-Sentinel brought up the piece because it shined a favorable light on two of the Marlins' Major League catchers.
According to the "Baseball Prospectus" figures, among 35 catchers with at least 3,500 framing chances (number of pitches a catcher had a chance/need to frame) Jeff Mathis in 2013 ranked 10th with 64.2 extra strikes and Jarrod Saltalamacchia 19th (14.8). A year earlier, Saltalamacchia was sixth (127.1) and Mathis 12th (63.8) among 35 catchers with 3,500-plus framing chances.
This is highly important information to the Marlins' brass and to fans. It was assumed during the offseason that the Saltalamacchia signing was a trade-off of the defense of Jeff Mathis with the offense of Salty. But the truth is that, while Mathis is indeed a significantly better defender, Saltalamacchia is no slouch himself and holds up well in two important areas that count. According to Baseball Prospectus's new metric, since 2008, Saltalamacchia has accrued 170 extra strike calls worth a total of just under 15 runs. Over the course of a full season's workload, that averages out to be worth four runs per season. Tack on Saltalamacchia's added ability to block pitches at the plate and you have a catcher who is averaging seven extra runs per year on the defensive side of the ball.
Mathis, ever the puzzling enchanter, finally has some concrete, viable data on his side. While he has never caught a full season (and how could he, given his career numbers at the plate?), his defensive contributions appear to be very real. With framing and blocking numbers taken into account, Mathis is averaging a staggering 15 runs a season behind the dish. That does not even take into consideration his solid control of the running game (26.6 percent career caught stealing percentage, right around the league average), and you can see why teams tend to fall all over him. If he indeed could average 1.5 bonus wins per year just by coaxing extra strikes, he would be at least be a one-win player right now.
The impact of adding even half a win a season to Saltalamacchia's totals makes the Marlins' signing this offseason all the wiser. The Fish are boasting a young pitching staff that is only going to get younger as premier talents like Andrew Heaney are brought up to the big leagues. They could use a steady hand guiding their games and making their pitches look better, and Saltalamacchia and Mathis appear to be able to provide that for the team. Mike Dunn mentioned in his interview with me earlier this offsaeson that Saltalamacchia appeared to be making his pitches look closer to strikes, and it sounds as though catching and bench coach Rob Leary is aware of the obvious importance of the skill.
"They could take several or many out [of the zone]," Leary said. "Many pitches in a major league game are a win and a loss, or it's a one-run game or a two-run game. Getting that strike, getting ahead of that hitter, or getting to two strikes, [catchers] have a huge responsibility with the physical stuff to do our part to get them to the two-strike count instead of the three-ball count."
Mathis appears to be well aware of the things that we know are important in framing, most notably the skill of retaining your stance and making smooth, quiet motions on any catch.
Added Mathis: "It's a big part of it. You want to make every close pitch looks good and appealing to the umpire, but that kind of stuff starts a long time ago. You learn how to do that stuff way back. You can critique and adjust things here and there, but it's just how you receive the ball and how you've always received the ball, trying to be as relaxed as possible and not a whole bunch of movement."
All of these things are highly encouraging for the Marlins' young pitching staff. Jose Fernandez and others are going to work with catchers who can get them strikes, and the Marlins' three-year investment in Saltalamacchia only looks like even more of a bargain when you consider him a 2.5-win player (Fish Stripes projects a 1.9-win season without this added value) in just under 500 plate appearances. It is looking more and more like the Fish might have found one of the steals of the offseason in Jarrod Saltalamacchia.