Which Catchers Intimidate Runners the Most?

That sound you hear is every baserunner ever falling into the fetal position and finding their happy place. - USA TODAY Sports

Which catchers' arms bring fear into the legs of runners and how big is the effect?

Introduction

Catcher defense (or just defense in general) is the next frontier for sabermetrics and many sites have their own metrics to analyze it. I enjoy former Beyond the Box Score contributor Matt Klaassen's catcher defense ratings, which takes caught stealing, wild pitches, and errors into account. Catcher defense is a fairly complex problem with variables ranging from framing to pitch-blocking to receiving, but another bullet on the catcher's job description is to throw out opposing baserunners trying to steal a base. We can look at caught stealing numbers, which is all fine and dandy, but what if we have a catcher who is really really good at it? Won't he have fewer opportunities to throw out runners because they're afraid of him catching them? Let's call this hypothetical catcher Schmadier Schmolina. Word gets around the league that he has an L115A3 AWM sniper rifle instead of a right arm and runners just stop trying to take the next base. What effect does this have on Schmolina's value and how do we measure it?

Method

Baseball reference has mounds of information, more than any one person could analyze in a lifetime. I found one interesting speck of data: Player Advanced Fielding -- Catcher Baserunning. This gives the stolen base opportunities ("Plate appearances through which a runner was on first or second with the next base open"), stolen bases and caught stealing for every catcher in each year. I compiled all of this data from 1945 through May 21, 2013 and...boom! a catcher stolen base database.

As we all know, catchers are not the only part of the running game. Team philosophies (both offense and defense), runner speed, pitcher handedness and ability, count, and score are some of the other variables that affect whether or not a runner takes off for second (or third or home). These numbers will not reflect that, but I would love to create a complete algorithm that puts all of those variables into place. The effect of these missing variables is best seen with Rod Barajas's magically intimidating 2010 season. Barajas was never known as a particularly strong-armed catcher, with a career average arm accuracy of 36 out of 100 on the Fans Scouting Report (FSR). According to the Intimidation results, we find he actually shut down the running game a bit better than that during his career, but he has one standout year in 2010, where runners stayed put with him behind the plate over twice the league average. This is not solely because they were afraid of his arm, it probably has something to do with the New York Mets' pitcher staff consisting of lefties Johan Santana, Jonathon Niese, and Hisanori Takahashi. I also believe pitching coach Dan Warthen made this a focus of the team, as there was a spike in depressing stolen base attempt totals once he joined the Mets in 2008.

That example gave away my method: take stolen base attempts against a catcher, divide it by total opportunities, and compare it to the league average that year, where 100 is league average and a higher number means more runners stayed put. I have named this statistic "Catcher Intimidation."

At this point, it would be wonderful to do a With-or-Without-You method to help get rid of some of those earlier variables. This may be possible with my data set and I will try to make it work in the future.

I took an idea from Klaassen and used stolen bases plus catcher caught stealing as the total amount of stolen base attempts. This removes pickoffs, which are almost completely a result of the pitcher's talent. Although, maybe a runner is more likely to take a longer lead with a worse catcher behind the plate, making him more likely to get picked off. Nevertheless, no pickoffs.

The method is simple and the results...are simply riveting.

Results

Using a minimum of 300 stolen base opportunities (SBOs) and ranking by career Intimidation, at the top with a score of 193, we find St. Louis Cardinals backstop...Mike Mahoney. Let's try that again, but put the minimum at 1,000 and remove obvious back-up types. I found that catchers like Omir Santos, Joel Skinner, and Sandy Martinez heavily influenced this list. They succeeded in crossing the 1,000 SBO threshold, but rarely, if ever, had to face the prospect of playing every day. Perhaps they really did shut down the running game and this is the reason they were allowed to stay in the majors for a while.

Catcher Avg Year SBO Intimidation
Yadier Molina 2009 14228 168
Johnny Bench 1975 22499 142
Ivan Rodriguez 2002 33735 139
Salvador Perez 2012 2034 137
Ron Karkovice 1992 11431 136
Joe Mauer 2009 11474 134
Matt Wieters 2011 7170 132
Charles Johnson 1999 16272 129
John Buck 2009 13213 128
Dan Wilson 1999 16951 128
Ed Bailey 1960 13917 125
Mike Macfarlane 1993 13299 124
Elston Howard 1962 14328 124
Dave Rader 1976 9530 124
Bob Boone 1981 28789 123
Brad Ausmus 2001 25106 121
Wilin Rosario 2012 2175 121
Roy Campanella 1953 15932 121
Miguel Montero 2010 8138 120
Jim Sundberg 1982 25070 120
Buddy Rosar 1948 4151 120
Mike Lieberthal 2001 15620 120
Thurman Munson 1974 17015 120
Kenji Johjima 2008 6101 120
Butch Wynegar 1982 16945 119

There are a lot of active catchers on that list, perhaps because they have yet to reach their decline. Molina jumps way up to the top, distancing himself far above Bench and Rodriguez. Perez, Mauer, Wieters, Buck, Rosario, and Montero all still have time to prove themselves worthy of this ranking.

Here are the least intimidating catchers, those whom runners are not afraid to run on, again with a 1,000 SBO minimum and hopefully removing most backup catchers:

Catcher Avg Year SBO Intimidation
Paul Lo Duca 2003 11969 73
Craig Biggio 1993 5513 73
Jason Varitek 2005 18916 75
Mike Piazza 1999 20740 77
Jorge Posada 2003 20696 79
Bruce Benedict 1984 12171 80
Victor Martinez 2007 11227 80
Alan Ashby 1981 16249 81
Dave Duncan 1971 10999 81
Ray Lamanno 1947 1940 83
Darrin Fletcher 1996 14071 84
Nick Hundley 2011 4946 86
John Stearns 1979 9115 87
Terry Kennedy 1985 17273 88
Brandon Inge 2004 5220 88
Buster Posey 2011 3428 88
Bengie Molina 2004 17021 89
Jody Davis 1986 13546 89
Jason Kendall 2003 28673 89
Ed Taubensee 1996 10591 91
Geovany Soto 2010 7826 91
Mike Napoli 2009 6759 91
Brian McCann 2009 12479 92
Gary Carter 1983 25940 92
Todd Hundley 1997 13487 92
Wes Westrum 1953 8781 92

A lot of these players spent time at other positions, mostly because their bat was good but their glove wasn't. Hundley ranks well on the Fans Scouting Report with a 61 for arm strength and a 51 for accuracy, but ranks historically low in catcher intimidation, though this may be part of the Padres philosophy. It is difficult to separate the two, since Hundley has been the most-used catcher over the years he has been with the team. However, in 2010 when Yorvit Torrealba wore the tools of ignorance more often than Hundley, the Padres did perform better as a team preventing stolen base attempts.

The Fans Scouting Report is a good measure to use in this instance because it relies on individuals creating a reputation for a certain player and ranking him according to his peers. Let's compare release, arm strength, arm accuracy, and overall rating to catcher intimidation factor and see what we find.

FSR is only available back to 2009, so the sample size is pretty small. Once we remove catchers with fewer than 130 SBOs, there are only 317 points of data to use. After running the multiple regression, I found that the only significant variable was catcher arm accuracy, but the correlation coefficient was only 0.06. Not much there.

Perhaps a counting statistic will help here. Intimidation is like OPS+, meaning a catcher with 5 stolen base opportunities and 0 stolen bases will have an infinite Intimidation, solely because he just wasn't on the field that much. Setting minimums helps to a point, but how can we weight players with more playing time? By calculating the total amount of stolen base attempts missing against a catcher. This is found as Stolen Base Attempts minus Stolen Base Opportunities times the league average Stolen Base Attempt Rate (SBA - SBO*lgSBAR).

This is where we make the leap from an abstract idea like "intimidation" to a concrete effect -- missing stolen bases. Losing things is something that everyone can connect with. As George Carlin once said, "I don't like to lose anything, because--where is it?"

Let's look at the catchers with the most stolen bases in the big pile of missing stuff:

Catcher Avg Year SBO Extra SBA Intimidation
Ivan Rodriguez 2002 33735 -697 139
Johnny Bench 1975 22499 -362 142
Bob Boone 1981 28789 -352 123
Yadier Molina 2009 14228 -316 168
Benito Santiago 1996 25144 -278 115
Jim Sundberg 1982 25070 -266 120
Rick Dempsey 1980 19181 -243 125
Carlton Fisk 1981 29111 -226 116
Rick Cerone 1984 16294 -198 114
Butch Wynegar 1982 16945 -198 119
Mike Heath 1985 13881 -191 117
Brad Ausmus 2001 25106 -190 121
Dan Wilson 1999 16951 -188 128
Lance Parrish 1986 23897 -188 116
Mike Macfarlane 1993 13299 -177 124
Ron Karkovice 1992 11431 -174 136
Terry Steinbach 1993 18460 -169 115
Charles Johnson 1999 16272 -162 129
Ernie Whitt 1984 14870 -156 110
John Roseboro 1964 18556 -153 112
John Buck 2009 13213 -150 128
Thurman Munson 1974 17015 -150 120
Buck Martinez 1978 11611 -147 125
Joe Mauer 2009 11474 -145 134
Jason LaRue 2005 11264 -138 120

Rodriguez outpaces everyone by almost two times, but he easily has the most opportunities. There are a lot of familiar faces here, but fewer active catchers. Bench, Roseboro, Munson, and Martinez are the oldest catchers on here and none come before that time period. This is because fewer games were played in the 1940s than in today's league, meaning catchers had fewer opportunities to rack up missing stolen bases.

And the catchers with the most extra stolen base attempts:

Catcher Avg Year SBO Extra SBA Intimidation
Mike Piazza 1999 20740 458 77
Alan Ashby 1981 16249 274 81
Mike Fitzgerald 1988 8563 261 73
Gary Carter 1983 25940 258 92
Jason Varitek 2005 18916 205 75
Paul Lo Duca 2003 11969 185 73
Bruce Benedict 1984 12171 183 80
Ozzie Virgil 1978 8967 175 78
Darrin Fletcher 1996 14071 169 84
Jody Davis 1986 13546 158 89
Jorge Posada 2003 20696 155 79
Victor Martinez 2007 11227 152 80
Scott Hatteberg 1999 4717 150 68
Doug Mirabelli 2002 5819 142 70
Ted Simmons 1978 23788 138 102
Biff Pocoroba 1979 5080 128 72
Craig Biggio 1993 5513 128 73
Todd Hundley 1997 13487 126 92
Tim Blackwell 1978 4826 118 76
Milt May 1978 13608 116 94
Jeff Reed 1992 12301 113 97
Bob Brenly 1985 8208 110 81
Mackey Sasser 1991 2602 109 63
Terry Kennedy 1985 17273 106 88
Mike LaValliere 1990 9717 97 89

Piazza sticks out on the bad side almost as much as Rodriguez does on the good side. He is the Darth Vader to Rodriguez's Luke Skywalker (except Pudge is only three years younger than Piazza, but shh). However, If I was running a team and my catcher could play passable defense while also hitting for over 400 home runs and a 0.390 career wOBA, I would keep putting him out there too, even if it meant the opposing team would run more often (which might not even be a bad thing!). If you only knew the power of the dark side.

So what happens when we try to correlate extra stolen base attempts with Fans Scouting report data? Again, the only significant variable is arm accuracy, but this time the results are better, with a correlation coefficient of 0.19.

Armaccexsba_medium

The extremes are well taken care of (low ranked catchers have extra stolen bases or none at all due to no playing time and high ranked catchers have much fewer stolen base attempts), but rankings anywhere between 30 to 80 are open to variability. For instance, in 2012, Buster Posey had an arm accuracy of 81, but still had 30 extra stolen bases, just like the 45 accuracy Jorge Posada had in 2009.

Also in 2009, Jason Kendall had an arm accuracy rating of only 33, but had 34 fewer stolen base attempts than expected. Yadier Molina had 33 fewer attempts than expected in 2010 with a 100 rating.

There is a lot more discussion to be had from this data set like career arcs, league averages, and team philosophies, but I'll cut myself off here and will pick it up again in a future post.

Summary

To get back to the original question, how much value should we give or take away from a catcher because of the reputation of his arm? I don't have an exact answer for that and am open to suggestions, but it can be up to a 60 attempt swing per season and it does appear to be a repeatable talent, especially for extremely good or bad catchers. It's important to note that reputation may not be a positive thing, as stated by Tom Tango:

"Unfortunately, since most teams attempt to steal too often, they’d likely do better by never stealing at all. Hence, a catcher that is so good that he never gets a runner to steal is not being helpful."

Final question: when finding the amount of value added or subtracted from the catcher's reputation, what caught stealing rate would one use? If a runner doesn't run, it's probably because he is more likely to get caught, so shouldn't we assume a higher caught stealing rate for missing stolen base attempts? On the flip side, if runners steal more often, it's probably because they're more likely to be successful, so the caught stealing rate should be lower on extra stolen base attempts.

In lieu of the perfect attempt rate assumption, I may run a series of assumptions and analyze the differences between the results.

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