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Are catchers to blame for allowing stolen bases?

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Rizzo blamed Miggy. Miggy blames the pitching staff. The front office blamed Miggy and DFA'd him. Who's right?

MLB: Miami Marlins at Chicago Cubs Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Miguel Montero was designated for assignment on June 28. After allowing seven stolen bases to the Washington Nationals in a 6-1 loss, the former Cub blamed his pitching staff for his low Caught Stealing success rate: 3.1 percent.

According to Montero, he shouldn't have been held accountable for not throwing out more runners because his pitching staff was slow in getting the ball to the plate. If he doesn't get the ball in time, then he can't throw the runners out. I'm not going to show you any numbers on pop times and windup times, however, since that has already been covered on other sites. I want to ask: is Montero really to blame for not throwing the runner out?

In any steal attempt, there are up to six involved players. The protagonists of such event are the pitcher, the runner, and the catcher. The other three are secondary but just as important: the first baseman, the second baseman, and the short stop.

Why make this distinction? Well, in order to assign blame, we must know how each of the involved parties work within the situation. The easiest person to either assign or detract blame from is the runner.

In order to advance a base, the runner must time the pitcher and the catcher, assessing whether he can make it to second without getting caught. If he succeeds, then he shifts any blame from himself onto the members of the other team. If he fails, all blame falls onto him for not advancing. Pretty simple.

The difficult part comes when assigning blame to the members of the other team. Traditional statistics say that in any stolen base attempt, the responsibility lies on the catcher. Hence, Montero's comments saying that CS percentage is a stat that fails to address how much blame goes towards the pitcher. But the counterargument is that the pitcher isn't attempting to throw the runner out, the catcher is, so the catcher should be blamed for allowing the runner to advance.

Anthony Rizzo chimed in to the whole conversation, saying it was irresponsible for anyone to assign blame on someone else. In other words, he diplomatically said that Montero was responsible for the stolen bases and not the pitching staff, and should accept that responsibility quietly.

But this is not quite right. During an attempt, the catcher must be alert to the pitch and the runner; he can only try to throw the runner out once he receives the pitch, and if this is slow to reach the plate or delivered in such a way that it takes the catcher longer to position himself (e.g., a curveball that bounces), then there is nothing he can do. Then again, it's also the catcher's job to prepare himself as best as possible for any situation.

So it also lies on the pitcher to make sure he delivers a quality pitch that allows the catcher to throw out the runner. The pitcher would then have to try and hold the runner as best as he can, using deception to trick him. If the pitcher fails to do this, how can the catcher throw him out? The pitcher then must also share blame with the catcher for any stolen base. Rizzo is thus proven wrong, at least as relates to his oversimplified statement.

And how so, since first basemen should also be responsible for making sure the runner doesn't have a comfortable lead. With a runner on, the first baseman has to hold him, making sure that if the pitcher lobs the ball his way, he might be able to tag the runner out. So now it's up to the pitcher and first basemen to make sure the runner doesn't take a comfortable lead. They must work together to deter a stolen base attempt as much as possible.

But the three of them alone can not do this. Never mind if the pitcher has the fastest time from the mound to the plate, the catcher has a cannon for an arm, or the first baseman can distract the runner; there will always be an attempt to steal. When this happens, the catcher has to fire the ball to second so that the second baseman or short stop can attempt the tag. What if the throw is accurate but the tag is misplaced? Should we still blame the catcher or should blame fall on the player attempting the tag?

Obviously blame should go on the second baseman/short stop for missing the tag. But CS percentage doesn't care for misplaced tags. It still (dis)credits the catcher. So it doesn't matter who is actually to blame during the whole situation, statistics (and thus most of the audience) will blame the catcher nonetheless.

Should we then stop assigning CS percentages to catchers and instead assign them to the team as a whole? Probably, but then we would also be assigning blame to the outfield and third baseman, which doesn’t seem totally fair (though the latter is also involved when runners attempt to steal third).

Creating a catch-all stat that assigns blame accordingly during a steal attempt is difficult, and probably best left to the quantitative experts. Pondering whether we should assign blame to the catcher or the entire party is easier. But at the end of the day, basic statistics will always point to the catcher as the main culprit of a successful stolen base.

Montero — and every catcher — is blamed for allowing stolen bases. Montero tried to argue that, on the field, this is not the case. Nevertheless, he started a firestorm with him at the middle, and the Chicago Cubs ended DFAing him. Perhaps the front office was already thinking of letting him go because of his other numbers. Perhaps it was to avoid further backlash and deterioration of clubhouse chemistry.

At the end of the day, many will point to him blaming his pitching staff for allowing stolen bases, and his teammates will point to him for not being accountable. What we might be able to learn, however, is that baseball is a team sport and as with many team sports, you either take the blame together or fall prey to bickering and individuality. CS percentage is a prime example of the latter.