By Chris Weikel
This past season, a few teams, led by the Tampa Bay Rays, started to tinker with Major League Baseball’s long-binding strategy of the starting pitcher. They decided to “open” with a relief pitcher to seek a variety of advantages. Based on this concept, I have come up with my own strategy of an “opener,” focusing instead on the catcher.
The catcher is one of the most important positions defensively, as it impacts almost every pitch thrown, but it also is one of the hardest to play. Due to this, good defensive catchers are held in high regard even if they can’t hit well. On the other hand, good-hitting catchers usually struggle defensively and since catcher defense is so critical to a team, their value suffers immensely. In addition, the catcher position is very tough on a player’s body and usually limits both the length of their careers and the number of games they play each season.
My “catcher opener” idea could help combat all three of those issues. This novel strategy takes a very specific roster construction, one that the University of Mississippi fits perfectly, so I will use it as an example. This is how it works: A team starts the game with its defensive specialist, Cooper Johnson in Ole Miss’s case, and bats him ninth in the batting order. He plays for a few innings until his spot comes up in the batting order, when you then pinch-hit Thomas Dillard, the offensive catcher, and play him for the rest of the game. Of course, if the spot is very low- leverage, it’s up to the manager’s discretion if he feels it’s worth sacrificing the defense at this point for a bigger bat. The end product is offsetting the defensive value lost by playing Dillard, while still getting his bat in the lineup. On top of this, it rests the catchers more because they don’t have to play as many defensive innings, which can take a toll on a player.
I asked Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco about the viability of my idea for his team. He was hesitant — as any coach would be — with something so new and different. He worried that Dillard is such a force on offense that the lost at-bats could cause a greater negative impact than the positive value it creates defensively. “Dillard is a middle of the order bat…He’s too strong a hitter not to be in the middle of the lineup,” Bianco said. However, he was interested in the idea, once I told him my analysis showed it might produce more runs. “I would consider anything that helps win baseball games,” he said. “College baseball is changing. The more stats that are available to coaches the better.” If there is evidence that the idea works, he said, he and other coaches “will buy in.”
I also asked Bianco about an intangible issue that may arise: The players may not buy into the catcher opener strategy. But he alleviated my concerns. “My guys will handle it well. Everyone wants to play and start but everyone, even more, wants the team to succeed,” he said. As it turns out, Bianco reaffirmed that winning would solve many issues, so if this strategy helps them score more runs, the players would absolutely be willing to try it.
Warning! Math Involved
Now I will dive into the numbers to calculate the exact value-added from using this strategy. I will use Ole Miss’s roster. The value will change based on a team’s personnel, but Ole Miss will be my base value-added. This practice will have a negative impact offensively. Because Dillard will be batting ninth to get the maximum defensive innings from Johnson, causing him to get fewer at-bats. Because collegiate level advanced stats are impossible to come by for the public, I created my own Weighted Runs Above Average (wRAA) for the SEC conference based on the Fangraphs statistic. To do this, I calculated WOBA based on last year’s SEC season and compared each player’s season to the league average to find their run value added. Dillard, by this metric, had an amazing season last year, placing eighth in the entire conference at 14.77 runs added above the average, right behind the leader, Jonathan India, who was the best player in the SEC last year. To find how much value would be lost, I calculated the number of at-bats lost by dropping Dillard to the ninth spot in the NCAA and found out it was .47 per game. I then multiplied this by his number of games played to find out he would lose 30.55 at-bats for the season. Lastly, I calculated his wRAA with the 30 fewer at-bats and concluded he would lose about 1.59 batting runs per season. This was larger than I predicted, due to Dillard being such a great hitter that every at-bat missed is magnified.
Next, I had to calculate the defensive value added from playing Johnson over Dillard for the first few innings. To start, I had to calculate the amount of defensive innings Johnson would play before he hits, using average NCAA plate appearances per inning, and found on average he would play 2 and 1/3 innings. Next is where I had to get creative. Because advanced defensive stats are not available for college players, and the data I would need to create them is not public I had to do some mapping to MLB stats. I decided to map the SEC catchers to the 2017 MLB catcher defensive values created by Baseball Prospectus. I choose 2017 because of this past season catcher defense’s variation shank evening out the pack between good and bad defenders. I do not believe this would be the case for the NCAA as the player don’t have access to as advanced training and data, creating a gap between a player who are naturally good defensively and those who are not. Then I evaluated the two college players and compared them to the percentile of MLB catchers I felt they best fit. Johnson is a defensive gem at catcher, consistently excelling at all facets of the job, including framing, the most important catcher skill. He was drafted in the 28th round almost exclusively off his defensive prowess, further enlightening his mastery of the art of catching. Due to this, I decided he’d fall into around the 85 percentile of SEC catchers, which mapped him onto Austin Barnes’ 15 Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) in 2017. Next, I performed a similar calculation for Dillard, who has not played catcher in three seasons but previously played catcher in high school and has gotten reps this offseason. Even with this experience, there is a large adjustment period to learning any new position let alone the catcher. This led me to map him to the 10th percentile of MLB catcher, aligning him with Luis Torrens and giving him -9 FRAA. Then I translated these into NCAA season lengths, giving Johnson 6.45 FRAA and Dillard -3.87 FRAA. Next is the last step, transmitting it to only 2 1/3 innings per game, giving an Opener FRAA (FRAAo) of 1.667 for Johnson and -1.01 for Dillard, creating an estimated 2.68 run total defensive value added. Subtract the -1.59 offensive value lost and it winds up with 1.09 runs of total value-added in a season.
The Result: Free Value-added
While this may not seem like a big advantage, it’s free value that adds up to 1/14 of the offensive value-added by one of the best hitters in the league, Dillard. The calculated value was also slightly suppressed by just how good Dillard is offensively. A more-average hitter would not have lost nearly as much offensive value from the fewer at-bats.
The flexibility of this strategy also adds extra value not calculated in the numbers, as the manager can pick and choose which skill he needs on the field for each game scenario. Lastly, this strategy works better in the NCAA as the roster limit is higher, allowing a team to carry an emergency third catcher. The novel idea of an opening catcher may not be a massive value-adding strategy, but it gives free value to a team and lessens the wear and tear on a team’s catchers.