Visualizing the Difference Between Offensive and Defensive Value for Catchers

One thing that WAR (Wins Above Replacement) does well is break a player’s value into specific components such a range, hitting, baserunning, arm, etc. I’ve done a lot of catcher research lately and kept thinking about how much of a premium the position carries, defensively. As I sifted through WAR components, I found myself calculating what percentage of a catcher’s career value came from defense. I found it incredbly interesting.

First of all, the comparison is made by using runs created above average and runs prevented above average. Both numbers are calculated from components in Sean Smith’s WAR database.

Runs created includes batting, baserunning, grounding into double plays, and reaching on an error.

Runs prevented includes catcher rating, infield or outfield range (Total Zone), infield double play, outfield arm, and positional adjustment.

Rather than just give a percentage, I’ve designed some charts so it is easier to visualize how each player compares to others.

For the first chart, here are the six best catchers of all time, by career WAR:

Top 6 Catchers All Time in Wins Above Replacement

Top 6 Catchers All Time in WAR

Not really many surprises here, as Mike Piazza is the offensive monster and Ivan Rodriguez is the defensive monster. Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, and Gary Carter are all relatively balanced, with Bench and Fisk more on the offense side while Carter was stronger defensively. Berra’s split lies somewhere between Piazza and Bench. Berra played some outfield, which brings down his defensive value some.

Previously, I wrote a post that used WAR/PA and Wins Above Excellence to target catchers that have solid Hall of Fame cases. Here is a chart with those six players:

Potentially Hall of Fame-worthy Catchers

Potentially Hall of Fame-worthy Catchers

As you can see, both Joe Torre and Gene Tenaxe provided a ton of offensive value, but little (and for Torre, negative) defensive value. Both also happened to spend a ton of time at other positions, dragging down their positional adjustment, and by proxy, their WAR. Simmons was no better a catcher than Torre and Tenace, but he stayed behind the plate a lot longer, keeping his defensive value up. He still trailed by quite a bit on offense, despite his very impressive counting stats. Simmons’ beet attribute was definitely his longevity behind the plate.

Freehan and Munson are basically equals. Both are incredibly well balanced, with Freehan leaning more towards defense and Munson towards offense. Schang provided similar value to Freehan and Munson, but more of his value was on offense. My goodness, that OBP!

And of course, here’s the data I worked from for these graphs. This is a sortable table of all catchers with 30+ career WAR.

Player WAR Catch Total Def. Total Off. Total Runs GG
Johnny Bench 71.2 97 169 253 422 10
Carlton Fisk 67.5 30 147 187 334 1
Ivan Rodriguez 66.6 155 289 62 351 13
Gary Carter 66.2 106 230 145 375 3
Yogi Berra 61.6 33 89 284 373 0
Mike Piazza 59.1 -61 13 354 367 0
Joe Torre 55.5 7 -7 250 243 1
Bill Dickey 54.3 20 73 268 341
Buck Ewing 51.8 58 109 274 383
Mickey Cochrane 51.2 -2 44 288 332
Ted Simmons 50.8 -8 37 163 200 0
Gabby Hartnett 50.2 12 70 211 281
Gene Tenace 48.6 -6 7 275 282 0
Jorge Posada 44.3 -18 65 164 229 0
Wally Schang 43.7 -11 37 169 206
Bill Freehan 43.4 26 112 90 202 5
Thurman Munson 43.3 34 107 126 233 3
Roger Bresnahan 41.5 -3 39 191 230
Darrell Porter 40.7 9 92 100 192 0
Ernie Lombardi 39.0 -21 30 150 180
Charlie Bennett 37.7 155 202 42 244
Jason Kendall 37.1 -22 94 47 141 0
Roy Campanella 36.3 17 63 129 192 0
Lance Parrish 35.6 43 138 -29 109 3
Jim Sundberg 34.8 114 232 -100 132 6
Joe Mauer 33.1 41 72 164 236 2
Smoky Burgess 31.9 12 66 76 142 0
Jack Clements 31.7 48 117 80 197

These graphs are so pretty and fun to make that I couldn’t just stop there. I have a column in the table above for Gold Gloves. I became interested in Jim Sundberg, as he had a lot of Gold Gloves, a ton of defensive value, and negative offensive value. I also became interested in Charlie Bennett when I found out he has the highest “Catch” rating of all time. In addition to those two, I looked at the rest of the top Gold Glove winners at catcher. The table below contains the rest of the catchers with four or more Gold Gloves along with Bennett and Sundberg:

Player WAR Catch Total Def. Total Off. Total Runs GG
Bob Boone 26.0 107 242 -218 24 7
Del Crandall 26.6 72 136 -57 79 4
Charles Johnson 21.9 71 143 -52 91 4
Mike Matheny 2.5 53 126 -231 -105 4
Tony Pena 18.8 46 164 -200 -36 4

Let’s plot these guys along with Bennett and Sundberg. No sense in plotting both Crandall and Johnson, since they are essentially the same player. I’ll do the others:

Catchers with a High Level of Defensive Value

Catchers with a High Level of Defensive Value

A few things jump out at me right away. First is that Bennett could actually hit, too. Second, My goodness Bob Boone’s offense and defense couldn’t be any further apart. Third, Mike Matheny was one terrible hitter, but he sure could catch.

Sundberg is the one that originally caught my eye, but Boone is the one that raises it to another level. I poked around at a few more catchers and Brad Ausmus was quite similar, too. Crandall and Peña aren’t as extreme as the others, but they still fit the no-hit, good-field mold.

Finally, let’s take a look at the current award winning catchers. We’ll look at the winner of the last two NL Silver Sluggers (and three total), Brian McCann, and the winner of the last two NL Gold Gloves, Yadier Molina. We’ll also take the winner of the last two AL Silver Sluggers (3 overall) and the last two Gold Gloves. Yup, it’s the same guy—Joe Mauer.

Current Award-Winning Catchers

Current Award-Winning Catchers

I think it’s neat how these are three very different players. Molina is on a Boone-esque track. Seriously, this guy has racked up a ton of defensive value very early on. McCann hits well for a catcher and is adequate behind the plate. He actually rates as a slightly below average catcher, but his positional adjustment means he’s still providing value as a receiver. Mauer is simply other-worldly. I shouldn’t anoint him the best catcher every, but I think in a few years we just might be saying that.

Well, that was fun. I think my next value breakdown graphs will take a look at how the many borderline Hall-worthy third basemen compare.