It’s not uncommon for ballplayers and managers and other people associated with baseball to evoke the “unwritten rules” of the game. For some, these unwritten rules seem absurd, a sort of arcane code that frequently contradicts reason. In essence, though, these “unwritten rules” amount to what a social scientist might refer to as “norms.” And, discussed in these terms, they make a little more sense. Using the term “norms” instead of “unwritten rules” removes some of the connotations of the latter term, and let’s us think about the game without choosing sides.
One norm that’s rarely scrutinized is the existence of distinct positions. The pitcher and catcher are highly regulated by the official rules, of course; otherwise, though, the league doesn’t have a lot to say about what the positions should be and how the men filling them should operate. For that reason, some positions are fluid. Corner outfielders are largely interchangeable. Middle infielders have generally the same jobs. Most of what makes the positions different are the existing norms about how they should be played and what you need to do to succeed there.
But as I noted a moment ago, there are exceptions. Catchers have a very different job from everyone else and that job is typically understood to be more important and more demanding than the other positions. It’s harder to be a catcher than it is to be an outfielder, but the positions also require dramatically different sets of skills to the point at which you can’t really compare the two in a meaningful way.
That doesn’t mean we can’t try. On occasion, catchers are asked to play positions other than catcher despite the required skills being quite different. How do those catchers do when they move from behind the plate? Does it tell us anything meaningful? Last winter, I performed an exercise to determine the performance of catchers at other positions. This represents an update of that piece, for the 2016 season.
Let’s start with some basics. During the 2016 season, 104 different players caught in the majors, totaling over 43,000 innings. Thirty-six catchers played a position other than catcher, but we’re going to throw out the pitching appearances because that’s not really a defensive move. That leaves us with 34 different catchers playing 47 different positions. Keep that last bit in mind as we go forward, as we’ll be looking at 47 different data points, even though there are only 34 human beings in the data set.
If you remember this exercise from last year or you took the time to review using the earlier link, you’ll notice the output is very different. The total number of innings has declined from over 1,700 to 832.2 this year, due largely to a significant decline in time spent playing first base. Losing Wilin Rosario (and Kyle Schwarber in the outfield) hurt, but Buster Posey only played 98 innings at first base this year after more than 300 in 2015. Stephen Vogt, Derek Norris, and Alex Avila also played quite a bit at first base last year while playing little to none this year.
|Per 1,350 Innings||-9.87||0.2||-8.1|
Only four catchers recorded more than 50 innings at any other single position in 2016. Willson Contreras spent 180.2 innings in left field; Blake Swihart, 113.2 inning in left field; Posey, 98 innings at first; and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, 64 at first, as well. Christian Bethancourt and Chris Herrmann also crossed the 50-inning mark across multiple positions.
Here’s a list of all of the non-first-base events:
Obviously, it’s important to keep in mind this is a small number of total innings built on many small individual samples. There’s nothing much to be gleaned from the defensive metrics. Catchers are generally capable of handling other positions in a pinch, especially if it’s first, left, or right, but we’re also dealing with significant selection bias issues beyond the sample-size problems because catchers only see significant innings in the field if they are reasonably competent.
Given the paucity of the samples, certain outcomes can look absurd. I will point out, for example, that Russell Martin managed to record -1 DRS in just two innings at second base and that Tony Wolters was worth -2 DRS in just six innings at shortstop (?!). Video evidence gives some clue as to how this can happen.
The Martin case, given my review of his two innings, seems to be R.A. Dickey’s fault.
Martin actually fields the ball cleanly. Dickey’s tardiness to the first-base bag, however, ultimately allows the opposing runner to reach safely.
As for Wolters, he suffered his share of indignities over that six-inning sample.
Here he is with a poor throw to first base:
And mishandling a feed from the pitcher:
And making a difficult play look like a very difficult play:
There’s not much to be learned from the actual performances this year that we didn’t learn last year. Catcher’s aren’t necessarily good defenders at other positions but there isn’t much evidence that they hurt the team much in the small number of appearances they’re asked to make.
What’s more interesting, however, is how little first base they were asked to play this year. It’s not clear if this is a blip or a trend. Are teams less willing to slide their catcher over to first base for some reason, or did the opportunities simply not arise? For this to happen regularly, you need a good-hitting catcher and a first baseman who isn’t great or needs time off somewhat regularly. I’m certainly not ready to write off the catcher who plays elsewhere, but this is something to monitor next season.
Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.