Catchers and Trust with a Runner on Third

Watch a Seattle Mariners game when Mike Zunino’s behind the plate and, eventually, there’ll probably be a runner on third. At that point, a wild pitch or a passed ball brings in a run, but you might still see something breaking, thrown in the dirt. Then you’ll hear about how much trust the pitcher must have in the catcher, to keep the ball in front of him. After all, with a shaky receiver, a pitcher might think twice about burying something offspeed. I could continue with this pseudo-example, or I could copy and paste an actual example. From Phil Miller, a month ago:

Both Kyle Gibson and Glen Perkins had plenty of praise after the game for Kurt Suzuki, who has clearly earned the trust of the pitching staff for his ability to block pitches in the dirt. “I think I threw four sliders tonight with a guy on third base,” Perkins said of his typically diving-in-the-dirt pitch. “I threw [Corey] Hart two and I threw Justin Smoak two, and yeah, he’s going to block them.” Manager Ron Gardenhire said that trust in Suzuki allows Twins pitchers to throw their best pitches in any situation — something that they would be more hesitant to do with a catcher who lets too many balls get past.

It all makes sense. With a good blocker, a pitcher won’t be afraid to throw anything. With a worse blocker, a pitcher might be reluctant to throw certain pitches. And then the pitcher’s limited, and perhaps that renders him less successful. But why not look at the numbers? It’s not like it’s really that difficult to look at the numbers. Here come some numbers, with research conducted using Baseball Savant, of course.

The timeframe: 2013 to 2014. The target pitches: off-speed pitches at 1.5 feet above the ground, or below. These are offspeed pitches below the zone, and these should be the pitches that most require trust in the backstop. After all, if you want to throw a low curveball, and then you miss, it doesn’t take much of a miss for the curveball to bounce, and, what then? We’ll start with some simple league averages.

Bases empty: 11.2% low offspeed pitches

Runner(s) on: 11.7%

Runner(s) on first/second: 11.5%

Runner on third: 12.5%

What we observe is a slight increase in the rate with a runner 90 feet away. I think we can easily make some sense of this. The risk, of course, is that the pitch gets by, and the runner comes home. But with a runner on third, it’s also a priority to try to limit balls in play, and to certainly try to limit fly balls. And it seems to me most catchers will be trustworthy, as they’ve all been selected to catch in the major leagues. Interestingly, the rate isn’t different with two outs, even though the productive out is no longer an option, but the general message here: there aren’t fewer low offspeed pitches with a runner on third.

Now let’s get into the individual backstops, of which there are 82 who met my minimum threshold. In the first table, we’ll look at the highest and lowest rates of low offspeed pitches with a runner on third:

Catcher Rate Catcher Rate
Tony Sanchez 20% Joe Mauer 6.9%
Humberto Quintero 18% Jesus Montero 7.8%
Mike Zunino 17% Jose Molina 8.4%
Salvador Perez 16% George Kottaras 8.5%
John Jaso 16% Erik Kratz 8.9%
Martin Maldonado 16% Matt Wieters 9.0%
Jason Castro 16% Brayan Pena 9.1%
Austin Romine 16% Josh Thole 9.2%
Jonathan Lucroy 16% Devin Mesoraco 9.3%
Hank Conger 16% A.J. Ellis 9.4%

Tony Sanchez has always been considered an outstanding blocker, even when the data hasn’t necessarily reflected it. Sure enough, there’s Zunino, near the lead. It’s more puzzling to see a name like John Jaso, but perhaps we can do better than this table. What if we look at a new table, showing the highest and lowest differences in rate with a runner on third vs. when the bases are empty? The differences are listed in percentage points.

Catcher Difference Catcher Difference
Tony Sanchez 6.5% Miguel Olivo -3.7%
Humberto Quintero 5.8% Jesus Montero -3.5%
John Jaso 4.8% John Baker -3.4%
Hank Conger 4.7% Joe Mauer -3.2%
Martin Maldonado 4.5% Jose Molina -2.8%
Welington Castillo 4.5% Erik Kratz -2.5%
Hector Gimenez 4.1% Brayan Pena -2.5%
Salvador Perez 4.0% A.J. Ellis -2.2%
Jason Castro 3.9% Devin Mesoraco -1.9%
Ryan Lavarnway 3.9% Travis dArnaud -1.4%

Perhaps this is a better indicator of trust. It doesn’t isolate trust as the only variable, and I’m open to suggestions, but let’s go with this for now. Sanchez stands alone at the top, getting 13% low, offspeed pitches with the bases empty, and 20% with a runner on third. After Sanchez, we find defensive specialist Humberto Quintero, and then there’s the puzzling Jaso again. The other side has some unsurprising names. Olivo is a miserable blocker. Montero is a miserable everything. Molina can do a lot of things, but Molina isn’t agile. I feel like this is capturing some kind of signal.

Even in the most extreme negative case, though, Olivo got 13% low offspeed pitches with the bases empty, and 9.6% low offspeed pitches with a runner on third. Those pitches haven’t been not an option — they’ve just been used a little less. They haven’t been off the table. Perhaps they’ve been thrown with greater worry, and perhaps because of that worry they’ve been less effective, but that’s beyond the scope of this. It seems like, as a general rule, pitchers will throw what they want to throw. Pitchers in the majors are confident in their offspeed pitches. Catchers in the majors have been chosen to be catchers in the majors. The risk of a ball getting away is always present, but it’s fairly low, and might not outweigh the benefit of throwing a good, low offspeed pitch. Even if a ball does get away, it might not get away far enough for the runner to advance.

It’s worth considering that, with a runner on third, the batter might consider a low offspeed pitch unlikely, especially if the catcher has a negative defensive reputation. In turn, a low offspeed pitch might be particularly effective, catching the hitter off guard. Game theory is always a factor, and most pitches don’t become wild pitches.

As long as I’m here, I thought I’d take a quick look at pitchers, since they’re the other half of the battery. I found 372 pitchers who met my 1,000-pitch threshold, and here are the highest and lowest rates of low offspeed pitches with a runner on third:

Pitcher Rate Pitcher Rate
Jaime Garcia 36% Kenley Jansen 0.0%
Francisco Liriano 33% Jake McGee 0.6%
Luke Gregerson 33% Ernesto Frieri 0.9%
Josh Johnson 29% Carlos Torres 1.0%
Greg Holland 26% Sean Doolittle 1.5%
Masahiro Tanaka 25% Dan Otero 2.1%
Edward Mujica 25% LaTroy Hawkins 2.2%
Luis Mendoza 24% Tommy Hunter 2.2%
Huston Street 24% Kevin Siegrist 2.3%
Joba Chamberlain 24% Tanner Scheppers 2.6%

Of greater interest, here are the highest and lowest differences in rate with a runner on third vs. when the bases are empty:

Pitcher Difference Pitcher Difference
Jaime Garcia 18% Phil Coke -8.6%
Francisco Liriano 15% LaTroy Hawkins -7.7%
Luke Gregerson 13% Manny Parra -7.5%
Luis Mendoza 12% Dale Thayer -7.2%
Josh Johnson 12% Oliver Perez -7.2%
Anthony Varvaro 11% Tyler Cloyd -6.4%
Joba Chamberlain 11% Brad Ziegler -6.4%
Esmil Rogers 10% Dan Otero -6.1%
Greg Holland 10% Francisco Rodriguez -6.0%
Grant Balfour 10% Craig Stammen -5.8%

It’s an enormous and fascinating difference for Jaime Garcia — with no one on, he throws these pitches 17% of the time, but with a runner on third he leaps up to almost 36%. It’s interesting to have Liriano on there, because the last two years he’s started 11 games with Tony Sanchez as the receiver. Balfour is at the bottom of this first list, and because of this list, I learned Grant Balfour has an offspeed pitch. At the other extreme are a bunch of relievers. The first starter we find is Jason Hammel, -5.1%. Right behind him is one guy I expected to be there, in Tony Cingrani, at -4.9%. Cingrani seems to have particularly unreliable offspeed stuff, so it’s not a shock to see him sticking fastball with a runner that close.

I’ve never played with this data before, so do let me know if there’s something else you’d like to see. Maybe you have different interpretations. Maybe I did something completely wrong. For now, I think I’ve identified some catchers who have more and less trust than average. But in general it seems like trust isn’t that much of a factor, probably because the majority of catchers are trustworthy enough. The pitching side deserves more exploration, because it might reveal certain things about individual strategy. Certainly, Jaime Garcia seems to be unusual. But that’s for another time. Tony Sanchez? Seems like pitchers trust Tony Sanchez. Miguel Olivo? You might never see him again. There are multiple reasons for that.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Olivo can’t handle pitches with bite? (There’s got to be a more clever way to put that – help me out!)