In two months or so, we’ll roll out our 2017 positional power rankings. Between now and then, not a whole lot should change, so perhaps I shouldn’t go out of my way to issue spoilers. But, what the hell, here’s our current ranking of the catchers. The Giants are in first. Buster Posey is amazing! The Rockies are in last. Their catchers are also amazing, but less amazing relative to all the other amazing catchers in the majors.
Maybe this is a good way to sum it up: Tony Wolters is expected to get the bulk of the playing time behind the plate, and 11 months ago the Rockies grabbed him off waivers from the Indians. Wolters isn’t projected to hit much, because he’s never hit much, because he’s not much of a hitter.
What he is, though, is a defender. He emerged last year as one of the better pitch-framers in the league. And now the Rockies overall project to get quite good pitch-framing in the season ahead. This is the silver lining — perhaps the Rockies catchers won’t hit so much, but it looks like they could combine to provide the best receiving skills the Rockies have ever had.
Wolters drew a little bit of notice for his skills last season, but, statistically, his framing was negated by Nick Hundley (and then some). The Rockies, as a team, finished last year with below-average framing, according to the gold-standard numbers at Baseball Prospectus. In this plot, you see the Rockies’ framing runs above or below average over the span of the PITCHf/x era, going back to 2008.
In just two of nine seasons have the Rockies finished better than average. Last season, they ranked 19th. That was, at least, an improvement — over the previous five seasons, they’d ranked between 23rd and 27th. It didn’t take long for Rockies pitchers to take to Wolters, as any pitcher could appreciate his game-calling skills and soft hands.
But wait! Let’s go back even further. Of course, the best data is from the PITCHf/x era, but Baseball Prospectus also has pitch-framing estimates stretching back to 1988. The Rockies, as a franchise, came into existence in 1993. Why don’t we examine their framing over the course of their whole club history?
Take the older numbers with a grain of salt, if you want. They’re definitely a little less reliable than the recent stuff. But that can’t all be randomness. The Rockies played 15 seasons before the PITCHf/x era, and in all 15 of those seasons, they’re given a below-average pitch-framing score. By the Baseball Prospectus numbers, Rockies framers have topped out at +5.5 runs. In second place, +3.8 runs. In third place, -4.4 runs. Perhaps that’s hard for you to believe. You’re not alone.
So now, keep that in mind. The best mark in club history is 5.5 runs above average. For the 2017 season, it looks like the Rockies will use Wolters, Tom Murphy, and Dustin Garneau behind the plate. Anything could go wrong, but that’s the projection. Wolters should play the most, and Murphy should be his backup. Garneau appears to be the third-stringer. He’ll play some, I imagine, but not often.
Time for math. Over the last three years, Rockies catchers have averaged 10,400 framing opportunities each season. I split those up according to our playing-time estimates on the depth charts. To project actual performance, I collected three years of data for all three catchers named. Baseball Prospectus has framing numbers for catchers in the majors and the minors, so for the first run-through, I used all the numbers I could get for 2014 – 2016. Applying rates for all the catchers, I get a projection of +21.1 runs. That’s relative to average, and that mark would’ve been good for fifth place in the majors last year.
The minor-league numbers, though, aren’t based on PITCHf/x. So maybe you don’t trust them as much. I ran the same calculations, only using just major-league performance numbers instead. Applying those rates for all the catchers, I get a projection of +8.2 runs. That’s worse, but still good — that mark would’ve been good for ninth place in the majors last year. And that would stand as the best framing mark in Rockies franchise history.
Garneau doesn’t look like a good receiver, but he should play least often. Murphy hasn’t been good yet in the majors, but he was fine in the minors. Therefore, he has some defensive potential. Mostly, this is about two things. One, the absence of a terrible framer. And two, the presence of a wonderful framer, in Wolters. If he hits enough to stay in the lineup semi-regularly, Rockies pitchers will love him for it. For a few reasons, I guess.
For the sake of comparison, I’ve prepared the following image. This is a comparison between Wolters and James McCann, who rated as roughly an average receiver a year ago.
You can spot some obvious differences. Wolters looks a lot better down in the zone, while McCann got more strikes up high. From that image, maybe it’s not easy to see which catcher was actually better. But in terms of called-strike rate on taken pitches within the strike zone, Wolters was superior by two percentage points. And in terms of called-strike rate on taken pitches out of the strike zone, Wolters was again superior by two percentage points. Within the zone, Wolters was a top-10 receiver. Out of the zone, he rated in the top five. These numbers aren’t independent of the pitchers being caught, so there are some external influences, but it’s not like anyone would say last year’s Rockies had a phenomenal pitching staff, with excellent command. Wolters had his work cut out for him, and the numbers love how he adjusted.
Based on his track record, it’s easy to buy Wolters as a quality receiver. Murphy looks like something in the vicinity of average, so if the Rockies get their way, they won’t have anyone like last year’s Hundley, dragging the receiving numbers down. There’s plenty of baseball to play — roughly all of it — and seasons never do go exactly as planned. For the time being, however, the Rockies could be poised to have their best pitch-framing catchers in team history. Say what you will about the bats those catchers swing, but the Rockies wouldn’t mind if their pitching staff could finally get a little help.
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.