The Year in Catchers Playing Other Positions

Comparing positions is a tricky business. We’d like some sort of magic formula that could compare exactly how much harder it is to play average shortstop than average left field, but such magic does not exist. Instead, we estimate the difference by looking at how players do when they play new or multiple positions, and how offensive performance varies by position. We think that we have a decent set of positional adjustment estimates, but there is a lot of room for error in those marks.

In a basic sense, those adjustments tell us how much value a player provides by holding a particular spot on the field. Over the course of a season, an average shortstop provides about five runs more of value than an average third baseman (we think), so the logic dictates that if that average shortstop moved to third base he would be about five runs better than the average third baseman when we compare their UZR or DRS figures. Nothing is perfect, but that’s the basic understanding.

But there are a couple of places in which that logic breaks down (even if we were to accept it as flawless otherwise). First, left-handers can’t play second base, shortstop, or third base. This means that certain left-handers will wind up playing in a corner-outfield spot or at first base even when they are theoretically a middle infield-caliber defender. Second, catchers. The job of a catcher is so different than either of the other two classes of players that there’s really no comparing them directly for scientific purposes. But that doesn’t mean they don’t occasionally play other positions.

This post isn’t going to contend with finer points of the catcher positional adjustment. It’s going to review how catchers performed when playing other positions in 2015. Let’s start with some basics. During the most recent season, 109 different players caught in the majors, totaling more than 43,000 innings behind the plate. Of those 109 total catchers, 37 of them also played at least one other position. Two of those 37 catchers pitched, so we’ll toss them out because this is about defense. That leaves 35 catchers who played at least one other position in 2015. Five of them played two positions and 30 of them played one. Keep that last sentence in mind, as it will render sums of 40 in what follows, even though we’re discussing 35 unique players.

By far, the most common position played by catchers in 2015 was first base. Twenty-seven of the 40 positions played by catchers were first base, totaling 1,368.1 innings. That equates roughly to one full season of catchers at first base in 2015. Four catchers played 11 innings at second base, four catchers played 10 innings at third base, two catchers played 297.2 innings in left field, and three catchers played 17 innings in right field.

Covering five different positions, these catchers played 1,704 innings at other positions in 2015. For this group of 35 individuals, that constituted about 9% of their total defensive innings. That number is a bit misleading thanks to a pair of players, Wilin Rosario and Kyle Schwarber, who played the majority of their innings at positions other than catcher. Aside from those two, only three players broke 25% of their innings without the mask.

Most of the total innings were accumulated by Rosario, Schwarber, Alex Avila, Buster Posey, Stephen Vogt, and Derek Norris, all of whom topped 100 innings away from catcher. No one else topped 50. So this is a top-heavy bunch.

As you might expect, they didn’t excel defensively at other positions, but they weren’t exactly devastating either.

Catchers Out Of Position 2015
Position Number Innings DRS UZR DEF
1B 27 1368.1 -11 -7.3 -18.9
2B 4 11 1 0.3 0.3
3B 4 10 -1 -0.1 -0.1
RF 3 17 0 -0.6 -0.6
LF 2 297.2 -3 -0.7 -2.2
Total 40 1704 -14 -8.4 -21.5
Per 1,350 innings -11.1 -6.7 -17.0

There are some obvious caveats to the data above. First, we’re talking about defensive metrics based on very small samples of data. There is no reason to think 18 innings reflects much of anything, given how infrequently players are asked to make even moderately challenging plays. Second, one imagines the catchers who got most of the innings in the field were selected for their ability to play, therefore this isn’t necessarily a good representations of all catchers. This is only about a third of overall catchers and most of the data is based on the six who saw lots of action elsewhere. Utilize these numbers with caution.

It’s hard to say exactly what leads a player to get time in the field. For guys like Posey, it’s about resting his body without losing his superlative bat. For Avila, it was because Miguel Cabrera was injured and it made sense to have James McCann and Avila on the field instead of someone else off the bench. Sometimes it’s a platoon issue. Sometimes it’s just because the club needs a fill in and the catcher was the only one available.

We can glean the most information from first base, as it’s the position with the most data. In general, catchers were below-average first basemen in 2015, but they weren’t so bad that you would automatically move them to DH if they played like this all year and could hit. Perhaps things would look different if we forced Salvador Perez to play 200 innings at first base, but it seems like catchers can handle the position in a pinch if asked.

Which is kind of a funny thing, given that catchers have the highest positional adjustment of any position. They get +12.5 runs per complete season by our WAR estimation, but it seems like they would be pretty bad if you moved them elsewhere on the diamond. Of course, this is because catcher skills are different than position-player skills. This would be a much more interesting analysis if we had a handful of regular field players who were called to catch with some regularity. Imagine what would happen if Elvis Andrus caught! Or George Springer!

Ideally, for science, it would be helpful if managers would spend a month each season drawing positional assignments out of a hat. That would give us a better sense of how difficult it truly is to catch and if moving from a corner outfield spot to shortstop truly is worth about +15 runs. It would be a neat experiment, but people who care about winning more than madness would probably intervene.

Granted, despite managers attempting to avoid such madness, we do occasionally get a little bit of it. In compiling the data for this post, I happened to notice two players who played a single inning at a position while also costing their team significantly. Let’s review Bryan Holaday at first base and Tucker Barnhart in right field to see if these were serious blunders or minor statistical hiccups.

Thanks to an 11-inning game between the Indians and Reds, Tucker Barnhart found himself pinch-hitting for Aroldis Chapman in the 10th inning and playing right field in the 11th during a July 19th game. The first batter of the inning struck out and then the ball started to find Barnhart. Three straight base hits cost him -0.9 UZR in just one inning. In reality, this looks a lot more like a case of a guy getting dinged for bad positioning. There’s probably no way to get him to the first ball:

The second one is a clean single, but I do think a good right fielder might be able to get a better jump and get to the ball. This is probably the one that cost him, even though it wasn’t a blooper:

On the third hit, he actually does a nice job getting the ball in to prevent a run:

So, all in all, this isn’t tremendous defense, but it’s probably the kind of thing that cost the team more runs in theory than in reality.

Now, on June 20th, the Yankees obliterated the Tigers. Josh Wilson, an infielder, gave the Tigers an inning of relief work and the club lost 14-3. In an effort to accommodate Wilson’s move from second base to the mound, the Tigers called on Bryan Holaday to play the final inning at first base. It started out fine for him, with the first batter homering and the second batter flying out. Then Holaday ran into a play that cost him -0.6 UZR and -1 DRS.

Brendan Ryan hit a slow ground ball to the right side. If you watch this too quickly, it looks like Holaday is getting unfairly dinged. He had to dive for it! Except, well, he didn’t. Watch it again. A decent first baseman should be able to take two or three quick steps, scoop that ball and flip it to first base. Josh Wilson didn’t get to first very quickly, so maybe they don’t get the out, but it’s not like Wilson is used to covering the bag.

All in all, catchers are rarely called upon to play other positions, but when they did in 2015, things worked out okay. We don’t have enough data to make many inferences about what it would be like if we let catchers field an entire team, but using catchers sparingly doesn’t frequently lead to disaster. Even when catchers have “bad” innings, it seems to be pretty mild. Let’s hope 2016 brings a catcher at shortstop so we can really put this to the test.

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.

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8 years ago

You missed a once in a lifetime chance to gif Russell martin playing 2b