If A.J. Pierzynski is going to blame Gavin Floyd for his problems with throwing out baserunners, then he should be sending bottles of wine to Mark Buehrle and John Danks on a weekly basis. They're making Pierzynski look better than Floyd is making him look worse.
According to the official caught-stealing rate, Pierzynski has thrown out 18 percent of basestealers. But that number is misleading for a big reason: It includes the CSes that result from pickoffs. Pierzynski has nothing to do with the action when Buehrle or Danks catchers a runner going on first movement, but he gets credit for it anyway.
Fortunately, Baseball-Reference.com keeps track of the times a catcher actually has to throw. It's buried in the fielding stats, but it's a stat called CSCatch (thanks to J.J. for helping me find it), and it captures only the CSes that included an assist for the catcher. So, in Pierzynski's case, it eliminates five pickoffs, as well as when he tagged out Coco Crisp on his straight-steal attempt of home (pictured above).
So when you take out the pickoffs and only focus on the times Pierzynski's arm was tested, his success rate comes out looking worse. Way worse. Like, worse by almost half.
Specifically, 9.68 percent. That's 56 steals against six assists over 67 starts.
And at that rate and frequency, Pierzynski is finding himself in historically bad territory.
I spent the off night combing through the last 20 1/2 years of catcher stats to find out which guys were most exploited by other teams. I picked 1990 because it's a nice round number, and Rickey Henderson's numbers had declined into normal league-leading levels. By and large, I don't think the game has looked much different.
I first sorted by the number of steals allowed, compared it to the catcher's total starts, and then looked at the caught-stealing percentage to make sure . I took the regular starters and put them onto a sheet, and came up with 59 catchers who were run upon mercilessly over this time period.
The results don't include all weak-armed catchers or all their years. For instance, Mike Piazza is all over this list, but in some seasons, he wasn't especially tested. The cutoff ended up being at least one steal attempt per start.
Of these 59 catchers, only four other catchers failed to throw out even 10 percent of baserunners when actually forced to throw. The list:
|Josh Bard, 2007||103||121||10||8||7.63||6.20||1.27|
|Mike Stanley, 1996||98||94||19||8||16.81||7.84||1.15|
|Scott Hatteberg, 2001||65||115||12||10||9.45||8.00||1.95|
|Jason Varitek, 2009||106||108||16||10||12.90||8.47||1.17|
|A.J. Pierzynski 2011||62||56||12||6||17.65||9.68||1.10|
(CSC = CSCatch | CSC% = CSCatch percentage | SPG = Steals per game)
Even though he's at the bottom of this chart, Pierzynski still stands out for a few reasons: 1) He's on pace to start more than 120 games behind the plate, 2) he's also expected to be the full-time starter next year, and 3) three of the five White Sox starters did a nice job of holding runners last season. Yes, even Floyd.
The other four catchers on this list didn't see nearly as much action the following year -- if any -- and in some cases, their respective starters already had reputations of being easy to run on.
2007 Josh Bard: Bard had a weak throwing arm, and two of the San Diego's starting pitchers were horrible at holding runners - Greg Maddux (37-for-39) neglected baserunners for most of his Hall of Fame career, and Chris Young (44-for-44!) couldn't exactly get his 6-foot-10-inch frame to the plate in a hurry. Having Bard behind the plate merely exacerbated the issues. Teams averaged 1.27 steals per game against Bard, which is the third-highest among this group since 2000.
What happened after: Bard was forced into backup duty the following season, but popped up as Washington's starting catcher in 2009. The Nationals pitching staff hid him well enough -- He allowed 43 steals in 59 attempts over 71 starts, but he threw out only seven runners. He's in Triple-A this season.
1996 Mike Stanley: When you're looking at Red Sox catchers, the first thing you have to account for is Tim Wakefield. Sure enough, Stanley caught him 25 times, and Wakefield allowed 30 of 31 runners to steal successfully overall. But the 33-year-old Stanley couldn't blame the knuckleball alone, because the other three full-season starters, Roger Clemens, Tom Gordon and Aaron Sele, all had noticeably worse years holding runners. In particular, Sele went from allowing 19 steals in 27 attempts in Boston, to allowing four in 12 attempts the next season in Seattle.
What happened after: Stanley was forced to move to first after that. He started only nine games behind the plate in 1997, and never caught in either of his last two seasons.
2001 Scott Hatteberg: Hatteberg is the only catcher on this list that caught fewer than 78 games. I normally wouldn't have included him, but he's a very, very special case, because he simply couldn't hack it. Sure, Wakefield was there (17-for-19), but he wasn't the main problem. Look no further than Hideo Nomo:
- 2000: 16 steals in 30 attempts with Detroit.
- 2001: 52 steals in 63 attempts with Boston.
- 2002: 28 steals in 38 attempts with Los Angeles.
What happened after: Hatteberg became immortalized for his inability to catch. The following year, Brad Pitt forced him to become a pickin' machine at first base, as noted in Billy Beane's book.
2009 Jason Varitek: Varitek is kind of similar to Pierzynski in terms of his throwing arm, but add a few years to it. Varitek was 37 years old in 2009, and the Red Sox were leaning on him too heavily. Wakefield has zero impact here because Varitek never catches him, but Josh Beckett and Brad Penny have never held runners too well, and Varitek just made things worse. The Red Sox traded for Victor Martinez at the deadline that season, and he took playing time away from Varitek over the last two months.
What happened after: Varitek was relegated to backup duty behind Martinez in 2010, and has split time with Jarrod Saltalamacchia in 2011, although Saltalamacchia is on the verge of becoming the everyday catcher after a slow start.
It's quite apparent that Pierzynski's throws have lost most of their zip. Joe Garagiola liked to say that the wind always seemed to blow against a catcher when he's running. For Pierzynski, he's throwing into a stiff breeze, too. I thought I saw one of his throws stop for gas at the mound once.
It's hard to watch, but if you're looking for silver lining, I can offer a couple notes of encouragement.
At the plate, Pierzynski has raised his triple-slash line to .296/.332/.393, thanks to a torrid June (.358/.394/.522). That puts him significantly ahead of the league average for catchers (.235/.304/.376), which makes his defensive struggles easier to swallow.
Plus, this isn't exactly uncharted territory. Earlier in his career, Pierzynski was only able to thwart 10.3 percent of the attempted steals that weren't the result of a pickoff. The year was 2008, and Pierzynski didn't stop the Sox from making the playoffs.
Opposing managers might be noticing him more now -- they attempted just under one steal per game in 2008 -- but as long as Pierzynski can keep providing above-average offense at the position for a lion's share of the starts, the Sox can live with his arm for now.
And when his salary triples in 2012 to go along with his 10-and-5 rights, the Sox will have to live with it, regardless of how he hits.
And if you're curious, here's the spreadsheet with all 59 catchers. Let me know if my methodology is off.