2013 fielding review: the catchers

Rich Schultz

Defense was supposed to improve with the catchers this year with A.J. gone. How'd they do?

This is the first article in a series that will be examining the fielding of the White Sox this past season. Obviously, there were big drop-offs in the defensive performance this past season. That said, the evaluation of the defense has been a bit hit and miss though. In some cases, the evaluations that have come out have been completely incorrect. A few have hit the mark. For others, their problems haven't even been talked about.

Starting out, I will refer to errors throughout these articles. Errors are a problematic statistic. There is a subjective nature to them. That said, they do point out potential issues for further evaluation. Also, the lack of errors doesn't mean there aren't problems. It just means you need to look elsewhere. So, I'll start this out by pointing out that five separate White Sox players lead the AL in errors at their position. This is also the last we'll talk about errors here. The White Sox catchers are not on this list, but let's see what they did.

Name G PO A E DP PB WP SBO SB CS Pick Off Rdrs/yr
Tyler Flowers 84 640 42 4 4 8 24 990 52 16 0 4
Josh Phegley 64 449 29 5 4 8 25 890 30 13 2 5
Hector Gimenez 23 160 12 2 3 5 7 276 15 6 0 14
Brian Anderson 10 52 2 1 0 0 5 81 3 0 0 -20
Miguel Gonzalez 4 13 1 0 0 0 1 31 2 0 0 0

The catchers' stolen base defense was a mixed bag this year. Overall, the Sox threw out 26% of the stolen base attempts. That matched the league average. A one armed Tyler Flowers seemed little better than last year's two armed A.J. Pierzynski. Flowers threw out 24% of wouldbe basestealers compared to 26% for A.J. and 33% for Flowers in 2012.

Meanwhile, the legend of Phegley's arm did turn out to be true. In his three months with the Sox, he had as many pickoffs as Sox catchers had in the previous two and a half seasons. Also, whether it was because of Phegley himself or facing Detroit 19 times while Phegley was on the team, the number of stolen base attempts per stolen base opportunity dropped dramatically with Phegley catching. Stolen base attempts per opportunity for Flowers was 0.069 while it was 0.048 for Phegley this season. For comparison, it was 0.067 for A.J. and 0.077 for Flowers last year.

It can seem a bit minor, but the biggest improvement this season was in dropped third strikes. In 2012, Pierzynski had to throw to first 34 times on dropped third strikes; the most famous of these was the last strike of Philip Humber's perfect game. Flowers had 13 of his own in 2012. This year, the Sox catchers combined had 29 of these.

Another bit of improvement was handling bunts. Of the bunts fielded by the catchers, an out was recorded 100% of the time. A.J. had been sitting around the 70% range for the past few years.

Finally, this article would be doing a disservice to not discuss the passed balls.

Sorry, Josh, I have to. While Phegley is correct that there is some bogusness regarding the passed ball (it is subjective just like errors), passed balls were certainly a problem. The Sox catchers had 21 passed balls in total trailing only Toronto's 30 for the major league lead. The Sox had 9 passed balls in 2012. By the end of the season, Phegley and Flowers both had eight passed balls, which was more than ten major league teams. Although J.P. Arencibia's 13 passed balls lead the majors, he also caught twice the innings Phegley did. While this was a concern all along with Phegley's receiving skills, Flowers really didn't do much better. Fortunately (or unfortunately), Hector Gimenez was even worse with five passed balls in far fewer games. So, we at least had some addition by subtraction going for the Sox.

While the passed balls were certainly a problem, it appears that catchers improved overall on the catcher's defense. Since Fangraphs' UZR is not available for catchers, the catchers as a group came out with a 4 in defensive runs saved over the season (Rdrs/yr), Baseball Reference's rough equivalent. Even with the passed balls taken into account, that's good enough for third-best in the AL and sixth-best in the majors. The result here is that despite the passed balls, they weren't turning into runs. Flowers and Phegley got a 4 and 5 respectively. It wasn't pretty, but they got the job done. Anderson and Gonzalez didn't play enough to draw any conclusions on their defense (the misplayed bunt likely weighed down Anderson's score). Finally, Gimenez didn't do enough to show he was a major league catcher long term. He did give us this though.

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Unfortunately, while the defensive issues at catcher might have been resolved in 2013, Rick Hahn has brought up the catcher position several times as a position to work on over the offseason. Between back and shoulder issues, Flowers might have hurt his chances of staying with the club by not going on the DL. Playing through injuries has only raised the same kinds of questions that have likely led to Brent Morel's exit from the club. Phegley showed that aside from the passed balls, he could be an good defensive catcher for the Sox. Right now, his ability to fix his offense likely will determine his future playing time.

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