This week, Baseball Savant, the website that tracks and houses Statcast data, released a new set of leaderboards. After introducing numbers that measures the defensive performance of of outfielders last year, the team at MLB Advanced Media has turned their eyes towards catchers, tracking pop time and arm strength.
For those unfamiliar with the term, pop time (which is also the name of probably 100+ cover bands) measures the amount of time it takes a catcher to get the baseball to second base from the moment it reaches their glove. It measures how quick the catcher is able to transfer the ball from their glove to their throwing hand (which Statcast also has separate data for) and how quickly they are able to get out of the crouch and throw the ball to the desired base. While the statistic includes arm strength in the sense that a harder throw will reduce overall pop time, the website tracks arms strength on it’s own as well (in miles per hour).
The average MLB catcher pop time is 2.01 seconds which is… very fast. It just goes to show you how athletic and talented every single major league player is. But with that in mind, how do the Blue Jays’ catchers rank?
Note: Statcast measures pop time to second and third base separately, but for the rest of this post, I’ll be referring to throws to second base only, as that is where the majority of catcher throws and attempted stolen bases occur.
Russell Martin Pop Time and Arm Strength
|Pop Time (seconds)||MLBRank||Arm Strength (mph)||MLBRank||Caught Stealing|
Martin’s pop time ranks appear to mirror the gradual defensive decline that one might expect from a player entering their mid-30s. With only three years of data to look at, it’s hard to say definitively how this metric relates to age related decline, but such a falloff may be happening with Martin at the very least. Yadier Molina and Chris Stewart are the only two catchers older than Martin who ranked higher than him in 2017 pop time (both Molina and Stewart were 35 years old last season). Only Drew Butera (12th) and Rene Rivera (18th) were the same age as Martin.
Martin’s arm strength, which is no doubt a major variable in his ability to minimize the time it takes to get the ball to second base, appears to be in a similar pattern of decline, with his average throw velocity dropping from 86.2 mph in 2015 down to 81.6 in 2017. And with that decline in arm strength and pop time, opposing runners have started running slightly more often against the Blue Jays’ primary catcher. Martin saw 72 stolen base attempts in his 119 games played in 2015 (0.605 attempts per game) compared to 60 attempts in 93 games in 2017 (0.645 attempts per game).
It’s also important to remember that Martin spent time on the disabled list in 2015 and 2017 and likely played through other undisclosed aches and pains throughout all three seasons. The various cuts and bruises that come with wearing the tools of ignorance might have an impact on Martin’s ability to control the running game as effectively as he can when he’s fully healthy.
We shouldn’t read this new information to mean that Russ Martin isn’t a valuable defensive catcher, either. Teammates, coaches, and others around the team have long praised Martin for his framing and receiving skills, along with his ability to handle and manage a pitching staff. Martin ranked fifth in all of baseball in 2016 with 16.1 framing runs saved according to Baseball Prospectus’ framing stats. Martin has also ranked in baseball’s top ten in catcher ERA amongst qualified players in all of the last three seasons (though the viability of this stat is up for debate). The Jays will likely continue to receive this defensive value from Martin even if he isn’t able to control the running game as much as he once was.
Luke Maile, the Blue Jays’ likely backup catcher heading into the season, also appears to rank towards the middle of the pack when it comes to throws down to second. Maile’s 2017 pop time of 2.00 seconds ranks 21st while his 2016 time of 1.96 seconds ranks 15th in baseball. Maile’s reputation as a defense-first catcher might be slightly overstated given his rankings – and slightly worrisome given his lack of contributions offensively (.146/.176/.241 slash line in 2017). One would hope he can improve on these defensive numbers if given significant playing time in 2018. Like Martin, Maile is also a good receiver and pitch framer.
Whether it’s Russ Martin, Luke Maile, or anyone else behind the plate for the Blue Jays, it’s also important to remember that controlling the running game never falls solely on the shoulders of the catcher. Several pitchers on the Jays staff – Joe Biagini, Aaron Sanchez, and Marco Estrada in particular – aren’t very adept at controlling the running game; runners attempt an above average number of stolen bases with these hurlers on the mound. A pitching staff’s ability to hold runners and deliver the ball the home plate quickly is a significant variable that the Statcast data isn’t tracking or controlling for as of yet. Former Jays’ catcher Miguel Montero will be the first to remind you of that, much to the chagrin of his Cubs teammates at the time.
Statcast’s new catcher statistics provides another layer of information to help us understand the various contributions of a catcher’s defense on the game. As one may expect, now in his mid-30s, Russell Martin isn’t posting elite numbers when it comes to Statcast’s new public data. But given the complexity and components of both limiting stolen bases and catcher defense in general, don’t take this to mean that Martin isn’t valuable behind the plate.
Lead Photo © John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports