Casual baseball fans will often look at a catcher's caught stealing percentage and gauge his defensive worth on that metric alone. While the ability to control the running game is indeed an important part of catcher's defense, it is only part of a catcher's job. The Fielding Bible Volume II shows how while Boston catcher Jason Varitek only threw out 19% of base stealers last year, he saved more runs through his handling of pitchers than he allowed through his poor throwing arm.
We also need to look at how good of a job a catcher does of blocking pitches. Whether or not a pitcher has the confidence to throw a breaking ball at the knees with a runner on third can mean the difference between getting out of a jam and a big inning. How well does the catcher frame pitches? A good catcher can finagle a few extra strike calls per game simply by the positioning of his mitt before and after the pitch. A catcher who fields bunts well takes pressure off his pitcher to think about how he'll position himself after the pitch and allow him to concentrate on the pitch itself. A manager also may have his corner infielders charge the bunt less frequently if he knows his catcher can make a play on anything within 30 feet of home plate, keeping the defense in position for those times a hitter first shows bunt, then swings away.
Diamondbacks catcher Chris Snyder is one of the best defensive catchers in baseball today. Among the 35 catchers with the most defensive innings last season, Snyder ranks 8th in stolen base runs saved and 12th in earned runs saved (handling pitchers), according to The Fielding Bible Volume II. Unbelievably, he has only committed one error over the past two seasons (a throwing error in 2007) and five over his 420-game catching career. The one aspect of defense in which Snyder ranks slightly below average is in handling pitches, as his seven passed balls committed and 30 wild pitches allowed last year were both high totals for a major league veteran.
Backup Miguel Montero did not allow a single passed ball last year, but allowed only four fewer wild pitches in less than half as many defensive innings as Snyder. He also committed two errors to Snyder's none, threw out 18% of base stealers to Snyder's mark of 29%, and had a catcher's ERA of 4.58 to Snyder's remarkable figure of 3.83.
John Hester frames a pitch
Snyder's solid offense and excellent all-around defense has secured him a role on the Diamondbacks at least through the 2011 season. The current catchers in the system therefore need to impress in order to elbow their way to the major leagues in the near future. Here are the best defensive catchers in the system, along with their first runners up in five important categories. Where appropriate, statistics are listed with each player, even though we do not have in-depth defensive statistics for minor leaguers the way we do for big league catchers. Quotes from a coach, scout, or teammate are also provided.
Throwing Arm: Ryan Babineau (Caught 15 of 38 Base Stealers [39%])
Ryan Babineau combines a strong arm, good footwork, and quick release to give him the best catcher's arm in the organization, hands down. His arm is both strong and accurate to all bases. Babineau likes to try to show it off by throwing behind runners, not content to just sit back and wait for them to try to steal on him.
"Definitely, I've been known for catch-and-throw. That's kinda been my forte throughout my short career." --Babineau
"He has plus arm strength that cuts down the running game" --Anonymous scout
Runner Up: Bill Musselman (Caught 18 of 55 Base Stealers [33%])
Bill Musselman has really struggled to hit professionally. Part of the reason may be that he got shuttled around from level-to-level last year, from Missoula to Visalia to South Bend, serving as the backup catcher at each stop. It's hard to get into a rhythm when you aren't getting consistent at-bats, much less when you switch uniforms three times in three months. But there was a reason that the organization wanted Musselman in South Bend for their playoff run; he controls the running game far better than the offense-first Sean Coughlin. Musselman's arm strength is such that he could probably throw out runners from his knees if he wanted to.
"He's got a gun!" -- One of Musselman's teammates at South Bend
Blocking Pitches: John Hester (78 G, 5 PB, 7 E)
At 6-foot-4, John Hester has a lot of body with which to block pitches in the dirt. But that alone does not make a catcher adept at preventing pitches from getting away. Hester is like a machine, dropping down to the dirt when he sees that a pitch will not make it 60-feet, six-inches. He can also react fast to his left or to his right should the pitch be off the plate as well. Hester's size and positioning also make him successful at blocking home plate from runners who are trying to score.
"His technique at blocking pitches is second to none." --Anonymous scout
Runner Up: Rossmel Perez (40 G, 4 PB, 5 E)
In contrast to Hester, Rossmel Perez stands at just 5-foot-10, and must rely more heavily on quickness and agility to get in front of balls. He is surprisingly effective, given his size and lack of experience. Not many 18-year olds have blocking fundamentals as sound as Perez displayed last summer. Perez can also stab at a ball way wide and pick it more often than not with his superb hand-eye coordination.
"He plays the game beyond his age and has soft hands" -- A Latin scout
Framing Pitches: Konrad Schmidt
Schmidt lost a year in college to arm surgery. That stunted his physical development, but he continued to hone the cerebral aspects of his game. Pitchers love throwing to the guy, because he'll set up his catcher's mitt just off one corner of home plate. Then, even if his pitcher misses the mitt slightly, he will keep it perfectly still. The ball may hit the outside of his mitt, but Schmidt will still catch it. Umpires see that the pitcher hit the spot that the catcher set up (even though they didn't really and where he set up wasn't a strike to begin with) and call the pitch a strike.
I asked Thomas Layne, one of the pitchers who really enjoyed working with Schmidt at South Bend, if this tactic of attempting to catch a pitch from the corner of the mitt ever resulted in passed balls. "With Schmidt?" he replied. "Never."
"I think the way I call a game is what I take most pride in. When I'm struggling at the plate hitting, I can always help the team out by calling a good game." --Schmidt
Runner Up: Ryan Babineau
Babineau's style of framing pitches is different from Schmidt's. Rather than keep the mitt still, Babineau will try to pull it ever so slightly towards the strike zone to fool an umpire into believing it to be a strike. This tactic worked well in the Northwest League, but more experienced umpires are less likely to fall for this maneuver than Schmidt's. The savvy Orlando Mercado can also frame pitches well.
"I really take the most pride in working with pitchers, to be honest with you. I think, in order for any team to be successful, you need to have a good pitcher/catcher relationship." -- Babineau
Calling a Game: John Hester (Mobile ERA: 4.30, 6th among 10 Southern League teams)
Hester's philosophy of calling a game is to have his pitchers attack the strike zone with their best pitch rather than have them attempt to out-think the batter. Usually. He also recognizes that some pitchers' best strength is to get batters to chase poor pitches or to keep hitter's off-balance through unusual pitch selection or location. Hester has been calling games since his days at Stanford and does whatever it takes to help his pitchers succeed.
"I feel like I've done a pretty good job of getting to know the pitchers and what their strengths and weaknesses are... It's a really important job for the catcher to make the pitcher focus and pitch well." --Hester
Runner Up: Ed Easley (Visalia ERA: 4:14, 3rd among 10 California League Teams)
Ed Easley did not have a good season behind the plate. He allowed 23 passed balls and 89 stolen bases in just 94 games at catcher, committing a dozen errors in the process. Minor league field coordinator Jack Howell attributes these struggles to mental issues more so than physical ones. That is why it's surprising that Easley still calls as good of a game as he does. He still has a good instinct for setting up hitters and utilizing a pitcher's strength even when the other aspects of his catcher defense are falling apart.
"He went through a period this year where he had a lot of passed balls. So I think he really wanted to work on his catching and his receiving [during Instructs]. He was really trying to fine-tune some things that he wasn't happy with." -- Howell
Easley behind the dish
Fielding Bunts : Rossmel Perez (40 G, 39 A, 7 DP)
"He is very aware in the field." --A Latin scout
Runner Up: Ryan Babineau (28 G, 27 A, 5 DP)
If it seems like Babineau is popping up in a lot of categories, consider that Bob Didier, the organization's catching coordinator whose input shaped these rankings considerably, was also Babineau's manager at Yakima last year. So he had a much longer look at Babineau than most of the other catching prospects in the system. Babineau did not commit an error in his first 20 pro games at catcher, due in large part to his accurate arm. That accuracy is also a big part of why he is able to field bunts so well, but his lean athleticism also helps him get out of the crouch quickly and pounce on the ball.
"He does a fine job at moving behind the plate" --Anonymous Scout
Discuss this article in the all-new FutureBacks.com Subscriber-Only Message Boards.