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August 29, 2013

Overthinking It

Erik Kratz, and Another Thing About Catchers That We Can't Quantify Yet

by Ben Lindbergh

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Catchers’ contributions, more so than those of players at any other position, defy—or at least strongly resist—quantification. We’ve long had a handle on backstops’ ability to prevent stolen bases, block pitches in the dirt, and field batted balls. But that’s the low-hanging fruit and, unfortunately, a little less juicy than the revelations hiding on the higher branches.

We have made major strides in assessing receiving, which was almost impossible (statistically) before PITCHf/x, though some aspects of that skill remain tough to untangle. But there are still some significant unknowns. Game-calling, of course. Defensive positioning. And the nebulous, but probably important, art of “working with pitchers,” which can encompass everything from recognizing when a guy is gassed to knowing how and when to boost a batterymate’s confidence. (Confidence, of course, is another intangible quality, although if Gabe Kapler is correct, “there isn’t a factor more responsible for success.”)

I’d like to add another unknown to the list, or emphasize it if it’s already on there. I’m not quite sure what to call it: stealth, or misdirection, or maybe catcher quietness. In my articles on the best and worst frames of the week, I’ll often describe a catcher’s receiving as “quiet,” meaning that his glove and his body aren’t moving around much as the pitch makes its way to the plate. But now I’m talking about a different kind of quiet—literally, not making noise, or making noise only when you want to.

When I spoke to Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers about catching earlier this year, he described his favorite kind of catcher:

Those guys that are kind of smooth and sneaky, where the opposing hitter also can’t feel you—I always said good hitters feel location from catchers, if they’re thugging [stamps foot] when they’re moving to the outside or coming up underneath. Those guys that are kind of quiet and stealthy back there, they don’t give away the location, either.

Keep that in mind as you watch this April 7th four-seamer from Cole Hamels to Alex Gordon, caught by Phillies backup catcher Erik Kratz:

Kratz rates well as a receiver, and you can see why here. The pitch was high and close to the outside corner, and he brings it back down a bit without making any exaggerated movements—as Ryan Hanigan told me, “framing pitches at the top of the zone, you want to be a lot more subtle, because you’re right in the umpire’s eyes.” It helps that Kratz is tall and doesn’t have to go as far to get it, and it doesn’t hurt that the called strike zone expands slightly on 3-1.

But the most interesting thing Kratz does here comes before he catches the pitch, and even before he sets up. A split second before Hamels starts to lift his leg, Kratz reaches toward the inside part of the plate and pounds his glove. Then he shifts a step toward the outside part of the strike zone, away from where the sound was.

Kratz’s misdirection might not have mattered in this instance; it’s hard to say. Maybe Gordon fell for it and didn’t swing because he was surprised to see the pitch end up where it did, or maybe he wasn’t fooled but let it go by anyway because it wasn’t one he could drive (or because he thought it would be ball four). Regardless of its impact on this particular pitch, it’s easy to see how this tactic could confuse a hitter.

When I described it to him on Wednesday, Kratz didn’t recall this plate appearance, but he correctly surmised the situation. “Some teams relay signs, some teams do that kind of stuff,” he said. “You always have to be aware of that kind of thing. But it had to be if there was somebody on or maybe I felt like he was listening to where I was.”

Sure enough, Chris Getz was on second. Kratz must have felt either that Getz was relaying his location or that Gordon was picking up on it himself, and decided to do something about it.

“Sometimes you move and make noise,” Kratz explained. “So sometimes you don’t move and when you do make noise it perks hitters’ ears up.”

Most sounds catchers make behind the plate are unintentional. But if they’re not careful, those sounds can reveal clues about location.

“You can definitely give it away,” Kratz said. “You’ve got to be aware of that, you’ve got to be aware of how quiet you are back there. It’s always better to not make any noise, but if you can throw in some deke noises…If I do that and then you hear [makes noise] and they can hear me moving away, it’s definitely part of it.”

Kratz wasn’t specific about how often he deploys his decoy move (“not all the time”) or how often he picks up on telltale sounds when he’s at the plate (“every once in a while”). Obviously, the more often a catcher tries it, the less often it will work, because the batter will be wise to the ploy. If a backstop becomes known for not keeping quiet, hitters will start to play much closer attention to where it sounds like he’s setting up.

“If I’ve read that before, yeah, you remember those guys,” Kratz said. “Because it’s usually guys who aren’t as aware or don’t care as much about their catching, which is few and far between in the big leagues, so you’re always looking for the advantage. As long as you don’t get deked by him doing the opposite.”

There is a potential downside to this subtle surveillance: dwelling on sounds can be distracting. A hitter can convince himself that there’s a cat-and-mouse game going on, when it’s really all in his head.

“Sometimes you hear it and if you take the pitch and you’re like, ‘Wait a minute, was that real or was he…?’ and then you’ll hear it again,” Kratz said. “Certain guys are less aware of their movements, so those are the guys that I think you kind of try to pay attention to.”

Kratz is listed at 6’4”, 255, and he doesn’t move like Solid Snake or Sam Fisher when he’s walking around the clubhouse. He has a bigger version of the classic catcher’s body, which doesn’t lend itself to stealth. But with his gear on, he’s surprisingly graceful, and he looks fairly light on his feet. Maybe that makes him more quiet, and maybe that matters more than we think.

“It’s part of the unseen factors, or un-statistically unseen factors, of the game,” he says. According to Kratz, “the little things that affect the game positively without actually getting a statistic in the book” can lead to a four-win swing in what a catcher is worth. In most cases, when people invoke “the little things that don’t show up in the box score,” they’re referencing something that is incorporated into more advanced metrics—productive outs, for instance, which are part of TAv. But that’s not the case with catcher defense, much of which remains murky.

Kratz has seen the receiving studies, which he believes to be “pretty accurate.” But he’s still not convinced that we’re giving catchers proper credit. “Picking to first base,” he offers, unprompted. “A guy may never pick anyone off of first, but if he throws over there, now that guy has one less step. How many times does he make it first to third? Does he diminish that first to third that one time that it’s needed, and now [the runner] can’t get a sac fly after a base hit because he only makes it first to second?”

Kratz is right: if we want a complete assessment of a catcher’s contributions, we still have some work to do. And until that work is finished, we should remember what we might be missing.

Thanks to Craig Goldstein for transcription assistance.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Catcher Defense,  Catching,  Erik Kratz,  Deception

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