I am very excited to have Daily Fantasy Insider Co-Founder & CEO Justin MacMahan appearing as a guest columnist today. Justin is one of the most respected MLB DFS players and minds in the industry and it is my pleasure to share his thoughts on the value of catchers as it pertains to both the current and future state of the game of baseball. I strongly suggest following Justin on Twitter @JustinMacMahan while also recommending Daily Fantasy Insider (@dfinsider) as your #1 MLB DFS resource.
The Value Of Catchers
On September 21st, 2016, the worst called ball in history was recorded. The pitch was .3 inches away from being completely centered over the plate. The batter was Josh Donaldson. The pitcher was Bryan Mitchell. And most importantly, the catcher was Austin Romine.
It’s important to note who the catcher was, because catcher defense is becoming a hot topic in professional baseball. The more we learn about sabermetrics, the more we understand the importance of catchers. This advanced research suggests that today’s catchers are significantly underpaid.
The reason that Bryan Mitchell’s pitch down the middle was called a ball has almost nothing to do with him. And although it is primarily Austin Romine’s fault, it also has to do with the fact that the call is made by a human being: the home plate umpire.
Donaldson is a righty, and Romine set up with bad form on the inside part of the plate. Mitchell missed his location slightly, going for an inside fastball and leaving it right down the middle. Instead of calmly moving his glove as the ball approached him, Romine swung his glove over to catch the ball at the last second, and his momentum as he shifted positions caused him to fall over. If you watch the pitch live, you might think it was in the dirt. One of the announcers went so far as to praise Romine for saving a potential wild pitch. However, if you freeze the video as the ball crosses the plate, you’ll see that it was right down the middle.
Just like the announcer was fooled into praising Romine for snagging a wild pitch, the umpire was fooled as well. He called the pitch a ball because he saw Romine end up on the ground after catching it. A professional pitcher throws too fast for the umpire to track it properly and accurately assess what happened.
What Romine did (or failed to do) is called Pitch Framing. In 2016, Romine caught 2,482 pitches that the batter did not swing at, and he cost his team 1.8 runs in this aspect of the game. Pitch Framing statistics calculate how many strikes were called on pitches that should have been balls, and vice versa. A good catcher will earn his pitcher extra strikes, and a bad catcher will give strikes away by catching them in a way that makes them look like balls. The umpires are not as precise as the computers, and they often get fooled.
Romine gave away a total of 1.8 runs in 2016 due to his pitch framing, but this wasn’t even close to the worst in the MLB. Dioner Navarro gave away 18.8 additional runs from failing to frame pitches correctly. On the other hand, Buster Posey saved his team 26.5 runs with all the extra strikes he earned for his pitchers. One out of 25 balls that Posey caught was called a strike incorrectly. In just this one aspect of the game, Posey was worth 45.3 runs more than Navarro last season.
No other players can save their team or cost their team this many runs with one aspect of their game. Despite this, it’s an aspect of the game that receives very little attention because it makes the game of baseball look stupid. The solution is so obvious.
Get rid of umpires.
In 2016, an umpire named Ben May finished the year with a strikeout to walk ratio of 3.85. This means that in the games he called, there were 3.85 strikeouts for every walk that occurred. On the other side of the spectrum, Gerry Davis’ ratio was 2.02. May’s ratio of strikeouts to walks is almost double because of how big his strike zone is and how small Gerry Davis’ is.
It’s smart to avoid pitchers in fantasy baseball when they have an umpire like Gerry Davis. But if you think about it, this is a stupid aspect of the game. The younger generation of baseball fans tends to agree that this is dumb. We want to see the players determine the outcome of the games, not the umpires. That’s why we added instant replay (which gets used almost every game and most fans admit is good for the game), and that’s why we’ll eventually let a computer call the balls and strikes.
Unfortunately, umpires aren’t on their way out quite yet, as the older generation hates the idea of computers taking over. Baseball traditionalists always resist change, but when an independent league tried using a computer to call balls and strikes in 2015, the managers who described themselves as “initially skeptical” and “old school” admitted that it improved the integrity of the game.
So as of right now, catchers are underpaid. But someday, the older generation will be gone, and the younger generation will change the rules. When this day comes, catcher pay will probably have increased dramatically as teams realized how important they were all along. Suddenly, when this rule change is made, catchers will be overpaid, and the first teams to readjust and pay their catchers less will have the advantage.