Monday, December 21, 2009

Best Fielders: Catchers and First Base

If you missed the first part, here it is. Today I will be taking you through the fine art of catching, and a little bit of the grace of first base.


Before we get into Rob's picks I want to clarify what a great catcher is. It is extremely difficult to define a catcher's defensive prowess using statistics. Some great ones are catcher's pop time (time it takes from ball hitting catchers glove to hitting second baseman's glove). A good major league pop time is somewhere around 1.80 seconds. Unfortunately, these stats aren't readily available. Some catchers with great pop times are said to be Yadier Molina, Old Ivan Rodriguez, and Miguel Olivo wasn't too shabby when he was on the South Side. Some with bad pop times would be Mike Piazza, Victor Martinez, and Jason Kendall (also suffering from noodle arm).

Other things that might help you judge a catcher are pass balls (kind of) and caught stealing percentage. The major downfall of caught stealing percentage is the pitcher variable. You may have a pitcher that works to keep the runner at first close, using pickoffs and a slide step. You may also have a pitcher like Greg Maddux that could give a shit if the runner stole second.

This isn't even getting into the art of calling a game. Some major league catchers don't even call their own games, which is atrocious. Even though this is such a critical part of the game, it is almost impossible for an outside source to know who is good and who is bad at calling a game. The only way to possibly know is if you are pitching, and how comfortable you feel with your catcher.

Catching is difficult to define because there are so many aspects of catching. Intelligence, toughness, quickness, hand eye coordination, savvy, and strength all play a roll in one of the toughest positions to play. You can see a big guy like Joe Mauer behind the plate and immediately assume that he is no good (he doesn't block the ball exceptionally well, and with his size you would think his pop time to be slow). However, Joe is actually an above average catcher, using his superior athletic ability to pick a lot of balls in the dirt as opposed to blocking. While a quick catcher who blocks the plate and covers a lot of ground is more conventional, who is to say a catcher that picks the ball is no good. The main goal is to keep the ball in front of you. While blocking the ball may be more effective for most people, genetic freaks can get away with a picking tactic. (Side Note: the catcher I have the most fun watching is Yadier Molina. Great blocker. Seems to have a good feel for the game. Great pop time and his snap throws to first are some of the most exciting plays in baseball). On to Neyer's pick:

C -- Ivan Rodriguez

How could you argue with this? He has been revered by his peers for his catching prowess. Word is that this has taken a backseat to his work at the plate, not behind it, but Young Ivan was dreaded behind the plate. Teams did not even think about running on him.

All that stuff I said about statistics? When it comes to catchers, you can forget about them.

Mainly, for the reasons I stated above.

Because one of the catcher's biggest jobs is supposedly working well with the pitchers, and to this point nobody's yet figured out a good way to measure that ability (if it even exists).

But there are some things we can look at, and Pudge does well in most of those things.

Terrible. Sentence.

He won five Gold Gloves in this decade. He threw out 41 percent of the runners who tried to steal against him (and with his reputation, a lot of runners just didn't bother).

I wish he would stop bringing up Gold Gloves.

And at 38, he just got a two-year contract for $6 million.

Not because of his defense.

First Base

While first base isn't nearly as technical as catcher, there is still an art form to playing the position. You can identify a bad first baseman in three plays.

Play 1: Ground ball to the shortstop. How does the player move to the bag? Are they clumsy? Swift? Footwork is the key here. A first baseman needs to take the minimum amount of steps from his fielding position to the bag, all the while maintaining eye contact with the shortstop and finding the bag with his foot. This takes work. It is not natural, and gets easier with repetition. However, if you are bad at these things, it is easily covered up. Move one step closer to first than you need. This gives the player plenty of time to reach the bag, and a split second to glance at his feet. (Paul Konerko always glances at his feet. Watch him.)

Next, when the throw comes where is the player stretching? Is he moving toward the ball, or taking a step aimlessly? Moving toward the ball cuts off the distance of the throw and can easily be the difference in a close play.

Play 2: The pick off. This is a difficult play for righties, as they have to move the glove further for the tag. The trick is to catch the ball late, and move the mitt only a short distance. While the tag may not be sweeping, it results in a short stabbing tag. More coordination is required here, but it could make a pitcher's good pickoff move look great. Lefties have it easy. They are already catching close to the runner, and can make a nice swipe tag.

Play 3: Fielding a bunt. Not all that hard for a righty, except for making sure they don't hit the runner with the ball. The turn to the outside is easy and natural, and is quick. Even the least graceful of first baseman can handle this. This play can set a lefty apart. How natural does their fielding look? Do they force an underhand? are they positioning themselves before they field the ball? All important things to look for. Neyer's Pick:

1B -- Albert Pujols

I forgot, being a good fielder requires you to hit well. Shame on me. While Pujols may be above average at first, he is no where near a natural at the position. Look at him move to first. Quick and powerful enough to play a little off the bag, but he always looks at his feet. He is not a natural at the position. He is also, quite clumsy on fielding bunts. Basically he's clumsy in general. His exceptional baseball quickness makes up for a lot of faults he shows on the diamond. Is he a good first baseman? Sure, but he is not the best.

It almost seems unfair. Most players, even the greatest of them, have an Achilles' heel. But not Albert Pujols.

I would accept him on my team.

He runs well. He hits brilliantly. And his fielding? After playing some third base and some left field, Pujols finally settled in at first base in 2004, his fourth season.

Him being below average at two positions does not make him a good first baseman. It makes him quite the athlete. He has good range for a first baseman, but what does that really matter. Doesn't the second baseman take all the balls in the hole anyways?

Since then he's utterly dominated all first basemen in the sophisticated defensive metrics. Not coincidentally, he's the only four-time winner of a Fielding Bible Award.

Albert's 2009 UZR/150: 0.8. This is the stat Neyer said he was using. Again, I'm not saying Pujols is bad. Check out his 2007 numbers: 16.0. (These stats weigh heavily on player range, which isn't that important in a 1B)

My pick: Doug Meintkiewicz. Check out his UZR/150 numbers over the past few years. Consistently averaging 10+. You need more support? He sucked at hitting. While being good at hitting does not make you a good fielder, sucking at hitting and having an 11 year career means you were doing something right defensively. Why wouldn't the Red Sox spend an extra couple of million to pick up an average hitter in 2005, because Doug Meintkiewicz was a damn good fielder. Watch replays of Meintkiewicz moving around the bag; he was extremely graceful. His footwork was impeccable. He played a power position and hit only 66 career home runs. His career will never be duplicated. There will not be another awful hitting firstbaseman to stick around for 11 years.


  1. Please use the word 'noodle arm' more often. It made me giggle.

  2. Don't worry, Juan Pierre just joined the Sox. It will be used plenty

  3. Mr. Anonymous dropping knowledge/opinion.

    As someone with extended catching experience I am going to weigh in.

    “Intelligence, toughness, quickness, hand eye coordination, savvy, and strength all play a roll in one of the toughest positions to play.” I have been told I have all of these qualities many times, but to add to it I have also been that I am handsome.

    Best catcher at picking, throwing from his knees, and all other non recommended things is by far Benito Santiago ( yes he has a myspace page and it is fantastic). Plus he did it from 1986-2005. I bet he is still playing somewhere in Puerto Rico or something.

    Weirdest set up goes to Sandy Martinez ( sorry the video doesn’t completely do him justice but I am sure you all remember him sitting on the ground back there). He kind of played in the 2000's so I'm counting it (

    First base I have far less experience playing, but who cares? The requirements to write on this blog are very lax. So I would like to bring up Hee-Seop Choi. Everyone’s favorite South Korean (, this is great. I love the part about his return to glory in 2009). With what is mentioned in here (who doesn’t believe everything they read on Wikipedia?) I see Hee-Seop starting on some MLB team next year. Who doesn’t want a power hitting first baseman (participated in the 2005 homerun derby ) who is a gold glover? Just avoid having him run into other players or other players run close to him because he tends to get hurt easily.