Offense and Defense

The wife surprised me by putting on the MLB Network in the bedroom last night in lieu of her usual fare of murder investigations. I’m always amused at how people can make a living by putting on a nice suit, sitting at a table and talking about sports, but there they were, ranking the best catchers in MLB right now. It was an interesting list but what I found really intriguing is how easily they discussed human beings as if they were prize farm animals or perhaps top shelf race horses. The players knees were discussed, the health of their respective shoulders, their age, their background and whether they’d proven themselves worthy yet based on consistency of performance. The only thing missing was checking their teeth.

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I suppose when millions of dollars are at stake, you have to look at your investment as just that, and if they’re young when you acquire them, you should look to the parents to see if the lad comes from good stock. I imagine DNA testing would be very beneficial at some point if science could tell MLB owners what genetic profiles to look for, or which genetic mutations would increase the probability of an injury shortened career. Perhaps the saddest part of the discussion was when the analysts mused on whether the players had peaked and were now headed toward a declining spiral.

Bill James was a guest on the show and provided his own list of the Top Ten Catchers in the Game Right Now and I did pay particular attention to him. After reading Moneyball a few years ago I fell in love with Sabermetrics and played fantasy baseball for a few seasons choosing my teams based on the statistics I thought most important. It’s fun to think about and play around with, but the reality is we’re dealing with human beings, not carefully machined equipment where the specs will tell you the probability that a part or parts will fail. The human being has emotions, insecurities, is prone to infection by virus and bacteria, as well as just having an “off” day.

It was fascinating to hear James discuss defensive skills and how difficult it was to use those skills in trying to rank players or even to determine the impact the defensive skills will have on the team’s success. A friend of mine played college ball and was never drafted and he inquired quite a bit and talked to his coaches a lot about why that might be. He was a terrific defensive player and the overall message he received was that every MLB player is a terrific defensive player, but you have to be able to hit. Now arguably the catching position is the most important defensive position on the field, so surely those skills are highly valuable. But as James put it, over time the difference in Wins and Losses are a handful of runs, and the defense just isn’t going to save enough runs to outweigh the offensive impact of a team of hitters and guys that can get on base. There’s a lot to be said for having a couple of guys at the top of the lineup that can coax a walk and then have the Number Three batter or the Clean-Up hitter knock them in with a 3-Run homer. So the bulk of the discussion about ranking the Top Catchers in the Game Right Now was their offensive production.

Pitchers’ statistics can be seriously skewed by the defensive play of the team behind him. A ball that was crushed into the gap that is run down by a center fielder with above average speed will show up as an out in the box score, but the pitcher had nothing to do with it. Conversely, a sub-par middle infield that doesn’t have great lateral range will allow more seeing-eye singles to get through the infield, yet the pitcher may have made excellent pitches. A pitcher may jam a hitter with an excellent cut fastball that somehow flares into short right field and becomes a base hit. I firmly believe the only truly important statistics for a pitcher are the Walk to Strike Out ratio and HR’s allowed. A pitcher that can throw something hard, something soft and something that breaks and throw all three for strikes when he needs to is going to be an effective pitcher. If your pitchers are effective, then the defensive skills of the team behind them can be quite average, yet you will still win of lot of games with that average defensive squad that puts a lot of runs on the board.

There’s a saying around youth sports coaches clinics–and I’ve attended quite a few over the years–that if you want to increase the chances of your son playing high school and maybe even college baseball, teach him to be a switch-hitting catcher. I think there’s a lot of truth to that, but I always focused more on hitting than anything else. The message I delivered to my young players was that if they could hit, they’re going to be in the lineup and the coach will just find a place for them on the field where they wouldn’t screw up too badly. If the MLB Network experts emphasized the hitting prowess of players in one of the most important defensive positions on the field, it seems my advice wasn’t too far off the mark.

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