For the first time in nearly a decade, the reigning National League Gold Glove Award winner at catcher is someone other than Yadier Molina and with that honor comes the transfer of the title of best defensive catcher in baseball.
San Francisco Giants backstop Buster Posey won his first Gold Glove in 2016, ending Molina’s eight-year run. Posey doesn’t fit the mold of a Molina or some of the other “best in the game” catchers that came before him. Unlike those catchers, what makes him great isn’t necessarily the deterrent value of his throwing arm.
Yes, Posey throws out would-be base stealers at a slightly above-average clip (33 percent in 2016), but he’s not in the realm of Molina or AL Gold Glove-winner Salvador Perez, against whom baserunners are often given the red light.
Instead, Posey excels at just about everything else a catcher does.
A Giants-rooting colleague of mine said about Posey, “He’s perfect.” And last season, he was the closest thing to it — the best in the game in three different areas of catcher defense.
Not anymore. Now we have the ability to measure his excellence thanks to the advanced stats that are now an accepted part of the game.
We’re now able to take the location of every pitch and, based on the count, determine how often that pitch is called a strike. Catchers who can get strikes on pitches that aren’t often called strikes and who ensure that their pitchers get strikes on pitches that should be called strikes are considered to be artists in what’s known as pitch framing.
Posey is a superstar in that regard. He caught more than 17,000 pitches during the 2016 season and he got a major league-best 241 more strikes than the average catcher would have gotten on the same number of pitches. The only catcher in the same stratosphere was Yasmani Grandal of the Dodgers, at 221. The next-best after that was Miguel Montero of the Cubs, at 118.5.
Posey’s total is high because he catches frequently, but even if you look at the stat on a “per-pitch basis” (a rate stat), he still tops the charts. He has excelled in this statistic the past five seasons, but had never finished higher than fourth in any version of the stat.
Posey is a master at both “stealing” strikes (he had a major-league high 213 strikes on pitches shown to have less than a 25 percent chance of being called a strike) and making sure he’s getting the calls he should (he had only 64 pitches with a greater than 75 percent strike probability called a ball). Posey’s ratio of 213 “stolen” to 64 “lost” (a little better than 3-to-1) is the best in the majors and overwhelmingly better than the major-league average of 1.1-to-1.
How does he do it?
For that we turn to Matt Burns, a catching instructor currently working with Division III Skidmore College in New York, who regularly tweets video and GIF examples to provide instruction:
“One thing Posey does incredibly well is catching the low pitch by beating the ball to the spot,” Burns said. “If he catches it while his glove is moving toward the dirt, the momentum carries his glove when the ball hits it. The goal is to work the glove back toward the strike zone as the pitch hits his glove, so as to appear he’s catching it there.
“He does three things in the process that allow him to be successful doing that. One, he keeps his body, and more importantly his head, very still. Similar to hitting, the more still and ‘quiet’ his head is, the better he will be able to track the pitch, thus allowing him to get his receiving thumb at the bottom of the ball before it gets there.
“Two, he uses what I call the ‘cobra’ better than most catchers. He flashes the glove for a target, recoils it to relax his arm, and then works to, and sometimes through, the ball. The ‘cobra’ allows him to be loose. The looser he is, the stronger he can be at framing. It’s similar to a baserunner taking a lead. If he’s in his stance longer, the more stiff and slow he’ll be out of the jump. By relaxing the glove hand, he’s loose, quick, and can ‘stick’ a pitch to a spot more effectively.
“Three, he moves the ball just slightly rather than suddenly and in a jerky motion. It’s always back toward the strike zone rather than pushing it out of the zone first.”
One of the biggest beneficiaries of Posey’s framework was his former teammate, reliever Sergio Romo, now with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Romo ranked third in the majors in strikes looking above average among relief pitchers over the past two seasons. Ex-Giants teammate Santiago Casilla ranked first. Watch the second strikeout in this clip for a good example.
“I think for [Buster], it’s the extra attention to detail,” Romo said earlier this spring. “The fact that he goes in there and understands the pitchers and the movement they have. Also, the way he receives the ball — it’s not like you’re throwing it against a wall. He’s there receiving it with a sense of suaveness.”
You can measure a catcher’s ability to block pitches in a rather simple manner, as is done by the data-providing company, Baseball Info Solutions. It takes every pitch that is thrown in the dirt with a man on base and mark whether the runner(s) on base advanced. If the runner didn’t advance, it’s scored a successful block.
Posey blocked 414 pitches in the dirt last season and finished with only two passed balls and 19 wild pitches. Dividing the number of blocks by the number of block opportunities (blocks plus passed balls and wild pitches) results in Posey’s block rate — 95 percent. That was the highest block rate among everyday catchers, bettered only by Rangers backup Robinson Chirinos (97 percent), who caught 399 innings last season.
In some cases, a successful Posey block didn’t just mean a baserunner held. It means a baserunner lost.
Two seasons ago, Posey’s block rate was 92.9 percent, which ranked outside the top 10. Over the course of one season, the difference between what Posey was and what Posey is now is about 10 wild pitches/passed balls, which definitely makes him a run-saver.
Posey’s improvements date back to his collegiate days. Florida State assistant baseball coach Mike Martin Jr. remembered pitch-blocking being the biggest challenge when Posey made the conversion from shortstop to catcher his sophomore year. Because his hands were so good, Posey had a tendency to pick the ball out of the dirt with his glove, rather than block it.
Posey provided insight into his progress:
“I look at guys who do things well,” Posey said, “whether it is watching Molina throw or someone block balls to see if there a way I can apply it to my game.”
Longtime minor league manager Jerry Weinstein (who managed Israel in the World Baseball Classic) cited Posey’s “soft body that is relaxed and can absorb the ball” rather than let it roll far enough away for a baserunner to advance.
“The way he moves back there,” Romo said, “he understands immediately when certain pitches might hit the ground or certain pitches go more horizontal. He watches a lot of film. The best way I can describe how he does everything is the attention to detail. He understands from the way the ball moves from each guy, arm angles and stuff like that, if guys tend to throw certain pitches in the dirt more. He knows those percentages.”
The catcher is not usually the player who fields bunts. He’s the one usually calling out the base to which the pitcher, first baseman or third baseman should throw it. But Posey is an aggressive bunt defender.
Posey led all players, not just catchers, in bunt defense last season. Baseball Info Solutions credited him with four defensive runs saved, even though he fielded only 17 bunt attempts. Out of the 11 sacrifice attempts he fielded, only three were successful (meaning he threw out the lead runner in other instances). The average catcher would allow six. Of the six attempts at bunt hits that he fielded (bunts with no one on base), only one resulted in a hit (the average catcher allows slightly more than one). Posey also turned three bunt double plays, all within a 15-day span in August.
“He has really good footwork, middle infielder’s footwork and he has really good catch-and-throw skills,” said Matt Duffy, Posey’s ex-teammate, former Giants third baseman and current Rays shortstop. “I don’t know if he’s always anticipating it, but the way he pops out of his squat, he’s quick, man.”
“It’s impressive how explosive he is out of that stance to get to the ball so quickly,” Burns said. “The difference between getting the lead runner and having to throw to first base is purely how fast he gets to the ball.
“As he’s picking the ball up, he’s working himself into throwing position so he doesn’t have to turn the shoulders after getting the ball. That allows him to get the ball out of his hand as fast as possible. He also always picks the ball up with his bare hand. It’s more efficient and lessens the risk of dropping the ball. It cuts down on time that a glove-to-hand transition would take.”
Martin said Posey’s bunt defense success makes total sense, given his history.
“That goes back to his shortstop days, throwing on the run, getting to things quickly and making accurate throws,” Martin said. “Him pouncing on the ball and throwing it from a low-arm slot — that’s easy for him.”
The math adds up
Defensive Runs Saved combines all of the things a catcher needs to do to be successful, from halting steal attempts to defending bunts, to pitch blocking and framing, and blocking the plate, as well as comparing a catcher to the others on his team to gauge how pitchers are faring when he’s behind the plate.
Posey finished with 23 defensive runs saved as a catcher last season, 20 of which came from the three skills noted above. That led the majors by eight runs. Go through three seasons of data and that nets a 17-run differential (48 to 31) over Jonathan Lucroy of the Texas Rangers.
Posey’s crown as the game’s top defender doesn’t come as a surprise to his collegiate coach. Martin remembered Posey’s fifth game as a catcher, when Posey was so close to the plate that his hand got crushed by a swing from UNC Asheville’s Kevin Mattison, resulting in catcher’s interference, but almost something worse.
“I thought ‘Oh my gosh, he broke his hand,'” Martin said.
Posey, he said, was unfazed.
“I knew from the get-go that he was going to be a star,” Martin said. “He had the hands, the work ethic, the knowledge and all the incredible attributes he has. It was apparent he was a bona fide stud.”
Posey may not be perfect, as my colleague professed, but by the eye test and the numbers, he’s as good as it gets behind the plate.