Allow me to try to simplify the sabermetric revolution as much as I can:
Late 20th Century: we are evaluating baseball players
Early 21st Century: we were so wrong about our baseball player evaluation!
Less Early 21st Century: we were so wrong about our baseball player evaluation, again!
First, there were players, then there were numbers. Then there were better numbers, then there were still better numbers. The numbers will only continue to improve with time, and a lot of the things we currently think we know about baseball will probably end up being at least partially untrue. Keep that in mind next time you express a particularly strong opinion. But anyway.
Several years ago, people started to care an awful lot about on-base percentage and offensive productivity. This was warranted, because it is important to get on base and be offensively productive. A little later on, people started to care an awful lot about defense. Turns out some of those OBP-happy sluggers were subtracting runs almost as fast as they were adding them. Whoopsadoodle.
I’d like to shift from the general to the specific, and I’d like to focus on Ryan Doumit as something of a case study. Doumit’s perceived value, I think, has moved around dramatically — not necessarily within the game, but among many of the observers. I know that, personally, the way I feel about Doumit now is quite a bit different from the way I felt about him in 2006 and 2007. And it’s not like Doumit as a player has really changed. What’s changed is the way we can look at him.
Doumit, in the minors, was a catcher. A switch-hitting catcher, with a career .984 OPS in triple-A. He could walk and hit for power and catch, and around the time he emerged, this was delightful. He came up with the Pirates and caught some and hit some. But it didn’t feel like he played enough; Doumit came off as being under-appreciated. Here was a guy who could hit while defending behind the plate, and that’s a rare breed. A lot of stat-savvy fans wanted their teams to trade for Doumit. A lot of stat-savvy Pirates fans wanted their team to play more Doumit. He did eventually get more playing time, catching 106 games in 2008, and his offense was good. There wasn’t a whole lot not to like about Ryan Doumit.
The Pirates, for their part, were never wild about Doumit’s defense. He played other positions, besides catcher, in order for the Pirates to keep his bat in the lineup. But we didn’t really know how to evaluate catcher defense, and Doumit didn’t seem that bad according to what was publicly available. It seemed like more evidence of under-appreciation.
Now we fast-forward, and here comes the pitch-framing part. Doumit, for his career, has been slightly below-average at throwing out base-stealers. He’s been slightly below-average at blocking pitches. In 2011, though, Mike Fast published some pitch-framing research that showed Doumit to be just dreadful when it comes to getting strikes for the pitchers. Doumit was shown to be the worst framer in the league, and the suggested effect was substantial.
This past year, Matthew Carruth conducted his own research that in large part agreed with Fast’s conclusions. Carruth also found that Doumit was the worst framer in the league. Between 2007-2012, Doumit received more than 28,000 called pitches. He was 1,104 called strikes below average, or -39 per 1,000 called pitches. This doesn’t look like something we can just sort of shrug off, like Doumit’s pitch-blocking. This looks like something that rather dramatically changes Ryan Doumit’s overall value.
Pitch-framing is still only somewhat understood, but while a lot of people have gotten familiar with Jose Molina as being the best, Doumit’s there at the other extreme. It in part explains why the Pirates were never thrilled with him, and though the Pirates did a lot of things wrong, it doesn’t look like they were wrong about Doumit as a catcher. If anything, one could argue they played him at catcher too often.
At one point, Doumit looked to be under-valued, because he could catch. Now he looks to be more appropriately-valued, or perhaps over-valued, because he can’t catch, really. He just does it when he’s asked to. We can take this beyond pitch-framing, if you allow me to get a little bit sloppy.
Every year since 2005, Doumit has caught, and in every year but 2006, Doumit has caught multiple hundreds of innings. What comes next is basically CERA, except without the “E” part. I know this is an unforgivable sin, but I can’t help myself. We have big samples of Doumit-catching time and not-Doumit-catching time. Let’s look at a table, leaving out 2006 (when Doumit’s catching numbers in a small sample were awful):
That’s a straight-up, un-weighted average. On average, when Doumit’s been behind the plate, his team’s allowed 5.37 runs per nine innings. On average, when Doumit hasn’t been behind the plate, his team’s allowed 5.00 runs per nine innings. This does not adjust for playing time or for pitchers caught, so of course it isn’t perfect. There’s a lot of potential error in here. But this could also be capturing everything — throwing arm, pitch-blocking, pitch-framing, game-calling. CRA is a hopelessly flawed statistic, but for whatever it’s worth, it isn’t kind to Ryan Doumit, which goes along with his defensive reputation.
Teams throw about 1,440 innings a season. Over 1,440 innings, a 0.37 RA difference is equal to about 59 runs. If we’re in any way capturing Ryan Doumit’s true defense as a catcher, he’s really not good at it, and his bat probably isn’t good enough to make things much better.
The evidence suggests that Ryan Doumit really just shouldn’t catch. Not for a contender, and probably not in anything but an emergency. Just to add on, let’s be kind of sloppy again. Over Ryan Doumit’s career, his team has won an average of 40.1% of the games he’s started (at any position, not just catcher). Over Ryan Doumit’s career, his team has won an average of 40.7% of the games he hasn’t started. He’s started 627 games, and he hasn’t started 668 games. He owns a career 106 wRC+, and 11.1 WAR.
Something tells me that WAR might be off. Something tells me Doumit hasn’t actually been much of a contributor. Something tells me that has a lot to do with his work behind the plate. Limited evidence suggests that Doumit can kind of handle himself in the outfield, and maybe at first base. Given his bat, he belongs in the league. But it seems like Doumit, for his career, has cost his teams a lot of runs, because they’ve put him behind the plate, where he hasn’t been any good. He’s been the sort of quiet-bad that adds up to some staggering figures, and while none of the evidence within this post is conclusive, it can’t be dismissed outright, either.
At one time, when we knew something, it seemed like Ryan Doumit was an undervalued catcher. At this time, when we know more, it seems like Ryan Doumit shouldn’t be a catcher at all, as he’s probably cost his teams way too many runs. Doumit’s actual career WAR might be zero, or it might even be worse than that. One thing, we weren’t wrong about: Ryan Doumit can hit. It’s a good thing for him that he can.