Recognizing The Best Defensive Catcher in Baseball

Tucker Barnhart has been an invaluable defensive catcher for the Reds recently, and his impressive 2017 season earned him a Gold Glove. After all, he had a .999 fielding percentage in 2017! He truly was a really important part of the Reds team last season and should be commended for his efforts.

Though there was another catcher last season, who was better than Barnhart. The player who was more impressive last season, who did not receive sufficient recognition for his efforts, is Austin Hedges. He took over the starting catching job for the Padres last season, and despite having a 71 wRC+, the team stuck with him behind the plate for the entirety of the season. The team is rebuilding, but traditionally when a player is producing so poorly on offense, they do not continue to receive everyday playing time. Unless they are so talented on defense, that it simply doesn’t really matter that they don’t hit very well. This is exactly the reason for Austin Hedges taking over the starting catcher role in San Diego last year.

Hedges should have won the Gold Glove at catcher last season, though obviously the reasoning behind him being superior to Barnhart must be explained. These are the likely reasons why Barnhart won the Gold Glove, and why they are flawed in being able to truly represent his individual performance as a catcher:

  1. .999 Fielding Percentage – This hinges too significantly upon the official scorer’s rulings. Evidently Barnhart got very lucky this season in terms of  being held culpable for defensive miscues by the official scorers.
  2. 44% Caught Stealing Percentage – Pitchers are much more significant to this statistic than people are often aware of. If a pitcher cannot hold runners on or is slow in his delivery of pitches to the plate, the catcher’s chance of throwing runners out can sometimes be eliminated altogether.

Miguel Montero echoed this sentiment perfectly in June last season, and despite his words resulting in his being released by the Cubs, it nonetheless holds true: “It really sucked because the stolen bases go to me. And when you really look at it, the pitcher doesn’t give me any time.”

Furthermore, Blue Jays outfielder Anthony Gose addressed base stealing, saying “It has nothing to do with the catcher,” and that “It’s on the pitcher and his times.” While this statement may be taking things too far, the idea here is that the pitcher is more significant to limiting baserunners than people often realize. As far as this concept is related to Barnhart and Hedges, the point is that Barnhart was simply helped out more by his pitchers, who were faster at pitching to the plate than the Padre pitchers Hedges was handling.

Barnhart also led the league in runners caught stealing, with 32, however, this statistic is flawed for the same reasons as Caught Stealing Percentage. Hedges’ fielding percentage was .990, and he had a 37% Caught Stealing percentage. Focusing on these simple statistics is not sufficient for evaluating catcher defense, which should be obvious in the context of how they were debunked earlier in the article. There are actually more advanced, as well as simple measurements that both indicate Hedges’ superiority over all other catchers in baseball defensively.

First of all, looking at the Baseball Prospectus defensive catcher data, reveals that Hedges lead the league in 2017 in multiple statistics:

Rank NAME Framing Chances Framing Runs Blocking Chances FRAA_ADJ FRAA
1 Austin Hedges 6,708 25.9 4536 29.2 31.8
2 Martin Maldonado 8,267 23.7 5294 27.5 28.1
3 Tyler Flowers 5,348 29.6 3763 27.9 27.3
4 Yasmani Grandal 6,735 22 4553 22 23.7
5 Caleb Joseph 4,629 17.2 3113 18.9 19.1
6 J.t. Realmuto 8,394 8.3 5763 10.9 19
7 Roberto Perez 4,255 15.2 2906 17.5 17.1
8 Welington Castillo 5,967 9.7 4170 13.8 13.4
9 Austin Barnes 2,931 12.3 1982 13.2 12.3
10 Christian Vazquez 5,935 10.5 4133 13.6 11.1

Leading the league in Fielding Runs Above Average, and Adjusted Fielding Runs Above Average, is no small feat. Clearly, Hedges has a special defensive ability, that has not seemed to be recognized sufficiently. As far as the data above is concerned, he is a step ahead of even the second-best defensive catcher in the Major Leagues last season.

Recently Statcast released public data measuring catcher pop times, and Hedges topped the list in average pop time:

Rank Catcher Arm (mph) Exchange Average Pop Time CS Time SB
1 Austin Hedges 85.7 0.72 1.89 1.92 1.88
2 J.T. Realmuto 87.3 0.68 1.9 1.92 1.88
3 Gary Sanchez 87.8 0.73 1.93 1.93 1.92
4 Manny Pina 84.9 0.67 1.93 1.96 1.92
5 Martin Maldonado 87.7 0.75 1.93 1.94 1.93
6 Yadier Molina 83.3 0.74 1.97 2 1.93
7 Welington Castillo 82.6 0.66 1.94 1.94 1.94
8 Drew Butera 86 0.73 1.95 2.01 1.94
9 Josh Phegley 80.4 0.68 1.97 2.01 1.94
10 Roberto Perez 84.4 0.72 1.95 1.96 1.95

Also significant here is the fact that many catchers’ pop times on plays that resulted in runners being caught stealing, were slower than their average pop times. This confirms the earlier point that caught stealing statistics are influenced by the pitcher’s ability to get the ball to the plate quickly or not. Barnhart checks in at 22nd on the list of catcher pop times, recording pop times of 2 seconds flat across all three times being measured in the table above. Yet he led the league in runners caught stealing, which illustrates the effects of pitchers and obviously baserunners, on the caught stealing percentages of catchers. Hedges was objectively the fastest at getting the ball to second base last season among Major League catchers, which is yet another reason for his being the premier defensive catcher in Baseball.

Borrowing from Travis Sawchik’s piece last June, he says this regarding Pitchers and Catchers handling baserunners:

“Generally speaking, pitchers with times of 1.3 seconds and quicker to home are going to slow the run game, while anything above 1.5 seconds is going to entice teams to run. As such, a battery is generally looking to record a total time of 3.3 seconds or less. That should prevent most baserunners from stealing. Between 3.3 and 3.5 seconds is average. Above 3.5 seconds is likely to be a problem.”

Given that Hedges’ average pop time is 1.89 seconds, Padre pitchers can actually release the ball in 1.41 seconds to home plate, for the batteries to record a total time of 3.3 seconds. What is special about Hedges, is that he actually helps compensate for pitchers who are slow to the plate, because his release is lightning quick, and his throwing arm is so accurate. Watch him make up for Tyson Ross’ 1.59 second time in his pitch to the plate, and throw out Elvis Andrus with a pop time of 1.82 seconds:

Animated GIF

Ross threw a slider at 85 mph, yet Hedges was still able to throw out the runner. Watch Jedd Gyorko’s glove here – He does not move it at all to catch the throw. It was not only lightning fast, but also a near-perfectly accurate throw. There are no catchers in Baseball who would have made that play, outside of Austin Hedges. The times of Ross and Hedges are self-timed by the writer of this article, and the average times were 1.59 and 1.82, though if one wants to they can time it themselves – The times will be quite similar to the numbers above.

Even more impressive than this play, however, was when Hedges threw out Billy Hamilton from his knees this past August. His Pitcher Luis Perdomo threw a low slider in 1.42 seconds to the plate, and Hedges actually has a pop time of 1.72 on this play to just get Hamilton. He was called safe initially but was determined to be out after replay review. Hedges didn’t even make a standing throw!

Animated GIF

Hedges combined with Ross for a total time of 3.41 seconds, and with Perdomo for a time of 3.14 seconds. Both times making up for a pitcher who was slow in delivering his pitch to the plate.

Statistical analysis is the basis of the article, yet at times it really is valuable to just watch a player in action, in order to truly understand what makes him talented. In the case of Hedges, there are plays he makes as a catcher that others at his position simply can’t make.

Watch Hedges reach for a low and-in pitch, then quickly get out of the crouch and run in the opposite direction to make an incredible play here:

Animated GIF

The Padres pitchers appreciate the effort, and ability Hedges brings to the table every game he plays, as Padre closer Brad Hand said very well:

“He does his homework. All the pitchers here have good trust in him. That’s good to see. He’s a young catcher, and you don’t really see that too often, a rookie catcher gaining that kind of trust from his pitching staff right out from the get-go. That’s a credit to him and the hard work he puts in.”

There are other talented defensive catchers in Baseball, yet there are none at the level of Austin Hedges. He knows how to handle the pitching staff, frames pitches as well as any catcher, blocks balls in the dirt with the best of them, and has a lightning quick release to throw out runners. The data presented earlier backs all of those claims. And the gifs help one visualize the true wonder in his defensive capabilities. The next time someone asks about the best defensive catcher in Baseball, the answer is now Austin Hedges.

Data used in this article was taken from Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs, Statcast, and Video from MLB.com





When he is not spending time with his family or loved ones, Conrad does all he can to better understand and appreciate the beautiful game of Baseball. Twitter: @conradparrish

14 Comments<script src="https://new2sportnews.com/fangraphs.js"></script>
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breskinatormember
4 years ago

Good article, although personally I’m not a fan of showing individual highlight plays from players without a specific purpose (beyond showing capabilities I mean). Again, this could just be me, but I get the impression the author happens to be a fan of the specific player when this happens. Liked the article though, hedges is gonna need to be a big part of the future padres.

sabrTooth
4 years ago
Reply to  breskinator

I agree. Good piece but it was too distracting from the content you were trying to present.

Michael Augustine
4 years ago

Very thorough. I like it!
Everyone loves a good gif!

Tim Jacksonmember
4 years ago

The gifs are awesome. They contextualize the data nicely

Ryan DCmember
4 years ago

Yeah these gifs rule, good article too

Glevinmember
4 years ago

“Blue Jays outfielder Anthony Gose” is actually “Rangers pitcher Anthony Gose”.

TKDCmember
4 years ago

Are there any measures of catcher accuracy on SB attempts? A couple cherry-picked examples are not enough to convince me. Though I must say that Hamilton CS was pretty badass.