Monday, May 3, 2010

Truly Knowing Chooch

The sabermetric renaissance has given us a very clear representation of a baseball player's offensive performance. It has also provided us with measures that explain, to a point, a pitcher's success or failure, factoring in things like luck and ballpark size. Now we can even quantify defensive skills with things like Ultimate Zone Rating, and determine not only how many runs a player produces with his bat, but how many he saves with his glove.

One thing the stat geek still can't quantify, however, is catcher defense. Blocking balls in the dirt, game calling skills, handling pitchers....there's a lot that goes on behind the plate that you just can't put a number on. So these skills still have to be scouted "the old fashioned way" by actually watching games and focusing on the catcher. This is what I sought out to do Sunday night with Phillies catchers Carlos Ruiz.

If you ask anyone who regularly watches the Phillies about Chooch, they'll probably say something close to the following: "He has good at-bats, he's good defensively and he calls a good game." Does he really? I feel like catchers who are offensively unspectacular get labeled with the "good defense, calls good game" cliche. Conversely, I think that catchers who are good defensively and put up huge numbers at the plate have their skills in the former ignored. So, I wanted to sit down and focus on Sunday night's Phillies/Mets game and decide for myself whether or not he actually calls a good game.

How did I go about doing this? I kept track of the pitch sequences to each hitter, both pitch type and location (the location Chooch set up at, not the one where the pitch ended up because sometimes pitchers miss that spot). From this I could see where Ruiz called effective pitches and where he made mistakes and within individual at-bats as well as how he changed things up against any hitter in their next time up. Here is what I found:

Where Chooch is good:

Ruiz has either a great memory, a well scripted gameplan or both because Met hitters rarely saw pitch sequences (either type or location) that even resembled what they got a look at in ANY of their previous atbats. The only hitters that saw trends were David Wright and Fernando Tatis, both of which were pitched almost exclusively inside. This is probably the result of scouting reports dictating such location.
Ruiz was catching Jamie Moyer (fastball, sinker, changeup, cutter, slider, curveball) so he had plenty of weapons to mix and match against Mets hitters. Jamie Moyer's wide array of pitches allow for this more so than a pitcher who only a few pitches, so watching Ruiz catch Cole Hamels could yield different results.

I was really impressed with Carlos' approach from the 7th inning onward. The Phillies had a good lead and Ruiz had his pitchers throwing tons of strikes and pitching to contact. Why wear out bullpen arms by trying to get cute and strike guys out when you can just pound the strike zone rack up outs? Set aside your ERA and get out of there. Good stuff Chooch.

Where Chooch is bad:

While Ruiz does a nice job changing things up on hitters between atbats, he does not do a good job of mixing things within them. In the 23 atbats in which his goal was to keep runners off base (keep in mind once the Phillies had a large lead, Chooch's strategy changed, this sample is taken exclusively from when the outcome of the game was still in question and every out mattered) the pitch sequence within the plate appearance was effective 16 times, detrimental 6 times, and inconsequential 4 times.

In the atbats where Moyer got knocked around, Ruiz would often call for the same pitch in the same location two times in a row. On the first of those two pitches, the hitter would be fooled and swing poorly. On the second pitch, the hitter would always hit the ball hard. Ruiz failed to realize the hitter was making adjustments. This happened several times in the first inning (on Castillo's single, Wright's HR and Rod Barajas' single) and got better as the game progressed. Ruiz needs to try not to fall in love with a pitch selection just because it worked once before.

So yes, overall Carlos Ruiz calls a good game but he doesn't always call a good atbat.

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