Jose Lobaton: Dues Ex Machina?
It's no surprise that the Rays catching situation is again looking grim, at best. Jose Molina is doing a nice job of stealing calls, but he struggles to block balls in the dirt and he's hitting about what you would expect at a 74 wRC+. The Chris Gimenez experiment came and went like a thief in the night and Stephen Vogt is nervous that he'll be called up and set history for longest 0'fer to start a career. The guy not mentioned here is Jose Lobaton who has come back from a shoulder injury to basically split time with Molina. He's putting up a 95 wRC+ that Zips expects to mostly continue. This production might not sound great, but it's better than what most catchers are producing.
We come here today, not to bury the offense, however, but to take an earnest, hard look at what each of the catchers have been doing behind the plate. We'll eschew popular, though imperfect, metrics like wild pitches + passed balls or caught stealing percentage, and instead, hone in on what they're calling and how that's going. I do want to start with a couple of images that can give an indirect view at how these catchers are stealing calls before delving into the nitty gritty. Let's start with Molina:
We're looking solely at called strikes here and I want to point out that all data is courtesy of Joe Lefkowitz. As mentioned previously, the pitch record from April is not complete. We're looking at 85% of all pitches thrown so far, which I think gives us a nice record of what has happened so far. The inner box is the rulebook strikezone with the larger box showing the "wide zone". The wide zone runs around 3.5 inches off the edge of either side and are a nice short hand for looking at what umpires typically call. Molina gets a ton of calls in the wide zone, but we also see a metric tonne of pitches being called even further off the plate away from lefties. He'll get some calls down, as well, but note that the north and south of our strike zone is an average of all batters faced. Some batters those may be in the zone, so I don't think it makes sense to dwell too long. How does this compare to Jimenez:
We see that Gimmer was also getting some calls off the wide zone and plenty of calls within our larger box, though the corners away from righties look a bit bare. Due to the small sample of Stephen Vogt's brief time behind the plate I won't waste your time with his chart, but let's move on to our potential savior:
Lobaton's chart looks pretty similar so it's nice to know that he is stealing some calls even if he's not Molinaesque. Seriously though, who is? Go back to Molina's chart and find that pitch that's more than a foot and a half off the center of the plate or more than six inches outside of the wide zone, if you will.
With that longish aside out of the way let's move on to what I'm really proud to present. Using the above pitch f/x combined with boxscores I have paired every pitch up with the catcher behind the plate. Let's first look at the percentage of pitches caught for each starter:
It's fair to point out that the following stuff is open to the same criticism that plagues Catcher Earned Run Average (cERA), but by using run values we can lower our stabilization thresholds, such that, pitchers with large samples can be taken with a teaspoon of salt instead of the whole block. The above chart can be useful for pointing out some of these as I'm confident that all of the starters have accrued a healthy sample size, while the relievers we can't put as much stock in the predicatbility of what you'll find herein. I included Vogt after going back and forth on whether to do so, but I know I'd rather have more data than less. Just know that the Vogt stuff shouldn't sway your opinions in any direction.
Overall, Jose Molina has caught 51% of the offerings thrown by Rays pitchers with Chris Gimenez getting the next most amount. Some interesting things are Molina not catching Moore all that much, while catching Hellickson a ton. Gimenez caught the majority of Niemann's innings and the team has seemed to like matching Lobaton up with Price. Let's drill down a little further and look at Run Values, both raw and per 100 pitches, by pitch type from each battery:
If you're familiar with my work you'll know that I like Run Values because they adjust by count for balls and strikes and the results of a ball in play. I'm going to focus on the per 100 pitches portion as We see that Lobaton has had the best results on breaking balls (BB) with Molina's struggles with balls in the dirt being a bit overblown as he's basically average, while Gimenez proved pretty poor at getting good results out of our pitcher's BB. Moving on to the change up (CH) we see that Gimenez saw spectacular results when calling for the CH, while Lobaton is no slouch either. Molina is the worst of the bunch, and it's important to point out that Rays pitchers are better than most at throwing the CH. Who you catch makes a big difference, but as noted above, larger samples will render these points moot, and we're comparing across the staff so I think there's less inherent bias as those samples get larger considering pitchers threw to all of the catchers quite a bit. The fastball (FA) is another area where we see Lobaton separate himself from his peers as him, and Molina to a lesser extent, are well above average.
Overall, we see that Rays pitchers compiled a .05 RV/100 on the BB, -1.63 on the CH, and -.76 on the FA. This hasn't been mentioned yet, but negative is better for pitchers and positive better for batters. We see that the CH has been a ridiculous weapon for Rays pitchers with the FA also showing well, but the BB has been slightly less than average thus far. By catcher, we can see that Lobaton has been magical thus far with a -1.09 RV/100 thus far, with Molina coming in a bit below the team average of -.76 and Gimenez further below team average. On top of Lobaton having a nearly league average bat he's also looking like a guy that can call a game and get the most out of his pitchers. Let's drill down even further and look at pitch types by pitcher. First off let's look at what's being called:
On the left we have the raw number of pitches called for each pitcher and the right-hand table shows us what that looks like as a percentage of all pitches by that pitcher to that catcher. I will be focusing on the percentages here, but it's important to know the underlying number of calls as 100% of 1 pitch doesn't tell us as much as 60% of 500 pitches.
Lobaton and Molina will call the BB a bit more than Gimenez with the reverse being true on the CH. Lobaton calls slightly less fastballs with Gimenez calling the highest percentage of those. I'd highly recommend going through and comparing your favorite pitchers with each catcher compared to the total column to see which catchers are more prone to calling for certain pitches, but I'd like to highlight a few examples for each pitch type. David Price seems to throw more BB to Lobaton than the other two so far, by a bit of a wide margin and the same can be said for J.P. Howell, but the opposite is true regarding Jake McGee as Lobaton rarely calls for the bendy stuff compared to his peers. James Shields seems to be getting the same treatment, though Jeremy Hellickson throws a higher percentage of BB to Lobaton compared to the other catchers and Matt Moore and Wade Davis also fall into this class of not being afraid to uncork a BB to our potential hero.
Moving on to the CH which we've already seen has been a real success story we see that Lobaton calls for Cobb to throw his offspeed pitch more than Molina and Gimmer, but he works the opposite with David Price only throwing around 10% of his pitches offspeed compared to 14% with Molina and 20% to Gimenez. Fernando Rodney has no problem throwing his great CH to Lobaton, but we see those rates a bit lower for Molina and Gimenez who are at 27% and 28%, respectively. Molina calls for the CH the most with Shields around 35% of the time with Lobaton only around 31%. Meanwhile, recently DL'd Jeremy Hellickson throws the same breakout of CH to the current squad, but that was ramped up a bit higher with Gimenez and the same can be said when it comes to Matt Moore.
Lastly, let's look at FA usage by pairing. Cobb is only throwing the FA 32% of the time to Lobaton while that goes to 50% with Molina. David Price has been extra FA heavy with Molina and Lobaton at 68% and 69%, respectively with Gimmer getting the big man to throw his offspeed stuff a bit more. Lobaton has Shields throwing the fastball a full 40% of the time while Molina has that down around 32% and Molina is also getting Matty Moore to throw the fastball around 73% of the time while Lobaton has kept that rate at 67%. With Moore's great secondary stuff I think 73% of the time is too much for the straight fastball, but this could be an area where Molina's inability to block pitches is rearing it's head and a place where Lobaton does not share that similar fear to go. These are the type of differences we're looking to spot the most as guys like Moore and Archer really play up when they're able to throw the BB in the dirt and can only help guys like Price and Shields that also use the BB to get ahead in the count.
We would be remiss if we didn't compare this same level of detail at the RV level which you can find below:
Again, we'll be focusing on the right-hand portion which adjusts each RV to look at the pitch per 100 attempts so that we get more of an even keel. Again, I'd advise that you look through and make your own comparisons as I will not look at every case, instead looking at things that appear interesting at face value. Also, in this section I will restrict comparisons to the current tandem of Joses as I think this data gives us a good idea of what will unfold for those with large samples and pray to the Lord Beejus that we don't need Gimenez again because we're getting exactly what we need from these two.
Starting with the BB we see that Cobb's has not been good to either receiver, but slightly better to Lobaton. Gomes, Ramos, Shields, Peralta, Moore, and Davis also fall into this class. Meanwhile, Molina has been better with Price, Howell, and McGee. Notice that all three of those guys are southpaws? Perhaps there's something more to this, but I won't do anything more than propose the question at this juncture, especially when Moore has been so much better with Lobaton. Moore to Lobatonand Archer to Molina in his one start look to be guys showing off really good BB, while Shields and Cobb have not seen much success with the bendy stuff.
We see just how devastating the CH has been at the overall level, but now let's look at this on an individual basis. Cobb's CH to Lobaton (thrown 53% of the time I remind you) has been a disgusting pitch with an RV/100 of -6.87. The pitch to Molina has been strong as well at -3.34, but Lobaton seems to make the pitch play up even better whether by sequencing, stealing calls, or magic. The oppsite has been true with Price as Lobaton has turned that into a worse than average pitch by a fair margin (3.52) while Molina has gotten good, if not great success at -1.36. Rodney's CH is a great pitch and Lobaton has made it look even better, though Molina is no slouch and you can see a similar effect with Howell, though Molina has it barely better than average. Shields has seen similar results with both catchers and the same can be said for Hellickson, though Helly's renowned CH is being clocked at 1.27 - 1.28 RV/100 which just seems to point to something being wrong. The CH should be Helly's best pitch by a mile, but it's been pretty well below league average thus far no matter who's wearing the garbage can behind the dish. Moore has shown to be another guy with a very good CH over the short length of this season and Lobaton seems to get it to play up even more than Molina.
The last stop on this tour de verbiage is the FA. Here we see that Cobb has thrown a plus pitch while the capable mitts of Molina has seen that pitch sit well below average. On the other hand, Molina has really helped Price's FA play up well. Time out, for the maybe one person that made it thus far I present you this video. Time in, Rodney's FA has seen similar great success regardless of catcher, though McGee's seems to produce better results with Lobaton. A real headscratcher is Shields who has seen an RV/100 of -2.56 on the FA to Lobaton which is fantastic, but Jose the Elder has turned that into a worse than average 1.23. We see similar results with Moore as Lobaton is really milking all he can out of the pitch, while Molina is seeing less impressive, though still good, results.
This final chart can act as a bit of a summary. I'd never presuppose to think that I know more than Joe Maddon, but what if the data did?
We're interested in the color-coded section as that shows the RV/100 for each pitcher to each catcher for all pitches. Shown throughout is that some pitchers seem to be having more success with some catchers. This isn't some bullshit chemistry thing. It has to do with the skillsets of each pitcher being amped up or cooled down by each catchers differing ability with different pitch types. I think they both do a good job of sequencing, but it seems that James Shields has had better success with Jose Lobaton and David Price has fared better with Jose Molina behind the plate. This can be a cheat sheet, of sorts, for which guys should be catching which pitchers. With Lobaton's bat and Molina most likely not capable of playing any more than every other day or two of every four I think it makes a lot of sense to run with a straight platoon at the C position. On days that Cobb and Shields start I'd lean towards starting Lobaton. When Price or Niemann (eventually) starts I'd have Molina in there. We'd have to see how Archer pitches to Lobaton (and more than one start to Molina) to make any sort of definitive statement and Moore looks mostly neutral with a slight nod towards Lobaton. When Moore or Archer starts I'd probably lean towards whichever matchup you like at the plate as opposed to behind it to make the call, but I think the above shows that there are definitely some advantages to be had by pairing guys up.