There has been no shortage of memes, nicknames or debate over the years here at Halos Heaven, all bourn out of the Angels' catching situation. The Mathis vs. Napoli subject was covered quite thoroughly by our community, reaching it's pinnacle with the still-inconceivable Vernon Wells trade and coming to it's merciful end when Jerry Dipoto made his first order of business as Angels' GM trading away Jeff Mathis and acquiring Chris Iannetta.
The general narrative back then? Once upon a time Mike Scioscia was replaced by another Mike (Piazza) who could hit but not catch, so he took out his pent-up frustrations on another catcher named Mike (Napoli) who could also hit but not catch. Jeff Mathis was his muse, the athletic backstop who ignored offense and dedicated his existence to the success of his pitchers. Using the only defensive stats we had available at the time, we concluded that there was no discernable difference between the two catchers, as they were both awful at controlling the running game and neither made much of an impact with wild pitches and passed balls. The one stat the Mighty Soth and Mr. 4000 Games would throw in our face? The infamous CERA, our course, a self-fulfilling prophecy that allowed Mathis the luxury of catching Jered Weaver and Dan Haren while Napoli got to make buds with the likes of Dustin Moseley and Scott Kazmir.
Since that time, the SABR community has made many strides in evaluating catcher defense, changing the way many teams look at the position. Most notable of these newfangled stats is pitch framing, which came into prominence thanks to the availability of PITCHf/x data. Baseball Prospectus has fully embraced these metrics and this year rolled out their own attempt at measuring catcher game-calling. With these new tools at our disposal, I thought it would be interesting to look over the sortable tables at BP and see what we can learn, if anything, about how catchers perform under the watchful eye of Mike Scioscia.
To get the big one out of the way first, let's once again look at Mathis vs. Napoli, this time a year-by-year comparison using BP's Framing Runs (with their MLB ranking in parentheses):
|Year||Mathis FR||Napoli FR|
|2009||3.6 (16)||-3.5 (86)|
|2010||-0.1 (63)||-4.4 (101)|
|2011||4.3 (22)||-3.2 (92)|
|2012||6 (20)||-9.2 (105)|
Now, I won't go proclaiming this is undeniable proof that Scioscia is a catching guru and we should all eat crow. Napoli still hit enough to give him 2-3 times the value Jeff Mathis provided on a year-to-year basis. It does lend credence to Mike's assertion that the gap between their defensive abilities was much wider than we cared to admit. Mathis isn't the only framing prodigy to come up under Scioscia. Jose Molina has consistently been excellent according to the same metrics used above:
|Year||Molina FR||MLB Rank|
Molina's time with the Angels pre-dates when this data was made available but his skill is undeniable. Of course, his brother Yadier has also done extremely well in these metrics, so quite a bit of this can be attributed to freaky Molina genetics. Still, the fact that Molina instantly ranked among the best framers in the game his first year away from Scioscia can only be seen as a credit to how he developed under Mike, right? Let's see what impact, if any, he had on the team's most recent backstops:
|Year||Iannetta FR||Conger FR|
By now we are all aware that Conger has become a bit of a poster boy for pitch framing the last couple of years. Iannetta received some love this year for completely flipping things around and jumping to fifth in all of baseball after perennially finishing near the bottom (Conger dropped to 23rd after finishing 3rd and 6th the previous two years).
To round things out, we will look at the only other catcher to see significant playing time under Scioscia during the PITCHf/x era, Bobby Wilson:
|2013||Did not play|
As a reminder, Wilson caught for the Angels from 2008-2012. Besides a slight dip in 2011, Wilson showed steady improvement under Scioscia. After spending nearly all of 2013-14 in AAA, he took the skill with him to Tampa and Texas, where he split time the past season.
Tally it up and that's five catchers that began their major league careers under Mike Scioscia and all but Napoli have thrived as pitch framers. At the same time, we have Chris Iannetta, who was as poor a framer as Napoli most of his career, completely turning things around the last two years in Anaheim. Full credit to Iannetta for putting in the work to improve. Admitting he was aware of where he ranked among catchers in that department, he hit the video room to study himself and other catchers who did well by the metrics and discovered his flaws. He and framing-phenom Conger even exchanged texts about the subject.
We give Mike Scioscia a lot of grief around here, most of it deserved. The bizarre line-up choices. The idiotic "contact play." Driving away Jerry Dipoto. Then there was this quote from Mike Napoli, in the middle of his first year in Texas:
"Scioscia is hard on catchers. I feel freedom now and I can catch how I want. I solely worry about my game calling instead of worrying about how I gotta be perfect on the setup, or if I'm moving too early, or I'm in the wrong stance. I'm thinking about being on the same page with the pitcher."
At the time, we saw that as damning evidence that Scioscia "ruined" catchers, allowing his time behind the plate as a player to cloud his judgement on how to handle the position as a manager. The data we have now simply doesn't bear that out. If nothing else, it suggests that Scioscia has always understood the importance of setting up and framing the ball. If he really is hard on his catchers, it appears to help them improve in the area where they can most impact the game - getting their pitchers extra strikes.
For those of you curious about Carlos Perez, he was worth 1.8 framing runs as a rookie, good enough to keep him in the top third of baseball this year. Perez also scored well with blocking wild pitches, preventing passed balls and controlling the running game, areas where other Angels' catchers under Scioscia have struggled. In those latter areas, Perez came as advertised but was thought to be weak with his framing skills, thus being thrown into the trade by the numbers-centric Astros. With Perez making strides in that department as a rookie and Jett Bandy getting positive reviews for his defensive work this year in AAA, the Angels appear to have the catching situation in good order for the next 5-6 seasons. This time around, I'll give Scioscia the benefit of the doubt when picking his guy.