• Drew Butera and Defensive Prowess

    On Thursday the Minnesota Twins and catcher Drew Butera avoided arbitration and agreed to a one-year, $700,000 contract, an almost assured sign that Butera will be on the roster as the team’s third backstop.

    Why, you ask, might the Twins invest almost a million dollars in a player who is completely expendable as the epitome of a replacement level player?

    Consider this: Over the past three years Butera’s OPS (.497 OPS) has been the worst in the American League and the second worst in all of baseball. Only the Giants’ Emmanuel Burriss has had an OPS lower than Butera. This, for all intents and purposes, should be the definition of replaceable.

    Almost all of the rational for his retention revolves around his defensive prowess. In fact, Googling “Drew Butera” and “Defensive Prowess” pings back numerous articles using that phrase to describe him. Much like focusing on someone’s “good personality” to conceal other glaring flaws (i.e. nasty body odor, operates a baseball blog, etc), “defensive prowess” feels like a similar smokescreen to avoid stating the obvious about his bat.

    But how “prow” is his defense?

    This question is harder to answer as there is no definite measurement or widely available statistic that accurately portrays a catcher’s value based on things like game-calling, framing and/or controlling the run game. One can look at a stat like caught stealing but that tells as much of a story of a catcher’s skill has fielding percentage does a shortstop or outfield assists speak towards a right fielder.

    In 2011, pitch f/x guru Mike Fast – now an analyst for the Houston Astros – showed the baseball world just how much value could be placed on a catcher’s framing ability. By his methods, having a catcher who can coax out a borderline strike could save 15-20 runs per season – the equivalent of one or two wins. Conversely, a bad catcher could cost their team the same amount of runs. Of course, while this data is fascinating, it is something that has not been automated by any sites to make this information publicly available so we do not know if Butera’s technique save or cost the Twins runs.

    One thing we do know is that Butera has a strong track record of throwing runners out. In 2011, possibly because of Carl Pavano’s disregard for the run game, the Twins paired him with Butera who has show a propensity to cutting down base-runners in his minor league career. According to his Baseball-Reference.com stats, between 2005 and 2011, he nabbed 42% of all would-be thieves. This past year, his caught stealing rate plummeted and he managed to throw out just four on the bases.

    In George Will’s Men At Work -- an examination of some of the game’s finer points through the eyes of the best players at the time -- teams will track a catcher’s catch-and-release time which is dubbed “pop-to-pop” time. Pop-to-pop time is a measurement used by coaches to separate good catcher arms from bad ones. This means they are stopwatching from the moment the ball hits the catcher’s glove until it smacks the middle infielder’s mitt. In the book, an unnamed coach rattles off pop-to-pop times.

    1.94 seconds: Good.

    2.12: That base is good as gone.

    2.04: M’eh.

    1.85: Nailed ‘em.

    Overall, the difference between being ninety feet closer to scoring a run or gaining an out is approximately one-hundredth of a second. Naturally, the ability to throw runners out is tied to the pitcher keeping the runner from breaking early.

    This brings me to the Twins’ trio of backstops. While theft is a shared liability with the battery mate, having a pitching staff that has total disregard for the running game reduces the effectiveness of a defensive catcher. The 2012 Twins were labeled as one of the worst at base-runner attentiveness. That said, Butera’s ability to catch and release provided this staff with the best odds of thwarting larceny.


    In an inexact study, a stopwatch has shown that over the course of five throws to second, Butera’s “pop-to-pop” time averages out to be the best:
    So Butera has a better arm or better footwork or a quicker release than the other two, at least in this small sample. Observationally, Butera was able to make these quick throws while handling sliders down and away on at least two of those five examples. This should not go ignored.

    Over the entire season, Baseball Info Solution has assigned a value on a catcher’s ability to subdue the run game. Of the Twins’ three, Butera (0) outperforms both Mauer (-3) and Doumit (-1). So, strictly speaking controlling the run game, Butera’s effect on the overall team’s performances is slightly better than Mauer and Doumit’s but minimal according to BIS. This begs the question, is being able to control the run game worth paying nearly a million for a third catcher?

    Someday we may have the tools to be better equipped to answer that question. For now, the Twins are committed to bringing him back – for better or worse.
    This article was originally published in blog: Drew Butera and Defensive Prowess started by Parker Hageman
    Comments 83 Comments
    1. nicksaviking's Avatar
      nicksaviking -
      Another great breakdown, Drew better frame that article, his agent couldn't have done a better service for him.

      While it is a compelling case to retain Butera, it seems to me all the other 3rd catchers that are released yearly, are generally regarded as having no offense but "defensive prowess." There will proabably be a dozen guys like Butera waiting to catch on with a team over the next couple of months.
    1. Seth Stohs's Avatar
      Seth Stohs -
      I think that we have to stop looking at him as the #3 catcher. He is the backup catcher on most days. It allows Gardy to keep Mauer and Doumit in the lineup most days. He was up last year for all but about a month, and he only had about 120 plate appearances. $700,000 is closer to the league-minimum of $480,000 than it is the $1 million.

      I like looking at pop time. I think framing pitches is important. I don't think it leads to wins, at least not many. I think controlling the run game is important. He's got a strong arm. I think that, for the role he was used in in 2012, he's worth that amount.

      I also think that Chris Herrmann will be more ready later in the year. He'll be able to play a bit more as he can catch, but he can also play the outfield well, and he played in the infield in college. He can provide more versatility while not matching Butera's defense.
    1. Boom Boom's Avatar
      Boom Boom -
      Quote Originally Posted by Seth Stohs View Post
      I think that we have to stop looking at him as the #3 catcher. He is the backup catcher on most days. It allows Gardy to keep Mauer and Doumit in the lineup most days. He was up last year for all but about a month, and he only had about 120 plate appearances. $700,000 is closer to the league-minimum of $480,000 than it is the $1 million.

      I like looking at pop time. I think framing pitches is important. I don't think it leads to wins, at least not many. I think controlling the run game is important. He's got a strong arm. I think that, for the role he was used in in 2012, he's worth that amount.

      I also think that Chris Herrmann will be more ready later in the year. He'll be able to play a bit more as he can catch, but he can also play the outfield well, and he played in the infield in college. He can provide more versatility while not matching Butera's defense.
      Don't you think Hermann is ready to take on the emergency catcher role now?

      Personally I think the Twins love Butera for some reason, and Hermann will be traded before he supplants Butera.
    1. Riverbrian's Avatar
      Riverbrian -
      I don't place much faith in "Framing Pitches" to influence Strikes and Balls. I have serious doubts how often the Ump actually sees the glove.

      Standing behind the catcher will block the view of the glove quite often.

      However, I do believe in Pop to Pop time as being important and more so... I believe that the ability of a catcher to call a game, handle his battery mate, QB the cuts, block and handle pitches out of the zone, defensive leadership and the prep work done by catchers in the film room is huge.

      A Solid Defensive Catcher plays a big role on a baseball team. However, I admit that I don't know how Butera does on all of these important areas in comparison to Mauer and Doumit or others around the league.
    1. Seth Stohs's Avatar
      Seth Stohs -
      Quote Originally Posted by Boom Boom View Post
      Don't you think Hermann is ready to take on the emergency catcher role now?

      Personally I think the Twins love Butera for some reason, and Hermann will be traded before he supplants Butera.
      If he had to come up, I think Herrmann would be alright. He's not young, but he has enough talent that you don't want him sitting 5 days a week either. It also doesn't hurt to get him 200 plate appearances in Rochester, see where he's at and make a decision on Butera/Herrmann in June/July.

      There are plenty of reasons to like Butera, defensive prowess probably being the biggest one. If Herrmann is ready during the season, it's not like it will hurt the Twins to eat a couple-hundred thousand dollars. It's hardly over league minimum.
    1. Parker Hageman's Avatar
      Parker Hageman -
      I don't place much faith in "Framing Pitches" to influence Strikes and Balls. I have serious doubts how often the Ump actually sees the glove.
      It goes beyond just the glove. In Fast's piece, he provided examples of Molina and Doumit. Molina was stoic during his reception while Doumit's head bobbed significantly. In theory, even that minor movement influences the umpire's decision.

      I think framing pitches is important. I don't think it leads to wins, at least not many.
      Not many wins as in you don't believe 1 to 2 wins that Fast's research says is important or that 1 to 2 wins via framing isn't achievable?
    1. Boom Boom's Avatar
      Boom Boom -
      Quote Originally Posted by Seth Stohs View Post
      If he had to come up, I think Herrmann would be alright. He's not young, but he has enough talent that you don't want him sitting 5 days a week either. It also doesn't hurt to get him 200 plate appearances in Rochester, see where he's at and make a decision on Butera/Herrmann in June/July.

      There are plenty of reasons to like Butera, defensive prowess probably being the biggest one. If Herrmann is ready during the season, it's not like it will hurt the Twins to eat a couple-hundred thousand dollars. It's hardly over league minimum.
      My point is that the Twins don't want Hermann to take Butera's role. If the job is start 40 games, get less than 200 ABs, and the rest of the time sit on the bench in case someone gets hurt, there's no reason Hermann couldn't do that right now.

      But the Twins know that Hermann is good enough to be a second catcher, maybe even a starting catcher on some teams. He's more valuable to teams that don't have a Mauer and a Doumit in front of him for playing time.
    1. snepp's Avatar
      snepp -
      Not nearly enough prowess to overcome this....


    1. ThePuck's Avatar
      ThePuck -
      Quote Originally Posted by Riverbrian View Post
      I don't place much faith in "Framing Pitches" to influence Strikes and Balls. I have serious doubts how often the Ump actually sees the glove.

      Standing behind the catcher will block the view of the glove quite often.

      However, I do believe in Pop to Pop time as being important and more so... I believe that the ability of a catcher to call a game, handle his battery mate, QB the cuts, block and handle pitches out of the zone, defensive leadership and the prep work done by catchers in the film room is huge.

      A Solid Defensive Catcher plays a big role on a baseball team. However, I admit that I don't know how Butera does on all of these important areas in comparison to Mauer and Doumit or others around the league.
      Have you ever umpired? I've done it on and off, mostly on, for over 25 years...I see the glove every time. Your view is grooved in between the batter and the catcher, full view. Back in the day, umpires positioned themselves right behind the catcher, so it was hard to see the glove on a low pitch, but framing is usually more important on the edges than up and down anyway.
    1. Brock Beauchamp's Avatar
      Brock Beauchamp -
      Sure, Butera is crushed by wRC+, but where does he rank on wAC+?*

      *winning attitude created
    1. Riverbrian's Avatar
      Riverbrian -
      Quote Originally Posted by Parker Hageman View Post
      It goes beyond just the glove. In Fast's piece, he provided examples of Molina and Doumit. Molina was stoic during his reception while Doumit's head bobbed significantly. In theory, even that minor movement influences the umpire's decision.
      I can't recall if it was Fast's Piece that I read. I did read an article on the art of framing pitches a while back. I came away with more questions than answes in the article I read. I don't know if it's clear how the difference in a strike or a ball called in indvidual at bats can be quantified.

      Anyway... I'm not discounting framing totally... Just personally... I question it. I think the ump has made his mind up at the crossing of the plate.

      I do agree that a loud catcher could break some ties the wrong way on borderline calls. Enough to make a difference... I'm not so sure.

      That's just my thoughts... nothing more... nothing less...

      What I'd like to see is Strikes and Ball data per catcher. What was the Twins pitching staff percentage of strikes thrown with each catcher. If that data produces some striking differences... We may have something to look into furthur.
    1. mike wants wins's Avatar
      mike wants wins -
      The question should be....is his defense so good that it offsets his offense, more or less than Herrmann?
    1. Brock Beauchamp's Avatar
      Brock Beauchamp -
      Quote Originally Posted by mike wants wins View Post
      The question should be....is his defense so good that it offsets his offense, more or less than Herrmann?
      Less. Less. LESS.

      People who believe otherwise need to take another look at Snepp's screenshot. Butera is historically bad with the stick. It would be hard to overcome that deficit if he was not only an above-average catcher but also pitched the ball to himself at a league-average clip.
    1. Riverbrian's Avatar
      Riverbrian -
      Quote Originally Posted by ThePuck View Post
      Have you ever umpired? I've done it on and off, mostly on, for over 25 years...I see the glove every time. You're grooved in between the batter and the catcher, full view. Back in the day, umpires positioned themselves right behind the catcher, so it was hard to see the glvoe on a low pitch, but framing is usually more important on the edges than up and down anyway.
      I do umpire... Not very good at it... I admit... I know that I'm supposed to watch the ball into the glove. Maybe it's my positioning... but seeing the glove isn't always possible and when I do see the glove... My mind is made up at the crossing of the plate.

      Just for clarification... I'm not going to use my experience as a guide for the MLB Umpire. Apple and Oranges. I Ump just to help out at the high school level.
    1. ThePuck's Avatar
      ThePuck -
      Quote Originally Posted by Riverbrian View Post
      I do umpire... Not very good at it... I admit... I know that I'm supposed to watch the ball into the glove. Maybe it's my positioning... but seeing the glove isn't always possible and when I do see the glove... My mind is made up at the crossing of the plate.

      Just for clarification... I'm not going to use my experience as a guide for the MLB Umpire. Apple and Oranges. I Ump just to help out at the high school level.
      Doesn't matter, the duties of the umpire are the same. I've only umpired as high as lower level colleges myself, but it's the same job. Done the same way, same positioning. If you can't see the glove, there's a positioning problem. That's all I'm saying.

      And yes, you make your decision on where the ball crosses the plate, but if that pitcher is consistently hitting the glove without it having to move...over and over and over again...he'll normally get the benefit of the doubt by many umpires
    1. Parker Hageman's Avatar
      Parker Hageman -
      Less. Less. LESS.

      People who believe otherwise need to take another look at Snepp's screenshot.
      Instinctually I agree with that. That said, I still circle back to the fact that we do not measure defensive contributions of a catcher very well. So, for a back up catcher, is it possible to overcome that unbelievably bad offensive performance with some defensive value? I'm of the belief that, yes, defensive catchers have plenty of value but in the specific case of Butera, I don't think he compensates enough to make up for that deficit.

      My main point is I want someone smarter than me to come up with some push-button analyses that helps tell me how good he is at framing, controlling the run game, etc...
    1. Willihammer's Avatar
      Willihammer -
      As long as the alternative is Doumit, and as long as Doumit keeps dipping his head on borderline pitches and losing strike calls, he is a serious framing liability. Bobbing your head would seem like a simple thing to correct but either Doumit isn't aware he does it (because no one's pointed it out to him), or he's tried but just can't stop himself doing it. And Butera doesn't do it. This isn't a staff that can groove fastballs down the middle of the plate. They will need to get borderline calls. Especially Worley, who relies so heavily on called strike 3's.

      And, as run scoring goes down, the value of a stolen base goes up, and the risk of getting caught goes down. Ergo, teams ran more in 2012 and I would expect them to run even more next year.

      Incidentally, the Twins would do well to run a little more themselves.

      The Changing Caught-Stealing Calculus | FanGraphs Baseball
    1. Seth Stohs's Avatar
      Seth Stohs -
      "But the Twins know that Hermann is good enough to be a second catcher, maybe even a starting catcher on some teams. He's more valuable to teams that don't have a Mauer and a Doumit in front of him for playing time."

      Based on? He had a good year at AA last year. I'm a big Herrmann fan, but I see no harm in him getting a couple of months in AAA. I am wondering what teams he would be starting for... and also, if you believe he is that good, why would you want him to come up to play one in four games?
    1. Seth Stohs's Avatar
      Seth Stohs -
      Quote Originally Posted by Parker Hageman View Post
      Not many wins as in you don't believe 1 to 2 wins that Fast's research says is important or that 1 to 2 wins via framing isn't achievable?
      I don't believe it means 1-2 wins. I definitely understand the value of framing as a person who has caught before. I'm not even saying it's wrong, but I don't buy that is factors into games won and lost unless the ump is terrible. But to be honest, I still struggle with trusting most defensive metrics.
    1. Boom Boom's Avatar
      Boom Boom -
      Quote Originally Posted by Seth Stohs View Post
      "But the Twins know that Hermann is good enough to be a second catcher, maybe even a starting catcher on some teams. He's more valuable to teams that don't have a Mauer and a Doumit in front of him for playing time."

      Based on? He had a good year at AA last year. I'm a big Herrmann fan, but I see no harm in him getting a couple of months in AAA. I am wondering what teams he would be starting for... and also, if you believe he is that good, why would you want him to come up to play one in four games?
      I think he's definitely good enough to be a backup, and potentially good enough to start for a team desperate for a catcher.


      I don't want him to come up and play in one-in-four games, but you suggested that the Twins might bring up Hermann to replace Butera at some point. In which case, he'd be playing in one-in-four games.

      Realistically I think the Twins are going to look to trade Hermann.
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