When Wilson Ramos went down with a broken hand on Opening Day, it was a huge dagger to the Washington Nationals’ offense. Ramos was the Nats cleanup hitter that day, and he has exceptional gap power. The injury left new acquisition Jose Lobaton and long-time farmhand Sandy Leon as the team’s catchers for about two months. So while the Nats have missed out on Ramos’ big bat, Lobaton and Leon have created their own value as elite defensive catchers.
At the beginning of spring training this season, Baseball Prospectus released a new method for measuring the defensive abilities of MLB catchers. I won’t dig into the details about how these evaluations work; if you’re interested in that, head to the link above for the methodology. In short, BP has quantified a catcher’s ability to frame pitches in terms of runs saved.
We’ll actually start with the Nationals backup catcher: Sandy Leon. Leon only has 428 framing opportunities this season, yet he’s added 1.5 runs simply because of his framing ability. That ranks him 16th out of 68 catchers in that category near names like Yan Gomes, and higher than Yadier Molina and Buster Posey, who are all considered very good defensive catchers.
Leon doesn’t do quite as well blocking pitches that could end up as wild pitches or passed balls, but it only creates a -0.2 blocking runs added, meaning his wild pitches and passed balls allowed an extra two-tenths of a run. That doesn’t even come close to negating his 1.5 runs added by his ability to frame pitches.
Lobaton’s numbers paint a different, yet equally exciting, picture. He’s had 797 framing opportunities, which makes sense considering he’s been the regular starter since Ramos hit the disabled list, and he’s added 0.2 framing runs in his opportunities. That’s good for 32nd out of 68, or about middle of the road.
Where Lobaton shines is saving passed balls and wild pitches. He’s added 1.4 runs with his blocking ability, which is ninth best in baseball. He’s just one-tenth of a run behind Brian McCann, who is widely considered one of the best defensive catchers in baseball, in that category.
We can’t talk about this topic without mentioning the Nats’ Opening Day starter, though. Ramos, too, provides significant defensive value. In his most complete season so far, when he played 113 games in 2011, Ramos added 21.5 total receiving runs, which combines framing and blocking runs saved, in 4369 chances. That equates to 28.2 receiving runs saved per 7000 chances. So far this season, Leon’s receiving runs per 7000 chances is 23.8, while Lobaton’s sits at 7.8 runs per 7000.
While neither is likely to provide the kind of value that Ramos can with his special combination of bat and defense, both Lobaton’s and Leon’s defensive abilities have allowed the Nationals to tread water at the position with the help of an elite pitching staff while they await Ramos’ return.
So the next time you watch the Nationals play, pay close attention to close strike calls and balls in the dirt, and you may gain a new appreciation for the current Nationals catching duo.
All statistics are from Baseball Prospectus, unless otherwise noted, and are valid as of April 28, 2014.
(Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post)