DISCLAIMER: I started writing this piece about ten days ago. Obviously, some players’ stats will have changed in that time. Maybe a catcher has made his season debut in that time: I haven’t checked. Everything that follows was as accurate as I could make it on 13 August. I doubt that the situation now is significantly different.
I know it’s traditional for the author of something like this to be around to reply to at least some comments. I’m off on holiday to France tomorrow, so I may not be able to do that. If you post any questions or criticisms and I don’t reply or defend my arguments, I’m not ignoring you; I’m in a place with limited connectivity and jaw-dropping charges for data.
Koyie Hill: don’t you just love him? No, you probably don’t; or perhaps you do. The word count expended on Koyie is quite remarkable, considering that he’s only allowed out of the dugout once a week (as I write this, Soto has started 33 of the last 38 games), and a lot of it is pretty scathing. Hill’s detractors point to his scabrous offense, while his supporters - and I’m among them, on the whole - argue that he’s a role player who brings intangible benefits and superior defense; and whose shortcomings are largely irrelevant because he plays so rarely. Their other key argument is that many backup catchers are exactly like that and that his strengths and weaknesses are common to his type. This kind of argument is right up my street, so I decided to test the evidence.
I made up a list of every player who’s caught a National League game this season. There are 55 of them, ranging from John Buck, who’s caught over 860 innings, to Hector Sanchez, who caught 4 innings for the Giants. Next, I assigned each of them a role as starter or backup. For many teams, this is easy. Soto is the Cubs’ starter, even if he doesn’t start every day. Even when Hill started 13 of 17 games in late-May, Soto was still the starter. This sort of situation is common on many teams, right down to the short DL stint that temporarily elevates the backup to the status of day-to-day starter.
Sometimes, it’s less easy. The Reds have never really established a regular starter out of Hernandez and Hanigan. Rod Barajas was LA’s starter, but he was eventually eclipsed by Dioner Navarro. I assume that the Nationals saw Ivan Rodriguez as their starter (as he was on opening day) but Wilson Ramos has blown him away. In each of these cases, I identified one man as the starter, usually based on number of games started but sometimes making allowances for “feel”: whose season looked most like that of a starter (Rodriguez is the prime suspect here). One team defeated me completely. The Pirates began the season with Ryan Doumit behind the plate, but when he was injured and Chris Snyder came off the DL, Snyder became the starter. When he went back onto the DL, the Bucs traded for Michael McKendry and installed him behind the plate until Doumit returned. None of these three has had any time on Pittsburgh’s roster when they weren’t the regular starter. In the end, I counted all of them as starters. Never fear, though: the Pirates’ backup spot is every bit as much of a revolving door and they have four representatives among the ranks of the bench-sitters.
Some of these players are now the regular starter, either through injury (Eli Whiteside) or out-performing the original starter (Navarro, Ramos). Many others have had spells as the starter, but they remain backups in spirit.
Having got the preliminaries out of the way, we can move on to considering Koyie Hill and his peers.
1. How much does he play?
Not that much, really. Contrary to expectations, Soto has proved quite durable this season and ranks sixth in the NL in innings caught. As you might expect, Hill ranks correspondingly low in the same stat. Outside of Geo’s time on the DL, Hill has started only 15 out of 101 games and come off the bench in 3 others.
2. How much does he cost?
Hill is earning $850,000 this season. There’s no doubt that many backup catchers earn in the $425,000 range; and many who have played small roles this season are on minor league contracts. Cot’s Baseball Contracts lists twenty players that I’ve characterised as backup catchers. You can break them into two groups: eight guys earning $0.75m or more and twelve earning right around the minimum. Baseball traditionally rewards experience and there’s a pretty strong correlation with age here: nine of the twenty are aged 30 or over and six are in the top group. Hill is in this group, but he’s right at the bottom of it (seventh out of eight). Atlanta’s David Ross will collect $1.625m this season, which puts him at the top of the tree.
3. How does he compare offensively?
Not that well, but not as badly as some people might have you believe. This is not an elite offensive group, by any means, but Hill is slightly below average within it. His slash line is .208/.289/.317 (.606 OPS), which compares with the average for all backup catchers of .228/.300/.336 (.636 OPS). If you calculate an index value based on OPS, you’ll find that he’s 95% of an average backup catcher. If you limit it to players with 50+ PAs (mainly to weed out a posse of guys – including Welington Castillo - with hardly any PAs and abysmal offensive numbers) then he’s still 95% of the average player.
What really strikes you when you look at this set of data is that there’s a whole group of guys who are essentially the same player. Hill, Rob Johnson (Padres), Dioner Navarro (Dodgers), Chris Stewart (Giants): George Kottaras and Jose Morales are a touch better, Brian Schneider and Carlos Corporan are a bit worse. There are a couple of others in there, as well. None of them hit for much average (typically .200 to .220, although Morales is better than that) and they generally have about the same isolated power (.100 to .120, with Kottaras the best at .147).
The offensive standouts are Florida’s Brett Hayes (.788 OPS) and David Ross (.751). They’re the only two with over 50 PAs and an OPS+ over 100 (although Wilson Ramos has an OPS+ of 99 over more PAs than Hayes and Ross put together). At the other end of the scale Wil Nieves, briefly of Milwaukee, has numbers that would shame many pitchers (.369 OPS); while among those with similar playing time to Hill, Carlos Corporan and Brian Schneider are bringing up the rear.
As an aside, Hill is one of the very few to have stolen a base: he’s 1-for-1 (only Rob Johnson has more than one steal: he’s 3-for-3). I wouldn’t say it makes him an offensive powerhouse , but it’s a nice note to end this part of the analysis on.
4. How is he defensively?
The popular view of Hill – and backup catchers generally – is that they’re defensive stalwarts. It’s startling how little evidence there is here to back that up. It’s a truism that defensive metrics aren’t as well developed as offensive ones; and it seems to me that catcher defense is particularly hard to measure. That said, and focusing on what we do have, we can say this...
Hill has made a lot of errors this season and as a result, he has one of the lowest fielding percentages of any backup catcher (although not as low as Welington Castillo). You may regard this as meaningless (as I do, by and large) but it is a fact.
The average catcher in the National League throws out opposing base stealers at a 27% rate. The average backup catcher in the National League throws out opposing base stealers at a 27% rate. Koyie Hill throws out opposing base stealers at a 27% rate. Castillo has managed 67% (2 of 3). Among backups with 10 or more opportunities, the best is Henry Blanco (7 of 15, 47%) and the worst is Brian Schneider (2 of 17, 12%). Schneider makes more money than any backup catcher except David Ross.
Teams attempt to steal off Hill once every 11.8 innings. The league average is once every 9.8 innings, or once every 9.5 against backups, so Hill is actually run on less often than average.
Hill receives some criticism for his blocking of bad pitches, but this doesn’t seem to be justified. He has allowed passed balls at a rate of one every 129 innings, which is worse than the league average of one every 138 innings but better than the average backup, who lets one go by every 118 innings. Perhaps the easiest way of visualising this is to say that the NL average is one every 15 games, Hill allows one every 14 games, and the average backup allows one every 13 games.
Hill allows a wild pitch every 37 innings, which is a quite a bit better than the NL average (30 innings) or the average backup (29 innings).
Overall, the ball gets past him – whether by WP or PB – once every 29 innings, which is significantly better than the average backup, who waves one by every 23 innings.
By most of the various defensive measures that Baseball-Reference offers, Hill is very close to average. He’s a tiny bit better than average in terms of pitcher ERA when he’s behind the plate (Eight different pitchers started games that Hill caught; the only ones to feature more than twice are Ryan Dempster -10, Doug Davis – 7, and Carlos Zambrano – 5). Some of this is down to opportunity: most backups don’t get enough playing time to move very far from the mean in either direction by measures that convert defensive stats into runs. Hill, though, really does seem to be very close to the average, even when his numbers are grossed-up to a notional full season. The same is true of several other backups.
5. The verdict
Koyie Hill provides fairly typical backup catcher performance. He is a bit below-average offensively and very slightly above average defensively, in his peer group. The Cubs do pay a small premium for that performance, though.
If Castillo could provide the same level of performance, he would be a viable replacement. A lot of people felt that he should have replaced Hill this year, based on their performances in spring training. I would suggest a couple of reasons why that didn’t happen:
- Hill is an established player. The idea that the pitchers like throwing to Hill and this should somehow count in his favour has come in for more than a little ridicule this year, but I think it has some merit. I assume they don’t like him for his sparkling conversation, or because he bakes a brownie that’s simply to die for. Presumably they think that he helps them pitch better. If he can produce at an acceptable level and the pitchers are happy throwing to him, that might be worth the relatively modest marginal cost of employing him.
- Spring training stats don’t mean a thing. Hill’s .031 batting average and .201 OPS didn’t mean a thing when the regular season started: he went right back to his historic norms. Castillo’s .632 average and 1.538 OPS didn’t mean a thing because it’s very difficult to play your way on to a team in the spring. By way of an illustration, here are ten names: Dave Sappelt, Welington Castillo, Ryan Adams, Eric Hosmer, Ben Paulsen, Lonnie Chisenhall, Robinson Chirinos, Tyler Flowers, Jeff Frazier and David Winfree. These were the top ten players in spring training OPS, among those with 15 ST at bats and less than 100 major league PAs. Not one of them made their team out of spring training, although most of them have now spent at least some time in the majors this year. It’s hard.
Several BCB posters have said that Hill wouldn’t find a place on any other major league roster. This is questionable. Hill, as we’ve seen, performs at a level which isn’t going to set pulses racing; but is evidently considered acceptable for a backup catcher by baseball insiders. I don’t think that many teams would reject him out of hand. The biggest obstacle to him securing a gig at another club would seem to be that there are so many other guys just like him. The truth is that Koyie Hill might or might not get a place on another roster, but a player very much like him is almost certain to.