In my Baseball Chirps on Some Links (which is my fancy way of updating “Bird on a Wire”), I touched on Mike Fast’s study at Baseball Prospectus on a catcher’s ability to frame pitches and the way those framed pitches tended to switch close pitches from balls to strikes. One thing that stuck out to me was catcher Gregg Zaun’s name near the top of that list.
One interesting quirk of sabremetrics (which can lead to a lot of fun debate) is how new studies can lead to reevaluations of existing players. This concept was illustrated, in part, in the book and movie Moneyball. According to Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane, Scott Hatteberg stuck out because his high on-base percentage (OBP) skills were undervalued by the rest of baseball. Thus, Beane brought Hatteberg to offset departing MVP Jason Giambi’s production for pennies on the dollar. Now, I am not a sabremetrician but I do love thinking about baseball in new ways. Thus, I decided to, for lack of a better pun, reframe my thinking about Gregg Zaun.
Now, Zaun was a bit of an oddity as a switch-hitting catcher without much power and a “small” 5’10” 170 lb frame. Most of the early part of his career was spent as a backup catcher to the likes of Chris Hoiles (who had the reputation as a good hitter) and Charles Johnson (who had a reputation as a great defender). A few years ago, he picked up the label as “The Practically Perfect Backup Catcher and later, as David Ross of FanGraphs notes, “However, as people looked more closely. they began to realize that a catcher who was close to league average offensively (Zaun has a career 94 wRC+) and non-horrible defensively would actually make a Pretty Good Starting Catcher. The Toronto Blue Jays noticed and were the only team to really give Zaun a full season of playing time in 2005.”
Mike Fast’s study indicates that since 2007, Zaun saved the sixth most runs of any catcher in baseball based on his ability to frame pitches, equivalent to 36 total runs. What makes it more interesting is that Gregg Zaun also did not play in 2011 and had durability issues from 2007 to 2010. Fast calculated that Gregg Zaun saved 19 runs per 120 games. Based on my rough, back-of-the-envelope calculations, it is possible that his framing skills were worth an extra win a season above an average major league catcher of that time period. To put that into scale a bit, an “average” major league catcher (as opposed to a Triple-A replacement level player) is generally worth three wins without counting runs saved from framing pitches.
So, we have Gregg Zaun, a person who was at first considered a backup catcher, then upon further analysis, would be considered a “Pretty Good Starting Catcher”. Does this new analysis on his catcher framing skills push Gregg Zaun into elite territory? I do not think so. Does it make him a star? Perhaps not. We do not know if he exhibited these framing skills early in his career. However, it does reinforce the idea that a potential opportunity was missed to see if Zaun would have been a “Pretty Good Starting Catcher”.
More importantly, if the results of Fast’s study are vetted, this could become a tool used by Major League Teams to analyze a catcher’s defensive performance. If that happens, I strongly believe that a future rookie that has Gregg Zaun’s skillset will no longer be undervalued but will stick out and thus warrant a full-time role to show that they really are a “Pretty Good Starting Catcher”.
Gregg Zaun’s Minor and Major League Statistics
|162 Game Avg.||162||459||12||59||63||72||.252||.344||.388||.732||91|