Kyle Schwarber at Catcher

February 17, 2017

Earlier this week, Cubs GM Theo Epstein told reporters that they plan to give Kyle Schwarber some innings at catcher this spring so that he can serve as the team's third catcher during the season. One concern is whether Schwarber can handle catching duties given that he is less than a year removed from tearing the ACL and LCL in his left knee.

Another concern is his ability to handle the position defensively, in particular in limiting the opposing team’s running game. In 2015, Schwarber caught 21 games, and he failed to throw out any of the 13 runners who tried to steal second base against him. There is no doubt that Schwarber can hit, but if he is that bad defensively at catcher, is it worth potentially risking his health at the position, even in a limited role?

It turns out, Schwarber may not be as bad at catching as the stolen bases against him would suggest. Research has shown that a team's ability to throw out baserunners depends more on its pitchers than on its catchers, and the Cubs' staff has not done its catchers any favors. Since 2015, Cubs' right-handed pitchers have the slowest average delivery times to home plate on stolen base attempts of second base in all of baseball. Left-handed pitchers were excluded here because additional factors like deception in the delivery affect stolen base rates against them. Of course, there is also the famous example of left-hander Jon Lester, who Schwarber has never caught, but whose refusal to throw over to first surely made David Ross' life more difficult.

Highest Average Delivery Time by RHPs on Stolen Base Attempts of 2B, 2015-16
Team SB CS CS% Avg Delivery Time (sec)
Cubs 158 36 18.6% 1.64
Giants 112 48 30.0% 1.63
Angels 126 51 28.8% 1.62
Tigers 95 58 37.9% 1.62
Pirates 142 43 23.2% 1.62


As you can see in the next table comparing individual catchers, Schwarber hasn’t had it quite as bad as teammates Willson Contreras and David Ross, who have seen the slowest and third-slowest average delivery times from the right-handed pitchers who were on the mound while they were catching. But Schwarber has still seen worse-than-average delivery times on the stolen bases against him.


Cubs' Catchers CS% and Average Delivery Time Rank on SB Att of 2B with RHP, 2015-16
Catcher SB CS CS% Avg Delivery Time (sec) Avg Delivery Time Rank* Avg Pop Time (sec)
Willson Contreras 15 12 44.4% 1.67 1 1.86
David Ross 26 8 23.5% 1.66 3 1.90
Miguel Montero 98 16 14.0% 1.63 16 2.01
Kyle Schwarber 13 0 0.0% 1.60 40 1.98
*Rank is of 95 catchers with at least 10 SB attempts of 2B against them with a RHP on the mound


The remarkable story here is Contreras, who has produced a stellar 44.4 percent caught stealing rate — MLB average is 28.6 percent — despite seeing the slowest average delivery time from his right-handed pitchers. Still, Schwarber's 0.0 percent caught stealing rate is totally out of sync with his average pop time of 1.98 seconds, which is equal to the MLB average. Schwarber's average pop time is actually faster than teammate Miguel Montero, who has thrown out 14.0 percent of attempting basestealers, and just between regulars Travis d'Arnaud and Stephen Vogt, who have 23.3 percent and 27.0 percent caught stealing rates catching pitchers with faster delivery times.

Note: Catcher pop time is recorded from the moment the catcher catches the ball up until the time it touches the glove of the defensive player at second base.


COMMENTS (6 Comments, most recent shown first)

How much of the CS% is the otherworldly skills of Javier Baez? I.E. from a catcher's perspective, throwing to Baez was clearly better than throwing to Ben Zobrist, in terms of tagging ability, in the latter part of the year and the postseason. Zobrist is probably around the average in terms of defensive 2b on steal attempts, but Baez could be called an 80 grade defender on steal attempts of 2b.
12:19 PM Feb 22nd
If Schwarber can catch 40 games a year and can box it to a draw, it greatly increases his value to the Cubs. That means the Cubs aren't forced to play Montero if he repeats his performance of last year.

I thought he was very acceptable as an outfielder in '15. He runs better than you think he would, and you can sense he's just a good ballplayer, with natural instincts for the game both in the field and on the bases, too.
1:11 PM Feb 18th
"Research has shown that a team's ability to throw out baserunners depends more on its pitchers than on its catchers, and the Cubs' staff has not done its catchers any favors."

And yet there are palpable differences shown here from one catcher to the next, suggesting that the business of throwing out runners has a large number of components, of which only some are mentioned. For example, those throws from behind the plate have to be caught and applied, so both accuracy (as Maris points out) and the receiving ability of the infielder are factors.

We're still a long way from being able to evaluate catchers' defense with any reliability.
8:42 AM Feb 18th
Catchers seem to go to third base sometimes, too. Johnny Bench's career came to a sad conclusion when he played third in 1982 and 1983. Bob Brenly had a bad day at third in 1985 or 1986 with the Giants.
7:51 AM Feb 18th
Very interesting, John. My son played both catcher and centerfield in high school and it can be hard to go back and forth from the "big c" to the "little c"...the thought was expressed that it could mess him up at one or the other, and he went to center.

I don't know that it is a conscious coaching decision at the professional level, but maybe it is why catchers go to first base.

Also, the pictures I can see, Schwarber isn't wearing KneeSavers. are wearing KneeSavers in the spring, son.
4:15 PM Feb 17th
Well, there has to be an "accuracy of throw" component here, right? It is entirely credible that Schwarber could have a 0% throwout rate, no matter his pop times, if he isn't making accurate throws.
2:29 PM Feb 17th
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