We’ve heard a lot this year about how good the Rockies’ starting rotation is and how marginal the catchers are, including bafflement that for awhile the Rockies carried three catchers rather than bring a more able bat from Albuquerque. As Mark Knudson put it: “This lack of star power behind the plate continues to hamper the franchise.”
Looking at FanGraphs, it’s difficult to disagree. Here’s the Rockies catcher leaderboard, courtesy of FanGraphs (through September 10):
Rockies catchers, 2018
In terms of all catchers in MLB, here’s how the Rockies rank, according to fWAR:
47 — Iannetta
78 — Wolters
87 — Murphy
101 — Butera
A catching corps with a -0.1 WAR does not inspire confidence. Although these are current numbers, they are consistent with the Rockies’ 2018 showing. All season, fans and sportswriters urged the Rockies to make changes, but the team stayed with Chris Iannetta, Tony Wolters, and Tom Murphy — and then they acquired a player on nobody’s wish list, Drew Butera.
The batting stats speak for themselves. That said, when reading through FanGraphs’s discussion of catcher analytics, one passage stands out:
“Finally, game management (or game calling) remains the black box of catcher defense. No one has cracked this code. Catchers play a huge role in determining which pitches to throw and how a pitcher navigates a given lineup. Honestly, there is no public research that provides much insight into game calling. By all accounts, it should matter, we just don’t have any idea how to measure it.”
While I have no insight into cracking “the black box” of catcher game management, I’d like to offer some theories as to why this particular group of catchers has worked so well even though they are, statistically, sub-optimal.
At the trade deadline when Jeff Bridich said the Rockies were staying with the catchers they had, he told Thomas Harding, “We’re getting more questions from teams asking if we would trade them catching than us reaching out to anybody.” After the Rockies acquired Butera, Bud Black explained the decision by saying, “He’s a great game-caller, receiver, great baseball mind . . . . He brings a lot of intangibles. . . . He brings a lot of positives.”
What are these “positives” that don’t show up in the stats? More specifically, what does Chris Iannetta bring?
Chris Iannetta is training young catchers
Iannetta’s value is twofold. Obviously, he’s catching a very young starting pitching staff, and their record suggests he’s been effective.
In addition, he’s teaching Wolters and Murphy the intricacies of the position. During spring training, Nick Groke wrote, “The Rockies were not about to flirt with the risk of developing two young catchers on the fly in their drive to return to the postseason. But their tutelage is no less pressing. That’s why Black, a 15-year pitcher, spends so much of his time instructing his catchers with a firm hand.”
The Rockies have focused on training their young pitchers, but their success is directly related to their collaboration with the catchers. Bridich and Black are keenly aware of this, and Iannetta has been their go-to guy for helping Wolters and Murphy adapt.
Those qualities are not measurable. As Iannetta explained, “For a catcher, maybe you had a conversation with a pitcher that changed his mentality, and then he pitched a great game . . . . Or another guy gets a hit in a certain situation, and maybe you helped the pitcher relax in a certain situation. You can’t put that on a stat sheet.”
For Bridich and Black, what they lose in Iannetta’s defense (more on that in a minute) and bat, he makes up for with his experience.
Chris Iannetta is calm — very calm
A young team making a playoff run can lose focus amidst a long season. In the same way that he’s teaching pitchers and catchers, Iannetta is keeping his teammates centered.
“I think the goal is just play .500 ball for as long as possible . . . I think if you see the teams that have made it to the playoffs perennially they play .500 baseball and then they go on a couple little winning streaks and then all of a sudden they’re 20 games (over .500).”
In other words, stay calm, and trust the process.
Late in the season, he’s held to his mantra: “You want to keep pace right now. You don’t want to take off and get hot at this point . . . . You want to wait another few more weeks. But you can’t draw it up like that. That’s not what we’re trying to do. But if you could draw it up, that’s what you’d want.”
The Rockies are well positioned for a postseason appearance. Bridich and Black have worked to shore up the team’s emotional skills, and for that, they are looking to Iannetta. He’s keeping everyone in the moment, just as a good catcher helps a pitcher work out of a jam.
This a quality Black models. Here’s how Groke describes it: “Bud Black is deftly guiding the Rockies from panic and into contention.” Patrick Saunders agrees, writing that Black “simply doesn’t get rattled.” If Black is projecting calm from the dugout, Iannetta is his on-field presence.
The Rockies have figured out how to maximize Iannetta’s effectiveness
Throughout the season, Black has tinkered with various arrangements of catchers and pitchers, trying to find what works. Recent weeks would suggest he’s settled on a mix he likes. Iannetta always catches Kyle Freeland. That said, he seems to work less well with Jon Gray, who is more often caught by Tony Wolters. But lately the Rockies have tended to use Wolters to catch the starting pitcher and then gone to Iannetta in late innings, first as a pinch hitter and then as, essentially, the closing catcher.
This makes sense for two reasons. One, Wolters is clearly the better defensive catcher, so it makes sense to use him early. Two, Iannetta, 35, is not a young player; this arrangement minimizes the physical wear and tear.
Using Iannetta in this way also allows Black to maximize his late-game presence. Iannetta is a better hitter (.225/.337/.380) than Wolters (.172/283/.301), and Black has come to rely on Iannetta’s late-game performance at the plate. For example, consider his walk-off single against the Giants and his walk-off walk against the Dodgers.
Here’s Groke describing Black’s decision to go with Iannetta over Carlos González in a pinch hit situation:
In the same game, with the score tied in the ninth inning and the bases loaded, Black decided against using Carlos Gonzalez as a pinch-hitter against Dodgers’ right-hander Dylan Floro. Gonzalez crushes right-handers. And Chris Iannetta was 0-for-3 that day. But Black knew that Iannetta is a more picky hitter and Gonzalez is better as a starter than off the bench. Iannetta walked to score the winning run.
In other words, Iannetta brings with him those intangibles that Black values. Consider this tweet from Jake Shapiro describing Iannetta’s hitting strategy:
basically told me that he shrinks not expands with two strikes because the odds that he makes good contact on a pitch he chases to a corner/outside are marginal meanwhile if it's on the corner it's 50/50 strike/ball and they have to try and give him a better pitch or he gets on.— Jake Shapiro (@Shapalicious) September 6, 2018
These are not the kinds of decisions young players are known for making. Black values this skill more than he values Iannetta’s metrics.
Iannetta has the makings of an MLB manager — and, in effect, Black is training him for that role, just as Iannetta is teaching his younger teammates. That’s an asset. More than being a statistical liability, Chris Iannetta is a key member of this team, and if the Rockies make it to the postseason, he will play a significant part in getting them to Rocktober.