On June 16, FanGraphs’s Jeff Zimmermann wrote, “Austin Wynns (.409 OPS) has started five of the last 10 games at catcher. I’m not sure why.”
No??? I’ll tell you why, Jeff. It’s ‘cause our other catchers have been a disaster.
The age-old question asks: Does good pitching beat good hitting? The debate may rage on forever, but this season, for reasons ranging from a new ball to rusty post-COVID hitters to now-prohibited dabbling by pitchers in “sticky substances,” pitching is supposed to have the upper hand. If so, don’t tell the Orioles. Their team ERA of 5.22 is dead-last in the American League, and it’s significantly worse than their team ERA in 2020 of 4.51.
Part of the problem—not all of it, but part of it—is that the Orioles have had terrible defense at catcher so far. Catcher defense can essentially be divided into five categories: normal fielding, pitch framing, blocking, game calling, and controlling the running game. Metrics exist to measure some of this, but not others. Catcher defense remains a tricky area of study.
What’s not tricky is determining that, pre-Wynns, Orioles catchers were bad at almost all of these. Take pitch framing, or the art of a catcher receiving a borderline pitch in a way that makes it look more like a strike than a ball. It’s hugely important, for obvious reasons. As MLB explains: “The effects of a single pitch can be huge; in 2019, hitters had an .858 OPS after a 1-0 count, but just a .631 OPS after an 0-1 count.”
When it comes to pitch framing, the Orioles were among the worst in the majors.
Let's check out the catcher framing leaderboard and.... oh no pic.twitter.com/CP1DuwYaBN— Matt Kremnitzer (@mattkremnitzer) June 12, 2021
Currently, Pedro Severino ranks 82nd of 83 catchers and Chance Sisco not much better, at 78th. Austin Wynns isn’t breaking the sound barrier, exactly, at 54th, but significantly, he’s not costing the team runs with his framing (0), while the other two Orioles catchers are (-3 runs for Sisco and -5 for Severino).
As for the other fielding metrics, it’s the same story. The table below, from FanGraphs, captures defensive metrics ranging from runs saved from strike framing (rSZ), handling a pitching staff (rCERA), controlling the running game (rSB), and blocking passed balls (rGFP). Then there’s total defensive runs saved (DRS),
Here, too, we see that Wynns is an upgrade over the Orioles’ options thus far. He’s close to average in a small sample, but tilting pro, in overall defense, for instance (Def - 0.2).
There are two narrow categories in which Sisco/Severino were better. One is Chance Sisco throwing out runners, which makes sense. He’s had a great season, from this single vantage point: of nine runners, Sisco threw out six of them. Wynns has thrown out 33% of them, meanwhile, but this is still above the league average of 23%.
The other is Pedro Severino handling a pitching staff (rCERA); apparently he’s been worth 3 extra runs and Wynns is just average, at 0. It should be noted that Game Calling has long been the hardest facet of a catcher’s game to capture (Fangraphs, in 2012, literally wrote “Basically, we don’t know anything.”). Basically, the idea behind it is pitcher ERA adjusted for catcher. Is Bruce Zimmermann more effective when Severino is catching him or Wynns?, to give an example.
So is it true that Pedro Severino is the Orioles’ best backstop when it comes to calling games? Here I’m inclined to think it’s true. Severino’s 2020 season mark is also a positive: +3 runs, even while his pitch framing remained bad (-3.3). (Same deal in 2019.) Overall, Severino relates well to his pitching staff and calls good games, but he loses runs in pitch framing.
Two caveats, though: rCERA is still kind of a noisy stat. It looks at pitcher ERA across catchers, but this is an imperfect measure of success, for all the reasons that ERA is an imperfect measure of pitcher success. Second, it’s a little soon to write off Austin Wynns after 61 innings. Calling games is full of nuanced, unquantifiable things like visits to the mound, pats on the back and fist pumps after a strikeout, anticipating pitcher preferences in pitch selection, and processing and applying hitters’ scouting reports. Based on a shallow eye test, Wynns has a nice, calming presence behind the plate, and a few pitchers in the rotation, like Matt Harvey, seem to prefer him to the other options. So it’ll be worth seeing what develops.
There is a lot of bad baseball all around us right now, but the Austin Wynns call-up has been a good idea for the short time we’ve seen him this season. Wynns’ defense may be just average, but keeping in mind that the other two Orioles catchers’ defense has been simply bad, he’s been an upgrade. And maybe he can keep hitting grand slams.