Evaluating Catcher Defense: How Good are Navarro, Shoppach, and Jaso?

ST. PETERSBURG - JULY 05: Designated hitter David Ortiz #34 of the Boston Red Sox scores as catcher John Jaso #28 of the Tampa Bay Rays is late with the tag during the game at Tropicana Field on July 5 2010 in St. Petersburg Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

I really like John Jaso. I think his batting eye is one of the best on the Rays, if not the best, and he's been a great offensive addition. There are many people, though, that seem to have a problem with his defense. Jaso has never been a great defensive catcher; even coming through the minors, offense was always the name of the game for him. From all reports, his defense used to be abysmal behind the plate, but he's worked hard to improve that over the last few years. It's improved enough so that he's being used as the defense-minded Rays' primary catcher, at least indicating that he's passable behind the plate - good enough to justify playing him for his offensive contributions. 

But how good has Jaso been behind the plate this season? His detractors point out that he has trouble framing pitches and that some of the pitchers don't seem comfortable throwing to him. After one of his poor starts, James Shields griped about Jaso and claimed he couldn't get in a rhythm with him, but I'm hesitant to put too much stock into the emotion-filled words of a pissed Shields. Still, there seems to be some strength to the
Free Navarro For His Defense" movement - something I never expected to see.

And so, when Tom Tango released his Fan Scouting Report a few weeks ago, I was curious to see what Rays fans thought of Navarro, Jaso, and Shoppach. Remember, the concept behind the Fan Scouting Report is that fans watch players perform day in and day out, and when taken as a whole, their opinion should do a very good job of measuring the truth about a player's defense. Does Player A or Player B get a better jump on a ball? Does Player C have an average arm or an above-average one? Scouts can answer those questions for you, but so can the fans.

Now comes the moment of truth. Which did we rank the highest: Jaso, Shoppach, or Navarro? Who has the strongest arm? The worst hands? The best instincts? Let's see.


(Click on picture for larger view)

This chart basically confirms what most people are saying: that Navarro has the better hands, footwork, and throwing, but Jaso has better instincts (see: baserunning) and speed. Shoppach is somewhere in-between: decent footwork and throwing, but he's not as good as Navarro and is also slow as molasses. That all seems fairly obvious, right?

The thing that threw me for a loop is how close they were all ranked. Tango set the rankings to a 0-100 scale, with 50 being average and the standard deviation being 20. That means Jaso and Navarro are separated by only two points on a 100 point scale? At least, they are when you're comparing them in a sample of all the players in the majors. When you narrow that pool down to just catchers, a bit more of a difference emerges: Navarro grades out as around average for a catcher, while Jaso sits at about 10 points below average. It's still not a huge difference, but that strikes me as about what we'd expect: a drop-off from one to the other, but not a dramatic, life-shattering one.

If you look at defensive metrics, they say about the same thing. By the Dewan Plus-Minus System (DRS), Navarro has been worth exactly zero runs this season while Jaso has cost the Rays two. That's 0.2 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), a difference so small, Jaso easily makes up the ground between the two with his hitting. Even if you assume Jaso is a -5 fielder and Navarro is a +5 (which he's never ranked as), Jaso still is easily more valuable to the Rays - he's added 10 runs of offensive value to the Rays this season, while Navarro managed to cost the Rays 7.8 runs in only 131 plate appearances. That's a difference of 17.8 runs - nearly two full wins. Jaso would need to be historically terrible behind the plate to make up that gap.

And so, I'm sticking with Jaso. Criticize his defense all you want - the pain of watching him catch is nowhere near the pain of watching Navarro bat. That's what my eye says, and apparently it's what the rest of us fans see as well.

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