No one ever said Koyie Hill could hit. What they did say, especially following the 2009 season when Hill gunned down 20 of 50 would-be base stealers (40%), was that he could throw. Unfortunately for Hill and his supporters, that caught-stealing percentage plummeted to 18% in 2010.
Full disclosure: I consider myself a long-time Hill supporter, although I am always re-evaluating.
They also said Hill possessed certain hard-to-quantify catching skills like pitch selection and glove placement and overall rapport with pitchers that somehow translated into wins. In the press release announcing Hill’s signing for 2011, the Cubs reminded fans that “since 2007, the Cubs have recorded an 84-72 record in games started by Hill, good for a .538 winning percentage.” Unfortunately for Hill and his supporters, those numbers included a won-lost record in 2010 of 24-36. Prior to last season, Hill had been able to claim a record of 60-36 and a winning percentage of .625.
Hill has had wildly disparate success against base stealers the past two seasons, and Soto’s caught-stealing number tumbled last year as his sore shoulder worsened. (The shoulder has since been surgically repaired.) A reasonable way to measure Hill against Soto and also against the two primary catching prospects in camp, Welington Castillo and Max Ramirez, is to compare their caught-stealing percentages in the minor leagues, where they all have a large body of work. In this competition, Castillo leads with 40%. Hill is second with 31%. Then comes Soto with 28%. Ramirez’s 22% makes him a distant fourth. For those who like to keep track of players such as 2007 supplemental-round Wilken draftee Josh Donaldson–subsequently traded to the A’s for Rich Harden–he has caught an impressive 38% of base stealers and would be another candidate for backup catcher if he were still with the Cubs.
Castillo, then, would seem to have Hill beat convincingly in at least one tangible defensive skill. I made a spreadsheet recently that tries to capture another skill, that of keeping wild pitches and other errant pitches in front of you.
Although one is blamed on the catcher and the other on the pitcher, passed balls and wild pitches are obviously on a continuum. By convention, if a ball hits the dirt and then gets by the catcher, and a runner advances, it’s a wild pitch. If it doesn’t bounce, it’s a passed ball. In both cases it could have been blocked and controlled, and the runner discouraged from advancing. Some catchers seem to do quite a bit better than others in preventing wild pitches. The table below ranks catchers, lowest to highest, according to the number of passed balls and wild pitches allowed per game. The catchers listed are chosen somewhat haphazardly. Several have a connection to the Cubs. When I divide the PBs and WPs by games, I use the number in the GS (games started) column in Baseball Reference’s player-stats pages. It’s less precise than dividing by innings, but per-game numbers tend to be easier to relate to.
Soto and Hill do very well in this ranking. Castillo and Ramirez do poorly, although in the case of Castillo’s 4 wild pitches in 5 games, it’s a tiny data sample, and it is also a small one for Ramirez. At the bottom of the table, I pencil in some minor-league passed-ball per game percentages for Castillo and Ramirez, in order to enlarge the data samples. Here, too, Castillo has a fairly large number, as does Donaldson, suggesting that there are catchers who throw better than they catch. (Ivan Rodriguez and Henry Blanco may also be in this category.) Baseball Reference does not supply wild-pitch totals for minor-league catchers.
My own defense of Hill has been that he requires pitchers to throw–or at least shake off–a decent number of fastballs, and thus he has acted as a counterweight to Larry Rothschild and his slider-happy bullpen crew. With LR gone, a catcher who serves as “assistant coach for fastballs” may not be something that the team needs. These days, it’s the manager instead of the backup catcher who talks to reporters, in this case Carrie Muskat, about the importance of a pitcher commanding his fastball:
Closer Carlos Marmol is trying to work on his fastball command. “If he gets really good fastball command-wise with this [his slider], it’s game, set, match,” Quade said. “Any improvement ‘Marm’ can make on his fastball command is going to help him and why don’t we say this about everybody? We all talk about breaking stuff, but it boils down to fastball command. I don’t care if it’s a bunch of these kids trying to make the club or if it’s [Ryan Dempster]. The better your fastball command, the better your game is.”
Quade’s advice to pitchers reminds me of remarks by Koyie Hill in spring training two years ago, referring to Mitch Atkins, remarks I have quoted several times previously in these pages.
“Anybody who commands the strike zone can do well, and I think that’s what he does. I’m not saying he’ll go up there and be Cy Young. That part develops. The adjustment he made last year was command of the strike zone with his fastball, which to me is the most important thing in the world. I’d go out there with him any day. . . .”
“When he came to Iowa, he had some Double-A tendencies where you get to where you’re 2-1, and you throw, not a trick pitch, but pitch backwards to get back into the count. By the end of the season, he was dominating the strike zone and getting ahead, so he didn’t have to do all that. It made him predictable.
One thing I told him was, ‘When you climb the ladder up, which you will, that stuff fizzles out because those guys are onto it or they take it. Then you’re 3-1, and what are you going to throw? That fastball you can’t control?’”
Two years ago, only Hill was talking about pitchers maintaining command of their fastballs. Today, the manager is joining in, and Marmol is “trying to work on his fastball command,” obviously with his pitching coach’s approval. Is it a stretch to call this “the Hill effect”?
But even putting intangibles aside, Hill may be the better choice as backup until Castillo learns to block the low pitches and keep them in front of him.