A few weeks ago, Tony Andracki and I sparked a debate when we chose Geovany Soto over A.J. Pierzynski on our all-Chicago team of the 2000's. Our reasoning was as follows: Soto's the better offensive and defensive catcher, while Pierzynski wins in the realm of incalculable intangibles. His handling of a pitching staff -- which has earned rave reviews -- fell into that intangible category.
But thanks to the research of Baseball Prospectus' Max Marchi, Pierzynski's ability to handle a pitching staff has been quantified. And it's very impressive.
Since 1948, only five catchers have been better at preventing runs from scoring than Pierzynski. That may seem off, since he's never rated well as a defensive catcher. In fact, one rating system pegged him as the fourth-worst in baseball last year, taking into account throwingfielding errors, caught stealings, wild pitches and passed balls.
So Pierzynski's ranking on the Baseball Prospectus list is telling as to just how good he is at handling a pitching staff. Ahead of Pierzynski on the list: Tony Pena, Mike Scioscia, Javy Lopez, Mike Piazza and Carlton Fisk. That's impressive company. Piazza was a much better defensive catcher (especially at blocking pitches in the dirt) than people remember, while Pena, Scioscia and Fisk were all good-to-elite defensive catchers in their own right.
But here's where things get interesting: Javy Lopez never rated as a good defensive catcher, at least by the usual caught stealingball in dirt metrics. In fact, per FanGraphs' defensive values behind the plate, he rates as 15 runs below average for his career. Pierzynski rates as -16 runs below average by the same standard.
So could the fact that Lopez and Pierzynski were blessed to play for two of the best pitching coaches in baseball -- Leo Mazzone and Don Cooper -- have anything to do with the ranking?
Probably, but the extent of Cooper's influence on Pierzynski may not be as great as we think. Marchi looked at the top 10 managers who most helped their pitchers and catchers, and Ozzie Guillen -- who had Cooper as his pitching coach for every one of his eight years with the Sox -- didn't make the cut.
And Pierzynski's ability to prevent runs over his career didn't all stem from his days with the Twins and Giants -- over the last three years, only Jose Molina has prevented more runs behind the plate than Pierzynski, per Marchi's analysis.
So perhaps it's time we re-think our stance on Pierzynski. Nobody's going to confuse him with Yadier Molina defensively, but maybe we need to stop looking at him solely in terms of defense. Because when you factor in his ability to prevent runs with his handling of the pitching staff, Pierzynski is one of the best.