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A Rudimentary Evaluation of Dan Wilson's Catcher Defense

When the Mariners announced that Randy Johnson and Dan Wilson were to be inducted into the Mariners' version of the Hall of Fame most of the attention shined on Randy Johnson, including here. Of course it did. Randy Johnson is one of the most talented people to have ever lucked into a professional career pitching baseballs. Dan Wilson had over half his career plate appearances come from the eighth spot in the batting order. Dan Wilson was not a good hitter, or even an average one. He was a catcher though and our bar for catchers is lower and Wilson made a name for himself by catching for quite a while, mostly with Seattle. He also was well-liked and had the good fortune to be associated with a relatively prosperous time in Mariner history. In games Wilson started for them, the Mariners went 615-539, a .533 winning percentage or 86-win pace over a full season.

Those are reasons that probably have a weighty effect on Wilson's lasting notoriety, but he also carried with him a reputation for good defense. The former hockey goalie at Barrington High (also the alma mater of current Ottawa Senators starting goalie Craig Anderson) was renowned for his movement behind the dish enabling him to routinely block wayward pitches in the dirt.

Wilson MLB
WP+PB (per 1,000IP) 35 45
Run Value -9.4 -12.1
League data covering 1994-2004

Wilson comes out comfortably better than league average in preventing wild pitches and passed balls, which supports the belief in his goalie skills.

Catcher's defense is a mostly blank map at this time. We have a notion of where the important features lay, but we don't really know the size of the map. Does a catcher's rapport with his pitchers improve them? How much scouting on the opposing hitter's does the catcher do and does that matter? There's many unanswered and unknown questions surrounding the issue that over time could change, perhaps dramatically, how we view the position. It's a Scooby-Doo mystery except with more masks and fewer giant sandwiches.

Pitch framing is one area where the obscurity is just beginning to clear. It would be stellar to be able to go back and evaluate old catchers with our new methods but alas we do not have access to a machine that can travel back — or forward fast enough, if time is actually circular — in time to install pitch F/X. And even if we did have such a device, gathering more baseball data might not be feasible since people always commandeer it to commit retro murder. SilverFox316 is seriously tired of this, guys. Read the damn bulletin!

Absent the pitch F/X data, I can make no numerical study of Dan Wilson's skill at framing pitches. My hunch is that he would grade out well. In the very limited archival video footage that I have on hand, Wilson displays a steady glove and head while catching. Those are two big indicators that Mike Fast discovered can coax strike calls from umpires. Nevertheless, while I know framing matters a great deal when judging a catcher, I unfortunately cannot color in these lines on Wilson. I know it's there but it's obscured by fog.

We can make a statement on the territory of stolen bases and nabbed runners though and again Wilson comes out ahead of the rest of baseball.

Wilson MLB
Attempts (per 1000IP) 91 104
Kill Rate (per attempt) 34% 31%
Run Value +1.3 -0.2
League data covering 1994-2004

Wilson gunned down an above average share of runners but also faced far fewer steal attempts than average. Whether that was 100% because of Wilson, 100% because of reasons that were not Dan Wilson, or (likely) somewhere in between is impossible to say. It doesn't end up affecting Wilson's value much since his caught stealing rate is near the point where attempting a stolen base was a neutral move from a run expectancy perspective.

Granted this is only a faint whiff of the full scratch-n-sniff experience that probably is catcher defense, but from the two measures I do have readily available, Wilson does end up being worth about five runs better than average for each 1,000 innings caught. That doesn't transform him into a secretly excellent player or anything. These two areas are already captured by BRef and FanGraphs in their WAR calculations. Personally though, I'm glad to know that at least for now, a man who I remembered as being a stalwart at defense, actually was.