The Catcher Swap: Who Won?

added 12/12/2000 by Ray Kerby
My timing is terrible. Just two days ago I sat down to write my next column about the team's lack of winter activity. Given the team's poor track record in previous winters, the title was going to be "No News is Good News". And with the Meluskey trade now the latest addition to the Astros' trade lore, my gut feeling was that I couldn't have been more right. But I was wrong.

On the surface, this seems like a terrible trade to me. Meluskey is younger, cheaper, and a far better hitter than Brad Ausmus. Is the defensive prowess of Ausmus great enough to overcome these cold, hard facts? Not being a Tigers fan, I have to hope so. In addition, Doug Brocail and Nelson Cruz are middle relievers, a breed of player known for violent swings in effectiveness from season to season.

One conclusion that I am drawn to is that the trade had less to do with on-field performance and more with intangibles. We all know that Meluskey is either cocky or arrogant, depending on how much you like him. He is also weak defensively. But Brad Ausmus is the very catcher who was dealt away two years ago to make room for Meluskey, and there's no reason to think he's become a better player in Detroit.

There is also the issue of the personal friendship that exists between Jeff Bagwell and Ausmus. Bagwell was an outspoken critic of the trade that sent Ausmus to Detroit, so perhaps the organization is trying to undo that trade to encourage Bagwell to stay in Houston. If that is the case, then I applaud it. After all, I was starting to wonder if the team had become so "gung ho" on saving money that Bagwell would be traded as well. If getting Ausmus back helps retain Bagwell, then that is a definite plus.

Still, those off-the-field issues aren't really going to impact how well the team plays next season. What I would like to know is whether the team improved itself with the trade. Comparing Meluskey and Ausmus presents us with an opportunity to revisit that eternal debate between the merits of hitting and defense. Normally, hitting trumps defense because it clearly has a greater impact on winning. But the waters become muddy when the defensive specialists belong to critical positions of catcher or shortstop.

Here is a comparison of the offensive statistics between the two catchers last year:
Note: for "Total Bases", singles=1,doubles=2,triples=3, and homers=4

StatAusmusMeluskey
At-bats523337
Total bases201164
Walks/HBP7559

Of course, you'll notice that Ausmus received considerably more at-bats than Meluskey, who platooned extensively with Tony Eusebio. For the sake of a fair comparison, I will project the number of Meluskey's plate appearances to that of Ausmus.

StatAusmusMeluskey (projected)
At-bats523509
Total bases201248
Walks/HBP7589

You can see immediately that, if given the same number of plate appearances, Meluskey would have generated 47 more total bases offensively and drawn 14 more walks. So, in a very simplistic way, you could state that Meluskey was 61 "bases" better than Ausmus on offense.

But what about defense? One big issue that is always hyped about catchers is their ability to shut down an opponent's running game. And indeed, baserunners seemed to run at will against Meluskey while Ausmus lead the AL in throwing out baserunners. Here are the opponents' stolen-base stats for the two catchers:

StatAusmusMeluskeyMeluskey (projected)
Innings12317781231
Opp. SB4264101
Opp. CS382032

Without getting into a deep statistical discussion on the relative values between stolen bases and caught stealing, I'll just state that there is statistical evidence that shows that the negative impact of a caught stealing is roughly twice the positive impact of a stolen base. So for a would-be stealer to "break even", he would need to successfully steal twice as often as he is caught.

This allows us to make sense of the defensive table above. Since baseball is a zero-sum game, every run scored by the offense means that a run has been allowed by the defense. And for every based gained by the offense, one base has been allowed by the defense. Easy, no? So this table tells us that Brad Ausmus took away 34 bases from his opponents (42-38-38 = -34), while in the same number of innings Meluskey GAVE AWAY 37 bases to his opponents (101-32-32 = 37). This gives a defensive edge of 71 "bases" to Ausmus.

Let me make this clear. When projected to the same amount of playing time in 2000, Meluskey would have created 61 more "bases" of offense. But on defense, Ausmus was 71 "bases" better. So, in this very simplistic measure of offense and defense, Ausmus helped his team more than Meluskey by a grand total of 10 "bases".

But there are other factors that weigh in Ausmus' favor. One of the advantages of having a good arm is the intimidation it creates on the other team. Essentially, the other team runs the bases more conservatively to avoid being thrown out. Can we measure this effect? Not exactly, but we can certainly take a shot at estimating it.

For example, the NL teams (not counting Houston) made 2196 attempted steals in 21,666 innings. The AL teams (not counting Detroit) attempted 1763 steals in 18,698 innings. So after doing a little fancy figgurin' with the calculator, I came up with these results:

StatAusmusMeluskeyMeluskey (projected)
Actual SB Attempts8084132
Expected SB Attempts11679125

From this table, you can see that the NL ran against Meluskey just slightly more than would be expected for an average catcher. Obviously, he's not intimidating the opposing runners, and their attempts should increase once his "weak arm" reputation becomes firmly established. Ausmus, on the other hand, actually saw 36 fewer steal attempts than would be expected. This is a significant difference and does indicate that his reputation is intimidating opposing runners to some degree. In my book, that's another 36 bases saved defensively by Ausmus.

So let's summarize the results, comparing Ausmus to a projected Meluskey:

StatAusmusMeluskey (projected)
Offensive bases generated276337
Defensive bases saved34-37
Defensive "rep" value360
Total contribution346300

By this measure, Ausmus gets the nod for the being the overall best of the two catchers in 2000. But what about next year? If Meluskey continues to blossom, his offensive numbers will certainly improve. But as he develops a poor defensive reputation, teams will steal more bases against him. In addition, Meluskey was given the benefit of being projected to a full season for this comparison. When considering his history of injury, that may be overly generous. Also of note is the lack of consideration given to the offensive benefit Meluskey received by playing half of his games in hitter-friendly Enron Field. As a contrast, Ausmus played in a park clearly favoring pitchers. And finally, if Meluskey is unable to continue catching in the future then Ausmus wins the comparison by default (we already have plenty of first basemen).

So, when age and salary are considered, the Ausmus-Meluskey swap looks like a wash - a short-term advantage to the Astros and a potential long-term advantage to the Tigers. That's leaves us with the remainder of the deal: Holt and Cedeno for Brocail and Cruz. Looking at our glut in the outfield, Holt's inability to win, and our need for bullpen relief, I'll make that trade any day.