Meluskey - Good Riddance!

added 1/12/2001 by Steve Cutchen

Check out these stats on a couple of pitchers:

Pitcher A

Pitcher B

BB/9 Innings

2.43

4.78

K/9 Innings

5.25

6.66

HR/9 Innings

1.80

3.42

Opp OPS

0.903

1.120

Innings

114.2

52.2

Neither of these pitchers are really very good... But it is pretty obvious that Pitcher B is significantly worse. Almost 3.5 home runs allowed per game? An opponents OPS over 1100?

Maybe you've guessed this already, but both Pitcher A and Pitcher B are the same guy. This is Jose Lima's nightmare, his 2000 season. So what's the difference? Pitcher A is Lima with Tony Eusebio behind the plate. Pitcher B is Lima with Mitch Meluskey behind the plate. And to illustrate how significant this difference is, the ERA for Pitcher A is 5.180. For Pitcher B, 9.570. When Meluskey was behind the plate, Lima gave up an average of 4.4 more runs per 9 innings!

Ausmus Bashing

There has been a lot of bashing by the Astros hot stovers of the trade that sent Mitch Meluskey to Detroit for Brad Ausmus. The other major piece of this trade, Cedeno for Brocail, is less controversial; Cedeno had no home as a starter, and was paid too much to be a bench player. Assuming Brocail's elbow is cleaned out properly, a fairly minor operation, he should add innings and leadership to the pen. But it is the Meluskey for Ausmus portion that has raised the hair on the back of the neck of Astro Fan.

On the surface, this looks like a bad deal for the Astros. Mitch is significantly younger. For now he is a lot cheaper. And the guy can mash. As for Ausmus? Well... err, uhh... he's got a great arm! But, even the National League has taken to Earl Weaver's tenant that steals aren't worth the trouble. Earl's Sixth Law is "Don't play for one run unless you know that run will win a ballgame." He says that a runner must be successful 75% of the time to make a steal worth the risk. Weaver's ideal at bat, what he played for, was the 3-run homer. Weaver's Fourth Law, "Your most precious possessions are your 27 outs." And number 5? "If you play for one run, that's all you'll get." (Weaver on Strategy, Earl Weaver with Tony Plato, 1984)

So, the prevailing wisdom goes, Mitch leaves and takes his bat with him. In return we get Brad; and his weapon, his arm, is worth less and less in today's game. We got screwed.

Mitch Ain't No Catcher. He's a Batter.

I am an amateur baseball umpire. I love to watch how MLB umpires and catchers work behind the plate. How a catcher receives the ball can make a huge difference in how an umpire perceives the pitches. Former MLB pitcher and pitching coach Tom House described how a catcher can influence the umpire in the book The Diamond Appraised. Here's a couple of key points:

  1. Receive the ball. Don't grab for it.
  2. Frame the strike zone by catching the ball with a stationary glove when it is on the corners.
  3. Don't pull the glove and ball back into the strike zone when the ball misses. That is a guaranteed Ball. And it ticks off the umpire.
  4. Catch the low strike with the glove up; roll the glove over and you'll lose the strike call

From the centerfield camera shot on TV, I noticed right away that Mitch was awful on these types of skills. And I saw a lot of close pitches get balled. When the ball hits his glove, it seems like it ALWAYS moves. A lot. This will have a big effect on a guy like Lima in two ways. First, Lima needs to get corner calls to be successful. Mitch was losing these calls. Second, Lima is so emotional. If he loses confidence or gets angry, he's shot. I believe these issues are the root of the difference in Lima's performance when Mitch caught him versus Tony. Look at the walks. Lima walked TWICE as many batters when Mitch was catching. So Lima aims to take more of the dish... BAM! The OPS and HR differences.

Let Me Put My Calculator Where My Mouth Is.

So now you're thinking, "OK, Steve... a pretty interesting theory. And maybe I don't feel QUITE as bad about the trade. But Lima is an odd duck. Are we really trading Meluskey's bat just to coddle Jose?"

No.

The problems with Meluskey behind the plate rather than beside it went much deeper than just Lima in 2000.

What would you expect to see with the various pitchers last year if my hypothesis about Mitch is correct? Here's what I might expect to see. Pitchers that are confident and/or experienced can probably deal with Meluskey. They know what they want to do and do it. Meluskey is not that important. But pitchers that are fragile or unsure... THESE guys I'd expect to have problems.

Well, there is a way to check this hypothesis. I can calculate a Catcher's ERA for Mitch and Tony. The idea is to compare the ERAs of the Astro staff by catcher. This would not be valid if comparing catchers of different teams. Or from different seasons. But in a case like this, where both guys caught the same staff and played the same teams, Catcher ERA, or CERA, is a pretty good statistic.

And it is not quite so simple as it sounds. For example, while both catchers had more than enough innings last year to make a good statistical sample, there were differences in WHICH pitchers they caught how often. So I had to correct for this. The methodology is explained in the book I mentioned above, The Diamond Appraised, by Craig Wright and Tom House, 1989.

Catcher ERA, The Results

Overall, Mitch had a CERA of 6.114 vs. 5.341 for Tony.

That is a big difference.

If I look only at pitchers with at least 20 innings for each catcher, the values become 6.045 vs. 4.999. So for pitchers that sucked up a lot of innings, Tony was worth a run per game over Mitch behind the plate. That is a lot. I wonder how much OPS difference is needed by one player on a team to be equivalent to an entire run per game? How many one run games did we lose last year?

But this still does not test my hypothesis. I need to look at a breakdown for each pitcher. And the results are amazing.

As I guessed, Mitch did OK with pitchers that were confident, that were sure of themselves. But he was a LOT worse with pitchers that were fragile. Check these numbers out (The first set contains the fragile pitchers):

Pitcher

Mitch's CERA

Tony's CERA

Tony's Advantage

Lima

9.570

5.180

4.389

Holt

5.443

4.337

1.106

Miller

4.576

3.115

1.461

Dotel

5.764

5.116

0.648

Reynolds

5.170

5.128

0.042

Henry

4.551

5.087

-0.536

Elarton

5.026

5.516

-0.490

Now, Holt is gone. One fragile pitcher we don't have to worry about any longer.

But Lima, Miller, Dotel, Reynolds and Elarton are set to suck up a lot of innings. And with Bottenfield's drop in performance last year, he might be a bit fragile with Mitch behind the plate as well.

Also, Oswalt might make the club.

And McKnight might be a significant contributor. (Tony never caught McKnight in 2000, so I can't compare his 2000 data.)

Meluskey versus Ausmus; the Other Factors

There are lots of examples of guys that have really improved themselves as a defensive catcher. Jim Sundberg is one. Sundberg won gold gloves based on his arm. But his CERA was consistently behind the reserve catchers on his team. In 1983, Jim and the Rangers made a concerted effort to improve his receiving. Ranger's coach Glen Ezell broke down how his catchers were handling various pitchers on a pitch by pitch basis to see what was successful. Sundberg applied the lessons to his game calling, and his CERA dropped to below his reserves on the Rangers for the first time in seven years.

But to do this requires recognition of the need. And a lot of work on the part of the catcher. I just don't think Mitch is going to go there. Most mediots and fans look only at batting average and caught stealing when grading a catcher, and in these metrics, Mitch will grade out OK. But I'd bet a Coke that Detroit's pitchers struggle with Meluskey behind the plate.

And the problems with Meluskey go beyond his poor ability as a receiver. The guy was a powder keg in the clubhouse. What kind of guy, what kind of ROOKIE, gets in a fight with a teammate over batting cage priority? This is the sign of a very strong ego. It may be what makes him successful as a batter. But it will not serve him well as a catcher that still needs to learn his craft.

Advantage Ausmus; Advantage Astros

I believe Ausmus will be a better strategist behind the plate than Eusebio. Again, the big thing everyone in Detroit said when the trade came down was that they were going to miss Brad's (and Brocail's) leadership. And, as I hope you can see now, Tony was a MUCH better receiver than Mitch.

I'd love to ask Gerry the Hun if CERA was part of the analysis used to evaluate the Detroit trade.

After going through this analysis, I'm psyched. I think this trade will be seen as a really big positive for the Astros. We have enough offense to afford to lose Mitch. It is our pitching that fell off the end of the Earth.

So did Detroit get screwed? No. Detroit needs Meluskey's bat. And in fact, they need a leadoff hitter, and Cedeno might fill that bill.

The real key for how this trade is perceived by the knowledgeable fan in the future is how well Mitch progresses as a receiver. Will anyone even notice how bad he sucks defensively and force him to improve? Or will he simply mash and screw his pitching staff year after year? Improving will take coaching. And it will take coachability.

That's my Knuckleball.

Try to hit it.