The human brain is a wonderful thing. To make sense of vast quantities of information, we put it all in categories, effortlessly. Much the way it would be difficult to walk if you had to will each muscle to work every time you used them, we rely on those categories and our intuition to function in day-to-day life. Taking decisions away from that part of ourselves is like taking the stick away from autopilot. Sometimes it’s called for, but you can rarely get all of the benefits of a truly deliberate decision-making process and all of the benefits of our intuition, which frequently incorporates information of which we may not be consciously aware.

In other words, sometimes when we face a decision, we struggle with the pre-choice of whether to go with our “gut” or proceed as best as a reasoned approach will let us. Maybe the most important thing in those circumstances is to understand how each of those processes work, to work around each approach’s shortcomings.

I’m not saying anything you already know. But the automatic categorization that allows intuition to function has a shortcoming that may be at play in the D-backs’ recent decision-making with respect to the catcher position. The shortcoming I’m thinking of: frame of reference. You have a friend who throws darts really well; you think of him as a good dart-thrower. If a championship-caliber darts player walked in and offered to join your team, would you displace your friend? That’s not a decision you make on autopilot. You take the stick, and try to figure it out yourself. That’s not the kind of decision that autopilot is for.

I’m not accusing the D-backs Powers That Be of being on autopilot, at least, not to any extent that’s bad (some extent is good!). Scouting is, I think, a great example of when people try to marry both left brain and right brain, letting their intuition guide them and simultaneously trying to put a reasoned finger on what intuition is saying, and why. I’m no scout, but I imagine that if a team went only with raw data for scouting, or only with gut feel, they might not do as well as they would by marrying both approaches. To a really large extent, autopilot is good.

And yet, this team seems to have a spectacularly unfathomable blind spot with respect to the catcher position. Once upon a time, it was that Tuffy Gosewisch was a workable idea, because with offense coming from so many other parts of the lineup, it just wasn’t as important. The team has made some reasonable gambits, too: Jordan Pacheco actually did fit this team (especially once arbitration was avoided through the release process), in part because bench bats are important, and in part because a different gambit, Rule 5 selection Oscar Hernandez, made the possibility of having a third-but-maybe-not-quite catcher on the roster highly defensible. To the extent that the D-backs steered Hernandez’s recovery toward the extreme long end of a four-to-infinity-week recovery schedule for hamate bone surgery, that’s pretty damned good, too. That’s a reasoned decision. Intuition may have played a part in Hernandez’s selection, but it may not be playing a prominent role in his road to return.

“Spectacularly unfathomable blind spot” is the only way I can explain the signings and roster spots of Gerald Laird and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. I think the explanation within the explanation may be that the D-backs have been too willing to lean on categorization. Intuition is great. Sometimes a data-driven approach is better.

And if you let a data-driven approach even enter the discussion with respect to Laird or Saltalamacchia, you don’t think of Laird as a defensive catcher, and you don’t think of Salty as an offensive catcher whose bat might outweigh his defense. But you can’t weigh a black hole.

The fact is that Salty isn’t just a bad defensive catcher. His defense is positively toxic. Just in terms of catcher framing statistics, he was nearly twice as bad as the next-worst catcherTwice as bad as the next-worst catcher. Sure, it was only one season: 2014. But trust that the Boston Red Sox did their very best to develop Salty’s framing skills — and feel comfortable that without the Red Sox breathing down his neck to care, last year’s horror show was the result. Gerald Laird, of course, was the next-worst catcher. And if you account for the fact that Jordan Pacheco caught dramatically less than those two, he’s right there also. Trade target Dioner Navarro isn’t too far away.

This isn’t just about money, although Pacheco, Laird and now Salty did come at or near the major-league minimum. This is a cheap type of argument, but forgive me anyway: why were they so cheap? It’s like all MLB teams showed up to a birthday party with some great cake, but the D-backs were the only team late enough to the party that they didn’t see when someone sneezed all over one corner of the cake. Everyone else wants cake — there’s not a lot of good major league cake. And yet no one else wanted that corner of the cake. Curious. Oh well, it looks delicious.

No one is under the illusion that the D-backs front office is going to turn into a particularly saber-friendly front office. But you need that voice in the room, if just for the one time in a blue moon like this one when it would make sense for that person to jump up and down on their chair for attention, the same way your autopilot would if it needed immediate help avoiding a car crash. If Ed Lewis isn’t doing that with this string of catching decisions, either his mandate is too narrow or he’s not the right person for the job. Issue spotting needs to be part of someone’s job, just like they have employees making sure they don’t miss deadlines and someone making sure they have the intricacies of minor league free agency just right.

Framing numbers aren’t normally as extreme as they were in Salty’s case last year. But they suggest that the Marlins allowed about 1/6th of a run more per game when Salty was behind the dish, as compared to a league average framer (and note that above average should probably be the goal, anyway). -21 Receiving Runs last season. That’s the equivalent of giving away nearly half of all of the good things that Paul Goldschmidt does offensively (43.8 offensive runs in his near-MVP 2013). And again — we’re not exactly aiming for replacement level. To justify that kind of black hole defensively, Salty would need to be a Goldy-caliber hitter. He’s not. But even if he were, he wouldn’t be playing catcher, would he? Which is part of why he stood alone in defensive awfulness last season, and part of why the Marlins couldn’t find a trade partner despite acknowledging that they’d eat money to move him, and part of why he was then released.

If this Salty thing is a very short-term tryout, that’s one thing. Maybe the decision-making gears will start turning again when the team feels like it knows when Tuffy Gosewisch is due to return. It’s not that long ago that Salty was a helpful catcher, after all, and Oscar Hernandez wouldn’t slot in until then. But the tryout comes with a heavy cost, not just because the pitchers will almost certainly do worse, but because the pitchers will do worse in a way that the team doesn’t seem to understand. And that could have the unfortunate consequence that decisions about those pitchers’ futures will not be made with the right information. And again — plenty of teams have employees whose job it is to find out when cakes have been sneezed on.

On Friday, Salty caught Rubby De La Rosa, who was facing the worst offense in Major League Baseball: long counts and 4 ER in just 5 innings. On Sunday, Salty caught the recently-economical Chase Anderson, who had the worst start of the season: 6 ER in just 5 innings. Vidal Nuno looked brilliant in relief for almost 90 pitches in the 17-inning marathon, the first pitcher to look like he was carving up the Brewers. Nuno replaced Salty in a double switch.

The links:

  • If you’ve been confused about how Peter O’Brien fits into this recent catcher legacy, or about why the team was so committed to trying him at catcher in the first place, you’re not alone. Everyone is confused. Finally, the Reno Aces intervened to set the record straight, as Nick Piecoro reported. O’Brien will play outfield from now on, although the organization had communicated to Piecoro just days prior that O’Brien would get (and needed to get) more reps at catcher. I’m glad that’s not my job — I think the ideal is to have guys capable of playing multiple positions (including first base for O’Brien, considering he looked pretty great there in the spring), but the constant tug of war between wanting to make guys expert at a position and wanting to keep options open — that’s a tough row to hoe. At any rate, considering how O’Brien has been tearing apart Triple-A pitching, it might have been a real eureka moment for the organization when it determined that O’Brien was so far away as a catcher that Salty was a better option.
  • Also from Piecoro, a D-backs success story: after being removed from the closer’s role two weeks ago, it looks like Addison Reed is comfortable with some mechanical tweaks and has rediscovered his slider, and will now be returned to a late-inning role. Not bad, says I. That’s the uncomfortable thing with relievers — there’s only so much you can work on outside of game settings. If Reed now dominates for six weeks, there could really be a market for him in July. In case you’re wondering, Evan Marshall has allowed 7 earned runs with Reno, striking out 10 with 5 walks in 8.2 innings.
  • Piecoro is also in the midst of a great series of pieces on potential #1 overall picks in next week’s draft, and I’ll direct you at one on a recently under the radar pick: New York high schooler Garrett Whitley, who just so happens to be my cousin. Bat speed definitely is the calling card; last year’s Area Code Games helped Whitley burst onto the national scene, and Trackman had a double off his bat at 108.7 mph.
  • At ESPN, Keith Law rolled out his second mock of next week’s draft — and he’s not seeing Whitley at 1-1. Most of the latter half of this most recent episode of The Pool Shot was us sorting through what the D-backs’ draft priorities might be, and the extent to which the team’s planned contention window might affect the team’s choices. Spoiler: whereas normally those kinds of considerations are almost definitely not a factor, we think they might be this time around.
  • At Snake Pit, Jim McLennan took a close look at the differences between Archie Bradley‘s early-season performance and the recent “performance” we’ve seen since his return from the DL. Have to agree — hard to have a problem with sending Bradley down to the minors if this continues. We took a look at what Bradley was doing with his fastball last week, and talked a lot about where Bradley stands on The Pool Shot.
  • You may not need a reminder that Paul Goldschmidt is one of the best values among first basemen, but let’s take a page from the header material above: data helps us sort through proportions. Knowing he’s a great value is not the same thing as seeing where he lands in this visual from Scott Lindholm at Beyond the Box Score. See what I mean?
  • At Venom Strikes, Guillermo Salcido asked whether A.J. Pollock will make the cut as an All Star this season. Put Pollock with the same numbers in a larger market, and isn’t he a shoe in? A broken hand stole Pollock’s opportunity to show that his early-season breakout last year wasn’t a fluke — in that same year. But he still finished a half season (75 games) with 3.3 fWAR, which is pretty ridiculous, and in less than two weeks, Pollock might have a similar number of PA this year. He’s at 2.2 fWAR right now. Maybe he doesn’t get voted in, but the guy is on a page for a 15-30 season with gobs of extra base hits and stunning defense. One wonders if Pollock may turn into a poster child for the benefits of receiving more-than-is-probably-needed rest, as he’s ceded some starts to David Peralta through Ender Inciarte. Something bad would have to happen, I think, for Pollock to not get the call as a reserve.
  • At FanGraphs, Craig Edwards examined what Yasmany Tomas has been doing at the plate, making a pretty good case that it’s not that Tomas can’t hit the ball hard, it’s that he’s just not pulling the ball all that much. Hey, being shift proof doesn’t hurt, right? I’m not sure I’m sold on the point that pitchers are trying to pitch Tomas away, not because they aren’t, but because that’s what most pitch frequency maps look like, I think. Which raises a fascinating question: will pitchers start throwing inside to Tomas, just because of his success away? I don’t think we get too many opportunities to see adjustments like that, in part because what Tomas is doing is pretty weird, and in part because there’s a book on most hitters who can do damage before they’re in a position to do a lot of damage. We’re still learning a ton about Tomas, and we’re still ahead of that point of diminishing returns. If you missed it, make sure you go check out Jeff’s take on Tomas’s plate adjustments the week before last.

3 Responses to Roundup: Missed Frames and Mixed Signals

  1. Dan42 says:

    It’s even stranger when Hale’s O’Brien quote from two days earlier than the one above is considered.
    “He looks good back there. His at-bats have been great and he is another guy pushing the envelope.”

  2. Puneet says:

    If Oscar Hernandez is healthy, can he catch majority of the games? Or is that not advisable for development? I mean the only reason I can think of for not acquiring a better defensive catcher is if you want to develop options on your team.

  3. Sam says:

    Do you have a better suggestion for what they could have done after Tuffy got injured? Salty is a stopgap experiment, is how I read it. There’s very little cost, especially if they’re not really trying to win this year.

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