Friday, July 16, 2004

Mr. Wilson

Good points about Dan Wilson, Jack. I might quibble with a little bit of your criticism of Wilson, but not much.

First, I would probably agree with Shane O'Neill that Miguel Olivo "doesn't have Wilson's experience or feel for working with pitchers or calling games." But hey, that's an advantage a catcher with almost 1100 more career games played is supposed to have; it's hardly an indictment of Olivo's skills.

Second, while I am not Dan Wilson's biggest fan, I disagree with your implication that there is no appreciation of Dan Wilson's defensive skills outside of Seattle, or that this lack of respect is the reason he has never won a Gold Glove. The main reason Wilson has never won a Gold Glove is because he has spent all but two years of his AL career competing for that award with Ivan Rodriguez (AL GG winner 1992-2001).

We all know that defensive statistics are elusive at best, and I think defensive catching statistics are among the murkiest. There is a lot more to catching than blocking balls and throwing out runners, and much of the comparison based on things like catching ERA are very dependent on the variation of performance among pitchers over a pretty small sample. Catching defense is one area where I would be inclined to rely more heavily on subjective observation and traditional "scouting" opinion than I would the kinds of rudimentary defensive statistics we have available to us.

Having said that, judging by some of the better measures of defensive performance, like Bill James' fielding Win Shares and Baseball Prospectus' "Rate" statistics (a figure Clay Davenport came up with to measure how many runs better or worse than an average fielder -- defined as 100 -- is per 100 defensive innings played, with a 105 being 5 runs better than average, 96 being 4 runs worse, etc.) and "Fielding Runs Above Replacement" (or FRAR), it is pretty clear that had Rodriguez not been in the AL in 1995, 1996, and 1997, Wilson was probably the next most deserving of the Gold Glove. That's not to say he should have beaten Rodriguez in those years (though in 1995, it should have been close), but there is no shame in being runner-up to Pudge. Over Wilson's time here, the average of Dan Wilson's yearly Rate statistics is 104 (rounding up) -- a fair bit better than average, though certainly not elite (though his best seasons, from 1994-1997, were).

Shane O'Neill probably overstated the case when he suggested Wilson may be the best catcher never to win a Gold Glove, but I think most baseball analysts and close observers recognize that Wilson is (or at least was) a pretty damn good defensive catcher. The problem is, Wilson has also had some pretty average (or worse) defensive seasons -- inluding 1998, 1999, 2002, and maybe even 2003.  By the measures I've looked at, Wilson would struggle to even be in the Gold Glove conversation in all of those years, while in the years when Wilson was in the conversation, he was never better than a moderately close #2 or #3 guy. If O'Neill is suggesting Wilson should have won one by now, he's just wrong.
 
[BTW, Bengie Molina is the only other AL GG winner in Wilson's time.  He was a decisive and deserving winner in 2002 and 2003 (over 4-5 guys in each year who had much better cases than could even conceivably be made for Wilson).]

Third, I disagree with your implication that Wilson's defense has been no better over the years than other catchers the Mariners have carried during his tenure. If you look across a range of fielding statistics over Wilson's tenure, there are only a few of seasons where more than a few defensive statistical measures suggested that maybe Wilson wasn't the best defensive catcher we had, and most of those have been in the latter half of Wilson's career. This may say more about the shitty second catchers the Mariners have collected over the years than it does about Wilson, but still . . ..

Despite playing many more games and innings than his back-ups, Wilson has about the same number of errors and passed balls as the others combined. He has a better fielding percentage than any of them (.995 as a Mariner), and a better range factor (6.85 as a Mariner) than any of them (the closest are John Marzano, at 6.04, and Ben Davis at 5.89).

You could argue, based on at least the second half of Ben Davis' 2002 season and the first half of his 2003 season, that he was a better option than Wilson. Here are some of their stats for 2002 and 2003:

2002: Wilson - 97 rate, .998 FPCT, 7.17 RF, 4.12 CERA, .283 CS% (not real good). Davis - 110 rate, .998 FPCT, 6.81 RF, 3.99 CERA, .439 CS%.

2003: Wilson - 98 Rate, .997 FPCT, 6.68 RF, 3.79 CERA, .300 CS%. Davis - 103 rate, .991 FPCT, 7.33 RF, 3.88 CERA, .347 CS%.

Setting aside for a moment things like whether pitchers are more comfortable pitching to Wilson than Davis -- no small matter, and something that I don't think can be measured but is nevertheless very important -- Davis was pretty clearly the better defensive catcher in 2002, statistically. However, his offense kept him on the bench in the first half (.230/.306/.278, versus Wilson's .314/.343/.416); it wasn't until the second half that he proved to be the better player all-around (hitting .294/.324/.559 to Wilson's .276/.307/.374). That performance led me, you, and a lot of other followers of the Mariners to conclude it was time for Dan Wilson to step back in favor of Ben Davis, and his offense in the first half of 2003 (.294/.333/.490) did nothing to discourage that thinking. However, just when he should have been ready to step up to more regular duty in the second half, he collapsed (.140/.204/.204). Neither his offense or his defense ever recovered.

You could argue Tom Lampkin was better defensively in 2001, but they were really both about the same, and both only moderately better than average. Wilson had a 104 rate, .999 FPCT, 7.11 RF, 3.51 CERA, and a.281 CS%, while Lampkin had a 105 rate, .995 FPCT, 7.11 RF, 3.57 CERA, and a .278 CS%. However, Lampkin had a poor year at the plate and, besides, this was basically a platoon between lefty Lampkin and righty Wilson. It's pretty difficult to make the argument that Lampkin should have been elevated to the #1 catcher based on this year. In 2000, Lampkin and Joe Oliver combined to be a fair bit better than Wilson offensively, but not defensively.

Lampkin probably was better than Wilson in 1999. Wilson had a 95 rate, .995 FPCT, 6.78 RF, 5.47 CERA, .243 CS% (uhhhhgly), while Lampkin had a 116 rate, .985 FPCT, and a 5.70 RF (I can't access his CERA and CS% numbers, but they can't be much worse than Wilson's). Neither of these guys was anything to write home about defensively, but Lampkin was certainly the better offensive player. He probably should have caught 121 games while Wilson caught 56, rather than the other way around. And John Marzano may have been a better defensive catcher in 1998, but he had done nothing the previous two years to suggest that would be true, and he and Wilson were about equally poor offensively that year (typically, Wilson hit for better average, and Marzano for better OBP and power -- though in relative terms, since both were 15-20% worse than league average in adjusted OPS).

In all the other years, Wilson was hands-down the clear choice, at least defensively.

BUT I do I agree with you about this: Wilson has had some relatively poor years defensively, and even his record as a whole doesn't really justify the reverence for his defense generally accorded him in this town -- at least in the latter part of his career.
 
Still, it's always been his offense that's bugged me.  Wilson's as empty as they come. Even in "good" years, he is all about hitting singles, with almost no patience at the plate, and little-to-no power. Wilson has never been even a league average hitter his entire time in Seattle (he's a career 82 OPS+ -- 18% worse than league average, park adjusted -- and he's been better than league average in OBP only once in his career and has never slugged at or above league average). Paying this guy an average of $4.1M per year over the last four years was insane, and had to be based on a serious over-valuation of his defense, because offensively, he's a black hole who can only be expected to even approach league average in his best years. But let's be realistic: the Mariners kept Wilson because they correctly felt they had no other good option, and the believed good-guy Wilson is worth something at the box office and in the community (which he is).  Fault them for giving him too much money, but not necessarily for bringing him back when they did.

I generally agree with you about Olivo, but it is probably too early to say with much conviction how much better he will be with our pitchers than Wilson (other than the arm -- we know that will be better).  We will certainly find out, as I fully expect that Olivo will catch 60-70% of the games from here on out.  I think there is value in having Wilson help Olivo learn our pitching staff this year, but to re-sign Wilson to continue that process next year would not be smart (at least unless Wilson will work for $1M or less). To the extent they can, they should find a decent defensive catcher who hits right-handed pitching well (since Olivo has had trouble doing that (.214/.278/.292 from 2001-2003, .192/.243/.317 this year) -- as has Wilson, before this year). Damian Miller (at 35 next year, a bit old, but .302/.352/.488 vs. righties this year and .245/.315/.415 over the previous three) and Jason Varitek (expensive and also getting up in age, but a good defender and (switch) hitter who hits respectably well against righties are among the free agent-to-be catchers on the market next winter, and I think either one would be a better (short-term) investment than continuing to pay Dan Wilson anything close to what he is making now. The best bet is probably to scour the four-A types for a minor-league free agent, left-handed hitting catcher (maybe a guy like Mark Johnson of the Brewers, who is good defensively and a patient left-handed hitter with more offensive upside than his stats suggest), but I don't know how plentiful or available guys like that might be.

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