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Robo umps and the future of catcher evaluation

The way we look at the most complicated position on the diamond is likely to change soon.

Red Sox Spring Training Workouts Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Baseball is obviously known for, and is extremely proud of, its long tradition. At least from my vantage point, no other sport is more resistant to change, sometimes to a fault. And yet, the world around us changes every day and sports have to do this same. This year there are going to be a number of rule changes, including increased roster size, a three-batter minimum (with some exceptions) for pitchers, a set number pitchers for a roster, which then requires players to be declared by category, among others. The big rule change on the horizon, though, and the one that is going to change the game the most, is the robot umpire.

Fans have been calling for this for years now, as frustration has built about home plate umpires with the growing popularity of pitch tracking systems like Brooks Baseball and Baseball Savant. When you can look at MLB Gameday after every pitch and see if a call is right or wrong, the human element starts to get old. The desire for automatic strike zones is certainly not unanimous, but the calls grow louder each and every year. If the technology exists, the argument goes, why not utilize it?

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Well, it seems like MLB is on the way to doing just that. It isn’t an imminent change, but the future is coming and we can at least lay eyes on it off in the distance. The league has already started experimenting with it, too, utilizing the system in the Atlantic League (along with a number of other radical changes) as well as the Arizona Fall League in 2019. The tests showed that some kinks need to be worked out for sure, but more than anything they showed for the first time that MLB is serious about implementing this at some point in the relatively near future. There are no set plans, but there’s also been no indication these experiments have slowed this train down.

There are, like I said, people who don’t want to see this happen, and it’s certainly not only “traditionalists” who are resistant to any sort of change. There are valid criticisms including these systems not being accurate enough consistently enough at this point to roll out in important games, unintended consequences that would lead to a different strike zone that hitters are not prepared for, among others. I’m less resistant than others, with the caveat that obviously they need to make sure the system is accurate before it’s rolled out in the majors.

This is not about the pros and cons of the system, though. There’s always room for debate, but on this issue it seems that one side of the debate is a clear winner, even if it’s not technically over. It’s pretty damn close to a foregone conclusion at this point that this is coming to the majors at some point, and possibly within the next five years. I’m still interested in the intricacies that need to be worked out, but more than that I’m interested in what this means for player evaluation. And more specifically, what it means for the way we evaluate catchers.

Catchers are the most important defensive position on the diamond (not counting pitchers here) and the way they have evaluated them in the last decade or so has changed radically. Pitch framing has totally altered the way we think about catchers, with the ability to steal a strike becoming an incredibly valuable skill that trumps anything else catchers bring to the table. More than any other position, catchers can have their offense ignored in favor of great defense. Last season, the average major-league catcher had a wRC+ of 85, meaning they were 15 percent worse than an average hitter. The next worst positions were second base and center field, both coming in at 94. If you can play defense behind the plate, you can play in the majors, and nothing contributes more defensively behind the plate than that ability to steal strikes.

Of course, whenever robo umps do make their way to the majors, the ability to steal strikes instantly becomes meaningless. You could be the worst pitch framer the game has ever seen and it wouldn’t affect the software system calling balls and strikes. All of a sudden, over night, the single most important skill a catcher can have is made to be as important as their ability to throw a spiral.

This obviously affects the way teams evaluate the position. The position isn’t suddenly going to become a second DH slot, but offense is going to be more of a focus whenever this rule change hits. You’ll still want a catcher who can control the running game, but that matters less as teams are stealing less than ever. You’ll also still want a good game caller, as well as a guy who can block pitches in the dirt as well as a guy who can calm a pitcher down when necessary. It’s still a unique position with unique skills needed, but the most valuable from a quantifiable sense is about to disappear. And with the league already experimenting in lower-level leagues, it’s time for teams so start taking that into account with their evaluations.

Take, for example, Connor Wong, who the Red Sox obviously just picked up from the Dodgers. He plays good enough defense behind the plate, but he’s not going to win any Gold Gloves there. In fact, he’s more of a utility guy who also plays some infield. The bat, though, has some upside if he can cut down on his strikeouts. That latter part is a big reason why he’s not a top ten prospect in this system, but if we take away a big chunk of defensive value behind the plate and consider that upside offensively, does he suddenly become more valuable? Does he suddenly become a full-time catcher who a team can feel comfortable as their top option? Further down in the system, do guys like Kole Cottam and Roldani Baldwin have a better shot at sticking behind the plate, and thus making it further up the ladder, if defensive skills suddenly matter less?

That approach is most interesting when it comes to the draft and to the international amateur market. Someone like Wong is close enough to the majors where he’ll spend at least part of his career with the current rules where framing is king. A guy who is drafted this summer, though, likely isn’t going to make the majors until 2023 at the earliest, and who knows what umpiring looks like at that point. Players being signed to their first pro contracts this summer have at least a decent chance of playing their entire major-league careers with robo umps. With that knowledge, teams have to at least be considering taking bat-first catchers, or at least ignoring framing more in favor of other defensive skills. There’s certainly risk that the robo ump initiative is trashed, but the chances of that are less than 50% at this point.

I don’t actually have any answers to how teams are evaluating catchers or whether or not there even should be massive changes. All I know is I’m really interested to see what kind of catchers are drafted earlier than others, what kind of catchers get the most money on the international market, and what kind of catchers are included in what trades over the next 18 months.