VIERA, Fla. — On the surface, the numbers don’t look promising. The Nationals traded for reserve catcher Jose Lobaton on Thursday and the stat that immediately jumps out is his caught stealing percentage.
Lobaton, who will play behind starter Wilson Ramos, has thrown out just 22 of 136 runners who tried to steal against him in parts of four big league seasons. That’s an abysmal 16.2 percent.
And yet, defense was one of the reasons the Nats wanted to add Lobaton. They did so by trading right-handed pitching prospect Nathan Karns to the Tampa Bay Rays – a deal where Washington also received minor league outfielder Drew Vettleson and left-handed pitcher Felipe Rivero.
What makes the 29-year-old Lobaton so solid defensively when he struggles to control the running game? The way he calls and frames pitches, a bit of statistical analysis that has gained ground in recent years. In Tampa Bay, he caught along side one of the sport’s best in Jose Molina, a player who the advanced metrics say ranks well above his peers at that skill.
“Molina is one of the best, exactly,” Nats general manager Mike Rizzo said. “And I think he did learn a lot from Jose. And we liked the way he handles pitchers, we had a lot of good reports on his preparation for games, the fingers he puts down, he blocks balls well, he receives balls well and is a switch hitter with some offensive upside.”
Washington’s in-house stats team told Rizzo and his staff that Lobaton’s framing ability has a legitimate impact on the game. Outside analysts appear to agree. This area of analysis is far from perfected. But it’s certainly intriguing.
Add in Lobaton’s ability to hit from both sides of the plate, especially that .736 OPS as a left-handed batter in 2013, and that he is cost-controlled through 2017 at a cheap salary ($950,000) and you see why the Nats were interested adding him as an upgrade at backup catcher over players like Sandy Leon and Jhonatan Solano.
You can argue about whether the cost of trading yet another pitching prospect like Karns was worth the price for a player who might not play in more than 50 games. But maybe following the original plan - trying to find a backup catcher in mid-summer if needed - would have resulted in a steeper price at the July 31 trade deadline. Rizzo was convinced this was a solid fit and struck early.
“When we look at the defensive metrics, [Lobaton] certainly has to improve with his caught stealing percentage,” Rizzo said. “But caught stealing percentage is often a result of a lot of different things. We feel that he throws well enough that he should be better than 16 percent caught stealing percentage. But when you factor in the way he receives the ball, the way he blocks pitches, the way he handles a staff and his game-calling skills, we feel that he’s an above average defensive catcher and with some offensive upside.”