Sometimes, the weirdest seasons to analyze are the ones where a player was so bad defensively, it outweighed their offense. In 2008, Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Ryan Doumit had one of those seasons.
Some of my favorite seasons to analyze are ones where a player might be outstanding when it comes to batting, but is so bad defensively, it might actually outweigh their value with the bat. Over the years, the Pittsburgh Pirates have had their fair share of seasons like this.
Everyone’s favorite weird player, Adam Dunn, and his 2009 season is the epitome of this. In 2009, Dunn batted .267/.398/.529, crushed 38 home runs and 28 doubles, and walked 17.4% of the time. He was given an outstanding 144 OPS+ and 142 wRC+, and was easily a top 15 bat in the MLB that season, maybe even top 10. But with the glove, it’s honestly arguable that the Washington Nationals may have been better off going with a three-man infield with Dunn being a 4th outfielder. Dunn had -43 DRS, and a -24 total zone runs above average between left field, right field and first base. He had a -5.2 dWAR (defensive WAR) which outweighed his 4.0 oWAR (offensive WAR) and ended his season with a -.4 bWAR (Baseball Reference WAR). Just a year prior, the Pittsburgh Pirates had a season like this with catcher Ryan Doumit.
The switch hitting catcher entered the 2008 season as the Bucs’ starting catcher, but not because of his glove. Doumit hit for a strong .318/.357/.501 with 15 home runs and 127 OPS+ line across 465 plate appearances. Despite his low walk rate of 4.9%, he struck out just 11.8% of the time. In 2008, that was 6.2% better than the MLB average. Among players with at least 450 plate appearances, Doumit was 53rd in wRC+ at 123. He sat just behind Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz (124) tied with Carlos Delgado, and surpassed Hall of Fame first baseman Jim Thome. His .369 wOBA tied him with four other players including Adrian Gonzalez and Bobby Abreu. Among other peers at his position, only Joe Mauer and Brian McCann surpassed Doumit in wRC+.
Now, those are great numbers. But what if I told you he had a -3.8 fWAR? Yes, a -3.8 fWAR (FanGraphs WAR). If you want to know how bad that is, Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis in 2018 had a -3.2 fWAR after having a 44 wRC+ and .539 OPS.
So what brought it down so much?
On paper, he didn’t look like that bad of a defender. Just a -1 DRS, -2 stolen base runs above average, and 27% of the runners trying to steal on him caught stealing. Not Yadier Molina good, but he was doing just fine, at least that’s what it looks like on the surface.
So, what was Doumit’s undoing in 2008? Pitch framing.
In terms of framing, it probably would have benefited the Pittsburgh Pirates if they just sent him out with a football chest protector over his normal chest protector and let the ball hit his torso. Doumit was worth a whopping -54.4 framing runs per Baseball Prospectus. That’s beyond abysmal. No catcher has come remotely close to that low of a number. Barely any have even reached half of that in a single season.
The next closest is another former Pirates catcher, Jason Kendall at -36.5 in 2000, but clearly he is nearly 20 runs better than 2008 Ryan Doumit. In terms of FanGraphs’ framing stat, he was worth -63.3 runs. The next closest was 2014 Jarrod Saltalamacchia with less than half at -31.6. You can even notice it visibly. While there aren’t any 2008 games to go off of, there are a few games where you can find Doumit catching. Where most catchers would snap their wrist in position to frame the ball, Doumit’s glove would move downward, or not at all. Even borderline strikes that were still strikes were being called balls because of how bad he was at glove placement and control.
Clearly, this was before the Pirates valued pitch framing like they started to in 2013 and do now. It’s odd that even though Doumit was costing the Pirates so much in terms of pitch framing, they didn’t use him elsewhere in 2008. Doumit had plenty of experience in left field and first base. While those positions were blocked by the likes of Adam LaRoche and Jason Bay, they could have (and should have if you ask me) also attempted to try him at third base, as pre-breakout Jose Bautista was doing horrible both offensively and defensively. While both back-up catchers Raul Chavez and Ronny Paulino weren’t even close to Doumit offensively, they were just as good as Doumit, maybe even better, defensively, and far better pitch framers.