Chris Stewart: Is it time we give him credit for his defense?

Stewart dips into the Boston Nation. - Jared Wickerham

Chris Stewart has been a favorite target this year of Yankee fans ire over the less-than-stellar punch of the offense. It might not be fair, but it is reality for him. Ironically, Stewart is actually producing more offensively this year than his career average, but that's still at a weak 72 wRC+ figure versus his historical 66. He's a 31-year-old career backup catcher, and at this point you have to know pretty much what you're getting offensively before the season even started. Catchers get old and their offensive production declines. Then the rhetoric of their defensive prowess increases inversely to their position in the batting order.

Over the course of this season, I couldn't help but notice that Stewart has been ranked as one of the more valuable position players on the Yankees when measured by WAR. That is despite the fact that he produces little with the bat, and his base running skills are best described as typically poor for a guy who has to squat all game. All of his limited WAR production is coming completely from Fangraphs' Fielding calculation for defense. Quantifying defensive production has improved over the years, but it still is certainly limited in its ability. Enough so that I admit I pretty much questioned whether one should give Stewart credit for what the numbers were saying. Then this play happened last week, and the first thing I thought about was that Fld calculation.

The issues with assessments of defensive prowess are numerous, and quantifying a catcher's performance is arguably the most difficult position to measure. How defenders impact each others measurements in rating systems such as UZR are legitimate questions. For example, take a look at Mike Trout's Fld numbers for this year and last year. Catchers are often judged by the percent of attempted base-stealers they are able to throw out, but the pitcher's speed to the plate arguably has the greatest influence in those plays. How certain plays are scored also has an impact on standard measures such as passed balls or wild pitches. Where the fault should lay in those cases is often debatable. So with all of that in mind, what do the numbers say about Stewart's defense?

Chris Stewart

Fld%

RF/9

CS%

PB

2013

0.998

8.97

34%

5

league AVG

0.993

8.17

26%


If we look at fielding percentage, range factor and caught stealing percentage, then Stewart does look like an above-average defender. Early in the season he had a few passed balls credited to him, but his current total of five is well within the league norm. He has only made one error so far this year, and he's been a part of four double plays including the aforementioned one in Boston last week. Stewart's ability to frame pitches has already been covered in detail elsewhere. So if we look at the advanced theoretically more-encompassing statistics for measuring defense, then how does Stewart stack up in the league leaders for his position?

Fangraphs 100 AB's

Fld

Matt Wieters

4.9

Joe Mauer

3.8

Chris Stewart

3.2

Yan Gomes

3.2

Baseball-Reference

Total Zone Runs as C

Matt Wieters

6

Joe Mauer

6

A.J. Pierzynski

3

Chris Stewart

3

Yan Gomes

2

Here are two measures that suggest he is at least in the top third of the AL. If you add in his framing ability, then that previous statement feels even safer. This doesn't completely make up for his lack of offense, but that clearly was never in the plan at the beginning of the season. The injuries, and the lack of viable replacements, exposed the underbelly of the Yankee organization's offensive talent. Chris Stewart was never part of that plan. It was to focus on run prevention, and there is evidence to suggest he's been helping in that measure. I think it's time we start to at least give him credit for what he is contributing, versus what he never was expected to produce.

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