By Rich Arleo
Baseball has been called a game of numbers for years, and for good reason. There are stats to judge almost everything a hitter or pitcher does these days, and while the ever-evolving process of quantifying these stats has long been in place for pitching and offense, measuring defense has been a true challenge.
Beyond using your eyes to tell you what looks like a great catch or a great throw, the process of analyzing a players’ defense has been far from precise. Most fielders have always been judged by the amount of errors they make; if a player doesn’t make many errors, they are a good fielder, and vice versa. While it’s been known for some time that defensive play can’t just be measured simply by errors, the struggle to study someone’s fielding ability has been ongoing. The rise of Sabermetric stats such as UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) and DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) have gone a long way in improving this, and front offices have begun to adopt these stats.
One of the newest defensive metrics for outfielders, which has become official just this season and is measured by MLB’s Statcast technology, is Catch Probability. According to the Statcast glossary, Catch Probability measures how far a fielder had to go and how much time he had to get there in order to tell the likelihood that a ball hit to the outfield will be caught. Statcast measures this by tracking the start position of the fielder and the hang time of each batted ball. One of the most exciting and unique things that Catch Probability has helped create is a 5 Star Rating system. A catch with a 91-95 percent probability is a 1 Star play, while a catch made with a 0-25 percent probability is a 5 Star play.
Through June, fewer than 10 players have made more than one 5 Star Out. Before play began on June 26, four players were atop the leaderboard with three 5 Star outs: Milwaukee Brewers’ Keon Broxton, Colorado Rockies’ Carlos Gonzalez, Atlanta Braves’ Ender Inciarte, Philadelphia Phillies’ Odubel Herrera. Of these four, CarGo had the best 5 Star conversion rate (3-for-13, 23%).
This rating system has given us a new way to help analyze how difficult a catch truly was rather than just simply saying, “wow he had to dive for that, what a great play.” Nonetheless, some 5 Star catches look relatively routine, despite the fact that we now know just how impressive they truly are. Here are the best 5 Star catches of 2017 so far, ranked by Catch Probability.
5.) 14% Catch Probability (Tied-2)
Odubel Herrera, Philadelphia Phillies (April 22 vs. Atlanta Braves)
Herrera, who is the proud owner of three 5 Star catches this season, opens the list with one of two catches converted at a 14% probability. Herrera saved the potential game-tying run from possibly scoring with an unreal running grab up against the wall in right-center field. Dansby Swanson’s drive had a hit probability of 73% and left the bat with an exit velocity of 104.5 miles per hour and a launch angle of 20 degrees. Herrera had to travel 88 feet in just 4.6 seconds by sprinting 29.4 feet per second to haul in the grab before smacking into the wall.
Jason Heyward, Chicago Cubs (June 4 vs. St. Louis Cardinals)
Playing against his former team, Heyward needed to travel 52 feet in 3.2 seconds to make this 5 Star catch — one of two he’s made in eight opportunities so far this season for the right fielder. The backhanded diving catch robbed Matt Carpenter of a likely double or triple in the first inning.
4.) 12% Catch Probability (T-3)
Keon Broxton, Milwaukee Brewers (May 24 vs. Toronto Blue Jays)
Broxton, another outfielder with three 5 Star grabs so far, had his best when he made a run-saving grab in the sixth inning against Toronto. Broxton had to travel 43 feet in just 3.1 seconds to snag the sinking liner.
Ender Inciarte, Atlanta Braves (June 10 vs. New York Mets)
After catching an MLB-best 11 5 Star outs in ’16, Inciarte is off to a fast start again this year with three. Inciarte robbed Wilmer Flores of a two-run extra-base hit by traveling a whopping 108 feet in 5.2 seconds — relatively routine for the highlight-reel outfielder.
Odubel Herrera, Philadelphia Phillies (April 29 vs. Los Angeles Dodgers)
One of the prettiest diving catches this year, Herrera had to travel 73 feet in 4.1 seconds to rob Yasiel Puig. Herrera went just 4-for-37 (10.8%) in 5 Star opportunities last year but is already 3-for-14 (21.4%) in ’17.
3.) 9% Catch Probability (T-2)
Ender Inciarte, Atlanta Braves (June 7 vs Philadelphia Phillies)
Inciarte carries us into the single-digits in Catch Probability, of which only a handful have been converted. Inciarte’s toughest catch of the year was once again made to look easy. Any fan watching this grab may overlook this as an easy play, but one look at Maikel Franco’s face tells the story. Franco could barely believe Inciarte got to this ball, and it wasn’t easy. Inciarte had just 3.2 seconds to go 47 feet and send a stunned Franco back to the dugout.
Andrew Toles, Los Angeles Dodgers (May 3 vs. San Francisco Giants)
Toles has made just one 5 Star out on only two opportunities this season, but his lone contribution to this list is one of the best. With an opportunity time of 4.3 seconds and 82 feet needed to travel, Toles kept the game from breaking wide open with this grab on a liner by Hunter Pence.
2.) 6% Catch Probability (T-3)
Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers (May 10 vs. Pittsburgh Pirates)
Bellinger has exploded onto the scene in Los Angeles, mostly thanks to his incredible power, but the 21-year-old is no slouch in the outfield either. Bellinger sped to the ball, put his right hand out and tumbled to grab this quick-sinking liner off the bat of Gregory Polanco. He had to travel 48 feet in just 3.2 seconds to convert his lone 5 Star out on the season so far.
Max Kepler, Minnesota Twins (April 14 vs. Chicago White Sox)
One of the early leaders for catch of the year, Kepler took a real risk on this grab and it paid off. The Twins sophomore had only 2.7 seconds, one of the shortest opportunity times on a converted catch this year, to notch the first catch with a single digit probability percentage of the season.
Steven Souza Jr. Tampa Bay Rays (April 28 vs. Toronto Blue Jays)
Souza was a menace to the Blue Jays in this game with two 5 Star outs in the span of two innings. He kept two runs off the board in the third inning on a running grab at the track in center field — an out with a 24% Catch Probability — but his encore was even better. What looked to be a sure hit on a quick looping liner by Devon Travis, Souza made the catch with 2.8 seconds of opportunity time and 37 feet of distance needed.
1. 5% Catch Probability – Carlos Gonzalez, Colorado Rockies (May 9 vs. Chicago Cubs)
In 2016, CarGo went 0-for-30 in 5 Star opportunities. This year he’s the early leader with a 23% conversion rate (3-for-13) and the current owner of Catch of the Year based on catch probability. Gonzalez had to travel 41 feet in only 2.9 seconds to make this lunging grab of Javy Baez’s line drive, yielding a fist pump from rookie starter Antonio Senzatela.