For a team that is on an eight-game losing streak, leads all of baseball in the number of players on the disabled list, may set some kind of record for games missed due to injury, is using its third- and fourth-string catchers, its fifth-string first baseman, fourth- and fifth-string second basemen, and has a starting rotation that features preseason starters nos. 1, 8, 9, 10, and 11, it can be hard to find positives about the Texas Rangers. One of those positives comes from that third-string catcher, and that is Robinson Chirinos’ ability to throw out would-be basestealers.
Chirinos has gunned down 20 of 42 basestealers this season, a rate of 48 percent. That gives him the best caught stealing percentage of any catcher with more than 10 stolen base attempts against him this season, just ahead of Yadier Molina. Five of the twenty-two successful stolen base attempts that have been logged against Chirinos came with Yu Darvish on the mound, against whom baserunners are a perfect 8-8 this season, so it is difficult to blame Chirinos for those five, making his season totals that much more impressive.
Thanks to Chirinos, Texas has the third-best caught stealing percentage in baseball, despite the Yu Darvish effect. The backup to Chirinos, Chris Gimenez has posted a better-than-league average 33 percent caught stealing rate himself (he is perfect in non-Darvish games), making the current Rangers’ backstop tandem one of the best in the league at this one thing, despite their shortcomings in other areas.
Chirinos hasn’t always been a basestealer’s nightmare behind the plate. In 2011, his only other season to see meaningful MLB time behind the plate, Chirinos allowed 21 steals on 23 attempts in just 19 games, a nine percent caught stealing rate, which was the lowest in all of baseball that year among catchers. Since 2011, Chirinos missed all of 2012 due to the aftereffects of a concussion sustained in Spring Training, and only saw three games in the majors last season behind the plate, equaling his total as a third baseman.
Chirinos was a late convert to catcher. He signed with the Cubs as a sixteen-year-old infielder, and spent the next eight years in their minor league system, never reaching a level above Double-A, before he switched to catcher. As a new catcher, he actually found decent success in limiting the run game in the minor leagues, consistently posting caught stealing rates in the low thirties prior to his call-up to the big leagues. Making a positional switch as a 24-year old Double-A ballplayer can’t be easy, but Chirinos clearly worked hard at it, and is reaping the benefits today.
The Rangers have now put together a little over a year of great success from their catchers defending against the stolen base. After starting the first two months of 2013 by allowing 22 of 27 baserunners (81 percent) to swipe a bag successfully, Rangers catchers turned it around from June 2013 onward to gun down runners at a 36 percent clip. In 2014, as a team Texas is catching guys at a 41 percent rate. Only St. Louis has been better since June of last year.
Coincidentally, the Rangers added Pudge Rodriguez as a special assistant to the GM and instructor before the 2013 season, and added Bengie Molina to its coaching staff before the 2014 year. Add in Sr. Executive Vice President Jim Sundberg, and Rangers catchers have no shortage of options they can turn to for assistance with their defensive game behind the plate. The future of Rangers catching looks bright, too, if the development of Jorge Alfaro goes as planned, as the High-A catcher has an elite arm and consistently posts 80-grade pop times.
We saw Leonys Martin have a breakout year as a thrower last season, collecting 14 outfield assists, the second-most in the American League. This year, Martin has five outfield assists, off his pace from last season. While one reason for the decrease is that Martin is struggling to maintain his near-perfect success from last season, another reason is that now the league knows he is capable of throwing out runners at that 2013 rate, and they don’t run on him as often. If Chirinos keeps doing what he is doing for much longer, his reputation alone will prevent some basestealers from even making an attempt. And that is its own kind of weapon.