When the Nationals acquired Jose Lobaton in spring, the team touted the catcher’s defense, especially his ability to frame pitches, as one of his attractive skills. In 56 games this season, Lobaton is hitting .222 with a .586 OPS. Even though he isn’t hitting well, Lobaton’s defense has made an impact, and both coaches and pitchers have been pleased with his efforts behind the plate.
At one point last month, Lobaton caught Doug Fister several times in a row and Fister posted a dominant string of outings. In recent starts, including Sunday’s uneven start, Lobaton has been behind the plate for Stephen Strasburg, who had two strong performances with Lobaton before that. Lobaton rates well in pitch-framing statistics and in blocking balls. His defense has shone.
“He’s phenomenal back there,” Manager Matt Williams said. “He’s comfortable with all of our guys.”
Lobaton credits his defensive improvement to the years he spent with Tampa Bay and catcher Jose Molina, who is among the best at framing pitches in baseball. Over the course of a season, the ability to get extra strike calls, and thus outs, can save pitchers a fair amount of innings and runs. Even one or two runs can be the difference in a win. Lobaton soaked up all Molina preached and did.
“One of the biggest things for me in career has been Jose,” Lobaton said recently. “He was a great teammate and he’s one of the best, even now, at getting strike calls.”
Even though he has started only 50 games this season, Lobaton has notched nearly 15 extra strikes (the difference between actual and predicted strikes received by the catcher), according to BaseballProspectus.com, which ranks 34thin the majors. (Wilson Ramos has gotten -5 extra strikes.) Lobaton’s pitch framing efforts are worth 3.1 runs.
Last season, the Nationals got 18.2 fewer extra strikes, according to BaseballProspectus.com, which ranked 12th in the majors. So far this season, the Nationals have gotten 13.4 more extra strike calls, which ranks 13th in the majors but is a positive improvement.
After Strasburg’s previous start, in which he fired eight innings against the Diamondbacks, he even noted Lobaton’s efforts: “He’s been calling great game for me and he’s been working real hard back there, getting a lot of borderline calls in my favor. I like what he does back there.”
During games he doesn’t start, Lobaton watches carefully from the bench. He notices what pitchers and catchers from both teams do and watch pitches work. He takes note of the strike zone and which borderline pitches are called strikes.
“To me, Loby is just a sponge,” starter Gio Gonzalez said. “He absorbs everything and is just positive.”
To improve his ability at framing pitches, Lobaton learned an exercise from Molina that he still uses to this day. The drill helps with reflexes and soft hands. When he feels like he needs it, Lobaton has bullpen catcher/pitcher Sammy Palace toss balls at a rapid pace from a short distance. Lobaton has to catch the ball quickly, softly and drop it, and then grab the next one.
Lobaton said the drill has helped him develop quicker and softer hands. “If you hold on to it too much and press hard, you’ve got the next one coming at you and you can’t catch the next one,” Lobaton said.
With outside pitches, in which he has to reached across his body with his glove hand, Lobaton makes sure to stay firm. If not, the pitch may pull his hand out of the strike zone.. “If you catch it and just hold it, that pitch is gonna stay in there,” he said.
Getting to know the Nationals pitching staff better has also helped Lobaton. Early in the season, he didn’t feel as confident. Now, he knows which pitcher’s fastball sinks and exactly how and each pitcher’s tendencies. Nationals pitchers have a 2.89 ERA with Lobaton behind the plate and a 3.21 ERA with Ramos. Lobaton has also caught nine of the 31 stolen bases attempts against him this season.
According to BaseballProspectus.com, Lobaton ranks 11th in the majors in passed balls and wild pitches saved (the difference between actual passed balls and wild pitches and the predicted one). Pitchers have thrown 13 wild pitches with Lobaton behind the plate and he has had only passed ball.
Before starts, and after he has caught the day’s starter in the bullpen, Lobaton has bullpen coach Matt LeCroy toss balls in the dirt on purpose. “It stretches my legs and helps me feel good going into games,” he said.
Lobaton may not be hitting like he hoped but he has found comfort in the defense he has been able to add. “I’ve always told myself, if my hitting isn’t there at least my catching should be,” he said. And he works hard to ensure that his defense stays sharp at all times so that when he does play the pitchers trust him.
“I want the manager to feel confident in me, the pitching staff to have faith in me, and the pitcher to have confidence and not be like, ‘Oh the back-up is catching,’ but ‘Oh, it’s Lobaton catching. It’ll be fine.'”
FROM THE POST
The Nationals pound the Giants, 14-6, to cap a 9-1 homestand, writes Adam Kilgore.
Stephen Strasburg isn’t a finished product just yet, writes Thomas Boswell.
FROM THE WEEKEND’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Lehigh Valley 5, Syracuse 4: Omar Poveda allows three runs on six hits over 4 1/3 innings. Ryan Mattheus goes 1 2/3 scoreless innings. Brandon Laird hit a two-run homer.
Trenton 7, Harrisburg 3: Austin Voth gave up five runs on four hits and three walks in one inning. Brian Dupra gave up another three. James Simmons and Robert Benincasa combined five scoreless innings. Cole Leonida, Caleb Ramsey and Jason Martinson each drove in a run.
Potomac 12, Frederick 1 (7): Ian Dickson fired six scoreless innings despite five walks. Brandon Miller hit his 13th homer. Stephen Perez and John Wooten each drove in two runs.
Hagerstown 7, Hickory 2: Reynaldo Lopez allowed one run and struck out four over 5 2/3 innings. Manny Rodriguez earned a three-inning save. Wilmer Difo hit his 13th homer and Narciso Mesa hit his fourth.
Auburn 8, Williamsport 0: Austen Williams threw five scoreless innings, and Connor Bach added 2 2/3 innings. Austin Davidson went 2 for 4 with two doubles. Matthew Page went 2 for 4 with three RBI. Osvaldo Abreu drove in two runs.