FanPost

Where are the Sundbergs of yesteryear?

I keep thinking about this paragraph in the ESPN retrospective on the 1985 Royals:

From the start of the '85 season, though, Schuerholz, the general manager, enjoyed a near Midas touch with every move. Brought in during the offseason was catcher Jim Sundberg, a sage handler of pitchers, to work with young, hard throwers Saberhagen, Jackson and Mark Gubicza, each hustled to the big leagues only the prior season. The trio flourished in a rotation with veteran lefties Charlie Leibrandt and Bud Black, both acquired in earlier trades. Only 21, Saberhagen took home the Cy Young Award. [emphasis mine]

Jason Kendall is a disaster.  I think we all agree on that.  But I'd still like to see us bring in a veteran catcher for 2011 if we're going to start bring up the pitchers (Montgomery, Duffy, Lamb, etc.) next year.  I think young pitchers need a veteran catcher to help them learn how to pitch in the majors.  After reading this ESPN story, I realized that I believe this because, when I was learning baseball (I turned 7 during the '85 World Series), this is the philosophy the great John Schuerholz preached and, I'm sure, the KC Star (and the KC Times) dutifully repeated.

Sundberg was 34 that season, and he'd already been in the league 11 years.  John Wathan, who'd been the catcher in 1984, when Saberhagen, Jackson, and Gubicza came up, was a year older and backed up Sundberg.  Although the article describes Black and Liebrandt as veterans, both of them were only 28. Liebrandt was in his sixth full year in the Majors (plus a cup of coffee in 1979). Black was in his fourth year.  The bullpen had some veteran pitchers (e.g. Quisenberry and Dennis Leonard), but this is clearly a philosophy that says that if experience matters for developing pitchers, it's the catcher's experience that matters.

The strategy makes sense to me because I believe that old players have learned from their experience, and that young players learn faster if they have teachers, and the catcher (as opposed to the pitching coach or other pitchers on the roster) is the only one who is out on the field communicating on every pitch.  However, I don't know if "handling pitchers" is a repeatable skill, and I don't know if experience matters. 

I'm also willing to be convinced that there's no wisdom to the general strategy.  In a quick search I couldn't find any analysis on this point, and I don't remember anything from the old Baseball Almanacs, but it seems like somebody somewhere must have run the numbers at some point.  I did look to see if Schuerholz repeated the strategy in Atlanta, but, by the time he got there (1991), the Braves great pitchers had already been called up (Glavine in 1987, Smoltz in 1988, and Avery in 1990) and Liebrandt had already been brought over from the Royals.  Indeed, the only major changes to the pitching in the Braves worst-to-first turnaround seem to be bringing in veteran Juan Berenger to close and shortening the rotation to 4 pitchers.

If that philosophy is right, who is the veteran catcher it implies that Wil Myers needs to be moved to outfield (or traded for other prospects).  He's in the same wave as the pitchers and would be blocked by whatever veteran we bring in to work with the pitchers. 

It also means that we need to identify a modern-day Jim Sundberg.  I know some catchers have good "defensive" reputations, but I always took that to mean blocking pitches and throwing out base stealers.  Are there catchers with a good reputation for "handling pitchers?"  Is there any reason to believe that this is a repeatable skill? Are there pitcher-handling metrics that I've missed? 

There are enough examples in relatively recent history to know that a wave of talented young pitching can turn a franchise around.  We seem to have some talented young pitchers, but I wonder if that's enough.  I know it's all a crapshoot, but are we doing everything necessary to put ourselves in a position to succeed?

This FanPost was written by a member of the Royals Review community. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors and writers of this site.

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