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Spreadsheet Baseball: Catching A Cold

Even before the days of stats like VORP or WARP3, the expectation for different levels of hitting from different positions on the baseball diamond has existed. A stark example of this would be the days where shortstop was considered to be a purely defensive position. This meaning that FOs and baseball experts didn't see any reason not to run out defensive wizard, offensive sinkhole players to short. Those days are over now, of course, as great hitters like Carlos Guillen, Miguel Tejada, and Derek Jeter contribute heavily with their bats, to name a few. It's now possible for a shortstop to carry a substandard glove and still be penciled into the line-up every day because of his healthy bat. Edgar Renteria is another example of a subpar defender who sticks around because of his hitting skills, and he's the fourth-best hitting shortstop in his division behind Jimmy Rollins, Hanley Ramirez, and Jose Reyes. All very good hitters. The point of all this is that a position that used to be a give-up on offense is now a plus for so many teams.

Actually, I didn't type this article to pick on Tony Pena Jr. I'll save that for another day. This article is really about Catchers. Their connection with shortstops is simple, in that Catcher is a position where you can be below league average (position blind) and still be a plus for your team. It's true that Catchers might not have once been considered all-defense positions, but the fact remains that some of the worst hitters in MLB still collecting a paycheck are back-up backstops. Catch the ball, throw out some runners, and some team will invite you to spring training. If you're Gabor Paul Bako or Sandy Alomar Jr. or Gary Bennett, they'll give you playing time long after your bat has officially gone dead (if it was ever alive). There's certainly some visible connection to the defensive-first old shortstops and the fact that people are willing to accept zippo production from a back-up catcher as if it does the team no harm.

But what's interesting about the catching position is that lukewarm-to-bad hitting still exists aplenty in starters, and is often considered acceptable. Despite the emergence of guys like Joe Mauer and Victor Martinez and Russell Martin, you can still OPS well below 800 and be considered a plus hitter if you don the tools of ignorance when it's time to field. I'll pick on Chris Snyder of the Arizona Diamondbacks, whose .249/.333/.427 line in 260 PAs is actually worth 9.0 VORP when it would be considered a loss at almost any other position. Don't get me wrong, Synder ain't considered to be great, but he's got the large half of an MLB starting job.

A topic that has come up in discussion all year long here at Royals Review is the mismanagement of the catching situation for the Royals. One of my main complaints about Buddy Bell is the fact that he couldn't/can't see how much better playing John Buck is/was than playing Jason LaRue. LaRue is one of the guys I'm talking about when I say that name brand value and the ability to squat earns you a lot of money at this position. LaRue's taken far too much playing time from Buck, and many of us--myself and RR included--have speculated it's hurt Buck's batting average to not get more regular PT.

So this week, I'm looking at the different catching arrangements in Major League Baseball where the team has divided up the playing time relatively evenly. I have no doubt I won't be able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Buck's been utterly screwed, but I think the results will still be interesting overall.

Arizona Diamondbacks

We'll start with the NL West because it gives us some nigh-evenly split time-share arrangements to start off. Chris Snyder is hitting .249/.333/.427, as previously mentioned, with a VORP of 9.0 to go with that pedestrian batting line. Miguel Montero has only 68 PAs less than Snyder, and has hit .238/.304/.393, a line that kind of looks like John Buck's a year ago. Montero is the lefty-hitting half of the current arrangement, but further examintion suggests that perhaps more PAs for Snyder are in order:

Snyder vs. Lefties .283/.365/.435, 3 HRs in 104 PAs

Synder vs. Righties .226/.312/.421, 7 HRs in 156 PAs

Montero vs. Rightes .235/.306/.409, 3 HRs in 170 PA

Montero vs. Lefties .263/.286/.263 in 22 PAs

So clearly they both have platoon splits, but Montero (it should be noted that his awful OBP still doesn't stop him from a positive VORP [2.0] really doesn't hit righthanders even as well as Snyder does. This seems like the superior player has lost some playing time to a back-up partly because of what side of the plate the back-up swings from. That, and Snyder's abysmal production last year doubtless did him few favors at the beginning of the year. Either way, Snyder has been the better player, no matter if the pitcher throws with his right or wrong hand.

Colorado Rockies

A survivor-type, Yorvit Torrealba has managed to get the majority of the playing time in Denver thanks to the struggles of another Rockies' catching prospect. Of course, hitting .281/.346/.396 with half your games at Coors Field only impresses Mrs. Torrealba, not me or anyone else familar with "home-road splits." Torrealba has hit a paltry .230/.317/.341 on the road, as opposed to .322/.372/.441 at Coors. That's mighty fishy.

Fishy or no, he's had 307 PAs to Chris Ianneta's 181. Ianneta has hit a terrible .179 on the year, but cut the kid some slack, ladies and gents. It's hard to adjust to part-time role as a rookie and the .121 Isolated Patience (OBP-BA), if not the .285 SLG (.106 ISoPower), say "at least give the kid some more PAs." Sadly, that probably won't happen this year due to the Rockies' alleged contention, and Ianneta may be doomed to becoming the next J.D. Closser.

San Diego Padres

The Padres are at or near the top of the league in many pitching categories while four different catchers have seen time there this year, which is another knock to the "he works well with the staff" platitude brought out to defend back-up catchers. To start the season, Josh Bard was supposed to be the starter, but he struggled out of the gate and some playing time was given to Rob Bowen who acquited himself well in part-time play before being traded to the A's in the Milton Bradley deal. Along the way, the Padres jumped at the chance to pick-up Michael Barret, who slugged .500 last year, on the cheap from the Cubs. The Padres thought they were buying low on a good hitter for the position, and Bard lost playing time to this new menace.

Now that Barrett has established that he's fallen off a cliff, hitting .231/.238/.288 (-4.8) as a Padre in 105 PA, the Friars have come full circle to Bard. Who may, after all, be the best option. Bard is hitting a not-spectucalar-at-all-but-jes-fine .267/.349/.382 with a 11.0 VORP in just under 300 PAs. While he's not the star he looked like in 2006, he's still a solid player. That's more than anyone can say for Mike Barrett right now. Ouch.

Baltimore Orioles

The O's are included here as a warning about two different things. The first is that Catcher's can be much slower in coming back from injury than other position players, causing their production to suffer as they play through whatever after-affects they experience. Catching a physically demanding position, and sometimes an injured catcher just can't recover his stroke when an early season injury knocks him out for a decent period of time.

Enter Ramon Hernandez, who's hitting only .253/.353/.370 this year after slugging a career-high .479 last season with 23 home runs. This year he was hurt in Spring Training and his power has been, well, AWOL most of the time. He's retained some value (8.3 VOEP) by upping his walk rate, and he's still a very nice defender. Still, it's a lost year for the Razor in terms of power when he was a nice surprise for the O's last year. Optimistics--me, for instance--might look forward to seeing what a completely healthy, walk-happy Hernandez will do next year, but for now his value has shrunk due to the loss of power and his injury down time.

With Hernandez only having collected 283 PAs, the responsbility for backing him falls to...Paul Bako. Gabor, god love him for his achievements in Royal Blue, has had another Paul Bako-like season with the Orioles: .221/.306/.275 and a -4.0 VORP (which seems low but, in a common theme here, standards for catchers hitting are low) in the 148 PAs he's collected due to the Razor's injury and his time backing up Hernandez now that the latter is back to playing. That's a lot of powerless at-bats, and a lot of outs as well. Obviously Hernandez should have been the primary catcher here, but the Orioles needed to have a realistic contingency plan (J.R. House) that they were willing to use (they wouldn't use him) instead of Bako and (gag) Alberto Castillo (double gag).

Chicago Cubs

I honestly tried to type something about Jason Kendall and Koyle Hill somehow having major league jobs, but I couldn't stop alternately laughing and feeling like I was going to hurl. They're not very productive players (giggle) this year (retch). And Mike Barrett got traded and now looks like he's done. What a mess (if anyone complains about how I omitted Kendall's decent last 70 at-bats, I saw it. It's totally unsustainable).

Cinncinnati Reds

Necessity once again stepped in and forced some kind of PT-sharing arrangement here, as David Ross has sunk back to back-up level production, at .207/.267/.399, -2.0 VORP. Thus, on-again off-again bench monster Javier Valentin has garnered 153 PAs and posted the decent-for-a-catcher line of .275/.333/.391 with a VORP of 4.2. It's worth wondering at this point if Ross's 2006 was just a big fluke brought on by an uncharacteristicly high batting average, and if the Reds wouldn't just be better off giving Valentin the majority of the PT in the future.

If there's one thing wrong with Valentin, if that's this "switch-hitting" charade needs to be dropped. He's hit just .215/.292/.278 right-handed for his career, while his lefty stroke is at a thoroughly acceptable .256/.310/.430. On the season, he correctly has only 13 PAs against lefties. Since Ross's OPS against lefties (a power-heavy 766) is 150 points higher than against righties, it seems like the Reds catcher situation is nowhere near as broken as it seems. They just need to know how to use these two as a platoon.

Florida Marlins

I would like to take this opportunity to admonish the Fish on their lack of creativity. It would have been really interesting to see, over the past few years, an arrangement where former catchers Mike Jacobs and Josh Willingham could sub behind the plate for Miguel Olivo, giving the team some neat roster flexibility with no need to carry a traditional no-hit back-up. Instead, Little Miggy has once again been exposed by a league as a damn impatient hitter (.236/.254/.378) in 378 PAs and Matt Treanor is backing him up. In all fairness to Treanor, he's having his Rany Jazayerli year, posting an "I can only do this once" line of .292/.373/.417 in 111 PAs. If the Marlins go to camp next year expecting a repeat of those numbers over a more extended period of time...ouch.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Perhaps it doesn't surprise you that the Pirates are included on this list, considering how bad Pittsburgh catchers have historically been. In what seems like something that happens every year in Pittsburgh at some position, this year the "unproductive starter/productive back-up" position is catcher. Ronny Paulino is "hitting" .241/.281/.367 for a VORP of -1.3, and he's reminding us that while he had a nice season last year, you shouldn't count on an offensive profile that depends on hitting .300 when the player in question is a slow-footed catcher.

Ryan Doumit, stepping into Craig Wilson's old role as catcher, right fielder, and sometimes a first basemen, even, is hitting .277/.344/478 (276 PAs) which would be a big plus as a full-time catcher. He's good where he is now, though, and it would be just like the Pirates not to ever consider him for a starting job behind the plate.

St. Louis Cardinals

Sure, Yadier Molina's defense makes him worth having on your team, and actually helps a lot if you start him. He's also hitting .270/.341/.320 and that's good for him. That's in 277 PAs, so you may be wondering who has enough of a bat to hog the rest of the playing time? Maybe someone who can swat the apple a little to help complement Molina's skill? Shit no, it's Gary Bennett, whose continued major league employment is a total mystery. .237/.268/.305 in 144 PAs with a negative VORP doesn't exactly say "yeah, sign that Bennett kid up," but apparently he has his charms. It's not like his defense is anything special, though. Perhaps he's just an undead catcher zombie or something and the Cardinals, being an equal opportunity employer, needed to have at least one of those on their roster this year.

Kansas City Royals

We arrive, finally, at Kansas City to revisit our own grim PA-splitting arrangement between the legendary hero who is John Buck and the moustache-twirling villain, Jason LaRue. Before I post the statistics, it's important remember how I've documented here that it's very hard to be far below replacement value when you're a catcher, due to the low hitting expectations.

John Buck is still having a break-out year of sorts, hitting what some of us would call a Bell-strangled .228/.314/.476. He's walked more often this year, but the BA is currently running on empty. Despite this, that .476 SLG keeps him at over a win in hitting value with a 12.3 VORP. Whatever else you might say about Buck--he's faded, he doesn't make enough contact--he's contributed positively this year. He apparently decided he wanted to be like Mike...Napoli. That's not the worst thing in the world at catcher, in fact it's worked out fine in the 293 PAs that Buck's managed to get.

Jason LaRue, on the other hands, represents all that is wrong with America: he's a fat millionaire Repub-, er, sorry, this analogy might be a little too political. Let me try this again. Jason LaRue is a very bad baseball player, one who might be a saint off the field, but just can't hit on it. Other kids don't want to be seen on the playground with him because it's social suicide to hang with the kid whose hitting .149/.232/.391 over an astounding 152 PAs. That's good for a -9.3 VORP. I said this already, but having a negative VORP as a catcher is hard. Having -9.3 VORP as a back-up catcher is, well, amazing in a way. Needless to say, it's a huge indictment of LaRue, who's basically a give up in the line-up, and Buddy Bell, who has seen fit give so many plate appearances to the far inferior player.

In Conclusion

You can console yourselves with the fact that the Royals are not the only team where the manager/FO makes terrible decisions in regard to the splitting up of playing time, who they've recruited as their back-up, or even who starts. Thank god LaRue wasn't annointed the starter in the pre-season, because that would the true tragedy: we would never have got to see the power-hitting, mullet-sporting, womanizing (speculation) hero that is John Buck get to have the .476 SLG season that he has had. If nothing else, I think perusing the statistics of the teams who split their playing time at catcher shows that baseball FOs still have a lot to learn when it comes to assembling a full roster of people who actually contribute.

Spreadsheet Baseball returns next week, but until then, stay classy, and enjoy this article. Comments/questions are welcome/...not encouraged! Psyche! Haha, I've had too much caffeine. Just kidding of course, they're still encouraged.