Friday, May 09, 2008

Catchers wanted

The Spider and I like to joke that if only we were left-handed, we could both be pitching in the major leagues. There will always be room for any lefty pitcher who can retire a single lefty hitter in a key moment. (There’s even a catchy nickname for such pitchers, “looguy,” which stands for “Lefty One Out Guy.”) It’s why Jesse Orosco pitched until he was about 70.

Of course, I can throw a mediocre knuckleball, which is almost as good. Charlie Hough used a much better version of that pitch to stick in the majors until he was about 115 – the Spider and I actually saw one of his last games, against Cincinnati. Kevin Mitchell hit a home run off of him that landed somewhere in Georgia, and a couple of weeks later he announced he was retiring. “I could probably throw other pitches,” he once said. “The only reason I don’t is that I love pitching in the major leagues.”

But the real money’s in catching. (Except when you have to catch Hough; as Bob Eucker famously said when asked how to catch a knuckleball, “You wait until it stops rolling, and pick it up.”) The Newark Star-Ledger’s Dan Graziano wrote an excellent article on it the other day. Basically, nobody likes “the tools of ignorance.” Coaches have a world of trouble convincing good players to go behind the plate, where their bodies will be pounded and their offensive stats suffer as a result. It means a premium on good catching prospects.

In fact, a number of catchers are converted from other positions in the minors; there are also a lot of guys who come up as catchers but who are moved elsewhere, with Craig Biggio as the most prominent recent example. It probably added years to his career, and it is little wonder why many other catchers, when they age, seek to move to first base or DH to keep going a while longer.

So, that’s the article. The sidebars, however, are another story. Under “Next Generation” the paper lists Victor Martinez of the Indians, who is already 29 years old. They could have gone for a bunch of younger guys – Houston has JR Towles (24), Seattle has Kurt Suzuki (24). Texas has Jarrod Saltamacchia, who just turned 23 (and who may wind up at first after all). The Angels have Mike Napoli (26) AND Jeff Mathis (25), plus a kid named Bobby Wilson (25) tearing up AAA [link]. In fact, those guys plus the other four they listed (Russell Martin, Joe Mauer, Geovany Soto, and Brian McCann) make for a fairly decent talent pool.

But “Old Reliables” is where it gets really kind of odd.

Jorge Posada, sure. Jason Varitek, of course. Ivan Rodriguez, definitely. Now that Mike Piazza and Javy Lopez have retired those are probably the best remaining old guard guys – all of them 36 years old. The other two guys on the list are pretty funny.

1. Paul Lo Duca, Washington. Identified as an “Offensive catcher whose bat is slipping.” I’d like to think that this is actually a great pun, because for years the only kind of offense LoDuca has given is the “affront to civilized behavior” kind. His first full season, he was 29, and it was the only time his OPS has topped .800. He hit 25 of his 80 career homers that year.

2. Jason Kendall, Milwaukee. “Still a high OPB guy who can handle a staff.” Now, Kendall’s thing was that, like Biggio, he was a fast guy: his first four years he swiped 71 bases in 87 tries, a fine success rate of 81.6%. He also got on base very well – over 40% of the time from 1996 to 2000, his first five years. This helped make up for his relative lack of pop (fewer career homers even than Lo Duca), but he has been worse since then: only a 60% success rate on steals, a lot more outs, and an OBP of about .357. This is still above average but he has slugged .400 only once in all of that time.

Among catchers with at least 300 at bats, here’s how Kendall has ranked the past seven full seasons in slugging (stats from

’01 – 16th of 22
’02 – 15th of 22
’03 – 14th of 28 (he slugged .416)
’04 – 20th of 27
’05 – 25th of 26
’06 – 21st of 24
’07 – 28th of 28

From 2001-2005 he led all catchers in plate appearances four times while being in the bottom third in slugging; he once managed to scrape into the top half. This is dreadful. The nadir had to be 2005, when he was outslugged by Jason Phillips, Mike Matheny, Brad Ausmus, Greg Zaun, and both Molinas. The only guy he out-hit, Chris Snyder, has made up for it by slugging over .400 in every other season. Even last year, when Kendall was below replacement level in Oakland, picked up a bit when he went back to the National League.

The question is, since catchers traditionally suffer in performance at an earlier age, shouldn’t the cut-off for “old and reliable” be something like 27? Martinez would switch sides, and you could include the Molina brothers or AJ Pierzinski. Kendall is only reliable at making outs right now.

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