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December 27, 2011

Transaction Analysis

The Beltran, the Bad, and the Backup Catcher

by Ben Lindbergh

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IN THIS ISSUE

National League

NEW YORK METS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed C-R Rob Johnson to a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training. [12/22]

I don’t have it out for Rob Johnson. He is, by all accounts, a perfectly pleasant person. Nothing about his headshot makes me think otherwise. Yet I keep finding myself placed in the uncomfortable position of having to write about his on-field performance, which is difficult to do without coming off as his enemy. Here’s what I wrote about Johnson in Baseball Prospectus 2011:

Aside from a strong throwing arm, there’s very little to like about Johnson’s on-field abilities; any honest accounting of his positive attributes as a player boils down to “he has a nice personality,” a description which only rarely results in a date or a starting gig in the majors. The backstop seems to inspire confidence in his batterymates, but then again, so do the magnetic bands around their necks, which casts doubt upon their testimony. If anything, comparing the two does a disservice to the necklaces; while neither Johnson nor a piece of “performance jewelry” can regulate the body’s energy flow, only the former actively impairs performance. The catcher routinely violated the prime directive of his position, leading the league in passed balls despite starting only 57 games—a rather dubious distinction for a guy who’s ostensibly in there for his defense—and his poor receiving technique rarely results in borderline strikes. These sins might be at least partially forgiven if Johnson had inflicted equal suffering on opposing pitchers, but even by his position’s low standards, his bat is a bust. Belatedly, the Mariners appeared to come to their senses and demoted Johnson to Triple-A in early August. They did even better over the offseason, pawning him off on the Padres after designating him for assignment. Given Johnson's dubious talents, Jed Hoyer need merely hold a door for Jack Zduriencik at some later date to consider his "future considerations" debt fulfilled.

So what did Johnson do after becoming the Padres’ property? For a follow-up to his .191/.293/.281 2010 triple-slash in Seattle, he produced an unsightly .190/.259/.285 line in San Diego. Granted, Safeco and Petco haven’t done him any favors, but revising his raw performance upward barely makes him more playable. When you remove the effects of Johnson’s home parks, you’re left with a .207 career TAv, which isn’t much prettier than his unadjusted stats. However you slice it, he’s a horrendous hitter: Only five batters with a least 600 plate appearances since 2009 have lower TAvs than Johnson’s .212, most of them players with superb defensive reputations (Cesar Izturis says hi). Johnson, on the other hand, is probably the worst defensive player at his position, if not at any position, Nichols Law be damned.

I alluded to Johnson’s poor blocking and framing skills in the annual comment above, but subsequent research has illuminated exactly how severe his shortcomings are. Johnson’s problems with passed pitches are bad enough—according to Bojan Koprivica’s recent research, Johnson was the worst backstop at blocking pitches from 2008-2011, costing his teams 7.8 runs per 120 games. That’s nothing compared to how bad things got when he did catch the ball: according to Mike Fast’s research, only Jorge Posada and Ryan Doumit were worse than Johnson at framing pitches over the period from 2007-2011. Both of those men have been mercifully moved out from behind the plate, but Johnson keeps on crouching and costing his teams 16 runs per 120 games by failing to get calls for his moundsmen. Factor in his below-average baserunning and sub-replacement bat, and Johnson could subtract upward of three wins from his team’s total over 120 games, which it's hard to believe he adds back in the clubhouse. And he’s only going to get worse.

Fortunately, he’s already bad enough that he never actually gets to play 120 games, but that doesn’t mean he’s worth playing in 60 or 70. This move probably won’t amount to much, since Mike Nickeas is the favorite to serve as Josh Thole’s understudy—not that that’s any cause for celebration—but any exposure to Johnson can be hazardous. Would you want him working with your team’s young pitchers in spring training? In Triple-A? Or would you prefer a catch-and-throw type who can throw and catch?

I don’t hate Rob Johnson. I don’t want him to fail. I just can’t quite figure why teams keep paying him to play baseball.*

*There are 39 Robert Johnsons with Wikipedia pages, including three athletes, one of whom was a handball player in the 1970s and none of whom was a major-league catcher. He does have a Baseball-Reference Bullpen page, but his bio is only two lines long, and one of the lines is about how his birthdate was once listed incorrectly. There’s also this picture of him preparing to catch a first pitch. The caption doesn’t say whether he caught it.

*Update* We can all rest easy—Rob Johnson does have a Wikipedia page. It's right here. He just wasn't listed under "Robert" Johnson because Wikipedia was hoping you wouldn't notice. And I didn't!

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed OF-S Carlos Beltran to a two-year, $26 million contract. [12/23]

For roughly half the annual expenditure and a fifth of the contract length it took to lure Albert Pujols to Anaheim—not to mention a full no-trade clause—the Cardinals landed his nemesis from the 2004 NLCS and the winter’s biggest outfield bat. Here’s a condensed version of the bit I wrote on Beltran when he went to San Francisco in July:

Microfracture surgery seems to have left his bat intact—which wasn’t at all clear after his .255/.341/.427 return in 2010, his worst offensive showing since his disappointing debut with the Mets.  That said, Beltran isn’t quite the player he was several years ago; his 2006 efforts added over eight wins above replacement to the Mets, but he’s on pace to be worth roughly half that to his employers this season. Time may not yet have taken its toll on Beltran’s bat, but it has had an impact on his leather and legs. In his prime, Beltran was a superb center fielder and both a prolific and freakishly efficient basestealer; the Beltran of today is a subpar right fielder and a law-abiding baserunner, though when he does resort to thievery, he still almost always pulls off the heist.

Beltran mostly maintained his first-half stats down the stretch, though he became less selective once he was freed from the confines of Citi Field, walking only as often as he did as a raw Royals rookie. However, he didn’t maintain his health. After barely 10 games for the Giants, Beltran sprained his right wrist and hit the DL. From 2009-2010, Beltran lost 197 in-season days to injury; the 21 days he missed due to injury last season were his least since 2008. Pujols missed only 18 days in those three seasons combined, so not only is the big bat the Cardinals acquired not quite as potent as the one they lost, but it’s also older and dependent on a much less durable body. That could be a problem, since the Cardinals’ other big-ticket signee this offseason, Rafael Furcal, is also a near lock to spend some time on the DL.

Beltran will play right until Allen Craig recovers from knee surgery. After that, he might enter the center-field mix in order to keep the Cards’ best bats in the lineup. Since neither defensive metrics nor flesh-and-blood observers thought highly of Beltran's work in a corner last season, though, St. Louis might want to play it safe by restricting him to a position at which he’s less likely to hurt both the team and himself.

Just as the Cardinals’ season might hinge on Beltran’s health, so might his Hall chances. Courtesy of Jay Jaffe, here’s how Beltran stacks up against the average enshrined center fielder, as well as Bernie Williams, who’s up for induction this offseason:

 

Career WARP

Peak WARP

JAWS

HoF Center Fielders

66.2

40.9

53.6

Bernie Williams

54.0

40.3

47.2

Carlos Beltran

55.0

38.6

46.8

Mike Cameron was no match for Williams when I compared the two last week, but Beltran's value is a dead ringer for Bernie's; the difference is that Williams is already on the ballot, while Beltran can still do some compiling. A couple strong seasons in St. Louis could give him a very convincing Cooperstown case.

While the Cardinals will no longer feature the best bat in baseball, their lineup won’t have any holes, with the weakest spots, second base and center field, filled by average or above-average hitters in Daniel Descalso and Jon Jay. St. Louis got to the World Series with Jay in center last season—though his post-season struggles got him benched in favor of Skip Schumaker for the final three games—so they shouldn’t be tempted to try to turn back the clock with Beltran. Batting in the number-two slot—as Christina Kahrl observed, a common assignment for strong hitters in La Russian lineups of old—with Furcal ahead of him and Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday batting behind, Beltran can expect to pile up the counting stats, even while playing in another pitcher’s park (which should seem familiar after his last several seasons).

The Cardinals were a poor fielding team last season; losing Pujols won’t help, though moving Lance Berkman to first, where he can’t do as much damage, should result in some additional outs. Despite its defensive difficulties, the St. Louis roster has plenty to recommend it. With a still-strong lineup, Adam Wainwright rejoining Chris Carpenter in the rotation, and Prince Fielder likely leaving the division, the Cards can make a convincing case as the class of the Central even without their former franchise player.


Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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