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August 23, 2012
In A Pickle
A.J. Pierzynski and the Last Thing You Expected
Sometime last week on the Effectively Wild podcast, either Sam Miller or Ben Lindbergh mentioned the great year that A.J. Pierzynski was having, and how interesting it was that he was having such a year at 35, and how further interesting it was that he was having such a year at 35 after never having hit even remotely like this in his major-league life. "Jason, old bean," I said to myself, "Jason, that sounds like a topic that the good readers of Baseball Prospectus, especially the ones who don't listen to podcasts, might want to hear about. Or about which they might want to hear. Either way, they're interested."
Now, if I believe in anything, I believe in a clear and readable structure, so the first fact to establish is that Pierzynski, who prior to this year was mostly noted as a rabblerouser, a part-time playoff announcer who hews closer to Eric Byrnes than Orel Hershiser, and the one-time object of Brian Sabean's early-century fetishes, is in fact having a fantastic year. Here are some numbers: Pierzynski has a .298/.347/.544 batting line that translates to a .306 True Average; he has accumulated 27.2 VORP (which, you'll recall, includes all the stuff you find in WARP except for FRAA, and is expressed in runs above replacement); and 23 homers in 393 plate appearances. (All stats are through Monday night's games.)
Here is some context for those numbers: Pierzynski is 30th in baseball in hitter VORP, 33rd in True Average, 17th in slugging, and 22nd in homers. Among catchers, he is first in homers and isolated power and fourth in TAv (just a hair behind Yadier Molina). He is not having an MVP season, as you can tell, but on his own team, he is bested only by Paul Konerko in TAv, and by nobody at all, hitter or pitcher, in VORP. (When you factor in defense, he's probably not actually the team MVP, as Alex Rios jumps ahead of him in WARP, mainly by virtue of his +13 in our fielding runs this year. The vagaries of measuring catcher defense (and defense in general, really) are such that I'm not prepared to make any bold claims one way or the other, though.) He is, in short, having a very good season.
Next fact: A.J. Pierzynski is not primarily known as a powerful performer at the plate. Here is his rest-of-season PECOTA projection: .256 TAv. Here was his pre-season weighted mean forecast: .240 TAv. Here was his 90th percentile forecast: .268 TAv. Here is how many years PECOTA thought Pierzynski had left in the tank after 2012: one. (That is, the 10-year forecast has him dropping below replacement level beginning in 2014.) Here is how much outcry there was about how these projections are evidence that PECOTA hates Pierzynski and Colin Wyers is bigoted against descendents of Polish immigrants and Baseball Prospectus is biased toward the Twins: zero. In other words, we all knew the cut of Pierzynski's jib coming into this season. We watched him play 11 seasons as a starting catcher in the big leagues with a career-best .287 TAv as a 26-year-old in 2003 and just one other season (his age-25 year) over the .260 mark that defines average hitting. He was, to boil it down to one word, adequate. His OBP ate toads and you could talk yourself into his slugging percentage after two or three Old Rasputins, which for a catcher adds up to a guy you shrug about while hoping that Tyler Flowers reaches his potential.
But then this year! The obvious question became this: What's the precedent? Who has done this before? Can we learn anything from those players?
We could look at old dudes who break out, but I was interested in the more specific question: What's the precedent among catchers? You know catchers, squatting and getting up and feeling backswings pop their helmets and foul tips on the inner thigh (ahem) and getting steamrolled by some punk trying to make an impression. They're not supposed to hit at 35. A lot of them probably don't want to be alive at 35. So I asked our esteemed data wizards to find me the catchers who had hit this way at 35 or older and Dan Turkenkopf, mensch that he is, provided me with a list, here ordered by year:
I defined "had hit this way" to be a TAv over .300 (it's a nice round number and it means Pierzynski's performance wasn't the bare minimum necessary to make the list). The other qualification is that the player must have had at least 100 PAs at catcher.
Do note that TAv only goes back to 1950. Notable seasons that may be above .300 from before 1950 are:
So I've got a nice list of 14 players and 16 seasons. That's a mass of mostly dead receivers to work through, but I think I spy some groupings. Some bins, even. Let's bin these bad boys.
Hall of Famers: Yogi Berra, Carlton Fisk, Gabby Hartnett, Bill Dickey, and Ernie Lombardi are five of our 14 players and represent six of our 16 seasons. It hardly takes a deep statistical dive to show why A.J. Pierzynski is not like these men. (That Dickey and Lombardi did their work in the war years should be noted, but it doesn't take away from their overall Hall careers.)
Hall of Nearly Greaters, Dudes You've Heard Of Wing: Elston Howard and Jorge Posada might not be on the level of Carlton Fisk and Yogi Berra, but Howard was an All-Star every year from 1957 to 1965 and received MVP votes five times (though in one of those he hit .178/.233/.244, so I don't even know what the hell), winning once. Posada played in five Midsummer Classics, including four in a row at one point, and managed two top-six MVP finishes. Pierzynski has two All-Star appearances and once finished 30th in the MVP voting. Yeah. Howard and Posada had great, successful careers as top-notch hitters at a tough defensive position, playing key roles on their teams, and their age-35 success was merely a continuation of the previous terrific work. A.J. Pierzynski is, well, A.J. Pierzynski. I think it's safe to say that Howard and Posada's late-career greatness is not the same as Pierzynski's.
Hall of Nearly Great, Dude You've Never Heard Of Wing: Mike Grady. (OK, I'm projecting. Maybe you have heard of him. I hadn't, though. To be fair to me, he was born four years after the Civil War ended.) Grady finished with a career OPS+ of 126 while appearing in 527 career games, out of 894 total, at catcher. That's pretty good! (Fisk finished at 117, for comparison's sake, albeit in many many more games.) Thus, just like the Hall of Famers and the Howard-Posada pair above, Grady, who apparently had a reputation for carousing and yelling at umpires, is not someone I'm comfortable comparing to the shy and retiring (and, again, altogether mediocre) Pierzynski.
Hall of Nearly Great, Kind of Legitimately Awesome Player, Actually Wing: See how I mentioned a 117 OPS+ above? How Carlton Fisk finished with that career line? So did Wally Schang. He did it over 19 years and 6427 plate appearances, the vast majority of those at catcher. Bill James ranked him the 20th-best catcher ever in his New Historical Abstract. He's in the top 100 of all time in OBP and received MVP votes five different times.
I guess I could have taken a shortcut around all of that stuff and just quoted the SABR Baseball Biography Project: "Wally Schang was considered by many of his contemporaries to be the best catcher of his time." So ... yeah. Not A.J. Pierzynski–like, this Schang.
Short seasons: Pierzynski already has 393 plate appearances in 102 games and seems a safe bet to crack 500 for the ninth time in 10 years (the 10th being a 497-trip season in 2005). By contrast, Tim McCarver was Bob Boone's backup in 1977; Gene Tenace played the short end of a platoon with Darrell Porter and appears to have lost a month to injury; Todd Pratt was re-elected multiple times as Secretary-Treasurer of the International Brotherhood of Backup Backstops (and just once topped 200 PA in a season, presumably refusing promotions out of solidarity with his fellow Backup Backstops); and Earle Brucker split his job with Frankie Hayes and didn't appear in a game after August 12th (though he received MVP consideration anyway!), presumably due to injury. A starter with a .300 TAv, though I hope I need not actually say this out loud, is not like a backup with a .300 TAv.
The Re-Peak: Having recognized that neither backups nor Hall of Famers nor really awesome players who fell a little short of the Hall of Fame are entirely comparable to A.J. Pierzynski, we're left with only Spud Davis, who came out 71st in the New Historical Abstract, a much less impressive ranking than the full-timers above. Still, here's a thing that Spud (this is much more fun than calling him "Davis") had that Pierzynski did not: a peak. Like a legit, excellent, valuable peak. Here is Spud's slash line from age 24 to 32: .317/.374/.456, which is good for a 114 OPS+ (a figure that likely underrates his contributions a bit given that his line is heavier on the on-base percentage than the slugging). Right in the middle of that run were a couple of very large years in which Spud posted an OPS+ over 130. Pierzynski, in case you've already forgotten, peaked with one year in 2003 that was basically the average year for Spud's nine-season peak. Spud's great age-35 season, then, was not a "wha?" but a temporary return to form before he went off to fight Nazis. Killing Nazis is right on the top of A.J. Pierzynski's "man, I never done that" list, by the way. Just in case you were looking for another reason why Pierzynski is not Spud Davis.
Have I beaten the point into you yet? Assuming that A.J. Pierzynski does not, over the next six weeks or so, fall all to bits, he will have accomplished something that it appears is fair to call unprecedented, that something being performing as a basically adequate but verging on actually-not-good hitter for a decade as a starting catcher and then busting out at age 35 while still a starter. I'd guess that Pierzynski's season won't take up quite the same room in our collective historical memory as, say, Brady Anderson's 50-donger campaign, but if he helps push the White Sox into the playoffs and then does something magical there (at the plate instead of on the mic), Chicagoans may yet end up with a classic "let me tell you, dear boy, about A.J. Pierzynski in 2012" grandkid story.