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September 14, 2012

Pebble Hunting

The Best Story of 2012

by Sam Miller

Last year was one heckuva year for individual storylines. Tom Wilhelmsen and Steve Delabar returned from retirements to make impressive big-league debuts in the Mariners' bullpen. Jerome Williams did a poor-man’s Ryan Vogelsong act. Ryan Vogelsong just did the regular-man's Ryan Vogelsong act. A dog played first base. Crazy year.

This year’s best stories have been mostly about teams: Orioles, Pirates, A’s. Lew Ford is a story, but more weird than inspiring. Tom Wilhelmsen is I guess still a story, because of how good he is now, but the backpacking-through-Europe part of it is no longer fresh. Miguel Gonzalez, whose comeback from injuries took him through the Mexican League, and who wears a glove given to him by former teammate Nick Adenhart, is certainly a good story. But the best story, I submit, is in Philadelphia. 

On September 5th, Erik Kratz hit his ninth home run, in 120 major-league plate appearances. He had already hit eight homers in 37 Triple-A games, and the total of 17 (in 75 total games) was Kratz' new single-season career high. He was hitting .287/.333/.611 in the majors as the Phillies' catcher.

Who is Erik Kratz? Here is Erik Kratz.

1. Erik Kratz is a 32-year-old rookie.

2. Erik Kratz was a 29th-round pick in the 2002 draft, out of Eastern Mennonite University. He is the first player from EMU to make the majors. He is still the only player out of EMU to be drafted. EMU is more famous for its connection to the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, who got her master’s degree in conflict transformation from EMU. EMU is very big on resolving conflict and promoting peace. The word “peace” appears 10 times on the front page of its website. The word “the” appears three times. Last summer, in Triple-A, Kratz “aggressively pursued” a batter who had been hit by a pitch, and Kratz was suspended for three games for “instigating a confrontation.” We all fall short. This is why there is grace.

3. Kratz has some shot at being the most valuable player taken by the Blue Jays in that year’s draft. Only three players taken by the Blue Jays that year have produced a positive WARP total: pitcher Jordan De Jong (0.1 WARP in nine career innings), Kratz (1.1 WARP), and Dave Bush. Well, okay, Bush is sitting on 6.0 WARP, which is probably a bit out of Kratz’ range. But if you let your cheating eyes wander around the internet to one of those other player-value models, you can find a more optimistic total: Kratz at 1.0 wins and Bush at 2.5 wins.

4. The Blue Jays drafted 41 players that year who played at least some minor-league ball, but, as it goes, the pool has shrunk each year. This is the rate at which a draft class disappears: 

The six still active: two in independent ball, one in Japan, Kratz and Drew Butera in the majors, and a 28-year-old pitcher named Adam Carr, who didn't actually sign with Toronto that year and who is with Washington’s High-A affiliate this year.

5. Russ Adams retired last year. Adams was the Blue Jays’ first pick in that year’s draft, which happened to be the “Moneyball draft,” and which happened to be J.P. Ricciardi’s first draft. It’s sort of interesting to imagine Michael Lewis being shut out by the A’s and instead going up to Toronto to chronicle this new sabermetric thing. If assessing the A’s draft remains controversial, imagine reviewing a chapter written back then about the Jays’ selections: 13 college kids in the first 15 picks, a group that was able to move quickly through the system while contributing, ultimately, almost nothing.

Two-dimensional Straw Man Scout: We can't draft those guys! Their names are too unconventional!
Ricciardi: Hey, we're drafting ballplayers. We're not selling culturally-assimilated names here.
Blue Jays: /draft Zeph Zinsman and Bubbie Buzachero.

6. As you could imagine, there were plenty of frustrating seasons. Kratz told MiLB.com that he thought about retiring, and he worked construction jobs on the side to support his family. (He shot himself in the hand with a nailgun, but didn’t tell Toronto.) But perhaps the most frustrating year was 2004, which he spent most of on the disabled list—without, he says, an injury.

"I was on the phantom DL every time," he said. "I [mostly] sat in extended [Spring Training]. Just because, the year before, I was up there in the top three or four on the team in almost every offensive category in short-season [ball]. It was a hard time."
He'd gone from feeling he would become a Major Leaguer through patience and hard work to being uncertain he'd get the chance to put that work in. He did the only thing he could think to do.
"I feel, if you have a problem with something that's going on, go to the people that are making decisions and talk to them face to face. I went to those people, and I let them know I was frustrated. I got the runaround, the baseball runaround. 'Well, we just need to see this guy for a little bit,' or things like that.

"So, do you sit there and hang around? Do you go home and try to get a real job? Or do you trust yourself and your ability to play the game? My wife and I prayed a lot. Ultimately we decided we had to trust that I could make the most of the chances I got."

7. Five times, Kratz has pitched. He’s terrible, of course, though probably not as terrible as his teammates were in those games. He has faced 28 batters, struck out one, walked four, and allowed four runs in six innings. He did allow one home run, to a third baseman with Double-A Binghamton. It’s the only home run Kratz ever allowed as a pro, but just one of 248 professional home runs that David Wright has hit.

8. Kratz Face. 

That's the creepiest shaving cream arrangement I've ever seen. It looks like a massive tumor in the shape of a horse's head. Makes me want to puke, if I'm honest about it. (Via.)

9. Kratz was on the other end of what will probably be Chipper Jones' last home-plate collision. Here's the full play: 

More, though. More:

And

In his rookie year, Kratz actually took a hit from Prince Fielder and stayed upright. In case you wonder what Prince Fielder looks like when he's picking up speed and barreling toward you: 

Love the last second of the GIF when he straightens up; I'm sure he's just regaining his balance, but it looks like he's putting his shoulders back and getting ready to roar. What would he roar if he were to roar? Probably something about homeplate collisions like this: "I feel bad for Buster Posey, but I don't think any player who has any competitive juice in him [would favor a change]. It's two guys who want to win the game. It's about getting that win. Rawr."

10.  Brief interlude in the chronology: Kratz was riding the bench in high school until the team’s starting catcher was suspended for smoking a cigarette

11. Kratz drove "a 1988 Dodge D50 until it finally gasped its last breath just a few weeks ago." So despairing! This is what a 1988 Dodge D50 looks like:

 

He also drives a "white, 1998 Honda Accord ... which has taken him about 190,000 miles to and from obscurity." So poetic! This is what a white, 1998 Honda Accord looks like: 

12. Kratz is a from-his-knees thrower. 

I've never really seen the question of whether throwing from the knees (assuming the catcher is capable) is faster and more effective than standing and stepping into the throw. (Kratz has thrown out 50 percent of baserunners, 18 of 36, in the majors.) There is a study from the University of Arkansas on the stress on the catcher's arm, which concluded that knee throwers "do not reach the optimal shoulder elevation. ... The inability for catcher to reach optimal shoulder elevation may lead to additional stresses being placed on the shoulder and elbow and eventually cause injury."  

13. He's apparently a really religious guy. After his home runs, he does a knuckle-bump sort of thing to acknowledge God (and his family). And his dream dinner guests: God, Benjamin Franklin, and Jim Thorpe.

Okay. God, Benjamin Franklin, and Jim Thorpe. 

Erik Kratz: I can't believe I'm eating dinner with God, Benjamin Franklin, and Jim Thorpe. 
Benjamin Franklin: I'm flattered to be included!
Jim Thorpe: Oh man, what an honor to be here!
God: Are you serious? You chose Me, and also Ben Franklin and Jim Thorpe? 
Erik Kratz: Yeah! It's awesome. Jim, I always wanted to know what you were thinking when you won the decathlon in the 1912 Olympics, despite having never thrown a javelin or pole-vaulted. 
God: I can answer that one, as I know his innermost thoughts.
Erik Kratz: And Benjamin, you invented bifocals!
God: I invented Benjamin Franklin.  

Annnnnnnnnd sacrilege. 

14. Kratz Face (GIF)

Erik Kratz, sizing us up.

He thought it over and he likes us!

15. But he doesn't like Crash Davis comparisons

"It kind of hurts when people say that," he explained. "He never really had a shot at making the big leagues and he was always down and out. But I feel like I've got a lot of playing yet."

Does he? The most common comparison for Kratz is not Davis, but Chris Coste, another Phillies catcher who spent his 20s in the minors. Coste made his major-league debut for the Phillies in his age-33 season, went 0 for his first 13, then did a Kevin Maas thing for the rest of the year: he finished the season hitting .328/.376/.505 in 213 plate appearances. Nobody believed it, and Coste started the next year in the minors, so it isn't as though Kratz has a three-year deal coming to him. But doing what Coste did, and doing what Kratz has done, does change how people will look at each player. Coste had spent 11 years in the minors or independent leagues without getting so much as a call-up, but with a .328/.376/.505 on his resume he became a legitimate back-up or, at least, shuttle option between Triple-A and the bigs. He played in the majors the next year (48 games), and he played in the majors the year after that (98 games), and he played in the majors the year after that (88 games, split between two teams). Even after the Phillies gave up on him, even after he had turned 36, three other teams gave him chances.

It's not enough to qualify him for the Hall of Fame or anything, but that season of Chris Coste's was enough to earn him $1.5 million in the next three seasons. Think about what $1.5 million is. It's 30 years of earning $50,000 (though marginal tax rates complicate this, but whatever). It's decades of income, and it's the difference between working construction and shooting a nail through your hand and getting to not work construction, and shooting nails into your hands only if you want to

That's what Chris Coste's season got him. That's the best guess for what Erik Kratz' season will get him: at least two or three years as a reserve, maybe more, at least $1 million in total income, maybe more. 

16. Erik Kratz is 0-for-16 since that home run I mentioned at the beginning. 

17. We'll close on the best Erik Kratz quote

"There are a lot of players that are better than me that will never see a big-league field. There are so many things that are out of your control."

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

Related Content:  Catcher,  Phillies,  Catching,  Erik Kratz

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