July 29, 2014
The Migration of the Backups
Timing is everything. We once wrote a 2,000-word article with six GIFs, four photos, an embedded video and a graph, all about Erik Kratz. Since then he has hit .209/.265/.374, undershot replacement level by both our model and Baseball-Reference’s, and now switched teams twice. When we wrote that piece two years ago Kratz was a 32-year-old rookie, so just imagine how old he must be now.
Still, if a backup catcher can provide even one or two tools you can consider him a success, at least as long as he’s never pressed into full-time duty. Kratz has exactly that many tools: He can hit a ball a long way off the bench (higher isolated power over the past two years than Buster Posey, Chris Iannetta, Salvador Perez, and all but 13 other catchers); and he can frame at an above-average rate.
Hendriks, the pitcher in the deal, could use a good framer. He has been blasted every time he has thrown to major leaguer, but in Triple-A he’s of the Tommy Milone (if you’re generous) or Phil Hughes (if you’re really generous) variety of lame stuff/extreme control. This year he has walked seven batters in more than 100 Triple-A innings. But Milone and Hughes each have a way of avoiding hard contact. Milone is very cautious about coming into the strike zone; he has one of the lower zone rates in the game, but gets a sustainable number of chases and sees batters put a lot of “his” pitches into play. Hughes, by contrast, never misses the strike zone, and by being always ahead in the count puts the pressure on the batter to swing at “his” pitch. Hendriks has no particular gimmick, and of the nine squares in a strike zone profile, he has allowed a .500-plus slugging percentage during his big-league career in eight.
Acquired 3B-R Danny Valencia from Kansas City Royals in exchange for C-R Erik Kratz and RHP Liam Hendriks [7/28]
Some guys seem to get hired just to eventually be fired: hitting instructors, cabinet secretaries, the sorts of positions where the inevitable dismissal serves as a valuable signal to the core constituency. Maybe that’s what a platoon partner for a young, hyped (or once-hyped) hitter is: Sure, the platoon itself is a match on paper, but more than that it’s inevitably an opportunity to show the young buck that you now have confidence in him by ending the jobshare.
The Royals got exactly what they wanted from the Valencia half of the third-base platoon. The right-handed hitter batted .354/.386/.492 against southpaws, the fourth year out of five that he has concentrated his usefulness in such a way. But it was time for Moustakas to get a show of confidence, so Valencia moves on to Toronto, where he’ll split time with Juan Francisco. Francisco has been batted just .118/.205/.206 against southpaws, and while Steven Tolleson had been mashing lefties from third base when necessary, the addition of Valencia allows Tolleson to mash from second base, while Valencia mashes from third base, in a big ol’ mash attack of mash-mash mashing. The platoon is a match on paper, and, if Francisco keeps hitting like the second-coming of Edwin Encarnacion, it sets up a nice show of confidence for the front office to extend in the future.
Once you get past the stars, the chaos of roster shuffling starts to resemble one of those epic Saturday afternoon card-swapping sessions spent in your pal’s den. Every decision is carefully considered, every move made with hopeful, fearful intent; and in the flurry of it, a handful of cards get misfiled in the wrong guy’s pile, acquisitions of luck and confusion. The logic of the hours spent deliberating undercut, subtly, by noise and distraction.
So consider the Dodgers’ keystone. In October, they signed Alexander Guerrero. GM Ned Colletti insisted it didn’t necessarily end Mark Ellis’ time with the Dodgers. Ellis, Colletti said, was valuable to the team, and his option (which amounted to $4.75 million after the cost of buyout was considered) was a dadgum bargain if you put any faith in such things as defensive metrics (Ellis rates above average), positional scarcity (which helped propel Ellis to 3.5 WARP in his two seasons as a Dodger), and the common dollars-per-win models. The Dodgers either don’t, or know better, or decided that Alexander Guerrero was going to be just that good. They declined the option.
Now, the flurry of it. Guerrero’s been in Triple-A all season, but for a single plate appearance in Australia. Dee Gordon, an afterthought, a one-tool replacement-leveler who the Dodgers were actively converting into an outfielder, outplayed Guerrero in spring and suddenly emerged as the Dodgers’ second-best player. Ellis went and got a raise from the St. Louis Cardinals, where he has hit like… well, like Darwin Barney.
Barney’s a backup-catcher-level bat whose defense has earned him enough playing time to make him a Hacking Mass superstar. He’s an exceptionally steady defender, though the vastness of his defensive value isn’t without controversy. UZR loves him (best, on a per-inning basis, among second baseman over the past two years) while FRAA puts him around average. By Inside Edge’s categories, he stands out when it comes to converting routine plays but isn’t among the leaders anytime the play becomes more challenging. The Cubs all but quit playing him three weeks ago.
In the Dodgers’ current alignment, he’s due for an at-bat or two per week. He provides a bit of depth in case Hanley Ramirez gets hurt (Barney has a little bit of shortstop on his resume). He makes it a little bit easier to pinch-hit for Gordon in a home-run-wins-it situation late in a game. He frees Alex Guerrero up to complete the transition to outfield that he has begun in Albuquerque this week. But in the Dodgers’ current alignment, the move barely matters, and the cost (a PTBNL and a little bit of salary relief, though even at $700,000 owed the Cubs will pick up some of the remaining obligation) reflects that.
Where it might come in useful is this: The move gives the Dodgers the sort of flexibility that could be useful in the next two (or 33) days. Were the Dodgers to go after, say, David Price or Cole Hamels, Barney would make it easier to include Dee Gordon. And/Or, he makes it somewhat easier to include Scott Van Slyke or Joc Pederson, with Gordon sliding into a fourth-or platoon-outfielder role. This isn’t the most likely outcome, or necessarily what the Dodgers were going for, but it’s a lot less stressful to find your replacements before they’re necessary than after.