May 23, 2007
Despite another poor start in Kansas City-Joe Posnanski has already written his annual end of the season column for the Royals-there are a few bright spots on the team. Gil Meche has managed to pitch much more effectively than many analysts thought he would-more on that in a future profile-and John Buck has seemingly secured the catcher's job, despite the offseason acquisition of Jason LaRue. Buck has hit .299/.398/.588 to open the season, and although he has slowed down a bit in May after a torrid April, he finally looks like the hitter the Royals expected back in 2004 when they traded for him.
John Buck was drafted in 1998 by the Houston Astros in the seventh round of the amateur entry draft, and signed very soon afterward. His professional career started for the Gulf Coast League Astros, and he would find himself playing for Low-A Auburn the next season:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 1998 GCL(Rk) 126 .286/.362/.429 33% .143 9 9.2% 15.5% 1999 Auburn(A-) 233 .245/.328/.356 35% .111 17 9.4% 18.0%
The first season was a nifty debut for an 18-year-old; he showed a little power for a catcher, displayed plate patience, and had a BABIP of .327, which is lower than you would expect given the level. At Auburn, the power dipped a little, but the patience remained. His BABIP dropped to .297, a good 25 points lower than the New York-Penn League average. Despite the poor production at the plate at Auburn, the Astros sent Buck to Michigan in the Midwest League; he would play A-ball for the next two seasons:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2000 Michigan(A) 390 .282/.374/.444 39% .162 33 12.1% 17.8% 2001 Lexington(A) 443 .275/.345/.483 39% .208 25 7.4% 18.9%
Buck rebounded from his stop at Auburn well, boosting his walk rate and showing a little bit of power again. His .337 BABIP was not too far above the Midwest League average, and his stop at Lexington was about the same rate below the average the next year. Prior to 2001, Baseball America ranked Buck the #8 prospect in the Astros organization, behind notables Roy Oswalt and Adam Everett:
Buck has solid all-around skills. Offensively, he has a quick bat and fine patience. One day, some of his doubles will turn into home runs. Behind the plate, he took charge of Michigan's pitching staff and ranked third in the league by throwing out 39 percent of basestealers. Buck doesn't extend his arms enough on his swing, leaving him vulnerable inside and making it difficult for him to pull the ball. He'll cut down on his strikeouts once he learns to read breaking pitches. He doesn't run well and could become a baseclogger down the road. His release sometimes gets long, robbing him of accuracy on his throws.
None of the negative aspects of his game bothered him at the plate during 2001, when he smacked 47 extra-base hits (including 22 homers), and although his walk rate dropped by almost five percent, the increase in his power output was promising. As a result, Baseball America moved Buck up to #2 in the Astros organization following that breakout:
In 2001, Buck more than doubled his previous career high of 10 homers as he began to extend his arms more often and turn on fastballs. He also improved at recognizing breaking balls and making adjustments…nailed 37 percent of basestealers in 2001.
His stat line from Double-A Round Rock was perhaps not as aesthetically pleasing as the previous two years at Single-A, but he held his own for a 22-year-old catcher:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2002 RoundRock(2A) 448 .263/.314/.422 37% .159 32 6.3% 18.8%
The drop in his patience at Round Rock was not a positive development, but he had managed to keep some of his power making the jump to Double-A while still keeping his strikeout rate around his professional norm. Baseball Prospectus 2003 was a fan of Buck:
Don't be too disappointed with Buck's year at Round Rock-he's very much a work in progress. Big and rangy in a Pudge Fisk sort of way, Buck is still getting his mechanics in order. Unlike most catching prospects, he has a well-rounded game with no glaring weaknesses and should eventually develop 20-home run power, especially if he regains the control of the strike zone he showed in 2000.
His next stop, New Orleans, would prove a bit more problematic, with a drop in Isolated Power that brought him to light-hitting middle-infielder territory, and a walk rate that drops him into what I like to call the "Shawon Dunston Zone"--not a positive development:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2003 NewOrleans(3A) 274 .255/.301/.358 31% .103 20 4.8% 18.1%
Injuries were partially to blame for his 2003 problems, including a broken hand that forced him to miss two months' time. Oddly enough, breaking his hand was a positive for Buck: Baseball America tells us that with his time off from the game, he lost some of the bulk he had put on the two seasons before. This, along with a healthy hand and the experience he had accumulated at Triple-A thus far helped him re-emerge offensively in 2004, helping to make him a desirable commodity worth inclusion in the Carlos Beltran deal:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2004 NewOrleans(3A) 227 .300/.368/.507 34% .207 11 8.3% 15.4% 2004 KansasCity(MLB) 238 .235/.280/.424 38% .189 9 5.8% 30.6%
Buck rebounded at New Orleans, and his .318 BABIP is not all that much above the average for the league, meaning his performance was no fluke. He was much more patient, which resulted in better power and increased walk rates. In Kansas City that patience evaporated, but he still managed to hit for power; of course, he didn't hit for much of anything else, resulting in a .235 average, which is unacceptable when you're walking in only six percent of your plate appearances. He also struck out at a much loftier rate than he ever had in his career, most likely due to his continual problems recognizing breaking balls.
Buck's 2005 and 2006 seasons were terrible, with low batting averages keeping his slugging down, and his low on-base percentage keeping him from having really any offensive value. Of course, almost everyone on the Royals was terrible in 2005-2006, so it isn't like Buck was bringing the team down on his own. His problems stemmed from little patience at the plate; Buck was not waiting on mistakes like he had in the minors, mistakes that helped him slap extra-base hits and smash homers into the bleachers:
Year AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2005 401 .242/.287/.389 35% .147 22 5.4% 23.4% 2006 371 .245/.306/.396 36% .151 22 6.5% 22.6%
The seasons are almost identical, although you can see baby steps for him in the walk rate department. It was clear that Buck's approach simply wasn't working, and that he would need to return to what worked in the minor leagues. It was not a situation where major league pitchers were too talented for Buck to hit-although major league breaking balls are harder to recognize than the ones he had issues with in the minors-but instead it all comes down to how patient he was. Baseball Prospectus 2006 wasn't excited about Buck's bat, but his defense was still getting it done:
He's got pop, and he threw out 34% of opposing basestealers last year, but he's also got a lifetime OBP of .284. It's possible to make up for a .284 OBP in other ways, but it generally requires acts described in books of Scripture. The Royals point to his .321/.341/.568 line from September 1st on as proof that he's ready to turn the corner. There are some similarities between Buck and Brandon Inge, whose career-high in OBP stood at .266 after three seasons and didn't break out until he was 27. This is one instance where the Royals' lack of talent may be a blessing; they've got nothing to lose by giving Buck another season as the full-time catcher.
Another full-time season gave us 2006, and it looked almost exactly like his 2005. In response, the Royals brought Jason LaRue in over the winter to challenge Buck for the starting catcher job, and although I can't tell you whether this finally forced Buck to change his approach or whether that was a coincidence, Buck has made significant strides during this year:
He's hit .277/.368/.489 in May, which is around where I expect him to be with his more patient approach; it matches up with his more successful minor league numbers in seasons where his approach was more like his current one. Let's take a look at what has changed in his batted-ball data:
Year P/PA FB% LINERD% GB% IF/F% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP Diff. 2004 3.7 39.0% 16.4% 44.7% 14.5% 19.4% .299 .284 -.015 2005 3.5 39.9% 17.9% 42.2% 9.8% 9.8% .288 .299 +.011 2006 3.5 34.7% 19.8% 45.5% 15.0% 11.0% .290 .318 +.028 2007 3.8 44.6% 13.5% 41.9% 9.1% 21.2% .344 .255 -.089
Buck was a bit unlucky the past two years; his 2006 line should have been closer to .273/.334/.424, which isn't great but would certainly be an improvement on what actually showed up in his batting line. The eBABIP difference for 2007 should be worrisome, but it isn't as extreme as it appears. His line-drive rate is only 13.5 percent, nowhere near his career rate. He's hitting many more flyballs than normal, but he's also sending those flyballs into the stands and far into the outfield. His .344 BABIP isn't sustainable, but his .294 BABIP from May is. If he stays around there, while we'll see his overall production drop, what we've seen of him in May is a realistic expectation for his future production.
His home run data from Hit Tracker isn't much different than his 2006 data-the chief difference is in how many mistakes he is seeing now that he is more patient, and the evidence for that is in his HR/F. Besides that, you have a boost to the average apex of his homers-the highest point reached by the ball in flight, measured in feet:
Avg True Dist Avg Speed off Bat Avg Std Dist Avg Apex 2006 401.2 ft 110.0 mph 405.6 ft 102.0 ft 2007 407.7 ft 111.6 mph 407.8 ft 111.0 ft
He isn't squaring up on the ball and hitting solid line drives, as evidenced by the batted-ball numbers. Buck is instead getting under the ball and crushing it, using his bat speed and strength to muscle it out of the park. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Buck has the heft to hit 20-25 homers when he's disciplined enough to wait out mistakes. He's doing that this year, and luckily for the Royals, he should be able to keep it up as long as he stays disciplined at the plate. The difference between 3.5 and 3.8 P/PA might not seem like that big of a deal, but it's an additional 150 pitches over 500 plate appearances, and chances are good that some of those will be pitches that don't break like they were supposed to or mistakes left out over the plate. Buck hasn't been able to force the pitcher's hand in his short major league career, but he appears to be doing that so far in 2007, and the results are better than what we've come to expect out of Buck during his initial time in the majors.