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April 30, 2009

You Could Look It Up

The Squat Tax?

by Steven Goldman

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Twenty-two catchers have caught 1,000 games before their 30th birthday. The list begins with Johnny Bench (1,498) and ends with Lance Parrish (1,039). Joe Mauer, newly 26 years old, is not yet on the list, and is still waiting to make his season debut. In the meantime, he's frozen at 498 games behind the plate. Should he average just over 100 games a season behind the plate between now and turning 30, he will join Bench, Parrish, and such luminaries as Pudge Rodriguez and Jason Kendall in this small, historical group. As the wildly divergent career paths of the players mentioned suggest, Mauer's ultimate inclusion in the Mille Catchers group might mean something, and it might not. Consider this a cautionary tale.

The two most recent catchers on the "1,000 x 30" list are Ivan Rodriguez, who had caught 1,426 major league games by the time he reached the big 3-0, the fourth most of all time behind Hall of Famers Johnny Bench and Ray Schalk, eight-time All-Star Ted Simmons, and Kendall. Having reached the majors at the age of 19, Pudge logged 169 more games behind the plate than the fifth-place catcher on the list, Gary Carter. Carter made the majors at 20, but spent a couple of years hanging around the outfield corners while the Expos tried to make sure that they didn't like Barry Foote better. Kendall is further down the list, tied with 1930s catcher Frankie Hayes for eighth place, but still only 52 games behind Carter.

As might have been expected of a former first-round draft pick (1992), Kendall was a terrific hitter, especially by the standards of his position. Not many catchers in major league history have been consistent high-average hitters over the course of a long career—a catcher's hands are usually too abused for that kind of bat control. Just four backstops have hung up their shin guards with a .300 average in a career of 5,000 or more plate appearances: Mickey Cochrane (.320), Bill Dickey (.313), Mike Piazza (.313), and Ernie Lombardi (.306); if Rodriguez retired today, he would be the fifth at .301. At first, Kendall seemed like a good candidate to join them. He hit an even .300 his rookie year, and after enduring a .294 sophomore "slump," he got his average into the .320s and kept it there for three straight seasons.

On July 4, 1999, Kendall suffered a grotesque injury when he tried to beat out a bunt hit and his foot caught on the first-base bag, snapping his ankle. He missed the rest of the year. When he came back, his speed had been compromised—he had been a good-percentage basestealer in his first four seasons, going 71-for-87 on the bases, but his days as an effective basepaths commando were gone (though he kept trying for a while). However, his bat was right where he had left it, as he hit .320/.412/.470. with a career-high 14 homers. His next two seasons were disappointments, as he slumped to a combined .274/.342/.357. However, he rebounded in 2003, hitting .325/.399/.416, and then followed up by hitting .319/.399/.390 in 2004. It should be noted that his power was ebbing—he hit just six home runs in 2003 and only three in 2004, but his ability to hit for average clearly remained.

When the 30-year-old Kendall was traded to Oakland that winter, his career rates stood at .306/.387/.418. He's been no fun ever since. In his first year with the Athletics he batted .271/.345/.321 with no home runs. The next year his batting average rebounded to .295, but the complete lack of any power in his bat made the season a net loser. Overall, since turning 30, Kendall has hit .263/.336/.321, inclusive of his first 17 games this season. He will celebrate his 35th birthday on June 26.

Was Kendall's fall the inevitable result of his heavy workload? The Pirates did ride him hard, particularly in this century. He started as many as 146 games behind the plate and got few true days off, appearing in 152 games in 2000, 157 in 2001, and 150 in 2003. There's a classic logical fallacy known by snooty Latin-lovers everywhere as post hoc ergo propter hoc—after this, therefore because of this. It is clear that Kendall's physical tools aren't what they once were, and that years of squatting, blocking the plate, and handling the dreck pitching that the Pirates' system pushed out could be to blame, but we can't know for certain.

In comparison to Kendall, Ivan Rodriguez has been spectacularly durable. His career averages were .305/.342/.489 at the conclusion of his age-30 season. Rather than shutting down immediately, he had two strong seasons in the years immediately thereafter, batting .297/.369/.474 for the 2003 Marlins, and .334/.383/.510 for the 2004 Detroit Tigers. He began showing signs of age the next year, but having hit .284/.314/.419 in 401 games from 2006 to the present, Rodriguez has retained much more of his original skills than Kendall has, and that's despite far more mileage on his chest protector. Clearly not all catchers respond to their workloads in the same way—or the problem isn't workload at all, but something else, perhaps injury, normal aging, or a combination thereof.

Mauer is expected to be activated on Friday. At 6'5" and 220 pounds, he's not too much like the 6'0", 180-pound Kendall. However, as we remarked in BP2K9 this year, they do have one thing in common: through his age-25 season—which is to say, last year—Mauer has hit .317/.399/.457. Through his age-25 season, Jason Kendall batted .312/.399/.451. Kendall had caught 490 games to that point; Mauer, coming up a year younger, has caught 498. The Twins have been more careful with their catcher's workload than the Pirates ever were with Kendall's, but even so, the games pile up, and both he and the club had best hope that the slide was peculiar to Kendall, and not something that comes unbidden with the job requirements of being a top young catcher.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

Related Content:  Jason Kendall

10 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

dianagram

On the flip side of the Twins "carefulness" vs. the Pirates, Kendall hasn't had to spend his entire career on that unforgiving Metrodome turf. (Though Will Carroll has correctly pointed out, when I've brought this up in chats, that Mauer's job takes place on the dirt portion of the field for the most part)

As far as Pudge goes, sad to bring this up, but there have been enough whispers of PEDs around him to make his "natural" longevity a bit clouded.

Apr 30, 2009 10:17 AM
rating: 1
 
Matt Kory

I thought the problem with turf wasn't the turf itself, but was was underneath, i.e. cement.

Apr 30, 2009 10:41 AM
rating: 0
 
Dan

Well Kendall came up w/ the Pirates playing in Three Rivers, right? What year did that switch happen? I think it was well after Kendall turned 25.

This actually is just what I was going to bring up -- the effects of playing lots of games on Astroturf, especially in the 70's and 80's when I think it was basically like playing on a green parking lot.

Astroturf is often blamed for Andre Dawson's bad knees and declining skills later in his career, for example.

Has this been studied?

Apr 30, 2009 11:01 AM
rating: 0
 
mickeyg13

The last year of Three Rivers Stadium was 2000. PNC Park opened in April of 2001, and Kendall turned 27 a couple months later. When PNC Park opened, Kendall was on track for Cooperstown (having just signed a new contract to pay him accordingly), but oh how he has fallen...

Apr 30, 2009 17:13 PM
rating: 0
 
JayhawkBill

This is a great ESPN Insider article. I like it less as a BP article.

For a BP article, rather than only giving anecdotal stories about various catchers, both HOF-caliber and others not so gifted and/or durable, one could grab the twenty best PECOTA comparables for Jason Kendall at three points in his career: age 25 (right before his ankle injury), age 31 (at the point he was traded away from Pittsburgh), and this year. At each of these points we could look at the key PECOTA graphs we know and love--the Stars to Scrubs chart, the EQA Distribution, the Seven-Year Charts--and we could immediately see what the possible futures held for Kendall at each of those turning points. Beyond possible parallels, we'd have quick visuals of the whole range of likely outcomes. As BP readers, we'd understand that. Most ESPN Insider readers might be puzzled, though, so those graphs have to be left out of an article intended for that audience.

I can't pull down PECOTA comparables by myself at home for any desired player-year. I can, however, pull the less-useful but still enlightening Baseball Reference comparable player lists. In Kendall's case, for the three career points I listed above, here they are. For the first group, I've used the format player name, followed by (ages during peak years, age of last full-time season), asterisked if the player was not primarily a catcher:

Age 25

Mickey Cochrane (24-30, 32)
Shanty Hogan (22-25, 26)
Heinie Zimmerman (24-26, 32)*
Bill Dickey (29-32, 32)
Joe Mauer (22-25, active at age 26)
Jose Vidro (25-28, 32, semi-active)*
Charlie Gehringer (25-36, 38)*
Glenn Wright (23-29, 31)*
Tony Fernandez (24-28, 37)*
Rod Carew (23-32, 39)*

Of the nine comparable players other than Mauer, only three were catchers. They had between four and six prime years, and none played full-time after age 32. Of the six position players, their primes lasted three to twelve years, and half of the group played full time until ages 37-39.

Here are his best comparables at age 30:

Craig Biggio
Rafael Furcal
Harvey Kuenn
Tony Fernandez
Buddy Myer
Julio Franco
Tony Cuccinello
Lou Boudreau
Red Schoendienst
Michael Young

And here are his best after last season (age 34):

Dick Bartell
Tony Fernandez
Red Schoendienst
Dick Groat
Harvey Kuenn
Steve Sax
Lou Boudreau
Garry Templeton
Julio Franco
Omar Vizquel

Well, Craig Biggio started as a catcher, but he caught only one game after age 25. The other 19 "best comparables" were never primarily catchers. Jason Kendall hits so much like an aging middle infielder that his best comparables aren't catchers. Accordingly, while we can see that his career path has veered away from that of Dickey or Cochrane, we can't necessarily draw inferences of Kendall's future from these comparables.

We do, however, have a current PECOTA forecast for Jason Kendall. Most, but not all, of his best comparables are catchers. Astoundingly, 13 of the 20 best comparables showed a 20% or greater drop from their baseline, documented by red down arrows on the PECOTA Card.

But the original article was more about Joe Mauer than it was about Jason Kendall. What can we learn from this regarding Mauer's future?

Mauer's PECOTA comparables include many players who weren't catchers or who moved to another position while still in their prime years. Those who kept catching, including Scioscia, Fosse, Munson, Kennedy, and Kendall, were all in significant decline by their early thirties. (Munson is a special case, but his value was way down from his peak by ages 31-32.) The outlier is Ted Simmons, who had some time at other positions, but who put in two good years as a catcher with Milwaukee in 1982-83 at ages 32 and 33 before his career went downhill. One outlier does not a trend make: looking more closely at comparables seems to reinforce the theme of the article with respect to Mauer's future.



Apr 30, 2009 11:57 AM
rating: 2
 
ryanlazenby

I agree with your analysis, but not the premise that the article needed such analysis. The point that the article is making primarily one of workload. The vast majority of the comps you gave didn't have Mauer's defensive skills. So Mauer stands to have drastically higher workload as a catcher than your comps did by the age of 30. That's the whole point in comparing him to Kendell, to anecdotally consider the effects of high workload on Mauer. Your research may reach the same point about his possible decline, but it doesn't get there by means of analyzing his workload which is kind of the whole point.

Apr 30, 2009 14:29 PM
rating: 0
 
JayhawkBill

Thanks for the feedback. By what metric do you assess Mauer's skills as excellent?

Apr 30, 2009 18:51 PM
rating: -1
 
JayhawkBill

Given that I'm getting negative feedback on the simple question, I'll explain further.

Joe Mauer is a good defensive catcher. Using FRAA adjusted for all time, he's at +40 after four full seasons, about +10 per year in his uninjured youth.

Most of the catchers I mentioned were about that good in their primes. Bill Dickey earned +50 FRAA in his best four years. Mickey Cochrane was +55 in his best four years. Thurman Munson was +54 over his best four years. Mike Scioscia was +50 over his best four years. Because these players didn't all have their peaks in their youth, there's a potential bias, but there's no guarantee that Mauer will ever get better than he is now, either.

Some of the other players I mentioned, including Terry Kennedy, Ray Fosse, and, especially, Shanty Hogan, were objectively worse than Mauer by the metric of FRAA. Still, I feel that the overall defensive performance of the catchers I mentioned, measured by FRAA, puts them in the same range as Mauer.

FRAA isn't a perfect metric, though, especially for catchers. We don't have all of the contemporary fielding metrics available for players from different eras, so it's tough to assert that Cochrane or Dickey were indisputably better in their peak four years than Mauer has been in his first four full years. Conversely, though, it's tough to claim that Dickey and Cochrane were necessarily worse than Mauer, too...unless there's a reliable metric for assessing historical catchers' skills of which I'm unaware.

May 01, 2009 04:30 AM
rating: 0
 
drawbb

Nice breakdown of Kendall's career. I may be the only person waiting for a follow-up article analyzing his chances of lasting long enough to break the career HBP record.

All kidding aside, Jason has had one heck of a run. The average fan underestimates how difficult it is to have careers even this good. Here's hoping he can reach 2000 hits, 1000 runs, and 288 HBP.

Apr 30, 2009 15:41 PM
rating: 0
 
mickeyg13

Everybody remembers Kendall's ankle injury. However, what gets lost is an injury a couple years later. I don't recall the exact details, but I believe he injured his thumb either prior to or during the 2001 season. He played through it though, but the thumb in injury seemed to take away his ability to drive the ball, thus destroying the little power he had. He successfully bounced back from the ankle injury in 2000, but many Pirate fans (myself included) think the subsequent thumb injury is what destroyed his career.

Apr 30, 2009 17:19 PM
rating: 3
 
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