August 28, 2009
We have looked at a few positions this year via the Equivalent Average report to see why first base was as powerful as it is and just how disappointing shortstop has been. This time around we're going to take a look at another of the extreme lows by checking out the players behind the plate.
There is one thing that makes the numbers at catcher fascinating this year, and it's Joe Mauer. Collectively, catchers have an EqA of .250, putting them below every other position in the majors-shortstops have managed to climb up a few points to .255 since we last checked in on them. Among catchers with 300 plate appearances, Mauer's .352 EqA tops the list, while Dioner Navarro's below-replacement .208 EqA brings up the rear. Twenty-four catchers have hit that plate-appearance threshold, and Mauer's 73.2 VORP is more than double the next catcher on that list-Brian McCann's 34.2 VORP and .291/.361/.515 line would be impressive at any position, especially catcher, but Mauer is just on a different plane of existence this year. McCann is 45 VORP ahead of Navarro (-10.9), and 39 VORP behind Mauer, which should give you some indication of just how good the Twin's backstop has been.
The average VORP of the top 15 catchers is 20.9, but if you take Mauer out of there it's 16.4; his season brings up the average for all regulars up by nearly a half-win by itself. His MLVr is higher than the slugging percentage for every other catcher on the list. You could go on all day about all the statistical oddities that come from the great things Mauer is doing at the plate, but that's not the point of this piece. The point is to see the state of the position as a whole, not just that of its peerless leader.
Besides Mauer and McCann, you have A.J. Pierzynski having a good season thanks to a high batting average, matching his career high in ISO, and a little bit of bounceback in his plate patience from a low point in 2008. Then there are Mike Napoli and Jorge Posada, neither of which has played as often as many catchers on the list but who have played very well when they do. Victor Martinez has more VORP than everyone except for Mauer/McCann, but he's split time between Cleveland and Boston as well as catcher and first base, so his VORP total if you call him a catcher gets inflated by the break he gets playing every day, yet not catching daily. Things go downhill somewhat fast from here: Miguel Montero and Yadier Molina are both useful enough, but much of that stems from the relative lack of production at the position. John Baker is hitting .268/.343/.427, which makes him a top 10 catcher. Hell, Jason Varitek is hitting .224/.332/.428 and was replaced by Martinez because he's been so bad, and he still ranks 11th; to put things into perspective, V-Mart has nearly matched V-Tek's production in his 109 plate appearances by posting 8.9 VORP on the Sox. There's a large disparity between the talent at the top and the middle, never mind those at the bottom.
Out of the 24 on the list, 18 of them have a positive VORP, but for the most part the numbers are nothing to get excited about, and many of those players split time-you may be temped to go with Miguel Olivo if you're desperate thanks to his power, but he doesn't play every day. There are two things that stick out on this list, when looking at the poorer options. The first is the number of supposed star catchers having had awful seasons-Russell Martin is at .257/.359/.324 with an ugly nine steals in 15 attempts, and Geovany Soto is hitting .218/.323/.381 on the year after hitting 23 homers and slugging .504 in 2008. The other thing, which is kind of strange, is the number of catchers with high-offense home parks. Chris Iannetta (.222/.332/.436), Ramon Hernandez (.249/.330/.355), and Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.236/.293/.375) have all put up lines that look straight out of a tough hitter's park. It's a little frightening to imagine what some of that production would look like without the benefit of their hitter-friendly home parks.
Mauer is having a historic season, but you can't count on that sort of thing each year. Will catcher be able to save itself from this sort of cadre-wide weakness in 2010, or will we be in for an even more depressing offensive outage? It may seem early to ask this question, but you haven't seen my inbox or chat queue lately either, so take my word for it when I tell you that people have been asking and asking often about keepers at weak positions. A rebound from Martin could help smooth things over a bit, but the chances of that happening are hard to gauge. There's nothing amiss in his numbers, outside of his actual production. His BABIP is .301, 10 points below both last year and his career rate. His batted-ball data is similar to previous seasons, though with a few more liners-that should mean even more hits, not fewer. The big problem has been that his HR/FB dropped from a three-year average of 10.3 percent down to 4.2 this season. Since he never hit many fly balls to begin with, losing homers on the ones he does hit has hurt his line. Pitchers are throwing him a few more first-pitch strikes and giving him fewer changeups, but other than that all of those things look similar to previous years as well. Russell is 26 years old and has caught 519 games behind the plate at the major league level, including 145 in 2007 and 149 in 2008. He may just be worn down like people felt he might get to be if the Dodgers rode him as hard as they did.
Soto's dealing with a very low BABIP, as well as a dip in his power production; he's also missed time with injuries this year. He had a few months in 2008 where his batting average would plummet but his power would remain, and 2009 looks much like those months except with injuries thrown in. While that's little comfort for those of you that drafted Soto early or held on to him in a keeper league, at least it looks like he should be able to recover his production for the most part. Even if Soto were to hit .250/.330/.450 or so he would have plenty of use behind the plate, though we have also seen him show more power than that in the past.
As to whether or not you should keep your catcher, there are very few worth the risk. Mauer is the obvious one, and McCann isn't too shabby either. Victor Martinez plays more than the rest of them thanks to his spot starts at first base, and with Fenway as his playground for a full season next year, he may have one of his better campaigns in 2010. Besides that, though, the pickings aren't just slim, they're nearly nonexistent. While scarcity plays a factor, the difference between the catchers after the first few mentioned here and those towards the middle are so similar that it makes little sense to waste the keeper on them. Here's hoping Matt Wieters can break out in 2010 and give the catchers the help that they need.