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September 29, 2009

You Could Look It Up

Fifth-Corner Recycling

by Steven Goldman

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I want to share a very personal fantasy with you, something I think about only late at night when no one else is awake. My fantasy is that in this year's annual, under Rod Barajas it will say, "See Miguel Olivo," and under Miguel Olivo it will say, "See Rod Barajas."

See, one of them is a .239/.284/.409 career hitter with 91 home runs in 2484 career at-bats. The other is a .243/.278/.424 hitter with 96 home runs in 2471 at-bats. Baseball-Reference.com lists Olivo and Barajas as each other's most similar players. One key difference is that at least this year Olivo is worth playing (3.9 WARP3) and Barajas (2.6 WARP3) is probably not. In truth, neither is really all that ideal, not if you accept the idea that on-base percentage is king. Of course, it's very easy to say that, and another thing to go out and fetch yourself up even an average offensive catcher. This year, the average major league catcher is hitting only .254/.321/.396. It's a tough position to fill, and the emphasis on defense seems to require the sacrifice of offense, even at the cost of a drop all the way to the offensive replacement levelů Or does it?

Jorge Posada has made five All-Star teams, won five Silver Slugger Awards, and twice finished in the top ten in the MVP voting, but he's never won a Gold Glove Award, and he never will-and that's the best thing about him. He's never been a very good defensive catcher, one of the reasons that then-Yankees manager Joe Torre elected to have Joe Girardi "tutor" him from 1997 to 1999 (sacrificing large chunks of Posada's age-25 through age-27 seasons) despite minor league numbers that suggested that Posada should at the very least be able to top the meager .261/.303/.354 with obscene double-play rates that Girardi posted during that time.

One imagines the reason that Posada has rarely posted great caught-stealing numbers (his career rate is 29 percent), his approach to balls in the dirt is to hunt for them with the dugout dust-vac (he leads active players in passed balls), and that for the first half of his career he blocked the plate from the safety of the dugout is that he is not a natural-born catcher. When he was selected by the Yankees in the 24th round of the 1990 draft, Posada entered their system as a shortstop. The Yankees didn't think he had the quickness to play short, but they liked his bat. They gave him a try at second base his first year, and though Posada led the New York-Penn League in turning double plays, the Yankees had the prescience to see that Posada would slow up too dramatically to play the keystone in the bigs. Given that he had just hit .235 with four home runs in 71 games (albeit with 51 walks) first base wasn't a likely destination. So, after the season, they sent him to their instructional league to have him give catching a try, and he's been behind the plate ever since.

In recent years, teams have made a cottage industry of trying catchers with strong arms but limited offensive abilities at pitcher, and have dug up the odd hard-throwing relievers that way; the most famous example is Troy Percival, though he no longer throws all that hard a couple of decades later. However, it isn't often that players who would have the bat to be an offensive asset behind the plate but are subpar hitters for first base or right field-thus dooming them to Quad-A careers-get tried as catchers. The reasons for this are usually defensive-minded in nature: catchers have several skills to learn, among them pitch-calling, plate blocking (both in the sense of fielding balls in the dirt and collision survival), and throwing. This is a big course-load for a player to pick up in just a few years of minor league training, all done under the pressure of trying to win actual ballgames. No team wants to create the next Mackey Sasser, which is to say that although in taking a player who had spent the first two seasons of his minor league career at first base, third base, and the outfield and putting him behind the plate, the Giants organization did succeed in taking a bat which would have been inadequate at any of those positions and moved it to a position where it was an asset but he was so stressed by the effort to play his new position that his career fell apart. Then again, what is the loss of a potential minor league journeyman compared to the creation of a weapon off the bench or a player who, in a moment of desperation, may save you from Olivo or Barajas starting, or worse, Kevin Cash, Corky Miller, or Eli Whiteside?

There have been successful cases besides Posada, and their transformations came later in their minor league careers. John Wockenfuss, who came reached the majors in 1974, didn't become a catcher until his fifth year in the minors. A 42nd-round pick in the 1967 draft, he would grow up to be a .262/.349/.432 hitter who was at his best as the short end of a platoon, hitting .273/.364/.488 against southpaws (against .244/.324/.338 against righties), was. When he hit under .200 in his first minor league season, it might have been somewhat surprising that he was not released given that he was selected at the rump end of the draft. However, the Senators/Rangers gave him time to mature, promoting him up to Double-A after a few seasons, and found that they had a hitter with a .250 bat in a good year, 10-15 home-run power in a full season, and an excellent batting eye. Wockenfuss would never make it as an outfielder, not with that kind of production, so in 1972, in his age-23 season, he was moved behind the dish. His bat came to life as he was learning his new position, so when he hit a combined .280/.397/.477 in 127 games in parts of two American Association seasons for the Tigers organization (he had arrived there after a couple of trades), they brought him up as a backup to the aging Bill Freehan. Wockenfuss not only caught, but also filled in at first base, the outfield corners, and designated hitter. He could have been a career minor leaguer, and given that it took him seven years to get to the majors, he nearly was one, but what the Tigers (and subsequently the Phillies) got was a player more versatile and far more dangerous than the typical reserve catcher.

Gene Tenace, mainstay on the dynastic Oakland A's, didn't catch a game in the minors until his third season, previously playing mostly in the outfield, and he had an apprenticeship behind the plate of only 168 games. He was one of the most productive catchers of all time due to his power and excellent eye at the plate and played on six post-season teams, including four champions. He caught nearly 900 games in the big leagues, and also played over 600 games at first base and made cameos every else on the field except shortstop. Tenace was an everyday starting catcher in just one season, 1975, though he was a regular from 1973 on, the A's and his subsequent employers preferring to move him around the field. Again, lack of defensive excellence was transformed into versatility.

Bob Brenly was drafted at 22, but he was 25 before he caught a game in the minors. A career .247/.330/.403 hitter in the majors, he wouldn't have been able to play anywhere but where he did play. The future winning manager of the 2001 World Series could hit a little for a third baseman, at least in the low minors, but it was clear that he was going to have problems fielding .900 in the majors. The Giants brought him along slowly, not really committing to him as a catcher, so that by the time he went up to Candlestick Park he had caught only 117 games. In the majors the Giants spotted him at third base from time to time against their better judgment, but mostly he caught. With his third baseman's arm he was able to nail 35 percent of attempted basestealers. His catching skills were sufficient for him to participate on one postseason team, the 1987 Giants.

These are just a few success stories, and there are others. Doubtless there have been more than a few failures or near-misses, players who have washed out at the low levels of the minors before we even became more than peripherally aware of them. Still, there are likely far more than haven't been tried. Just name a minor league journeyman at random; Albuquerque's Mitch Jones, now 31, comes to find. He's hit .255/.341/.512 in 1069 minor league games while trying to make it as a left fielder, right fielder, first baseman, and third baseman. Mitch's low-average, high-strikeout swing was never going to work on a regular basis in the majors, nor was his lack of position, but would a platoon catcher with a big swing be more valuable than, say, Dane Sardinha? Maybe, maybe not, and perhaps probably not, but we can't know for certain, because it was never tried. You can play this game with countless other Quad-A or even solid Triple-A players like Jones.

In conclusion, though the odds are daunting, though the defensive burden is high, I make this plea, an Iron Eyes Cody tear trickling down my cheek: keep your catchers beautiful, America, and don't throw away underpowered corner players-recycle!

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:  The Who,  Home-plate Collision,  A-rod,  Rod Barajas,  Quad-a

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

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ostrowj1

"His bat came to life as he was learnning his new position..." It always seemed counter intuitive to me that catchers are generally the worst hitting of the position players. I understand that becoming an adequate backstop requires a lot of training, but seeing pitches over and over while also being more aware of what the pitcher is trying to do has got to help, right? Were jumps in hitting ability rare for the quad-A players turned catcher?

Sep 29, 2009 10:43 AM
rating: 0
 
eighteen

You could apply the same logic to conclude pitchers must be excellent hitters.

Pitchers aren't good hitters because they don't need to be to make the team - few players have a pitcher's skill set, and can survive the physical stress. Same thing goes for Catchers.

Sep 29, 2009 10:52 AM
rating: 0
 
ostrowj1

But pitchers don't see pitches from the same angle batters do... I realize that there are a lot of things that go along with catching, but there have to be some advantages, right? Suppose you have a toolsy player with absolutely no plate discipline. Maybe having him catch for a year or two would help him develop an eye for hitting?

Sep 29, 2009 11:06 AM
rating: 0
 
thegeneral13

Two things:

1) Catchers don't see from the same angle as hitters, either. It's a different enough perspective on the ball that there is zero ancillary benefit to your eye at the plate, although there might be some small benefit from gauging the strike zone of that particular game's umpire.

2) Round up all the guys in the world who can OPS > .750 against major league pitching. Now hold tryouts to see how many can play acceptable defense at catcher. It's a handful. In the entire world. Now see how many can play 1B. There are tons. Way more than enough for every team in the league. That's why it's the worst hitting position on the field.

Sep 29, 2009 13:54 PM
rating: 1
 
buffum
(458)

Victor Martinez was converted from shortstop. I know you said "there are more," but he sticks out as a pretty notable success story with some immediacy.

Sep 29, 2009 10:45 AM
rating: 1
 
tjmaccarone

Martinez is so-so as a catcher, but I think he'd be a fine third baseman. He's very quick when he plays first.

Sep 29, 2009 12:11 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

If you think about it, it's really hard to be a really bad catcher. Take someone like Piazza who, while he wasn't a good thrower, was still decent at blocking balls in the dirt. The added value of his bat offset the additional extra stolen bases off him. I imagine the same holds true with Posada, who has a bat valuable enough to outweigh all the passed balls.

If you can hit, it's fine if you are a so-so catcher.

And overall, it's much harder to find a catcher that can hit than a third baseman that can hit... so there's little reason to move Martinez to third.

Sep 29, 2009 12:40 PM
rating: 0
 
Rob_in_CT

Jorge Posada playing Shortstop... wow. I can't even imagine that.

Sep 29, 2009 10:47 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

There are of course additional examples worthy of note, such as Terry Steinbach and Mike Heath among the bigger successes, and Mike Kinkade among the "not so much" types.

Sep 29, 2009 10:56 AM
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

Jamie Quirk too, for that matter. What is interesting about all of these guys is that they weren't hulking first-base types: Steinbach was a third baseman, while Heath and Quirk were middle infielders. Kinkade played third spectacularly badly (his 60-error season with El Paso in '97 was epic), but the Mets were willing/desperate enough to put him behind the plate regularly in the minors in 2000, and he wound up appearing in the Double-A all-star game that year, if I remember correctly.

Sep 29, 2009 11:03 AM
 
thegeneral13

This makes me wonder what the biggest limiting factor is for catchers defensively. Is it pitch calling? Receiving? Arm strength? Arm accuracy? Agility? Durability? I know they are all important but I wonder if there are one or two that most frequently make coaches say "this guy can't handle catcher." I guess another way to phrase that is what is the rarest skill that capable catchers possess? Maybe Kevin has some insight on that.

Sep 29, 2009 14:01 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

I'd hazard a guess and say it won't be pitch calling; in Steinbach's case early on, for example, he wound up having a lot of games called from the mound or the bench. Talking to him about when that changed during the course of his career would be as interesting as it was when Yogi Berra had to deal with so many doubts about his own game-calling early on, and seemed to resolve that to some extent OTJ.

Sep 29, 2009 14:19 PM
 
I75Titans

Chris Coste is another current example. AAA 4-corners player, good bat, picked up catching as a 30-year-old. He finally broke through with the Phillies in 2006, at the tender age of 33.

Sep 30, 2009 09:24 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

This isn't the case. Coste was catching in the independent leagues in his age-23 through age-26 seasons, and catching with the Indians' organization when he made it into affiliated minor league baseball in his age-27 season in 2000.

Sep 30, 2009 10:25 AM
 
dfiala

Wockenfuss! It still rolls off the tongue.

Sep 29, 2009 11:03 AM
rating: 1
 
I75Titans

He always had great Strat-o-Matic cards, killed leftys!

Sep 30, 2009 09:14 AM
rating: 2
 
adamcarralejo

The Dodgers have been doing exaclty what you advocate for the last couple years.

Russell Martin started as a 3B/2B who didn't have the quickness for the middle infield, or the power for a corner, but has turned into a quality defender.

Carlos Santana started out as a non-prospect at OF/INF, now as a catcher he's a top-50 prospect.

Lucas May spent several years as a SS/OF, but was converted to catcher, he's in AA now, but injuries have held him back. He did hit .306/.388/.468 this year, though.

Anthony Delmonico was drafted as a 2B, but moved catcher in A ball and hit .285/.383/.430 this season.

They've tried some guys that haven't worked so well and even threw around the idea of Blake Dewitt behind the dish. Also, going back to the 90's, the Dodgers turned two 1B, Mike Piazza and Paul LoDuca, into all-stars.

Another idea that's occured to me - Can moving behind the plate actually help a player's hitting? Obviously the physical demands can and will take their toll. But for some players, sitting behind the plate on every pitch, learning exaclty how pitchers attack hitters and how umpires call balls and strikes might be helpful when they're at the plate. Just a thought.

Sep 29, 2009 11:34 AM
rating: 2
 
coachadams5

LoDuca actually caught in HS and at Arizona State so I don't think he technically qualifies as a "conversion". Also, I think the abuse and fatigue a catcher's legs and body takes offsets any advantage of being behind the plate.

Sep 29, 2009 11:46 AM
rating: 3
 
tjmaccarone

Also the bruised hands, which hurt bat control.

Sep 29, 2009 12:10 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

The Dodgers' history of converting infielders and outfielders to catcher goes back much further. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, they converted both Joe Ferguson and Bob Stinson from outfield to catcher; both and enjoyed substantial major league careers, the latter primarily beyond LA.

Sep 29, 2009 12:10 PM
 
Richard Bergstrom

Wasn't Todd Zeile originally a third baseman, but moved behind the plate in the minors, only to return to third base later on in his career?

Sep 29, 2009 12:09 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

He was drafted as a catcher out of UCLA, and was a catcher in the minors before coming up as a catcher. It took Joe Torre (from his pre-genius days, skippering the Cardinals) to decide that Zeile was somehow just like him from his playing days, and would be a third baseman.

Sep 29, 2009 14:33 PM
 
G. Guest

Just the mention of Todd Zeile hurts as I remember my prized collection of Todd Zeile and Jerome Walton autographed cards and balls as a kiddo.

Sep 29, 2009 15:29 PM
rating: 1
 
Dan

I've been surprised the Cubs didn't try Jake Fox at catcher this year. Does anyone know -- was he that terrible? He played there in the minors.

I'm actually a Reds fan... and I'd love to see them do ANYTHING remotely this clever. The Reds strike me as one of the most conservative, risk-averse teams anywhere. They have slightly inferior talent, do everything painfully "by the book" (and with Dusty at the helm, the "book" comes from about 1973), and take their 75 wins and go home...

Sep 29, 2009 13:16 PM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

As I noted in July (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=9208), Fox's receiving skills as demonstrated by his last extended stretch there are pretty suspect, given an awful PB rate that didn't have a handy knuckleballer to blame it on.

Sep 29, 2009 14:23 PM
 
Doom Service

Add Pat Borders to the list. He made the switch to catcher at age 23 after four years in the Toronto system, mostly as a third baseman. He may not have had a great peak, but it certainly was a long career. Toronto tried the same thing with Adam Melhuse, too, to their credit, I think.

Sep 29, 2009 15:16 PM
rating: 1
 
buddaley

The Rays have tried it with two minor leaguers in the past few years, neither of whom has panned out. Their first effort was with Sergio Pedroza, a hitter with excellent BB rates and some power. That experiment died early. Two years ago they moved Mike McCormick from 3B to catcher. In 2007 his bat remained promising and his catching skills seemed to be developing, but the past two years his bat has simply died.

I think Pedroza had an excellent season in one of the independent leagues this year, but I doubt it was at catcher. McCormick was pushed up to A+ ball during 2009, but failed to hit either at low A or A+.

Sep 29, 2009 19:51 PM
rating: 0
 
arcee555

The reason there are so many converted catchers is because, pro players are elite. Wherever they played amateur ball, they were always one of the best on the field, thereby having some say in the position they want to play. Catcher is not the most popular position among youth leaguers. It isnt until they start getting paid, and the pyramid of talent narrows, that they realize they may need to move behind the plate to advance and keep getting a paycheck. Even so, not every marginal pro prospect can become a Catcher. A strong arm is a must, an assertive personality, and a willingness to work longer than any other position is required to. Also baseball intelligence is more of a must for the catcher, because they are involved in more of the strategy, similar to qb in football.

Sep 29, 2009 20:49 PM
rating: 1
 
John Carter

Gentlemen, Steve -

One reason you don't find as many good hitters at catcher has nothing to do with how difficult it is to play - it's that it is generally bad for your hitting... or, at least, shortening to your career.

Most organizations would not want their franchise hitting prospect playing there unless he had incredible catching skills.

Sep 29, 2009 21:03 PM
rating: 0
 
toanstrom

The Tigers tried the same thing with Phil Nevin in 1995, he had just come off a year where he hit 293/367/463 in AAA as a 24 yr old but the Tigers (who would lose 109 games the next year) decided they were set at the corners and sent him to AA for a year to try to make him a catcher. He had two terrible years for Detroit and the Angels (232/299/323 with 20 passed balls and 29 wild pitches in 70 games behind the dish).

After both teams gave up on him San Diego put him back as a corner guy and would up hitting 295/373/556 with 97 homers over the next three years.

I realize it's anecdotal but an interesting case where it didn't work out for a slugger behind the plate.

Sep 29, 2009 22:49 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

I had Nevin in the original draft but cut him for space as a kind of evolutionary dead end.

Sep 30, 2009 01:24 AM
 
Kranepool
(591)

Steven, why couldn't you have written this article about three years ago as maybe the Mets front office would have had a light bulb go off above their empty heads and put Daniel Murphy behind the plate. What the hell they've tried him every place else?

Sep 30, 2009 07:03 AM
rating: 0
 
harderj

Craig Biggio is the most famous catcher I could think of who moved somewhere else at least close on the defensive spectrum (not to 1b). Any others?

One of my Strat-O-Matic league-mates still laments that Carlos Delgado didn't stay a catcher, and I feel the same way about Brandon Inge, Daric Barton, and, apparently, Pablo Sandoval (though he has played 3 games at catcher this year, so should qualify there, and I'll play even his likely c-4 with that offense over Carlos Ruiz).

Why would Seattle (or more recently, the Pirates) not try Jeff Clement at catcher, for the offense, consistent with the Posada story? Is he that truly abysmal?

Sep 30, 2009 08:07 AM
rating: 0
 
jlebeck66

I can't remember if Eric Munson was drafted as a catcher, but he came up as a thirdbaseman. He then squeezed a couple of extra years out of his career by catching at the end.

Sep 30, 2009 11:04 AM
rating: 0
 
toanstrom

Munson was a catcher at USC but the Tigers didn't think he could handle catching, so they moved him to First, then Third and then he went back to Catcher.

Sep 30, 2009 23:09 PM
rating: 1
 
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