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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

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