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April 12, 2011
Divide and Conquer, NL West
Catch as Catch Can
Have you noticed the starting catchers in the NL West? Can you even name one of the starters other than Buster Posey?
Well, maybe you can, but I’d bet that most people can’t. And yet, collectively, this bunch has started the season strong (stats are through games of Sun., Apr. 10):
Ah, the joy of small sample sizes, where anything can happen. (And often does—how else are we to explain the unstoppable Willie Bloomquist?)
Barajas, as if to prove the point, has the weakest numbers among our heroes thanks to an 0-for-8 weekend in San Diego. He also is one of four active players (with a minimum of 100 career homers) to have at least 70 percent as many home runs as walks. Two of the four play for the Dodgers:
Just 25 players in MLB history have met these criteria. One is in the Hall of Fame. This is left as an exercise for the reader.
Other information of dubious value about Barajas:
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Hundley is similar to Barajas, but young enough that he has a chance to improve. John Dewan claims that players who slug far above their career norm in spring training stand a good chance of carrying that success into the regular season. I haven’t seen Dewan’s actual study or attempted to replicate it myself, but if true, this could bode well for Hundley, whose .756 SLG this spring dwarfed his career .398 SLG entering the 2011 season.
Hundley has always been able to turn on a fastball. His first home run this year–a blast into the left field upper deck at Petco Park–came off a Tim Lincecum 95 mph inside heater. Where Hundley has gotten into trouble is against breaking balls down and away.
An encouraging sign thus far, again bearing in mind the minuscule sample size, is that Hundley has hit some of those pitches hard the other way. Can he sustain his current approach and become a more complete offensive player? Will he be another data point in favor of Dewan’s theory? Check back in August.
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Meanwhile, in Denver, Iannetta never has been able to build on the fine 2008 campaign that saw him hit .264/.390/.505 and hinted at the Mickey Tettleton of things to come. Iannetta’s 2010 was a disaster, but he’s still fairly young. In fact, here’s a fun exercise: consider the lines of two catchers through their age-27 seasons:
Player A is Iannetta, player B is Jorge Posada. Acknowledging that Iannetta benefits from playing half his games at Coors Field and that most catchers don’t develop the way Posada did, this is nice company to keep.
As with Hundley, Iannetta is young enough to improve–probably not Posada good, but maybe a lesser Jason Varitek. Or, if you want to go back a few years, Mike Lieberthal or Todd Hundley. Or, to kick it way old school, Gus Triandos or Frankie Hayes.
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Montero, Iannetta, and Nick Hundley all were born within five months of one another, in 1983. This doesn’t mean anything, but it’s a mildly interesting coincidence.
One area in which the left-handed hitting Montero struggled last year was against southpaws. That hasn’t been a problem in the early going this season (5-for-9, 2 2B, 1 HR). Montero hit .329/.356/.488 against lefties in 2009, so this may not be a fluke, although we’ll need more than seven games to make a proper determination.
Perhaps more importantly, the right knee that bothered Montero in 2010 is no longer an issue. Montero had surgery to repair a torn meniscus incurred while running to first base last April, and although he hit well in his initial return from the injury, he wore down as the season progressed and finished with pedestrian numbers.
On a personal note, I had surgery to repair a torn meniscus a couple of years ago. I still ice my knee most days even after just sitting, standing, and walking around. It boggles the imagination to think that Montero squats for the better part of three hours every night and then is expected to produce something on offense.
Our surgeries weren’t the same (he had a meniscectomy, I had a repair), our rehabs weren’t the same, he’s a good deal younger than I am, and obviously we’re in different lines of work... the point is, the next time you see Montero behind the dish, appreciate the man for the job he’s doing. He can’t keep up his current pace, but maybe he can become the player he looked like in the second half of 2009, when he hit .316/.366/.534.
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Posey is the youngest catcher in the division and the one with true star potential. His main contribution this past week consisted in ruining Padres right-handerTim Stauffer’s Wednesday night. While Hundley was busy hitting a meaningless homer against Lincecum, Posey launched a two-run shot in the first off Stauffer that gave the Giants a 3-0 lead. Posey would drive home two more runs in the sixth inning of an eventual 8-4 victory that kept San Francisco from being swept at Petco Park.
Since I seem to be in list-making mode today, here’s a fun one. Six more-or-less full-time catchers (70 percent of games played at catcher, minimum 400 PA) have posted an OPS+ of 125 or higher at age 23:
Hartnett and Carter are in the Hall of Fame, and Mauer appears to be headed that way as well (assuming his own knees let him). Munson could have been in the discussion if not for his tragic death (Cooperstown’s treatment of catchers keeps me from giving a stronger endorsement–Ted Simmons sends his regards).
That leaves Nokes, who, like Posey was drafted by the Giants. Unfortunately, Nokes wasn’t much of a catcher and was traded for future Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin, who could catch but not hit.
Posey is in heady company. If expectations are high, blame those who came before him. Nokes never duplicated his rookie success, but he represents the low end of the spectrum and ended up having a solid big-league career. Posey is a more complete player now than Nokes ever was, cause enough for excitement among Giants fans.
Posey’s main objective now–and a challenging one given his position–is to stay healthy. Come to think of it, that is a worthy objective for us all, regardless of occupation.