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July 7, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL East

Catching Up

by Ben Kabak

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I have a soft spot for major-league catchers. When I played baseball in high school, I donned the tools of ignorance and caught passably well for my varsity team for a few years. Now and then, I’d nail a runner stealing or be on the right end of a play at the plate, but I couldn’t hit a lick. I would have fit right in with the backstops of the American League East.

For much of the past decade, impressive bats have carried the backstop position for two of the AL East powerhouses. Jason Varitek and Jorge Posada duked it out during their peak years, as one emerged as a very good hitting catcher and the other a borderline Hall of Famer. Today, Varitek is a back-up with a long swing, and Posada is a designated hitter trying to find his stroke. Their replacements aren’t faring much better.

On paper, the backstops in the East had an impressive pedigree as the season began. Russell Martin was a two-time All Star with the Dodgers; Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s bat had drawn raves since college; John Jaso was coming off of a surprising season in which he posted a .372 on-base percentage; J.P. Arencibia was highly regarded; and Matt Wieters has been a breakout candidate waiting to emerge for years. Few of these players or their back-ups are living up to the hype.

Let’s take a peek at how these starting five had performed (through Tuesday):

 

Triple-Slash

TAv

BVORP

CS%

Martin

.219/.323/.388

.255

8.5

28%

Saltalamacchia

.251/.325/.433

.270

8.1

23%

Jaso

.229/.297/.349

.233

3.8

16%

Arencibia

.215/.278/.433

.256

10.0

26%

Wieters

.269/.320/.412

.259

11.1

44%

That’s not a very pretty picture. None of these catchers are getting on base, and only Saltalamacchia and Arencibia have shown consistent power. Wieters has been hitting more of late, while Martin, after a breakout April, has hit just .185/.299/.287 over his last 184 plate appearances. The back woes that caused the Dodgers and some interested suitors to be wary may be impacting his offensive.

For a good catcher, offense is only half the story, if that. Many major-league managers profess their love for a good defensive catcher first. If the backstop can hit, all the better. In that case, John Jaso’s season has been one fraught with disaster. He can’t hit, and he hasn’t thrown out runners. Kelly Shoppach, his Tampa Bay partner in crime, has thrown out a whopping 52 percent of would-be base stealers but has a bat worse than Jaso’s. Joe Maddon has picked the poison who once posted that .372 OBP.

In the Bronx, Francisco Cervelli, king of the fist-pumps, probably doesn’t even deserve a roster spot. Playing behind an ineffective Martin, Cervelli is batting just .214/.263/.286, and he has thrown out two of 21 would-be basestealers. With five errors in 183 innings, Cervelli has seemingly thrown more balls to Curtis Granderson in center than to his second baseman or shortstop covering on a steal.

The Yankees, though, can afford their Cervelli and Martin moments, which seemed early on to be part of a plan. For the Bombers, 2011 was supposed to be a bridge year. They have two catching prospects in Jesus Montero and Austin Romine approaching the majors, but Montero’s progress has stalled. Once Kevin Goldstein’s number-three prospect in baseball, Montero’s stock has taken a hit over concerns about his attitude and offensive malaise. Some scouts claim he is bored in Triple-A, while his manager says he’s spending more time working on his defense than his hitting. His name has been out there for so long that it’s easy to forget he’s still just 21, but with plenty of opportunities to summon him to the Bronx, the Yankees have kept him at bay.

The Red Sox, on the other hand, have committed themselves to Saltalamacchia, and so far, that commitment has paid off. Boston kicked Russell Martin’s tires before ultimately passing, and while Martin’s April surge and Salty’s swoon left many in the Back Bay scratching their heads, the tide has turned. Saltalamacchia won’t blow down the walls, but he’s having his best offensive season. Jason Varitek, too, has posted a respectable .250/.336/.427 line, and he’s stopped 22 percent of would-be thieves. The Sox have no one waiting in the wings.

Arencibia, with a resurgent Jose Molina behind him, has shown some power during his age-25 season, but the real AL East story seems to be Matt Wieters. Left for dead after a very disappointing 2010, Wieters has rebounded with a solid offensive line. More important for the Orioles, though, is his throwing. After catching 31 percent of runners last year, he has stopped 23 of the 52 men who have tried to steal against him. With Wieters’ emergence on defense, Baltimore has barely used Craig Tatum or Jake Fox.

Seemingly, then, this is a year of flux for AL East backstops. The Rays and the Yankees—whose back-up catcher is the worst in the league—are attempting to find a solution, while the Orioles are more than comfortable with theirs. The Jays are moving forward with Arencibia, while the Red Sox think they have something in Saltalamacchia. Still, these aren’t names that stand out. Wanted: a few good catchers.

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