Sifting Through the Catching Situation

Made the mistake of listening to WEEI for an hour this afternoon driving down to Portland. One of the subjects of the day was the signing of Kelly Shoppach for short money – a million and change. Besides questioning the wisdom of signing a player with a career line of .224/.315/.417, Ordway and company took the opportunity to indict the incumbent, Jason Saltalamacchia. The silver lining was that the noise about Varitek’s inevitable departure was relatively minimal, aside from concerns about the impact to the pitching staff.

Because the radio guys apparently can’t be bothered to consider this more than superficially, some quick thoughts on the signing and the state of our catching corps.

Salty’s Not as Bad as You Think He Is

Granted, the kid isn’t the second coming of Fisk. But here’s the thing: no one else in the league is either. The average catcher in MLB in 2011 put up an OPS of .704. Salty? .737, good for 7th best in the AL amongst catchers with at least a hundred plate appearances. WAR has him as the sixth best catcher in the AL, in fact; fielding metrics liked him last year. So even before getting to the splits, we can conclude that according to the metrics we have, Salty is at a minimum better than average.

If you look at his splits, however, it’s possible to dream a little. His OPS by month: .547, .756, .945, .893, .749, .542. He bookended a solid season, in other words, with two months of absolute futility. If you’re optimisticly inclined, you might frame the narrative something like this: handed a starting job by a front office obviously committed to him, he pressed and was consequently terrible. The 2-10 start probably didn’t help. Given a chance to settle down, he warmed up, with an above average May giving way to a torrid June/July stretch. Beginning to wear down in August, he was finally out of gas in September and collapsed.

As I said, that’s the optimistic take. And, no, you don’t get to pick and choose the months you want to count towards your baseball card and discard the rest. The point is, however, that he had more good months than bad, and at worst is an average to above average catcher. Does that make him an offensive asset? Hardly. His strikeout rate is through the roof and virtually all of his value is in his power, because he doesn’t walk much. But in a league in which the average catcher is essentially a gray spot, he’s well above replacement value.

Not that I expect the talk show brethren to grasp that concept.

Heard of Platoons?

Maybe the most surprising thing I heard today was what I didn’t hear: the possibility that Shoppach is intended as a platoon partner for Salty. This was an actual line: “he hit .115 against right handers – .115! and who’s he going to face the most in this league?”

A few numbers (OBP/SLG/OPS):

Player A vs RHP: .304/.481/.786
Player B vs LHP: .344/.444/.788

Who are these mystery men? Our current catchers: Salty plays against right handed pitching, Shoppach against left. The result: a .787 OPS. Which is almost ninety points better than your average major league catcher. Even if you discount heavily because platoons are never that strict, that’s still a solid combination. Particularly if Shoppach can throw half as well as he did last year.

My question: how is that professional sports radio personnel don’t know all of the above? How is “platoon” not their first assumption to be checked? How do they not look any further than his career batting average?

All I can say is: thank the great spirit for Brian Kenny.

Larvarnway

The pride of Yale is WEEI’s preferred 2012 backstop, apparently. Does that make sense? Keith Law, for one, is convinced that he can’t catch, and even his defenders would characterize his defense as a work in progress. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that he sticks: can he hit? His minor league numbers suggest that, should he be able to catch, he’d be well above average for the position. In 43 at bats last year he put up a .231/.302/.436 line, which actually meant he was above average for the position. Scary, isn’t it? But what about the projections? Bill James loves him: .275/.351/.527. I’ll go on record right now as saying that he puts up anything close to that, he ends up the starter even if they have to play Pedroia behind him. ZIPS, however, forecasts a much more reasonable .243/.316/.405 line, which would make him a worse offensive option – assuming a platoon – than what we already have, with worse defense.

I like Lavarnway, and I’m rooting for the kid because how often do you see an Ivy league kid make the bigs. But I wouldn’t bet much that he’s the starter next year, and from the signing of Shoppach it would seem that the front office isn’t either.

The good news for Lavarnway fans, however? Shoppach’s not getting paid enough to keep the kid down if he forces their hand.

The Net

I wish Varitek nothing but the best; he’s taking flak from his inability to right the ship in September, but anyone who studies that understands that it was hundreds of individual things going wrong. Tough to blame the guy. My lasting memory of him instead will be his mitt in A-Rod’s face, much as he might hate to hear it.

In the meantime, I think this is a good move on Cherington’s part. Shoppach’s not a star and has many limitations, but deployed properly, can be useful. Here’s hoping that Valentine knows more about platoons than Ordway.

Postscript

It’s funny, but I had exactly the same thought that Chad Finn did when I heard the Shoppach news in the car:

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