Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Tale of Four Old Catchers

This post isn't a comparison really. Three of the old catchers we will be discussing start. The other just plays once a week. But what is really striking is how different old catchers age. Johnny Bench was basically done as a young man and even moved to the infield. Carlton Fisk excelled into his forties. Generally, catchers don't hold up over the long haul. After all, it's a tough position. Catchers get beat up every single game they are behind the plate. Part of their job is to smother balls in the dirt even when it means bruised chests and shoulders (and shins, etc.). The four catchers we are going to talk about have all aged differently. They are: Brad Ausmus, Jorge Posada, Ivan Rodriguez and Jason Varitek.

Brad Ausmus is now forty years old. In all those years, he's never been very good offensively. Well, he did have two seasons at league average. But he's averaged 61 on the OPS+ scale for the three seasons before this one. It's easy to state that nobody has ever paid Ausmus to hit. In fact, the only thing he ever led the league in was grounding into double-plays (2002). But he's always had a great reputation as a catcher behind the plate, not only defensively, but for his handling of pitchers. The Fan still doesn't know how you measure that kind of thing. During his prime, he did throw out anywhere from 35 to 48 percent of base runners trying to steal against him. That's pretty good. In 1914 games behind the plate, he's only had 61 passed balls in his career. That's pretty darn good too.

But the last four years haven't been great for Ausmus. Not only has he not hit well, but his caught stealing rate fell into the twenties. How can you explain then that a 40 year old catcher has thrown out 38% this year? Or that he has his highest batting average in fifteen years? Or that he has his highest OPS+ in nine years? You can't other than his playing time is way down and he picks his spots in odd starts. Still, it's a nice swan song for the old guy.

Ivan Rodriguez has been a major league catcher for nineteen years now. When you think of Rodriguez, you think of his arm. Always the arm. And his numbers back up the hype. He's thrown out 46% of base runners trying to steal in his career. That's a weapon. Since the ideal success rate for stealing is 70%, the 54% success rate versus Rodriguez is outstanding. And he is still dealing there. Even at 38 years of age, Rodriguez has thrown out 33% this year. Still very good.

The one thing about Ivan Rodriguez though is his hitting. For twelve years, he was an offensive force. In those twelve years, he averaged an OPS+ of 112. He won the MVP in 1998 when his OPS was .914. He still has a career batting average of .299. He is no longer a force. In fact, he has become a rather easy out, especially since he basically forgot how to take a walk for the last eight years. He's pretty much a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame unless the whispers of PED use become confirmed.

Jorge Posada got a later start than those last two guys. But he's just as old. Now 38, Posada is still dishing it pretty well at the plate. Since Posada became the regular Yankee catcher in 1998, he has only had a sub-100 OPS+ season since. His lifetime OPS+ is 124, which is outstanding for a catcher.

But Posada has never been nearly as good a defensive catcher as Ausmus and Rodriguez. His overall RTOT for his career is -15. Compare his 133 career passed balls in 15 seasons to Ausmus's 61 in 19 or Ivan Rodriguez's 122 in 19. Both Rodriguez and Posada have had run ins with pitchers over calling a game. You never hear that about Ausmus. And Posada hasn't been great at throwing out base stealers. His career 29% is way below the other two. He is at his career average this year in that category, which is a surprise for a 38 year old.

Jason Varitek was probably the soul of the Red Sox during their championship years. As such, he has been the Red Sox captain which speaks volumes about his leadership during that time. He has the reputation as a fiery guy who is great for pitchers. Those are all intangibles that can't be measured. But you can't discount them either. What can be said is that he was the starting catcher for two champions. You can't take that away from him.

Varitek was a good offensive catcher for a stretch too. Though it took him longer to break into the major leagues than the others (the 37 year old is in his 13th season), he had a nice five year stretch where he averaged an OPS+ around 120. But three of the last four years have been abysmal. In his early years, he didn't strike out that much. But in the last five seasons, he has averaged well over 100 strikeouts a season. His one saving grace is his ability to take a walk, something Ivan Rodriguez has never been very good at. Varitek has something else over the other three we've talked about: He's the only one of the four that has not led the league in grounding into double plays.

Varitek has been a good defensive catcher on the RTOT scale with a positive number for his career. But like Posada, he's never been great at throwing out runners. His career number of 24% is even worse than Posada's. So you can't lump him into the same category as Rodriguez and Ausmus. And unfortunately, this year has been historic in failing in that category. He's thrown out only 12% of base runners this season. He's been stolen on 106 times and has only caught 15 of them. Ugh! Those are similar to a certain former Dodgers/Mets catcher.

Of these four old catchers, all of them have had bright moments with playoff teams. All of them have been among the best of their era for differing reasons. Ausmus has had a nice swan song this year. Ivan Rodriguez is no longer a valuable major leaguer. Posada is still an elite offensive catcher. Jason Varitek unfortunately, looks like he has played one season too many.


Anonymous said...

How can you talk about catchers and not talk about Víctor Martínez?

While the Varitek numbers are interesting in an almanac-tic and trivial way, they do not offer introspection into the current world of baseball being "The Captain" is relegated to a bench playing role.

Your random facts and chaos theory concerning wager picks are reasons for reading this blog, but I prefer to have some meaning to my daily jaunts around the blogshepere...

Call me a realist.

William said...

Well, thanks for the feedback, Anon. But you might have missed that the heading of the post called it a Tale of Four OLD catchers? Victor Martinez is still 30 years old.

Josh Borenstein said...

Yeah, Varitek definitely looks finished. As does Rodriguez. I wonder if Ausmus will make the Dodgers' postseason roster.

Remember Charles Johnson? God, he was good. Yadier Molina and Kurt Suzuki are my favorite catchers today. And even though Pierzynski has never been a great defensive catcher, I still love him for his tenacity and high baseball IQ.