Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Lousy Catchers.- Maybe it's the Vowels

Last week on the Fan's podcast, it was mentioned that there were 123 players last year (2010) that finished with a Wins Above Replacement (WAR) score of zero or in the negative numbers. Generally, this is in the same percentage as always. But when going down the list for the listening audience, it was noticed that a large preponderance of those "neggies" (the Fan's bid to coin a new word) were catchers. Why are there so many crappy catchers in baseball today? Has it always been that way? And why can't major league teams find better catchers? Whoa, that's a lot of questions. Let's take them one at a time.

Why are there so many crappy catchers? Well, "crappy" is an unkind word, is it not? Perhaps to soften the blow, we should call them WAR-deficient catchers. There. That's better. Why are there so many WAR-deficient catchers? The 123 players listed in the first paragraph had at least 100 at bats. But when dropping that quantity amount, we find that 46 catchers finished 2010 with a WAR of zero or worse. 46!  In fairness, a third of those guys didn't even have 100 at bats, so we can take that with some grain of salt. But some of those with the worst WAR totals played a lot. Among the group was Bengie Molina (-0.6), Koyle Hill (-1.0), Jeff Mathis (-1.3) and Adam Moore (-1.4). Moore proved that Seattle's tough season was no fluke as his WAR was the lowest for any catcher in baseball. And it seems to be catchy. Jake Fox, who just a couple of years ago was hammering all kinds of minor league pitching for the Cubs' system put on the tools of ignorance for the first time in a while and hit all of .217.

Seventeen of these 46 guys were over 30 years of age. Which again proves that managers and GMs are much more comfortable if the catcher has major league experience. It doesn't matter or not if they stink...err...are WAR-deficient. They just want a veteran. Nothing else can explain why guys like Kevin Cash,  Mike Redman, Chad Moeller and others can have ten to twenty year careers despite not offering anything of value other than the willingness to put a mask on and get beaten up during the course of a game or season. Brad Ausmus finally hung up his catcher's mitt after turning 41 last year. That's a lot of years of mediocrity. Consider if you will that only 25 catchers that saw any playing time last year were 25 years of age or less.

If you were to do a survey of all the major league teams, only about a third of them would have catchers to be proud of. Oh sure, for many, you'll get the "gamer," "good with pitchers" and "good clubhouse guys" thrown in there to make it sound like teams were happy with these WAR-deficient catchers. But if you got behind those euphemisms, most GMs were giving the Giants dirty looks for having a guy like Buster Posey.

According to the Fan's searches (which should always be open to scrutiny), there were 111 catchers that played last year. The fact taht 46 of them had zero or a negative WAR is terrible. But is it unprecedented?

In 2009, 109 catchers got into games in the majors. 45 of them were at zero WAR or in the negative numbers. Nearly identical. Let's go back ten years to 2001. In 2001, 109 catchers got into games and 56 of them ended with zero WAR or a WAR in the negative numbers. That's even worse! If we go back to 1991, 51 of the 101 catchers that got into games in that season finished with a WAR of zero or in the negative numbers. It's beginning to look like a plethora of crappy catcher...oops...WAR-deficient catchers have always been with us. Back in 1955, 31 of the 61 catchers in baseball were just as ba...deficient.

The Fan is going to go out on a limb here. Feel free to chop it off if you'd like. But it seems that teams don't value a good catcher very much. If there has been nearly 50% of catchers in the game that can't even crack positive value, then we can term it chronic. Catchers that come up in the system that can do some damage at the plate get converted out of the catching position (Bryce Harper and Biggio are two that come to mind). Guys that are not perceived as good receivers but are good hitters often get to the big leagues in other positions. Jesus Montero may never be an every day catcher for example.

The Fan has noticed another trend. Forty of the 111 catchers that saw big league action last year have names that end in a vowel. Think about it. There's Jaso and Navarro and Blanco and Cervelli and LaRue and Molina   (thrice) and Sardinha. Is the Fan right or what? Perhaps this is part of the problem for some strange reason. 

Perhaps the catching position is considered fungible. Perhaps it is a position to save money. But it seems to this non-astute observer that teams with great catchers also have great teams. Where would the Braves be without McCann? The Giants get Posey and win the World Series. Posada was a terrific offensive catcher for this current Yankee generation of pennant winners. Whatever the case, it would seem to be a position of importance and yet there is so much lacking at the position. The only other position that is like it is shortstop. Of the 111 shorstops that played in the majors last year, 56 of them ended up with a WAR of zero or in the negative numbers. Again, this includes many who have the "Utility" tag next to their position. And as the Fan wrote last week, a lot of these guys hang around too long and clog up the lower rungs of the WAR ladder.

To give the game a break, we must admit that the percentage of WAR-deficient catchers is lower now than it was twenty, thirty or forty years ago. But that isn't saying much. The Fans advice for all this is that as long as so many of baseball's catchers are going be of little or not value, teams might as well always have their back up catcher as a rookie. At least then the catcher will make minimum instead of one of these Buteras or Blancos that play for ever, make millions and add nothing of value year after year.

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