Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Why Can't Most Catchers Hit?

Why are so many catchers in baseball so useless with the bat? A staggering 314 catching seasons of 100 plate appearances or more have occurred in the last ten years with a catcher having an OPS+ of 80 or less. That's an average of one per team for every season in the last ten years (30 teams times ten seasons). For comparison, 174 such seasons have occurred for shortstops, a position with a lot of other bad hitters. In that same time span, only 155 seasons of 100 plate appearances or more have occurred with a catcher having an OPS+ of 100 or more. That's an average of one for every two teams for a decade. To put it another way, for every one catcher that had an OPS+ of 100 or better, two had an OPS+ of 80 or worse. Why?

To see how much futility is out there makes it understandable when good hitting catchers are paid enormous sums of money. Joe Mauer was given a huge contract not because he was a good hitter but because he was a good hitting catcher. Jorge Posada was paid handsomely because he leads the last ten years in WAR for a catcher despite -20.4 runs above average as a fielder and -41.9 base running runs above average. Brian McCann is a superstar because he's a catcher than can hit. Victor Martinez has been another. Jason Varitek in his prime was another. Good hitting catchers are as rare as blue lobsters.

Perhaps some can make the argument that defensive skills are more important for a catcher than offensive skills. Throwing out runners trying to steal and being a good receiver for a pitcher might be more important than hitting your weight if you are a major league catcher. But aren't all defensive positions important? Is there any more important position for fielding than the shortstop? Jorge Posada was a bad receiver and a bad fielder. Yet he wears five championship rings on his fingers.

Another argument might be the amount of punishment a catcher takes behind the plate with foul balls and balky knees and all those balls into the chest blocking pitches in the dirt. Perhaps. But for every one of those arguments, this writer can throw a Yogi Berra and a Johnny Bench at you. Those guys got hit with foul tips and had to crouch every day for years too.

Perhaps it's the nature of the position with catching. Think back to your Little League days. The least athletic kid was given a mask. It was usually the pudgy kid who could throw. But even that doesn't work, because this writer remembers a lot of those pudgy kids hitting the snot out of the ball. But the thought does resonate that not many good athletes want to play that position. It's hot with all that gear on. There's no glamour to it.

But none of those possible excuses seem to make up for poor quality of catcher hitting. Nor can it explain to this observer why such poor hitting is rewarded with extraordinarily long careers. Old catchers seem to be like Snuggies for major league managers.

Here are some of the most persistently bad hitting catchers of the last ten years:

  • Paul Bako - Bako played for eleven different teams in his twelve year career. In the past ten years, he had eight seasons that fit our category. He would have had a ninth had he received more plate appearances in 2005. Bako never had a season with a higher OPS+ of 78 and finished his career in 2009 with a lifetime OPS+ of 62. Bako finished with a career rWAR of -2.3.
  • Jose Molina - The middle third of the famous three Molina brothers, Jose has seven seasons in the past decade that fit our category. Molina is having a surprisingly good offensive season backing up Toronto's starting catcher. Despite his good season, his career OPS+ is still only 66. Jose Molina has accumulated 3.5 rWAR in his career due to good defensive metrics.
  • Gary Bennett - Bennett compiles his seven seasons that match our ten year study, all in the beginning of the decade. Bennett played thirteen years, six for the Pirates, and compiled an OPS+ of 64 in his career. He wasn't very good defensively either and finished with an rWAR of -3.7 for his career. Oof.
  • Brad Ausmus - Ausmus played eighteen years in the major leagues. He had some successful years as a hitting catcher and had a 75 career OPS+. Not bad for our group. But he had a horrid stretch from 2001 to 2008 that was just brutal and puts him in Bennett's company with seven seasons in the last ten years matching our criteria. Ausmus did compile 17.2 rWAR in his career. So it's a little unfair to lump him in here.
  • Jason Kendall - Kendall has played fifteen seasons in the big leagues. He should have quit when he was ahead several years ago. Kendall had a really good start to his offensive career. He had some power. He got on base. He had some speed. Then it dried up...really dried up. He's compiled six seasons in our ten year period with our matching criteria. He might be the only catcher with that many bad batting seasons that has compiled more than 37 wins above replacement for his career.
  • Henry Blanco - Blanco is currently playing on his ninth team of his fourteen-year career. His OPS+ this season is 92 which isn't bad for him. Blanco also has six seasons in the last ten years that match our criteria. And he sports a career OPS+ of 67. His 3.5 career rWAR is due mostly to his defense.
  • Rod Barajas - Rod the Bod has played for six teams and is in his thirteenth season. Barajas has had some decent seasons but six times in the last ten, he has met our criteria. The biggest problem for Barajas is that he has a lifetime .289 on base percentage. That's bloody unacceptable. But he plays good defense and has compiled 7.4 rWAR in his career.

We finish our list with two special mentions:

  • Jeff Mathis - Mathis has become a favorite whipping boy for writers across the land. The Angels traded away a good hitting catcher to keep him. Currently, Mathis is having his fifth straight season matching our criteria. His career OPS+ is a stunning 55, which isn't a surprise when his career slash line is: .197/.259/.304.  His batting is so ugly that whatever defense he adds is dried up like a grape to a raisin and his career rWAR is in the negative numbers.
  • Koyie Hill - Hill is in this eighth season and is currently on a three year streak of making our category requirements. And he's done it four of the last five years. The only reason he's not five for five is that he didn't get enough plate appearances in 2008. Hill's career slash line? How about: .214/.277/.305, good for a career OPS+ of 55. Ugh. And Hill's defense doesn't make up for the deficit as his career rWAR is -2.3.

A good hitting catcher is gold in this market. Perhaps as more analysts are in positions in front offices to make a difference, weak hitting catchers will not last as long as they currently do. To be totally fair, catchers as a whole have a higher OPS than shortstops and third basemen this year. But it's only a slight edge. What this writer would love to see is some sort of study that builds a case for the value of a good defensive catcher over that of an offensive one. What is the tipping point?


Dan R said...

Check out old Brooklyn Superbas catcher Bill Bergen -- a fine fielder who hit .170 over an 11-year career.


Duane NonYa said...

Johnny bench played first base a lot. And victor martinez is a dh 1b C. My son is the best hitter on his team when he catches every other game. If he catches 5 games in a row he loses his leg strength. Try doing 900 leg squats, making 900 throws from the knees, and having to even grasp a bat after icing your hands every day for a week.

Duane NonYa said...

Do 150 squats along with 150 all arm throws back to the pitcher and then catch 75 95mph pitches so you no longer have any feeling in your glove hand. Do this five games ina row. Then bat. This is why johnny b and victor m played a lot of 1b and dh. No legs equals no speed and no power.