I have long held that backup catchers are fungible. Really good ones are hard to find. To see if I could back up my long-held feelings, I used Baseball-reference.com's season finder, I attempted to construct a search that would pinpoint what are truly backup catchers and how much value they brought to their teams. For my criteria, I limited my search to players that caught at least 80% of their games and had 300 plate appearances or less. My search also looked for such players that brought at least one Win Above Replacement (WAR, Baseball-reference.com version).
Out of thirty teams last year, there were only four players that fit the search. Austin Romine was one of them. Since the year 2000 there have only been 81 such seasons or about 4.3 per season. There were only two in 2017! Of those 81, only two have been Yankee players--Romine (last year) and Francisco Cervelli in 2014.
The search was pretty successful since only a few of those seasons included starting catchers who happened to be injured that particular season. The search showed me how few backup catchers actually provided at least a win in value for their given teams. Only a handful reached two wins. None reached three.
I should state that such a search really only works for catchers. Starting catchers simply cannot start every day and the best ones are limited to 120 to 130 games. There are exceptions, but that is the norm. If I did a similar search for say a first baseman, I would only come up with 24 such seasons because there really isn't such a thing as a backup first baseman. Maybe I will do a similar search for multi-position players tomorrow.
If I took that search back to 1990, the 4.3 per season held up and between 1990 and 1999, only one Yankee reached that 1 WAR season: Mike Stanley. To show how rare these seasons are and how little value backup catchers have brought to their teams, since 1990, only five backup catchers have reached one win in a season more than twice. The leaders during that time period have to be considered the best backup catchers of their eras:
- David Ross - 7
- Mike Redmond - 4
- Rick Wilkins, Don Slaught - 3
Only thirteen of the 96 total such catching seasons had two. 78 catchers during that period only did it once. And let me reiterate that since 1990, 124 catchers have had seasons with 1 WAR or more for a season out of 870 such team seasons. That is 14%. Backup catchers are truly fungible...or have been 86% of the time. Apparently, it all works out because they usually become managers and broadcasters.
By the way, David Ross is tied for the all time lead in such seasons since 1900 with a guy named Hank Gowdy. Does that make Ross one of the all time greats as a backup catcher? I think you would have to go there.
It seems that the one thing a backup catcher needs to do is have some defensive skills. If we go back to our original search from 2000 to 2018, there were 570 possible seasons for backup catchers (we will go with that even though some teams rarely have three catchers on a squad). Of those 570 seasons, 193 of those were by catchers who had at least 0.5 Defensive Wins Above Replacement. That 34% is certainly higher than the 14% with 1 WAR or more.
If we take that down to 0.1 Defensive Wins Above Replacement, then we have all but 76 seasons. Clearly, roster makers are looking for catchers who can display decent catching skills. That's why a pathetic hitter like Jeff Mathis (with his career 52 OPS+) can play fourteen seasons in the big leagues when he topped 0.5 Defensive Wins nine times during that span.
Tying this all back to Austin Romine, when considering all that we have talked about here, what he produced last season was terrific in light of the fact that only 14% of backup catchers have had such seasons since 1990. There is absolutely no reason for anyone else to replace him as the Yankees' backup catcher. But man, that still feels like getting a box of socks for Christmas.