Tag: jason varitek

Free Agent Focus: Catchers

A few weeks ago, Sandy Alderson said the Mets will seek a veteran backstop, as he is not convinced that Josh Thole can be an everyday catcher:

“We’re looking for more catching,” Alderson said. “I think it would be a little bit premature if I were to make a judgment on Thole without ever actually having seen him play.”

He wants to “see” Thole play? Can’t he just look at Thole’s numbers on Paul DePodesta’s computer? Weird.

Since then, though, manager Terry Collins announced that Thole would be the team’s #1 catcher in 2011.

Now I’m really confused; isn’t Collins supposed to be taking orders from above, and executing the plan set forth by Alderson?

Regardless of whether Thole is the starter, the Mets will need a second backstop — and presumably are in the market for a veteran. Even with Mike Nickeas and Omir Santos around, the Mets need some depth.

However, the free-agent pickings are slim; there are a total of 14 MLB catchers currently available. Let’s have a look at them.

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Does Brian Schneider Stink?

Earlier this offseason — before Omar Minaya went into hibernation — there were rumblings that the Mets might be looking to upgrade their catching situation. Various rumors swirled involving Jason Varitek, Ivan Rodriguez, and Bengie Molina, among others. According to “sources with knowledge of the Mets’ thinking”, the team was hoping to get more offensive production from their backstops. The lefty-righty tandem of Brian Schneider and Ramon Castro combined for 16 HR, 62 RBI, 45 runs scored, and a .253 average. Not bad, but not great either. It’s about the same output as Varitek’s 2008.

Most recently, statistics published on Adam Rubin’s “Surfing the Mets” blog suggest that Schneider could be more the scapegoat of the Mets’ failure — but because of his defense, rather than his offense. The numbers reported in Rubin’s column, by way of “RayRubin Sports Analytics“, are as follows:

SANCHEZ caught by CASTRO 65 ABs, allows 0 HRs and OPP SLUG%=292
SCHNEIDER 108 ABs, allows 6 HRs and OPP SLUG%=454

HEILMAN caught by CASTRO 50 ABs , allows 0 HRs and OPP SLUG%=340
SCHNEIDER 195 ABs, allows 9 HRs and OPP SLUG%=456

FELICIANO caught by CASTRO 36 ABs, allows 0 HRs and OPP SLUG%=306
SCHNEIDER 134 ABs, allows 6 HRs and OPP SLUG%=455

WAGNER caught by CASTRO 49 ABs, allows 0 HRs and OPP SLUG%=204
SCHNEIDER 99 ABs, allows 3 HRs and OPP SLUG%=313

SANTANA caught by CASTRO 333 ABs, allows 6 HRs and OPP SLUG%=297
SCHNEIDER 524 ABs, allows 15 HRs and OP SLUG%=401

PEDRO M caught by CASTRO 138 ABs, allows 2 HRs and OPP SLUG%=377
SCHNEIDER 185 ABs, allows 15 HRs and OPP SLUG%=600!!!!!

Same phenomena holds with John Maine, Claudio Vargas and Nelson Figueroa. Fascinating, isn’t it?

Huh … those stats are worrisome, particularly since Schneider’s value as a ballplayer is tied directly to his defensive performance. If he can’t hit, AND can’t catch, how can the Mets move forward with him behind the plate?

Before we go piling on Brian and blaming him for all the Mets’ woes, let’s take a better look at what these numbers mean.

First of all, I don’t see the actual stats for Maine, Vargas, and Figueroa, so I’m taking for granted the source is telling the truth. Further, I don’t see any stats for Pelfrey, Perez, Smith, Schoeneweis, Stokes, Muniz, Sosa, Ayala, Wise, Rincon, Parnell, Knight, Niese, Armas, nor Kunz. Maybe the guys at RayRubin found similar trends, but didn’t deem it necessary to continue belaboring the point. Or, perhaps the split performances of the other pitchers don’t fit RayRubin’s argument, and thus were conveniently left out.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to say which is the case, because I can’t for the life of me find these individualized stats anywhere (if someone can, please send us the link!). All I can find is the “Catcher’s ERA” (CERA), which has Schneider at 4.11 and Castro at 3.68. Before we judge Castro the big winner there, consider that most statheads find CERA to be an unreliable indicator of a catcher’s performance.

But put all that aside for a moment, and let’s look at RayRubin’s reported numbers specifically. What could be the explanation for such a dire contrast in performance from Schneider to Castro? Right off the bat I’m seeing an issue with the sample sizes. Other than in the cases of Martinez and Santana, Schneider caught about double the ABs for each of the pitchers in question (with Heilman and Feliciano, it was nearly FOUR TIMES as many at-bats). Is it possible that Castro simply caught those pitchers on “lucky” days? What if the appearances were reversed — if Castro was the one to catch Heilman for almost 200 batters, for instance? Would Heilman have pitched extraordinarily better? No one knows for sure. These numbers suggest that Schneider looks bad simply because he was the guy that was usually behind the plate, rather than any negative impact he had on the pitching staff.

Which brings up another point — even if Castro was that much better as a receiver, it matters little since he couldn’t stay healthy enough to remain on the roster.

Looking at the rest of the defensive stats, Schneider has a fairly solid advantage over Castro (other than passed balls). Schneider threw out 21 of 63 (33%) runners attempting to steal, while Castro nailed 5 of 23 (21.7%). Passed balls — Schneider , Castro 1. Errors — Schneider 4, Castro 4. That last number is a bit scary, since Schneider caught 109 games and Castro only 47. If Castro caught, say, 120 games, he might have committed 10 errors or more. Another stat I can’t find anywhere is the number of wild pitches allowed per catcher. Though wild pitches aren’t necessarily a catcher’s fault, the better catchers minimize their occurrences. My eyes tell me that Schneider is much more nimble behind the plate than Castro, and my guess is that Schneider does a better job of keeping balls from getting past him.

As many of you know, I’m a catcher myself and so you may want to know my personal thoughts on this idea that Schneider is a prominent scapegoat. I have to say no — at least, I wouldn’t blame the Mets failures on Schneider’s defense or game-calling abilities. I do believe it’s possible that the pitchers who were with the Mets in previous years were probably more comfortable throwing to Castro, and I can tell you firsthand that it takes a while for a catcher to learn how to get the most out of a pitcher. When Schneider was swatting at balls early in the season, many wondered how a defensive specialist could commit so many passed balls. Anyone who’s caught at a fairly high level can tell you instantly — it’s hard as heck to catch a guy who (a) you haven’t caught before, or very often; (b) is throwing 90+; and/or (c) is wild. Since Schneider missed nearly all of spring training last year, he didn’t get a chance to catch the Mets pitchers as much as he should have. You can read the rest of my explanation on his passed balls here and here.

In other words, it probably took a while — probably half the season — for Schneider to both get comfortable with, and begin to learn how to extract the most from, the Mets’ pitching staff. A good catcher has to manage the pitcher’s emotions as well as his pitching repertoire, and also needs to know when and how to push / motivate a guy — and when to stroke his ego to build his confidence. In addition, the catcher needs to gain the pitcher’s confidence. When I look at those big slugging numbers, I wonder if the extra-base hits were due to Schneider calling a bad pitch, or the pitcher shaking off a pitch? We all remember that fateful NLCS game, when Guillermo Mota continually shook off Paul LoDuca; sometimes the catcher has the right idea, but the pitcher either doesn’t have confidence in the call, or doesn’t have confidence in himself to throw the pitch. Who is to blame in such a situation?

Assuming that Schneider returns to catch in 2009 — and all signs seem to point that way — I believe that the numbers cited above by RayRubin will improve, based on the fact that Schneider will have a better “feel” for his pitchers, and in turn, the pitchers will be more comfortable, and have more faith, in him. In short, NO — Brian Schneider does NOT stink — and the pitching staff can only improve with the continuity of Schneider behind the plate in 2009.

(Schneider has at least one more thing going for him — as of today, Martinez, Heilman, Wagner, and Vargas are not on the 2009 roster … so those terrible numbers can’t get any worse!)

******** Shout out to “isuzudude” for suggesting this subject *******

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Be Careful What You Wish For

Did you send your Christmas “wish list” to Santa Claus? Or perhaps you sent it to Omar Minaya?

Already Mets fans have received two early presents — Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz. But the offseason is far from over and most of us are clamoring for more than answers to the eighth and ninth inning — though it’s a fine start.

One thing to keep in mind, however: be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.

Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus recently wrote an interesting column for SI.com, pointing out “Five Free Agents To Be Wary Of“. Among them are Orlando Hudson, Randy Wolf, Milton Bradley, Jon Garland, and Jason Varitek. Huh … if it weren’t for Bradley being on that list, you’d think the article was written specifically for Mets fans, since the other four players have been rumored to be on the Mets’ shopping list.

Though I’m generally not a stat-head, Sheehan shows stats that support the headline — and I personally am wary of these five guys without delving into the numbers.

For example, as much as I love the O-dog’s personality, and think that alone would upgrade the Mets as a team, I do worry about the Mets giving him a long-term, expensive deal because he does, to me, compare to Luis Castillo at the same age. Not surprisingly, Sheehan offers the same comparison, so I’m not the only one. Think about it — when Castillo celebrated his 32nd birthday (Hudson turned 32 last week), he was about to finish a season with a .301 batting average and .368 OBP. Though he played most of that season and the one before on bad knees, he still managed to steal 34 bases and score 175 runs between 2006-2007, and his glove (not range) was still considered one of the best in the game. Yes, those bad knees greatly diminished his range, but few were in his class when it came to glovework (he made less than a dozen errors in two seasons combined) and turning the double play. In his free-agent offseason, he was finally going to get much-needed, but supposedly minor, knee surgery. Most expected that he’d return to at least 80-85% of what he was as a Gold Glove winner and top of the lineup table-setter.

And here we have Hudson, who himself is a Gold Glover and coming off a career-high .305 / .367 year (wow, those numbers are close!). Also like Castillo, he’s had several nagging injuries in his most recent two seasons. Granted, his injuries have been to his wrist, various fingers, and hamstrings — none of which would be nearly as damaging to his range as Castillo’s two bad knees. But he’s been less durable since he’s entered his 30s — is that a pattern developing? Yes, his ability to swing the stick with occasional pop still makes him a better alternative to the slap-hitting Castillo — but does it make him worth $30M over 3 years? Moreover, will the Mets be sorry they gave an injury-prone second baseman a long-term deal a year from now? It’s easy to say “no” now, and many of us thought the 4-year deal given to Castillo was crazy even at the time. But how many expected Castillo’s value to drop so drastically, so quickly? We figured it would be a bad contract when it was in the third or fourth year, not the first.

Similarly, Sheehan points out concerns that I share for Wolf, Garland, and Varitek. I’ve been shaking my head all along wondering why Wolf is in the conversation at all, and this adds fuel to the fire:

Since coming back from Tommy John surgery in 2006, Wolf has a massive Petco Park/Earth split: a 3.58 ERA and a 68/26 K/BB in the Happiest Place on Earth (For Pitchers), 4.90 with a 232/117 K/BB everywhere else. He’s a flyball pitcher without the velocity to work up in the zone any longer, and will have a huge home-run rate in a normal park.

Garland has put up better looking numbers on the surface for the last few years, but Sheehan informs us that his low strikeout and high contact rates suggest he’ll be progressively worse as time goes on. Even still, a move to the NL should stave off that downslide for at least a year or two, and he has the potential to be an innings-eater. But he certainly isn’t worth more than a two-year deal.

Varitek came up in recent rumors surrounding the Mets, though how much truth to them is up for debate. Still, the Mets have supposedly been shopping Brian Schneider in the hopes of upgrading the catching position. Would Varitek qualify as an upgrade? Hard to say. Defensively, he’s about equal to Schneider, with a weaker arm. Offensively, it’s hard to be worse than Schneider was last year, but ‘tek was close; where Schneider had no power and a so-so average, Varitek had so-so power and a terrible average — you make the call. From a leadership standpoint, there’s no question — Varitek is exactly the type of leadership personality the Mets need, both on the field and in the clubhouse. Problem is, can he play in enough games to be effective? He turns 37 next April, and is probably best served in a platoon role — ideally and ironically, with someone like Schneider. But is it worth a compensation pick and $9M/year for someone who might play in only 100 games? (Well, that’s about what the Mets paid Moises Alou to appear in 15, so ….)

Of course, there are no guarantees with any free agents, and if the Mets added one or two of these players mentioned it wouldn’t be the end of the world. In fact, I’d welcome the additions of Varitek, Hudson, and Garland. The key is not overpaying for what could turn out to be yet another bad contract.

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