Thursday, November 04, 2004

Position-by-Position: A Statistical Look at the Free Agent Market


An old baseball saying goes "you can never have enough pitching." Teams acknowledge this statement, and stock up on pitching prospects (they exist?) in the draft. What's surprising is that teams don't take the same outlook with catchers.

On the defensive spectrum, catchers are at the very right.
[ - - 1B - LF - RF - 3B - CF - 2B - SS - C - - ]

The basic premise of this spectrum is that positions at the right end of the spectrum are more difficult than the positions at the left end of the spectrum. Perhaps 90% of the all players could play a respectable first base. However, only 5-10% of players could be respectable at the catching position.

This simple fact accounts for why we find many power-hitting first baseman without starting roles while we find offensive black holes like Brad Ausmus or Brent Mayne with major league jobs. If a team can find a catcher who can hit like a first baseman but play catcher, it's already 40 runs (4 wins) better than a team with an average catcher.

Right now, catching is an undervalued commodity in minor league systems - the Oakland A's saw the reluctance of teams to draft Kurt Suzuki and Landon Powell, and grabbed them both. Both of them have good offensive potential, but because they have the potential to stay at catcher, they are even more valuable to A's.

It's a simple concept: catchers are rare. Finding a catcher who can hit is extremely valuable. Why aren't teams investing in catching more in their farm systems? I don't know.

Onto to 2005 Free Agent Catchers:

1. Jason Varitek: The Red Sox want him back, and bad. The front office made it clear that he's their number one priority this offseason. Without getting into the intangibles, Varitek is a fine switch-hitting defensive catcher who posted a .296/.390/.482 line for Boston last season. While the power isn't magnificent, especially when you consider that he plays in a hitter's park, he's found a jump in walks, taking 62 this year with 463 ABs. A .390 OBP from a catcher with pop gives the team a solid cornerstone. The only negative about Varitek is his age (33). Still, the Red Sox don't have many other options, and losing Varitek would leave huge void at another key position.

2. Doug Mirabelli: The Red Sox have the 2nd best catcher too? Even though Mirabelli only plays once every 5 days, Varitek's backup hit .281/.368/.525 in 160 ABs. By no means should any team expect Mirabelli to repeat that performance, but it should factor into a projection, and the Red Sox catcher has a career OBP of .331 and SLG of .421. The selection of Mirabelli as the 2nd best free agent catcher doesn't indicate his greatness as much as it indicates the weak free agent market at the position. A fair projection for Mirabelli would be .260/.340/.440 over a full season at a neutral ballpark. Unequivocally, an above-average catcher who fails to garner recognition. At age 34, he'll be looking for his first starting job, but will probably end up either coming back to the Red Sox as a strong backup or splitting at-bats with a youngster in another organization. His years as a backup might also mean that he's got less wear and tear on his knees or arm.

3. Damian Miller: .272/.339/.403. Blah. And he'll probably be the most sought-after catcher in the free agent market after Varitek re-signs. The A's saw something good in him after they traded Michael Barrett for him - and I'm speculating that his defense is incredible. Right now, there isn't any metric available to the public for estimating runs saved or given up on blocked balls by catchers, but that doesn't mean that Beane and DePodesta never developed one for the A's. Miller will be 35 next year - he shouldn't get a multi-year deal, but some team will give him a 2 or 3 year contract. The Royals gave a 39-year old catcher 2 years, 4.2 million - Miller's a better offensive player, and a "proven veteran." 2 years, 7 million isn't out of the question.

4. Gregg Zaun - Why the Royals kept Brent Mayne and released Zaun always upset me, especially while watching Mayne slice fastball after fastball into the left-field stands before weakly grounding out to shortsop. Zaun's a switch-hitter with fair on-base skills, drawing 47 walks in 338 ABs (I like a 1:10 ratio here) with a .367 OBP. While he's getting old (34 next year), he'd make a fine backup catcher on almost any team, and could start for many of them over the likes of Sandy Alomar Jr., Mike Matheny, Brad Ausmus, Brent Mayne, etc.

5. Todd Pratt - Gotta warn you, he's old (38 next year). But a fantastic backup with great on-base abilities. Over the last 6 years with well over 100 ABs each year, his OBP has been .378, .327, .449, .400, .351 even while not hitting for a tremendous average each of those years. He can take a walk, and he can still be a fantastic backup catcher who can fill-in during a 15-day DL pinch.

The Rest: Mike Matheny will get some attention for being a solid defensive catcher. Had I been Tony LaRussa, however, I'd have given a thought to using the DH for Matheny during the WS. .247/.292/.348 is well below replacement-level. Not even close to being an average catcher for all the praise he receives. After that, there are a few old veterans who'll find themselves on the back end of a bench or in AAA waiting for an injury: Pat Borders, Tim Laker, Brent Mayne, Mike Redmond, John Flaherty. A couple catchers that might be worth gambling on (and I should point on, former favorite of Bart) are Bobby Estallela and Ramon Castro. They might be worth a chance somewhere as long as you're not competing, but I wouldn't have too much faith in them.

A Fit with the Royals?: Doubtful that we'll see the Royals go after another catcher. The starter next year is John Buck, and Benito Santiago is already under contract in 2005. Even if the Royals move Santiago, they love what Albert Castillo gave them in 2004, and he's signed minor-league deal with the team. Personally, I would look at trying to move Santiago and signing Mirabelli to a 1 year deal for 1-1.5 million. In the end, it might help us win one more game, but won't matter in the long run.

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