MSTI’s 2011 in Review: Catcher

As promised yesterday, we’re kicking off the fifth year of MSTI Season Reviews today with the catchers. I’ll probably run 2-3 of these a week through October, working in looks at arbitration choices and other stories as events warrant.

The Dodgers used five catchers this year, the most since using six in 1976, and tied with many seasons for seventh-most in club history. (The team record, eight, was set by the 1938 Brooklyn club. And who doesn’t remember Greek George, Paul Chervinko, and Gilly Campbell from that ’38 crew?) Going from the lows of Rod Barajas and Dioner Navarro early in the season to the even further lows of Barajas and Navarro in the middle of the year, finally rebounding with solid finishes by Barajas and A.J. Ellis, the composite Dodger catching crew finished 17th in catcher OPS, .698. That says a whole lot more about the state of catching in the majors right now than it does about the Dodgers.

Rod Barajas (C+)
.230/.287/.430 .717 16hr 1.4 WAR

Remember how we felt when the Dodgers signed Barajas last winter, or as I called it at the time, “Rod Barajas Turned One Good Week Into $3.25m“? No? Bask in it with me again:

Barajas signed for $500k with the Mets last year, waiting until just before camp opened in February to even get that. He was then so bad that the woeful Mets, you know, let him go to the Dodgers on waivers for absolutely nothing. Granted, he had a great first week or so in Dodger blue – 4 homers, 1.458 OPS in his first 8 games. Yet in his remaining 17 games, he had just 1 homer and a .612 OPS, also known as “Rod Barajas being Rod Barajas“. On the season, he had a .284 OBP, which exactly matches his career mark, because he’s not very good.

Look at it this way – Barajas had never made more than $3.2m, which is what he got from Texas in 2006. He’s now five years older, coming off several lousy seasons bouncing from team to team – making less than $1m in two of them – yet somehow, coming off a year in which he was dumped on waivers and will be 35, he’s all of a sudden worth $3.8m 3.25m. Seriously? In my 2011 plan, when I said he could come back I said that I thought he could be had for $800k. Is this all because of his one good week as a Dodger? I’ve had to deal with a lot of casual fans who got taken in by that, but I never expected the front office to do so.

That have been just a bit harsh, for reasons we’ll get to in a second, and Barajas ended up doing exactly what Rod Barajas does. Batting average between .225-.255, just like it’s been every year since 2004? Check. Terrible OBP, close to his lousy career mark of .284? You better believe it. Solid amount of pop, resulting in 11-19 homers for the fifth time in six years? Natch. Missing about a month with a lower body injury (this time an ankle sprain) for the fourth time in five years? Mmm-hmm. One ridiculously red-hot stretch (1.153 August OPS) surrounded by a season of ineptitude (no other month above .664), just like last year? Damn straight.

He’s like clockwork. Mediocre, uninspiring clockwork.

Here’s the thing, though: the state of catching is so poor that even with all those warts, Barajas was able to provide some amount of value. Only two three NL catchers had more homers than Barajas’ 16, and they all had well 150 or more plate appearances than he did to get there; add that to roughly average defense, and he’s slightly above replacement level, 14th of 23 MLB catchers with at least 300 PA in rWAR. That said, the flaws in his game mean that even with the power, he was tied for 11th in wOBA of the 13 NL catchers who had at least 300 PA. Much like the potassium benzoate in the frogurt… that’s bad.

Barajas is a free agent, and he turned 36 in September. For his part, he wants to return, and if you’re not convinced that Tim Federowicz is ready to start the season in the bigs as Ellis’ partner, you could perhaps make an argument for it simply on the basis of his pop and the lack of viable alternatives. But if he really wants to be a Dodger that bad, toss him an $1m contract offer and say “take it or leave it”. Otherwise, it’s easy enough to move on.

On the other hand… he did do this, which is the greatest thing ever.

Dioner Navarro (F)
.193/.276/.324 .600 5hr -0.3 WAR

AKA, “the guy who always seemed to come up in the ninth inning with the game on the line, always.”

It’s not like we shouldn’t have seen this coming, of course. When the Dodgers signed Navarro on December 8 of last year, I shared this quote from respected Tampa blog DRaysBay:

I think I speak for the entire Tampa Bay community when I say, “Thank goodness that’s over.” Dioner Navarro seemed like he had so much promise when the Rays acquired him from the Dodgers back in 2006, and four and a half seasons later, he hasn’t lived up to any of it. His plate discipline all but disappeared (he used to clock in around a 10% walk rate), his power never developed, his defense never improved, and his attitude got surly when the Rays demoted him to the minors this season. Especially with the unexpected emergence of John Jaso this season, I’m very, very glad to see Navarro head out the door.

While I liked the idea of signing a former top prospect with one solid year under his belt to a “what the hell, let’s take a chance” contract, giving him a guaranteed major-league deal – all but assuring that A.J. Ellis would not have a legitimate chance to beat him out – seemed very foolish at the time, as I asked on February 20:

Put another way, he’s basically been on a downward trend ever since he got to Tampa, except for that one fluke year. There’s no better way to illustrate that than by doing so graphically, so here’s his BABIP and wOBA charts, courtesy of FanGraphs.

Well, look at that. Both metrics are on a pretty consistent downward path, with that one fluke year sticking out like a sore thumb. It makes me wonder what his career line, currently sitting at .249/.309/.356, would look like if his 2008 had followed the rest of his career path. His career batting average would likely be in the .230s, and his OBP would certainly be under .300. So basically, he’d be Rod Barajas (career BA/OBP of .239/.284), but without the power – i.e., the only thing which makes Barajas even slightly palatable. Obviously, you can’t ignore the fact that he did put up that 2008, but you also can’t ignore that he’s been underwhelming at best in every other year of his career and downright awful the last two seasons, which of course carry the most weight.

So tell me, why is it that Navarro has a $1m contract for 2011, while Ellis has bus rides around the PCL to look forward to? Because of that one good year? That fluke year also isn’t fooling the latest iteration of Baseball Prospectus‘ PECOTA projections, pegging Navarro for .243/.304/.336  and Ellis at .256/.364/.321. The numbers just don’t support it, and that’s without even questioning the off-field issues brought up by Navarro refusing to remain with the Rays in the playoffs last year after not making the roster. It’s also without bringing defense into the equation, as that’s notoriously hard to evaluate for catchers, though it should be noted that Ellis has a very good repuation, and the DRaysBay quote above wasn’t exactly glowing towards Navarro. (Update: after this went up, BP colleague and DockOfTheRays blogger Jason Collette added, “enjoy that hot mess behind the plate.” So there’s that.)

And, well, that’s exactly what happened, at least after he missed the first month of the season thanks to an oblique strain. Navarro’s batting average was south of .200 for basically the entire season, and that combined with indifferent defense had us calling for him to be gone by early June, when Navarro’s OPS had sunk to a lowly .483, with no indication he deserved a spot on the team. Even when he was good – two of his homers were the margin of victory in 1-0 wins – he was bad, as he had two throwing errors in the first three innings in the second of those games.

By August, the Dodgers agreed with what we’d all known for nearly a year and finally cut him loose, but even that wasn’t the end of it; as if lousy performance, a poor track record, and a previous clubhouse issue weren’t enough, the last straw was reportedly his lack of a sufficient work ethic, which is why the Dodgers took the highly unusual step of cutting him just a week before rosters expanded. Navarro still doesn’t turn 28 until next year, so he’s undoubtedly going to get another chance somewhere. This is now two strikes for him, however, without the on-field performance that can buy you a ‘get out of jail free’ card.

Good riddance, Dioner. I think it’s telling that no one bothered picking you up after you got cut. See you never.

A.J. Ellis (B)
.271/.392/.376 .769 2hr 0.5 WAR

I hate to say I told you so, but, well, just look at the February 20 quote from the Navarro section above. (Not that I was alone in such an assessment, of course.) Navarro ended up straining an oblique in March, so Ellis broke camp with the club, but got just four starts before being sent down when Navarro returned near the end of April – though don’t forget that we nearly saw him make his season debut as a pitcher when he began to warm in the bullpen as the Dodgers were getting smashed 10-0 by the Giants on April 2.

We were able to put up with the ensuing Barajas / Navarro pairing for about six weeks, until I could finally take no more on June 11:

I hardly need to link you to all of the posts I wrote over the winter saying that a catching duo of Rod Barajas and Dioner Navarro wasn’t going to work, right? Shockingly… it hasn’t worked. Over the last few weeks, they’ve been largely sharing the role, and they’ve combined to put up remarkably similar lines.

Last 30 days
Barajas: 61 PA  .172/.200/.259 (.459)  2 doubles 1 homer 14/2 K/BB
Navarro: 60 PA .161/.203/.196 (.400) 2 doubles 0 homer 11/3 K/BB

Eerie, isn’t it? The only thing that’s giving Barajas any sort of boost in the SLG department is that one dinger, but if I’d waited a few more days then even that would have been outside the 30-day window; it came way back on May 13. What should really stand out there is not that the two catchers have been putting up the same numbers, but that each set of numbers is atrocious. It’s hardly just over the last month, because the season stats tell the same tale. The 35-year-old Barajas is hitting just .213/.251/.372, unable to match even his modest career line of .237/.282/.410. Navarro has been even worse, at .176/.233/.250, continuing his total career flameout since a quality 2008 in Tampa. Neither one ranks within the top 30 catchers by OPS (min. 70 PA); Navarro slots at 42nd of 44. By just about every offensive statistic other than home runs, the Dodgers have the worst hitting catchers in the National League, and their combined OBP of .264 is worse than every team in the majors except for the Twins, who have been without the injured Joe Mauer for much of the season.

Neither one has worked out, and it’s time to make a move. The answer is clear: DFA Navarro and recall A.J. Ellis. Ellis is no more likely to add power than Dee Gordon is, but he’s an absolute on-base machine. In parts of nine minor league seasons, his career OBP is .402; it’s been .400 or better for four seasons in a row and it hasn’t been below .380 since 2005. In 119 AAA PA this year, it’s at .470, and that’s what happens when you have a 8/23 K/BB ratio. That’s a number which would be insane, if not for the fact that he’s on the plus side of that ledger over his entire career (268/309). He’s seen bits of bit-league time over the last two years with injuries to Martin, Brad Ausmus, and Navarro, and in small sample sizes he’s managed to retain that skill – .371 OBP, 20/18 K/BB, in 147 2010-11 PA. Don’t forget, he was also the hottest Dodger hitter in Sept/Oct last year, hitting .417/.533/.500. There’s no question at all that Ellis is the superior option right now.

Eight days later, Ellis did return, but only because Barajas sprained his ankle; he received another 37 scattered plate appearances before sent down again upon Barajas’ recovery. As Navarro continued to struggle, we wondered yet again why Ellis was being kept down in August:

I’ve tried to stay away from the “why is guy X playing over guy Y”, since the day-to-day machinations in a lost season don’t really matter too much, particularly when there’s not a ton of great alternatives. But seriously, Dioner Navarro, after another 0-4 today (along with a throwing error), is now at .193/.276/.324. He’s had his chance to prove that his terrible last few years were the fluke, as opposed to his solid 2008. It hasn’t happened. Why exactly are we not seeing A.J. Ellis play every day for the last six weeks?

Two days later, Navarro was DFA’d, a cause for celebration, and Ellis joined the club for his third stint of the season, which paid off immediately when Ellis hit his first big-league home run (and first professional homer anywhere since 2008) as the Dodgers swept the Cardinals. (He would add his second on September 4.)

Sharing time with Barajas and Tim Federowicz over the last six weeks, Ellis hit .325/.426/.550 with roundly praised defense and pitch handling. That’s in addition to a .467 OBP in AAA this year, and since he’s now out of options, he’s all but cemented his place on the 2012 roster… until Ned Colletti signs Jason Varitek, that is.

Hector Gimenez (inc.)
(.143/.143/.143 .286 0hr -0.1 WAR)

“That picture of Hector seems odd,” you might be saying. “He’s wearing #79, not the #9 he had with the Dodgers, and they’re wearing their home whites, yet that photo was clearly not taken in Dodger Stadium.”

All true: this is a shot of Gimenez hitting during spring training in Arizona, i.e., the only time anyone ever gave a crap about Hector Gimenez. Or as I said during our midseason recap:

I would like to say something witty or insightful about Hector Gimenez, but that infers that I have absolutely any recollection of him as a Dodger whatsoever. Pass.

So pretend you have any memory of Gimenez’ seven glorious plate appearances as a Dodger (including one start!) before hurting his knee in April, and know that you are lying, because you do not. Shockingly, the camp darling who spent 2010 as a 27-year-old in AA didn’t work out, and while he had a decently okay season with Chattanooga after returning from injury, you’ll never hear of him again, because if you can’t make it in an organization that has as little catching depth as the Dodgers, well, you can’t make it period. Mark it.

Tim Federowicz (inc.)
(.154/.313/.154 .466 0hr 0.0 WAR)

You hated the Trayvon Robinson deal that brought Federowicz and two minor league pitchers to Los Angeles at the trading deadline, and so did I. That sentence, right there, is the burden that Tim Federowicz has to deal with. It’s not enough for him to be a quality major leaguer, as though that isn’t difficult enough. He also has to outshine what Robinson does in Seattle, and with Trayvon filling up highlight reels with diving catches in his short time in the bigs, Federowicz starts at a disadvantage. It might not be fair, but it is the truth.

He received only 16 plate appearances in a September cameo, so we learned little about him there, but I’ve seen a lot of people making a big deal of the fact that after he hit .277/.338/.407 for Boston’s AA club, he kicked that up to .325/.431/.627 for the Dodgers in AAA, and the fact that I apparently still need to issue the standard disclaimer is disappointing. But since I do: five of his six AAA homers and a .409/.519/.841 line came in 13 home games, and one homer and a .231/.333/.385 line came in 12 road games. Neither of those are particularly large sample sizes, but again, he’s hardly the first to show ridiculous splits in New Mexico, so take the overall AAA line with a grain of salt approximately the size of Juan Uribe.

So despite the glowing reports about his defense, we’ll expect to see Federowicz starting 2012 back in AAA, with Ellis and [insert Rod Barajas or vaguely-Rod-Barajas-esque-veteran-catcher #X82 here] manning the dish for the big club. Federowicz will hit something like .320/.430/.500 for the Isotopes, because that’s practically league-average in the PCL, and everyone will get excited. Once again, the disclaimer will come out.

******

Next! James Loney‘s wild ride! It’s first base!