Are the Dodgers Going To Have the Weakest Catching Situation in Baseball?

All of us love A.J. Ellis around here. How can you not? He’s the kind of guy you always root for, because after having been in the minors for nine seasons (including four in a row at Triple-A) and seeing small stints with the big club in every year since 2008, he’s finally positioned to be a big-league starter for the first time in 2012 at age 31. It’s the kind of story we can all relate to, and it helps that when he’s actually seen playing time late in the year over the last two seasons, he’s been excellent, putting up a .342/.444/.461 line over 92 September/October plate appearances since 2010. Even his style works, because on a team that has had far too many OBP black holes in recent years, getting on base is exactly his strength, along with positive reviews of his pitcher handling. And selfishly, I’ll admit that any ballplayer who not only has a Twitter account but is interesting with it and follows me, Jon Weisman, and Eric Stephen gets an additional one billion coolness points.

Few of us like Matt Treanor. He’s old. He can’t hit, at all, even a little. That’s usually fine from a backup backstop, because you’re rarely expecting much from the position other than to be a capable defender, but Treanor grades out poorly there as well, not even as good as Rod Barajas was. You don’t ever want to get too agitated over a one-year, small-money commitment to a player who really isn’t going to make much of a difference, but Treanor was never good, and when he turns 36 in two weeks he’s not going to start getting any better. He exists. I’m not sure why.

None of us are really sure what to make of Tim Federowicz. You try not to unfairly denigrate him simply because he was included in one of the most shocking and unpopular Dodger trades in years, because he had nothing to do with that, and his defense is supposedly excellent. However, I’ve yet to see anyone outside the Dodger front office who thinks he can hit enough to be a big-league starter, and if he isn’t more than a backup, then why did you trade Trayvon Robinson for him anyway? Well, there I go again, busting him for a trade he didn’t ask for. Kevin Goldstein ranked him as the 13th best Dodger prospect recently at Baseball Prospectus, and being one spot ahead of Ethan Martin and four below Alex Castellanos isn’t exactly high praise. Maybe he’ll improve his hitting skills, but we won’t find that out this year in Albuquerque; remember, playing in the PCL once made Terry Tiffee look like a stud.

Taken as a whole, the top three Dodger catchers are questionable at best. We like Ellis and are optimistic about him, but can his great-eye, zero-power ways stop pitchers from throwing nothing but strikes, and how many guys are really impact players when they don’t get their first real shots until 31? Is Treanor going to be really bad or just very bad? And is Federowicz really the catcher of the future, or just someone we say nice things about regarding his defense while we hope Gorman Erickson pans out? Or Pratt Maynard? Or someone we don’t even know about yet?

One scout asked BP‘s John Perrotto just that:

“I don’t understand what the Dodgers are doing here. These guys are both number-two catchers, and I can’t imagine either one of them starting 100 games. Maybe they think (rookie Tim) Fedorowicz [sic] will be the answer at some point in the season, but I wasn’t all that impressed with what I saw of him last September. This has to be the weakest catching situation in the major leagues.”

The weakest catching situation in the major leagues. Well, I thought, that seems kind of harsh, but to outsiders who don’t have as much of a soft spot for Ellis as we do, I suppose I can see where they’re coming from. On the other hand, outside of a few teams, catching is a black hole across the sport. But the weakest? Well, I couldn’t let that go by without trying to figure out if that’s true. Of course, there’s no black and white way to solidly identify that, because you can’t just go by 2011 stats; situations have changed, players have moved, players have aged.

Besides, we’re not interested in what happened in 2011, we’re trying to project what might happen in 2012, so for that, I went to BP‘s PECOTA spreadsheet, the most recent version of which was posted on Tuesday. In order to weed out minor leaguers and others who may skew the data, I referenced to identify the likely top two catchers for each team in 2012, with some small changes to their guesses. By combining BP‘s WARP score (their variation of WAR) for each club’s top two backstops, we have a quick-and-dirty way of looking at the value of each team’s 2012 backstop duo.

So are the Dodgers the worst? Well, not exactly…

Team / Total WARP / Top Two
1. MIN 5.8 Joe Mauer, Ryan Doumit
2t. CLE 4.6 Carlos Santana, Lou Marson
2t. ATL 4.6 Brian McCann, David Ross
4. TEX 4.2 Mike Napoli, Yorvit Torrealba
5. STL 3.4 Yadier Molina, Bryan Anderson

25. LAN 1.2 A.J. Ellis, Matt Treanor
26. PIT 1.1 Rod Barajas, Michael McKenry
27. SEA 0.8 Miguel Olivo, John Jaso
28. KCA 0.7 Salvador Perez, Brayan Pena
29. HOU 0.6 Chris Snyder, Humberto Quintero
30. TBA -0.1 Jose Lobaton, Jose Molina

So according to PECOTA, the Dodgers might have merely the sixth-worst catching group in the game. Take that, nameless scout! Of course, this is loaded with caveats, because even if PECOTA was an exact science (which it’s not), a difference in 0.2 points of WARP is so insignificant that it’s hardly worth noting, so think of this more as being “in the bottom group”. Still, expect some fluctuation there. If the Mariners really do play Jesus Montero regularly behind the plate, his bat alone will vault Seattle out of this group, and I’m somewhat surprised to see the Royals ranking so low, considering that Perez was impressive as a 21-year-old in the bigs last season. Not the Astros, though. Good lord, are the Astros going to be bad.

Most importantly, all of this is tied up in Ellis. Unlike most of the other clubs where the two catchers combine their value to reach the total WARP, this represents Ellis at 1.2 and Treanor (and Federowicz, for that matter) at 0.0. I’m cautiously optimistic that Ellis can keep his OBP high enough that along with his plus defense his near-total lack of power won’t prevent him from being a solid starter, or at least solid enough to get the Dodgers through the season and guarantee him a big-league career that could last for several more years. But if he can’t, or if he gets injured, there’s nothing behind him to step in. And you remember what shortstop looked like when Rafael Furcal got hurt in 2008, right?