In appreciation of catchers

Fourteen years after his last game as a Dodger, Mike Piazza still has us all spoiled.

Piazza, arguably the greatest hitter in Los Angeles Dodger history, and without question the best hitting catcher of all time, will no doubt enter the Hall of Fame next year as a New York Met. Thank you very much Rupert Murdoch, Chase Carey or whomever at News Corp you want to blame for the sacrilege.

The batting skill exhibited by The Strongest Man in SoCal (still a great nickname, and one I intend to use forever), to a lesser extent by Paul Lo Duca (cheating bastard) and Russell Martin (briefly), wonderful while it lasted, is far from the norm. Because catchers don’t hit .360. They don’t homer 40 times and drive in 100-plus runs per season. They just don’t.

Piazza was an aberration beyond our wildest dreams, and you should be pissed about being cheated out of half his career. More than half, actually. I know I am.

It’s unfortunate that subsequent Dodger catchers – or catchers anywhere, really – continue to be judged against the accomplishments of a player the caliber of Mike Piazza.

With the Braves beginning a three-game series at Dodger Stadium tonight, I thought this might be a good time to talk backstops, because in Brian McCann, Atlanta has a catcher worthy of comparisons. Catchers don’t hit .360, as I said, but .270 to .300, with 20-some-odd home runs and 80 or 90 RBIs a year sure works, and that’s about what you get with McCann. Plus a smart, savvy presence behind the plate, big-game experience and clutch hitting.

The Braves have another receiver you might remember, guy by the name of David Ross. Play word association with Ross’ name and you’re liable to come up with, “oh sure, name the player who homered against ‘relief pitcher’ Mark Grace” ten years ago in Arizona. Yep, that David Ross, Lo Duca’s old backup, and someone who you might not have expected to have much of a career after leaving town.

But he did, and it’s worth a mention now. McCann plays as much as any catcher, but with two Dodger lefties (Chris Capuano and Ted Lilly) going, you might get a game’s worth of Ross in the upcoming series. And if so, why not a tip of the Dodger cap to the 35-year-old veteran, who after bouncing around with the Pirates, Reds and Padres, has made a name for himself in Atlanta.

He’s hit .273, .289 and .263 in his three full seasons there, playing in 50 to 60 games each year, with more than respectable on base and slugging percentages. Plus fine play receiving the always professional Braves pitching staff.

The Arizona home run occurred in a 19-1 Dodger runaway game, during Ross’ first call-up on September 2, 2002, at what was then Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix.

I prefer to remember Ross for a more significant L.A. highlight, from the 2004 National League West race. On September 30 at the stadium, Ross gave the Dodgers a 4-2 win in extras, with a walkoff two-run homer off Brian Fuentes. With San Francisco winning the same day, Los Angeles held a three-game lead going into their season-ending series with the Giants the following day. Some 48 hours later, of course, Steve Finley cliched the division with that oh-so-memorable grand slam of his.

You’re also going to see another catcher of distinction during the homestand, in A.J. Ellis. Compare him to Piazza, Lo Duca, or even Russell Martin, if you like, but I wouldn’t. But put Ellis up against the catchers available to the Dodgers during the winter, and realize they came out just fine.

I’m happy to go on record predicting these numbers for A.J. Ellis: .265, 10 homers, 50 RBIs and an OBP of .400, hitting in front of the pitcher all season long. Yes, batting eighth throughout 2012.

Everyone’s Terrified of Kim Ng

Boy, you miss one day to go to jury duty and a thousand things happen, don’t they? As for the jury duty, I spent my day trying my best to get out of serving on a murder case that I already knew about (Linda Stein, former manager of the Ramones). Unfortunately, I got excused because I couldn’t guarantee I’d be available for three months, thus denying me of my lifelong dream of telling a 78-year-old judge that I couldn’t be impartial because I listen to and play too much punk rock. Oh, and there was the woman next to me who swore up and down that OJ was innocent. Isn’t democracy great?

Anyway, back to today’s news. None of this is exactly breaking news since I’m behind the curve today, but for the sake of completisim…

No one wants to mess with Kim Ng! Every single of one of the arbitration cases have been settled, thus sparing guys like James Loney and Russell Martin the pain of listening to Ng mark off the days it took them to hit their first home run in 2009. I suppose there’s not much negativity you could put towards Matt Kemp, so maybe he just avoided having to hear that he’s cursed because he goes to Clippers games.

Today’s deals…

Andre Ethier – 2 years, $15.25m
Jonathan Broxton – 2 years, $11m
Russell Martin – 1 year, $5.05m
George Sherrill – 1 year, $4.5m
James Loney – 1 year, $3.1m
Hong-Chih Kuo – 1 year, $0.95m

Several of these deals have incentives as well, but these are the base salaries. As Jon astutely notes, Martin’s deal is somewhat lower than you’d think based on his track record, though I can’t imagine a guy who hit for less power than David Eckstein did in 2009 can complain all that much about getting five million dollars.

So what next? After these deals, the payroll for 2010 stands at somewhere around $91 million, and with the arbitration cases out of the way there’s no longer the open question of how many millions ends up going to these guys – the Dodgers have much more cost certainty.

While most of these deals seem fair, as several outlets have noted, Sherrill’s $4.5m seems kind of hefty for a set-up man, especially on a team with power lefties Kuo and Scott Elbert available in the pen already. But while ESPN seems to think moving Sherrill is a done deal, I don’t see it happening that easily. The closer market was oversaturated this offseason, and the few remaining teams looking for a closer are unlikely to want to shell dollars + prospects for Sherrill.

Besides, while you can make the argument that $4.5m is too much for a set-up man, it’s also not enough that it’s likely to be the tipping point that gets someone like Joel Pineiro to LA. In fact – and there’s going to be a full post on this in the next day or two – I strongly prefer Jon Garland to Pineiro anyway. While that’s a different topic entirely, I think those who think that Sherrill is definitely gone are overreaching just a bit.

Now serving fungible starter #23382… No deal yet, but the Baltimore Sun has thrown this new name into the mix: Rich Hill.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have been one of the more aggressive suitors for pitcher Rich Hill, who is expected to decline the Orioles’ minor league offer.

Hill was, for one season only, a pretty decent starter for the Cubs. In 2007, he went 11-7 with a 3.92 ERA while striking out nearly a man per inning. Dealing with injuries including a sore back in 2008, he pitched in just 5 MLB games, and after being traded to the Orioles last year, he was atrocious (7.80 ERA, 1.873 WHIP) before having surgery for a torn labrum.

Still, he’s 6’5″, not yet 30, and a lefty who’s had previous success, so if the Dodgers want to give him a non-guaranteed shot that’s fine with me. The only worry I have is that if he’s turning down a minor league offer from Baltimore and has more than one competitor for his services, then he might be in a position to demand a major-league deal. I like to think that we live in a world where a guy who gave up nearly 8 runs per 9 before having doctors take apart his pitching shoulder can’t demand a major-league deal, but maybe I’m just naive.

At least the other NL West teams aren’t making it too hard on the Dodgers… I jokingly said on Twitter earlier today, “who’s doing more to help the Dodgers, LA or San Francisco?” I should have included Colorado, because they’re both making astoundingly bad choices.

Let’s start with the Giants, who just signed 35-year-old Benji Molina to a $4.5m contract. Remember, Molina came in last year at .285… and that’s on-base percentage. So rather than give 23-year-old star-in-the-making Buster Posey (who hit 18 homers and had an OPS of .947 at 2 levels last year) a shot, they’re likely going to kick him back to AAA - just so they can pay Molina many times more money to do a many times worse job. I love it.

Needless to say, educated Giants fans are not thrilled…

$4.5 million is a lot to pay a backup catcher. Which of course means Buster Posey won’t be given much chance, if any, to prove he can start the year running the show in The Show. Which means, more likely than not, Molina won’t be the backup catcher. Which of course means that Bruce Bochy will insert him as the cleanup hitter because of his proven track record of being the cleanup hitter.

Good God, Bengie Molina will be the Giants’ cleanup hitter. 

But wait! The Rockies check in with a late entry into “Stupid Catching Tricks”:

I was told today that they could sign catcher Paul Lo Duca to a minor league deal. Lo Duca didn’t play in the majors last season, but has ties to Rockies’ manager Jim Tracy dating to their days together in Los Angeles. I will keep you posted on what I hear.

Okay, fine, it would be a minor-league deal. Still, Paulie’s going to be 38, had an OPS of just .616 when he last played in 2008, and put up his best years on the juice. Will Jim Tracy’s man-crush never cease? 2005 was going to be a bad year regardless, but it didn’t have to be as bad as it was if not for the irrational moves Tracy made because he was so upset about losing LoDuca.

Update: not a rumor any more, because LoDuca has been signed. Hah! Rockies fans, enjoy watching Tracy bench Chris Ianetta for LoDuca every chance he can get.

Dodgers of the Decade: Catcher

It’s been a hell of a decade, no? When the 2000 Dodgers took the field, Davey Johnson was the manager, with Kevin Malone still in the GM box. You want to know how long ago that was? The first Dodger game of the 2000s was played in a city that doesn’t even have a team any more (Montreal), with Devon White leading off. Devon White! Clayton Kershaw had just recently turned 12 years old that day.

This was a decade that saw 4 managers, 4 general managers, and 2 owners. We’re still batting .000 on the owners, aren’t we? It saw ups (9 seasons over .500, 4 playoff appearances and 2 series wins, after a 1990s that saw zero playoff wins) and downs (91 losses in 2005, more than their share of on- and off-the-field controversy). So it’s time to look back and build the all-decade team for the Dodgers. Should I have started this before December 27? Well, probably. Blame that pesky day job, I suppose. I’m also aware that this is somewhat of a hackneyed gimmick, but I’m also aware that there’s just not going to be much real Dodger news until spring training starts, so we might as well take advantage of the downtime while we can.

We’re going to include all candidates who played 100 games at a position during the decade. I’ll include traditional stats, but also WAR (Wins Above Replacement). We’re using the WAR from baseballprojection.com since FanGraphs doesn’t go back before 2002. I’ll include offense and defensive stats, but not for catcher since defensive stats are so unreliable there.

Let’s start off with catcher, where we have four eligible candidates but only really two with a shot. At first, this seems like a slam dunk, but…

Russell Martin (570 games, 2006-09)
Dodger stats: .276/.368/.407 .775 49 hr 274 rbi
WAR: 10.8

Paul LoDuca (546 games, 2000-04)
Dodger stats: .290/.344/.433 .777  54 hr 263 rbi
WAR: 11.4

Chad Kreuter (194 games, 2000-02)
Dodger stats: .245/.378/.392 .770 14 hr 57 rbi
WAR: 3.8
Pending lawsuits against former teammates: one
Fights against fans during games: one

Dave Ross (118 games, 2002-04)
Dodger stats: .207/.292/.411 .703 16 hr 35 rbi
WAR: 0.7

Top three seasons
5.0 WAR LoDuca, 2001
4.2 WAR Martin, 2007
3.6 WAR Martin, 2008

I have to say, I’m suprised at how close Martin and LoDuca are here. Their stats are nearly identical, and LoDuca has the slight edge in WAR. I suppose Martin’s stats are dragged down by the fact that even though he was great from mid-2006 to mid-2008, he’s been pretty awful ever since then. Clearly this doesn’t show up in the stats, but LoDuca also contributed value in another way – by being part of the deal that brought Brad Penny to LA, and Penny put up a few good seasons as a Dodger. LoDuca was one of the more beloved Dodgers at the time of his trade, though I think it’s safe to say that opinion of him has fallen somewhat since his naming in the Mitchell Report.

One other thing that stands out? Look at the years these catchers played in Dodger blue. You have the catcher for the first half of the decade, LoDuca, and his two primary backups. Then you have the man for the second half, Martin. There’s only one season in which none of these four guys were a Dodger, and that’s 2005.  What, no love in the stats for Jason Phillips, Paul Bako, and Mike Rose? God, that year was an abortion. Let’s never speak of it again.

It’s up to you, friends. Who’s your Dodger catcher of the 00s?

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