Why Chris Iannetta is a Special Boy

-- I'd like to apologize briefly, my first article here is quite long. But I promise it's worth the read. I don't plan on my feature being this long on a regular basis. I worked on this article on and off for a couple of weeks. Please enjoy! --

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Who is the longest tenured catcher in Rockies history? By tenured, I mean actual playing time, not JayHawk Owens sitting on the bench for 4 seasons.

Did you say Joe Girardi? If you did, you're right.

The top 5 longest playing catchers in Rockies history are:

1. Joe Girardi

2. Jeff Reed

3. Yorvit Torrealba

4. Kirt Manwaring

5. Charles Johnson

Among those, I'll go ahead and step up and say that Jeff Reed was the best of the lot of them. He had a good % of runners thrown out (somewhere around 30), not too many passed balls, and in 1997 and 1998, he simply clocked the ball. During his time, he more or less platooned the backstop with Kirt Manwaring.

Shout out to Charles Johnson, he put up some good numbers after the Hampton trade, but trading him to Boston for BH Kim was a decent move.

The point of this story is: Colorado has never really had a steady backstop. They've gone through a good number of them, some did well, some didn't. Taking a look at Rockies' catchers through the history of the team:

1993-1995 Joe Girardi

1996-1998 Jeff Reed/Kirt Manwaring

1999 Henry Blanco

2000 Brent Mayne

2001 Ben Petrick

2002 Gary Bennett

2003-2004 Charles Johnson

2005 Danny Ardoin

2006-2007 Yorvit Torrealba

2008 Chris Iannetta

Other noteworthy catchers include JD Closser, Todd Greene, Bobby Estalella, Sal Fasano, Adam Melhuse, Jayhawk Owens, and Danny Sheaffer.

(For the record, I just put the catcher who caught the majority of the games in each year as the starter, I know Ben Petrick was around longer than just 2001, etc. The other noteworthy guys are just the catchers who played in a couple seasons for more than like 1 game.)

We've tried a number of free agents, journeymen, trades, and hoped for the "Catcher of the Future" to be in our system, and several times, we think we've had him. I'm really excited about Chris Iannetta, and I think he's got a lot going for him, and he's gonna be a solid catcher for years to come.

So the question to ask is "What makes Chris Iannetta so special?"

The answer and more after the jump.

I'll answer that in 4 letters: "IsoD"

The man has simply superhuman plate discipline, almost Helton-esque. Almost.

Iannetta's first stint in the majors in 2006 yielded a .260/.370/.390 line for August/September. Now, I don't know about you, but a .370 OBP from a catcher is downright awesome. Heck, a .370 OBP from anyone is pretty awesome. I'd run out on the field and hug Clint Barmes if he could muster up a .370 OBP. Iannetta was looking pretty good.

But then we all know that in 2007, he fell flat on his face and batted .218/.330/.350. Not very good at all. At this point, I thought to myself "But he looked like such a great plate discipline guy when he came up! What happened?" So I looked at his - you guessed it - IsoD.

In 2007, his IsoD was .112. In 2006, it was .110. For his minor league career, it was .106. So we know he's getting on base via walk/hbp at roughly the same rate as he always does, so what else could it be? Well, let's take a look at the other two culprits, BABIP and Swinging%.

For a player with so little experience as Iannetta, we can't really look at career BABIP and expect it to be a good baseline. I tend to use a .310 BABIP as a good baseline in Coors Field, what with the big outfield and propensity to hit a good dying quail. Iannetta's BABIP in 2006 was .310 (That's right. I'm good) and in 2007 it was a high and mighty .289. Now, that isn't an atrocious BABIP, but 1. it's low for Coors Field, and 2. Iannetta really isn't a high average hitter, so any drop in BABIP is gonna look more severe on actual AVG than on others.

So right then, it looked to me like Iannetta was just plain getting unlucky, his hits weren't dropping or they were right at someone. But with an IsoD of .112, I figured that his bat would eventually come around, but until then, he still had a better OBP than the other options.

Sports Illustrated did a series of articles before the 2007 season that had Chris Iannetta as one of "8 who may be great". In the article, they praised Iannetta's makeup, his size, offensive talent, etc, but what stood out most was what other people had to offer him. Specifically, his personal idol Javy Lopez. After being cut in Spring Training '07, Lopez, who had already made a friendship with Iannetta, left a note for him in his locker saying "Good luck. I'll be watching."

In his early years, Iannetta was projected to be a severe pull hitter, until a fellow client of his agent, one Wade Boggs, gave Iannetta some advice to help his opposite field power.

Pretty impressive following.

As mentioned, Iannetta's 2007 was less than stellar, but with Yorvit Torrealba being a borderline MLB catcher, and Iannetta starting to show some promise, Hurdle finally gave Iannetta the chance to hold down the full time catching position.

AND BOY ARE WE ALL HAPPY WE DID.

Chris Iannetta's .264/.390/.504 batting line showed all the best parts of his major league numbers (IsoD) and all the best parts of his minor league numbers (IsoP). He may not have hit the ball a lot, but when he did, it went somewhere. That .240 IsoP (compared to the .264 AVG) tells me that Iannetta averaged a double every time he hit the ball. If you add Iannetta into the top 5 catchers listed at the beginning of this article (and he's only about 17 games shy of cracking the top 5), his 2008 performance ranked 2nd in terms of wOBA (weighted On Base Average), with only Jeff Reed's 1997 season ranked higher, and still, Iannetta hit the ball harder, walked a whole hell of a lot more, but Reed managed a .297 batting average to bolster his OBP and give him a nice, hearty .913 OPS.

Marcel and CHONE both project Iannetta to bat for a lower OPS this season, while still getting on base at a clip right around career norms, but for him to suffer a power outage of around .050 IsoP. I don't really see this happening, personally. His BABIP for the season was .314, so I can see him dropping back a few points of AVG to right around .260, and if you add back in a IsoD of .118 (right between his .126 IsoD in 2008 and the career .110 we'd expect), we're at .260/.378, and then an IsoP of around .205 (I'm dropping back his MLB IsoP to around his minor league totals, just for the sake of conjecture), that puts him at .260/.378/.465, good for an OPS of .843.

Another thing to consider here, and there's a distinct chance I overstate it, but Don Baylor coming back as strictly a hitting coach might help him focus on making us a more patient team. I don't see a reason that Iannetta can't build on this season and maybe even bring a slightly higher AVG.

Defensively, Iannetta handles the wild pitching of Ubaldo Jimenez and Jorge De La Rosa, backstops a groundball-heavy approach from Aaron Cook, and picks up whatever fill-in-the gap pitcher we have taking the mound. Throwing out basestealers isn't a strong point of Iannetta, as he has yet to pass the 25% mark on the season, but he can do it effectively (I swear I saw him throw out Juan Pierre once). The trick will be just learning more about when to make the moves, etc. A lot of intangible, coaching-driven kinds of things.

Iannetta also doesn't pass a lot of balls. He's not the best, but if you look at his Passed Balls per 1000 outs caught (I completely made this metric up just to compare our catchers), Iannetta has improved from 3.48 in 2006 to 2.68 in 2007 and 2.39 in 2008. And that's with Ubaldo pitching a full season.

If you want to talk about regression, what's to regress? I can see his power dipping a bit, but there was only a .015 difference in SLG between Coors and EveryWhereElse, so we can't just say "COORS FIELD EFFECT!". He has a solid IsoD, which, even if it drops a bit, it's still superhuman. His BABIP isn't out of line.

Iannetta seems to be this combination of all the best parts of our history of catching corps. He is homegrown (Petrick, Closser). He is always out signing autographs before games (Charles Johnson), and the fans love him (Kirt Manwaring). He's offensively awesome (Jeff Reed). He shows good defensive instincts behind the plate (Girardi). I wanted to suggest he's balding already, but I couldn't think of anyone to compare him to.

He really does sound like the real deal, folks.

So, to recap: We have a 26 year old catcher who has an eye at the plate that is second to only Helton amongst the Rockies, who has developed a lethal power swing, plays a solid backstop defensively, we have Don Baylor coming in as a hitting coach, and to top it off, he has portrayed himself as a polite, nice young man who is good with the fans.

I'd like to welcome in the Catcher of the Future.

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