Auditing the 2010 Colorado Rockies: Catcher

Here is the premise of this series:

Going into the 2010 season, Rockies fans were expecting a lot out of this team. On paper, they were the most talented team in the NL West, they had no obvious holes and boasted superior depth. Several pundits even picked for them to win the World Series before the season. I certainly bought in to Colorado's chances to win the West, going so far as to guarantee a title for them. At the very least, I said, the Rockies should beat the preseason O/U win line set by Vegas at 84. Obviously, none of those things occurred. I've taken it upon myself to understand why.

Last week, I discussed Colorado's dramatic home/road splits and the effect they had on the Rockies' underperformance this year. In Tuesday's Rockpile, Andrew Fisher wrote about Colorado's injury troubles in 2010, another big reason for underperformance. Outside the loss of Troy Tulowitzki for 39 days on the DL, most of Colorado's underperformance due to injury came on the pitching staff and not with the position players (though Ian Stewart and Todd Helton missed 28 and 29 days respectively). As such, I'll leave that topic until I examine the pitching staff to delve into further.

Instead, I'll go position by position through Colorado's hitters and look at the expectations going into the season for each spot. Then I will look at the results, trying to analyze where the disconnect between the performance of those positions and their expectations coming in stemmed from. Finally, I will briefly touch on some potential solutions for those issues and what the future of each position looks like. In order to evaluate each position properly (and to stop you from reading well over 6000 words in one post), I'll examine one position a day (not necessarily every day, but almost every day).

The primary metrics I'll use to evaluate performance will be Fangraphs WAR (the calculation of which I explained last year), sOPS+ (which I wrote about last week), and wRC+ (explained by Andrew Martin here, but it's basically applying park factors to wOBA, the hitting stat used in WAR, and placing it on a scale with 100 as average) among others. Most every stat referenced here can be easily found either on Fangraphs or Baseball Reference. That's not to say that I'll only be looking at stats when evaluating players. Contracts, for one thing, help to define expectations and can color the lens through which we observe performance, as do the presence of injuries. I'll do my best to consider these factors in my analysis.

Without further ado, let's begin this audit with the catcher position...

Catcher

Expectations

The Rockies signed Miguel Olivo for $2 million as a replacement to Yorvit Torrealba as the backup catcher to Chris Iannetta, who Colorado had just signed to a 3 year, $8.35 million deal. Olivo was coming off a year in which, as Kansas City's starter, he had been league average (2.0 WAR, 102 wRC+). Iannetta's 2009 stats were nearly identical (2.0 WAR, 103 wRC+), but the difference was both incumbency and precedent of higher production (Olivo had a career year in 2009, whereas Iannetta had posted 3.6 WAR and 133 wRC+ in 2008).

The expectation coming in was that Iannetta would provide at least league average production in the starter's role, while Olivo would be a solid back-up with power. Jim Tracy, however, indicated that both catchers were going to get significant playing time.

Results

Olivo was hot out of the gate (sOPS+ of 148 in March/April, 152 in May, 135 in June, and 121 in July) and seized the job (passing a kidney stone in the middle of a game along the way), while Iannetta was sent down to AAA after only 30 PAs (where he mashed the ball), posting a 53 sOPS+ in March/April. Olivo threw out runners at an excellent 42% rate, handled the pitching staff well, and kept outperforming Iannetta (who returned and did quite well) up until the All-Star break. In fact, Olivo was a pretty big All-Star snub. At the All-Star break, the Rockies had received excellent production from their catchers (150 sOPS+ for Olivo, 109 for Iannetta).

The second half of the season was a different story. Olivo completely fell apart offensively, posting a -12 sOPS+ (!!!) in August and 83 in September/October for a second half sOPS+ of 48 (counting part of his above average July). Olivo's second half line: .193/.225/.313. Iannetta (36 in August, 78 in September) wasn't much better, with a sOPS+ of 80 in the second half, but he was better. The problem was that Olivo's name kept showing up in the lineup card even while slumping to a degree far worse than Iannetta had slumped to in March/April. In fact, Iannetta's March/April sOPS+ that got him sent down was better than Olivo's second half sOPS+. In other words, from mid-July on, the Rockies received below replacement-level production from their catchers (including cameos by Paul Phillips and Michael McKenry).

In addition to their struggles in the second half, Rockies catchers were particularly weak on the road. Iannetta had a 122 sOPS+ at home and a 65 sOPS+ on the road. Olivo's numbers were 138 and 70. Again, that's after Coors Field's park factor is figured into the equation.

Ultimately, Olivo's line (.269/.315/.449, .327 wOBA, and 96 wRC+) left him as a slightly below-average hitter when compared to all of MLB but among catchers (where the average OPS+ is 93) those numbers were above average offensively (108 sOPS+, 117 sOPS+ as a catcher). Iannetta (.197/.318/.383, .314 wOBA, 87 wRC+) was a little less potent offensively on a rate basis than average (93 sOPS+, 96 sOPS+ as a catcher).

Andrew Martin wrote at length and with great skill about Iannetta's tough situation (and how the catcher position has performed this year) last month (with colorful charts and everything).

Analysis

When looking at the full-season numbers, one sees only that the Rockies catchers were 7% better than their average MLB counterparts (107 sOPS+), leading one to the conclusion that catcher was not a position of question marks heading into 2011. After all, Olivo posted a career year WAR of 3.2 (despite his wRC+ falling to 96) while Iannetta's 0.5 WAR was understandable given his reduced playing time (though his falling 87 wRC+ would be troubling). 

However, the fact is that the timing of this prolonged cold spell matters. I have serious misgivings about both catchers going into 2011, though I'm more concerned about Olivo, who was just painfully awful for the last two-plus months of the season. The Rockies have a $2.5 million mutual option on Olivo this offseason and reportedly they will exercise it, with him returning as the starter next year. All indications are that Jim Tracy is much more comfortable with Olivo as the backstop than Iannetta, and since Tracy will at least be managing in 2011, I don't see the situation changing in the near future. I just don't see this position being a positive for the Rockies next year if this is the case.

Meanwhile, Iannetta will still be under contract through 2012. He's younger and will presumably get less playing time but is making more money than Olivo, which presents its own set of problems. As others have suggested, this makes one of the two (probably Iannetta) trade bait this offseason, especially given the presence of McKenry in AAA with Wilin Rosario knocking on the door behind him. Now I'm a pretty big believer in Iannetta, but I realize that at some point he's going to be replaced.

One suggestion that has gotten some play is the Rockies going out and getting C/1B Victor Martinez (who has posted an OPS+ of over 120 in six of the last seven years) to come in and solidify the position (bye Chris). That option carries a pretty big price tag (likely in the neighborhood of $10 million a year for 3-4 years or $12 million a year for 1-2 years). Dan O'Dowd has said that the payroll will remain pretty static from this year (around $83 million), meaning that Colorado will have close to $15-20 million to play with this offseason. I will do more analysis into the Rockies' payroll situation as soon as this series is concluded to confirm this hypothesis, but for now let's assume that Martinez is in Colorado's price range and that it is feasible to get both him and Jorge De La Rosa.

 Another possibility is to keep Iannetta as the backup catcher but also use him as a right-handed platoon partner for Todd Helton (more on that tomorrow), which makes a ton of sense as long as Iannetta can hit lefties along his career lines (124 OPS+) with pop a la Mike Napoli of the Angels. This would be the ideal situation from an efficiency standpoint, in that it could enable the Rockies to spend more money on other pieces, but it certainly pays to be bear in mind that Colorado's championship window likely extends only as long as the big 3 (Tulo, CarGo, Ubaldo) are under team control, which is probably only 2014. As such, the Rockies would be totally justified in getting a more expensive, more productive option at catcher/first base than Iannetta. This line of thinking extends to other positions as well, namely second base and outfield.

In any case, after looking at the numbers and the Rockies' roster situation, Colorado has what could potentially be a big problem on its hands at catcher if Olivo is more like his second-half self than the first-half beast we all loved. Sure, Iannetta could step up (if he's on the roster) and regain his 2008 form, but knowing what I know about Jim Tracy, he's not likely to get a lot of rope in doing so. It could be a long year for Rockies catchers.

Next up...First Base

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