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Fun With the Bill James Handbook: Catcher's Market

In the past couple of Novembers, the first projections I tend to seek out for the upcoming season come from the Bill James Handbook.  I find this book to be a good prep book for the off-season, it's a quick resource for splits, line stats, defensive numbers, and also a basic projection for pitchers and hitters.  They don't seem to be as detailed as PECOTA or ZIPS, but since no projection system is perfect, it's a fun tool to assist in forecasting for '08.  

So this evening I thought we'd look at how the guys at Baseball Info Solutions see how a couple of our catcher suspects shape up for the coming year.  While the projections give games played, homers, etc. for guys, I will only include: batting average/ on base percentage/ slugging percentage, and then OPS.  I'm not a huge fan of OPS, but it is handy in this case, and most all of you understand it's use as a rough evaluation tool.  So let's start with the one we know the best:

Yorvit Torrealba

.251/.315/.388     .703

Yorvit had a career year of sorts, and BIS sees him as basically repeating his "successes" of last season.  However, his OPS is projected to be the lowest of the four primary targets.  I tend to find this ironic in that he's also likely to rake in the most money of the four this off-season.  Defense and personality make a difference, and his top rating is defensible.  Torrealba is an excellent backstop, capable of blocking most everything and has proven himself with a young pitching staff.  

While those traits are valuable, it's easy to place too much stock in them while ignoring other factors.  For one, the CS% was miserable, and it's possible he won't return to past heights.  Torrealba is no longer young, and in a physically demanding position, he has little time to properly heal his throwing shoulder while also building up strength to handle a larger load of games.  Age, injury history, and positional hazards are all concerns about his long term success at controlling the running game.  

That basically boils Torrealba down to a guy that works well with pitchers, blocks balls, but relies heavily on Coors to support his offense, may struggle to control the running game, and has an injury history that should give teams pause before handing over a big contract.  There's still value here, but for a team like Colorado, with a very limited budget, they simply cannot allow sentimentality to supersede good judgment.  Simply put, 7 million over two years is too much for this guy, now 15 million over three?...

Paul LoDuca

.283/.331/.395     .727

One of the biggest ironies of the off-season is the Mets inclination to improve on LoDuca with a younger, but less fancy version of LoDuca in Torrealba.  Keep in mind that park matters in these projections; BIS is assuming that all players will return to last year's teams in determining their `08 line. So LoDuca would get a bump from Coors on these numbers, while Torrealba would lose some should he head for Shea.  

Basically, we have the same player here as before.  Like Torrealba, LoDuca is not the most disciplined hitter, nor one blessed with tremendous gap power.  However LoDuca is more consistent in the average department, inflating the rest of his line.  Defensively, the similarities are more real.  Both are excellent at blocking balls in the dirt, are noted as good pitchers' catchers, and really struggle to control the running game.  Before you try and sell me on Torrealba's superior game calling skills, note that his catcher's ERA is almost identical to LoDuca's (and on top of this, this number tends to vary from year to year like ERA, which minimizes the value of game calling anyways).  

I also tend to believe that the risks associated with LoDuca are overstated.  Sure his age is a factor, but he doesn't appear to be significantly declining offensively, and we aren't talking about 2009 either.  If he can be had for double Yorvit's `07 contract, he'll be a good buy for Colorado, and may even represent an improvement at the position based on his superior offensive skills.

Jason Kendall

.275/.369/.335     .704

His edge over Torrealba in OPS is an insignificant .001 at first glance, but when you factor in Coors, it may become slightly more noticeable.  Kendall has one additional offensive tool that is intriguing, plate discipline.  Torrealba's power isn't so great that the drop in SLG from him to Kendall will make a difference, but Jason advantage in OBP could have more ramifications on adding runs over the course of the season.

However, there is a major red flag with Kendall.  The first is that he's already shown some evidence of bottoming out offensively, as he did in Oakland.  As an undersized catcher at age 34 and an offense built on patience and contact, if the batting skills erode, teams will just pound the strike zone, and the OBP will flee with the batting average.  He's at the point in his career that if it goes again, it may not come back this time, and after watching this happen to Finley, it could be even more concerning should it happen to the "everyday catcher."

Defensively, there isn't much to see here.  Kendall doesn't throw out base runners, but did have the best catcher's ERA of the four and proved durability by catching the most innings of the group by a large margin.  He's not a great backstop, but not terrible either.

Kendall's a high risk, moderate reward signing.  If the contact skills stay in tact, and he realizes a Coors bump, we could be talking about a .300/.390/.360 hitter that could be used at first, second, or the bottom of the order.  Yet, if the contact skills fade, he will be the worst player on this list, and may be a big drain on the Rockies' `08 hopes.  So long as the Rockies' employ a short leash with Kendall, there's some intrigue, but there's little middle ground here.

Michael Barrett

.262/.319/.424     .743

Note that of all the catcher's listed, Barrett's line stand the most to gain from shifting the projection out of Petco to Coors for half the games.  Barrett has the most upside on this list, and is my preferred free agent option.  I should also note that should the Padres offer Barrett arbitration, the Rockies won't pursue him (and Barrett likely would accept arbitration as the best way for him to get a big `08 pay day).

Barrett's season last year was bitten hard by the BABIP bug, and at 31, he's young enough to re-establish himself offensively.   None of the catcher's on this list can boast the same peak offensive season as Barrett posted in  an injury shortened 2006.  It would not be unsurprising if Barrett hit .300/.340/.500 in Coors next season and be one of the team's top offensive performers.

I'm not going to lie to you and tell you he isn't a bad defender, because he is.  However, I will tell you that most concerns are overblown.  Barrett is a poor backstop and has had problems in the past with handling power stuff.  He allowed three times as many passed balls as Torrealba, but don't blow this out of proportion.  If Torrealba allowed one passed  ball over a month's worth of games, Barrett would allow three passed balls over that same span.  Barrett is also poor at throwing out base runners, but even that number may have been slightly skewed by catching traditional green lights in Young and Maddux.  That doesn't excuse his CS%, but when the upside of these four is 19%, what does it matter.  For as many people that criticize Barrett for his squabbles last season, you can find plenty of baseball guys that vouch for Barrett's baseball aptitude, from Maddux last year, to Buck Martinez at the WBC (lauding Barrett for his work ethic, desire to learn, and already high perception of the game).  Again, Barrett's catcher's ERA is almost identical to both LoDuca and Torrealba, so if you think he's a poor game caller, it doesn't bare out in his staff's performance.

Again, let's be honest, he's a weak defensive catcher, and the weakest of the four.  Yet let's not blow this out of proportion to the point we are comparing him to a coach pitch catcher.  With the likely loss of Matsui to free agency and the insertion of an inferior player in his stead (I still see Stewart at second as highly doubtful, more likely Carroll/Q/Barmes/Nix), this team has to find a way to replace offense, and if he comes at a reduced rate, Barrett may actually be one of the better sticks on the market.  So long as the team finds a way to give Barrett time off when Jimenez is on the mound, and works Barrett in more as a bat off the bench when he's not catching, he could be the most valuable of the four by a wide margin.  He's not worth the risk if our draft pick is involved, and he can't be asked to go at it alone, but if you buy into BABIP, there is a significant amount of upside here.

So that wraps up the list of "most often associated with Colorado" catchers.  It's not a group of world beaters, but at the same time, it's not a group of significantly different players, and should each play exactly to there projections and defensive qualifications listed above, they may all end up with roughly the same overall value next season.  At that point, the best buy becomes the cheapest buy, and as tight as money appears to be (a topic for another day), that may be the best route for the club...

...yet there is this other guy out there.  His projection line looks like this:

.274/.370/.435     .805

That's a pretty significant improvement over the four above.  From what I can tell, he might be the cheapest of the four as well.  Again, this would be an upside play, and there is risk associated with this guy as well, but simply based on this projection, it would be worth looking into this mystery catcher as our `08 starter...