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The Demise of Chris Iannetta

Sunday's loss to the Dodgers in 11 innings was a very frustrating game. An early lead was quickly snuffed by any combination of bad luck, poor defense, questionable bullpen usage, controversial calls, and an inability to build on an early lead off of a shaken starter.

Troy Tulowitzki had possibly his worst defensive game of the season, making a handful of errors, throwing and fielding (yeah, they ruled one of those a hit, but come on, it was an error). Jason Hammel exited the game with a supposed dead arm after 4 incredibly mediocre innings. The pitching staff threw 4 wild pitches as well, at least one on a strikeout-dropped-third-strike that allowed the batter to reach.

While technically these were scored as wild pitches, one has to wonder why so many balls in the dirt got away from the catcher, Paul Phillips. Which leads me to an almost bigger question:

Why was Paul Phillips even playing?

The immediate answer is that backup catcher Chris Iannetta was still hurting from a calf strain he had sustained the week before while running to 1B to back up a grounder. Troy Renck confirms this, but Tracy Ringolsby, the TV announcers, and Iannetta himself all reported that Iannetta was good to go for the start on Sunday.

Since his initial callup in 2006, Iannetta has had a very shaky career with the Colorado Rockies. In his first season, Iannetta posted a respectable .759 OPS, and a downright solid .370 OBP. His slugging numbers had yet to develop, but his career looked promising.

2007 was a pretty paltry year for Iannetta, batting a mere .218/.330/.350, and while he was prepared to fight for the starting position, the organization decided he needed refresher midseason, seeing him demoted to AAA Colorado Springs. What he worked on in AAA seemed to have worked, as he came out in August and September hitting over .300 and posting wRC+ of 164 and 123.

2008 was Iannetta's real breakout year. Taking the starter role early from recent re-signee Yorvit Torrealba and never looked back. Over the season, Iannetta did not post a wRC+ below 118 excepting May, when he posted a 88 wRC+. This is to say that in 5/6 months of the season, Iannetta was 18% more valuable at the plate than the average bat. And in May he was 12% below (/brushes under the rug). It looked to most everyone that the Catcher of the Future had finally arrived.

Click past the jump, because there's a lot more to discuss.

2009 had other plans, however. Iannetta faltered out of the gate, and while he posted solid numbers through the break, he fell pretty hard in August, losing the job to suddenly hot-as-hades Yorvit Torrealba. While Iannetta had a very strong September, it was too late, as Torrealba's timely hits and excellent OBP trumped Iannetta's superior overall OPS/wOBA/wRC+.

Regardless of who the fanbase thought should have been playing, Iannetta's massive OPS and lefty-crushing ability continued to ride the pine in favor of Yorvit Torrealba, and Yorvit killed it, too, going 5-for-14 with a 1.071 OPS and .426 WPA. Bummer for Iannetta, but there were better days ahead.

During the 2009 offseason, Iannetta was awarded a 3-year, $8.35M (with a $5M 4th year option) contract to solidify his status with the Rockies, and hopefully his head as well. Yorvit Torrealba opted to try for Free Agency, turning down nearly $6M/2years with Colorado (there are conflicting reports about this) and only found a 1-year deal with San Diego for $1.25M(with a $3.5M mutual option). In the meantime, the Rockies signed Miguel Olivo to a 1-year, $2.5M(with a $2.5M club option) deal in hopes of having another excellent catching platoon for the season.

As we've seen too often from Iannetta, he tumbled out of the gate in 2010, posting a paltry 40 wRC+ while Miguel Olivo claimed the job, passed a kidney stone mid-game, and put up a 144 wRC+ in April. Olivo continued to tear the cover off of the ball (147 wRC+ in May) while Iannetta found himself demoted to AAA Colorado Springs, ostensibly to "fix a hole in his swing", or something, but some sources seemed to indicate that Iannetta needed consistent playing time, and he wasn't going to get it with the heat Olivo was hitting with residing in Denver.

As Rob Neyer put it (with a little help from Jack Moore), "Jack's probably right, though. Iannetta will go to C-Springs and hit, and Olivo will play more and won't hit, and everything in the world will seem right again. These things happen, and usually they're forgotten within a few months."

Well, much to Iannetta's chagrin, things DIDN'T change, and Olivo put up 4/6 months of above-average batting, not to mention threw out everyone trying to run on him and their little dog, too. This is obviously a fantastic thing for the Rockies, as having a solid batting catcher behind the plate is NOT a problem - don't think that's even a suggestion. The problem is just for Iannetta - when he hit his hot streak in June and July, Olivo was still batting very acceptably - well, even - and there was just no way that Iannetta was going to find himself behind the plate for any bigger slice of the playing pie.

So here we are with less than 2 weeks left in the major league season and I'm guessing Miguel Olivo is going to start roughly all of those games. There are certainly cases to be made for both players, but I like to point out a couple of things:

First, another chart

Secondly, this simple fact: Since Iannetta's return from AAA Colorado Springs, Iannetta has posted a .791 OPS (.227/.344/.447), and Miguel Olivo has posted a .706 OPS (.263/.297/.409). When you consider Olivo's April, May, June, and July, it really tells you how poor that August was, and how September is continuing to be pretty bad.

So going forward, my obvious reaction is to start Iannetta, simultaneously because I'm a big fanboy and the fact that Iannetta's 1.071 OPS (over a whopping 14PA) in September trumps Olivo's .662 OPS (54PA), along with that OPS split. Right now, the story on the surface is that Iannetta still has the calf strain that took him out a week or so ago.

So my next question is WHY is Olivo still the starter? A miserable, miserable August and a poor September typically has a manager looking for anything to throw against the wall that'll stick. Honestly, Olivo isn't really sticking. Would Iannetta stick? Hard to say.

In the month of September, Olivo is also posting a .333 BABIP, which would suggest that his already poor batting numbers could drop even further (potentially - in a small sample it's hard to really talk about numbers levelling out, but the thought is that his .662 OPS is "inflated", given his lack of walks). On the flip side, Iannetta's 1.071 OPS is almost DEFLATED by a .250 BABIP, suggesting that if a couple more hits drop, he'd be even more productive. Again, small sample, but it's something to take into consideration - Olivo isn't terribly likely to get hotter, but Iannetta "is", if analysis of BABIP regression has anything to say about it.

Which brings me to my next point, BABIP. The standard issue response to a low or high BABIP is basically "well that's going to normalize" and make a player's production even better or worse than it currently is. That's been one of the major defenses for Iannetta's low BA, that his BABIP is so low that there's no way he's going to keep batting as poorly as he is, that given consistent playing time, he'll come around. In Iannetta's defense, he DID show those signs of improvement with regular playing time while down in AAA (in 2010), posting a .349/.447/.698 line, showing inflated power, but even more interesting, a .500 BABIP (possibly inflated by a lot of walks and home runs). Proof? Not really, it's AAA. But it is proof that he's capable of doing SOMETHING and more or less belongs in the majors.

Take a look at Iannetta's career numbers, year to year.

Batting average is far from everything, but it's definitely the fuel to the OPS machine. Low batting averages are certainly excusable, especially by me, when bolstered by high BB% and solid ISO, but that's just it - they're supplemental aspects of the game. What's strange to think about is the fact that Iannetta is walking at a rate right around his career norm, hitting for slightly less power, but not low enough that we'd consider it a power outage, and his AVG/BABIP are basically circling the drain.

Iannetta has always had trouble as an extreme flyball hitter. While it isn't that terribly awful in hitters' parks, he's definitely not hitting the ball on a line like we'd like to see.

Strange how in 2010, Iannetta has drastically decreased his FB% from 2009 to land more in his career line, but his GB% has never been higher, and his LD% has never been lower. There's a correlation between LD% and BABIP (as line drives tend to fall for hits more often than fly balls or ground balls), which could explain the declining BABIP issues, but what really has caught my eye is that GB%. Iannetta has no wheels whatsoever, so those ground balls aren't likely to become hits anytime soon.

But why such a drastic increase in groundballs and decrease in flyballs? Has he fixed his swing, and is just getting unlucky? I seriously doubt it, as his LD% is lower in 2010 than any other point in his career. But grounders? Didn't we figure that Iannetta would just keep punching flyouts everywhere and be generally disappointing. But that assumption means that his plate approach is the same.

One of the complaints about Iannetta's plate approach has been lack of aggressiveness (aggression?), that'd he'd wait for the perfect pitch and let too many hittable pitches go by, and as a result, strike out, walk, or hit a fly ball to nowhere. Well, where is he today?













Hm. So nothing has changed, apparently. Or has it? Let's dig a little deeper.

Hoo boy.

If we look at the numbers here, Iannetta is swinging at more balls outside of the zone than he ever has in his career, and the strangest thing is that he's making more contact on balls out of the zone as well. Not a complete answer, but making contact on pitches outside of the zone when you're not a Yogi-Berra-esque bad-ball hitter isn't going to be much of a chance for success. Probably won't get too much solid contact, and there's also a distinct chance you'll just roll over it and...GROUND OUT.

The upside is that along with the increased O-Contact%, his Z-Contact is up as well, suggesting he's putting bat on more strikes, which SHOULD lead to more hits. Part of the lack of hits is explainable by a low BABIP, which is then explained by a lot of swinging at pitches outside of the zone and not hitting them for line drives, which is sort of circular, but it does explain the declining average somewhat.

There's still good to be taken out of Iannetta. A 98 wRC+ catcher is nothing to be sneezed at, when you consider that Jason Kendall and Henry Blanco are out there lurking somewhere.

Part of me still feels like the organization has mishandled Iannetta. Twice he has been benched in a September playoff chase despite outbatting his competition. Twice he's been demoted to AAA, and twice he's returned to destroy the baseball.

The two lowest points there are his demotion points, and as soon as he returned he mashed. You know, when he got playing time. At the same time, I can see how a manager might not be terribly willing to start a catcher who was demoted midseason, either, but that would be accusing a manager of holding a grudge. The .100 OPS swing from Iannetta to Olivo (post callup) is kind of hard to ignore though. Iannetta's posted a substantially better OBP and SLG, but is batting about .030 below Olivo, as far as AVG goes. I really don't know what else to say on the topic of playing time. Apparently the threat of Olivo's arm is still potent enough to keep Iannetta on the bench. Or his calf or something.

It seems pretty apparent that Jim Tracy is going to start Miguel Olivo the rest of the way down the stretch. This leads me to wonder what there is to be done with Chris Iannetta. With a capable defensive backup in Michael McKenry more or less ready to go, posting a AAA batting line of .265/.328/.424, or at least to keep the seat warm until Wilin Rosario is ready for Major League action - which could be awhile yet - it seems like Iannetta might not be a solid fit for Colorado anymore.

Despite the contract and the lip service and such, Iannetta hasn't entirely stepped up to the plate, so to speak. We've seen a decline in wRC+ since his breakout 2008 (which in itself may have been somewhat BABIP inflated), and given the evidence we've seen above, it's really hard to just say "but but peripherals!" Frankly, I think he's still a solid addition to any team that he plays for (seriously, a career 106 wRC+? I can't imagine a team that wouldn't leap at that - you know, except the Twins and Braves), but Iannetta can't seem to catch a break in Colorado. He hits his cold streaks right when the other catcher is getting hot, and then when he gets hot again he can't buy an AB. Or when he gets hot he then comes down with a calf injury and once again becomes a non-option for playing time.

I think Chris Iannetta is still a very talented catcher, and a good one, even. He's one of my favorites for a reason, I didn't just draw his name out of a hat. Not a lot of players in MLB have the ability to draw a walk like Iannetta, and not a lot of players can club an ISO like Iannetta can, either. The problem is that there are a lot of players who can post a sub-.240 batting average with extreme non-LD% as well. It all adds up to Iannetta being a near-league-average bat, and anyone who refuses to play a league-average bat at Catcher when the alternative is inferior is either loopy or there's something going on that isn't being talked about.

If Chris Iannetta could just put things together again, he'd be a top-5 catcher, and I'm willing to stand on that still.

I just can't see it happening with the Colorado Rockies.