Scouting the Catchers

added 11/5/2005 by Scott Barzilla

Admin Note: This column was submitted before the "Scouting the Shortstops" column but, due to a personal snafu, was posted afterwards. My apologies to Scott and any readers confused by the mixup -- Ray K

Catcher happens to be the first position on the diamond, but it also happens to be one of the positions where the Astros can improve. Before I dive in completely, I’m going to explain the rules of our off-season exercise. The first rule is that we will look at how the Astros compare by position as a whole. This is particularly important with the catchers because the backups play at least 20 percent of the time.

The second rule involves how we look at free agents. I believe teams make two mistakes when it comes to free agency. First, too many teams look at the last season alone when they make their decision. This means too many teams bite on players that have career seasons. We saw this in the last season when teams like the Yankees and Red Sox lost out on players like Jaret Wright, Carl Pavano, and Matt Clement. The second mistake teams make is that they look at talent over production. This will be huge for teams considering A.J. Burnett. He is long on talent, but has never won more than twelve games or pitched above the .500 plateau. The vast majority of players are who they are. The key is finding out who they are before they get the big pay day.

             Hits EBH  HR   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS
Cincinnati    150  64  26  .266  .356  .472  .828 
Chicago       153  63  22  .268  .330  .461  .791
San Diego     180  52  16  .289  .333  .433  .766
New York      146  62  26  .245  .322  .436  .758
Philadelphia  147  48  19  .262  .338  .415  .753 
Milwaukee     144  52  16  .249  .312  .398  .710
Colorado      128  46  19  .234  .318  .391  .709
Pittsburgh    151  57  15  .250  .300  .398  .698
Washington    141  39  11  .252  .317  .363  .680	
Florida       152  38   6  .261  .323  .349  .672
Las Angeles   142  42  11  .246  .314  .357  .671
San Francisco 130  57  14  .232  .288  .383  .671
Atlanta       152  47  11  .252  .299  .367  .666
Arizona       114  34  11  .218  .306  .325  .631
Houston       127  29   6  .238  .316  .315  .631	
Saint Louis   132  32  10  .233  .278  .326  .604

Before we go too far we need to remember that this is a collective effort. The one stat that sticks out in my mind (besides being 15th in OPS) is the fact that Astros catchers had fewer extra base hits than any other team in the National League. Yes, Brad Ausmus caught the majority of games, but his OPS alone would have put the Astros in ninth. This means the Astros had the worst backup catchers in all of baseball.

           PA    H   BB EBH  HR    AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS
Backups   159   27   5    7   3   .176  .208  .261  .469

I don’t have to tell you incredibly bad that is. So, the catcher situation is one that needs a significant upgrade, but this is where the facts meld into opinion. The Astros could keep Ausmus as the primary catcher and simply sign a backup catcher that would have to fall over himself not to beat those numbers. They could sign a regular catcher and platoon him with Ausmus. The final option is to sign one of the premier free agents and let Ausmus go.

I have been Ausmus’ biggest detractor, but I have to admit it will be hard to say goodbye to the guy that pulled game four of the NLDS out of the ashes. Plus, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte swear by him, so disappointing them (particularly Clemens before he has made his announcement of whether he is returning) also doesn’t seem like a good idea. Yet, we also cannot deny the reality that Ausmus will turn 37 early in the 2006 season (April 14th). He will likely enter the top twenty in games caught in 2006. Only Bob Boone and Carlton Fisk were successful past their mid-thirties, so adding a catcher that can share the duties seems like a prudent idea if Ausmus and the free agent can be sold on the idea.

Ausmus is a free agent, so it makes the situation very sticky. He wouldn’t mind finishing his career in his hometown (San Diego) and the New York Mets have also expressed interest. I will split the free agents into two groups (backups and starters), but which group the Astros choose from depends greatly on what Ausmus chooses to do and how much the club feels it can spend.

The Starters

To expedite the situation I won’t even mess with the likes of Mike Piazza. The market for regular catchers is very thin this year. You have Ramon Hernandez from the Padres and Bengie Molina from the Angels. Before we even look at numbers, Hernandez already has a disadvantage because Scott Boras is his agent, but we’ll go ahead and compare their offensive numbers from the last three seasons.

                  Hits   EBH   HR    AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS
Ramon Hernandez    345   120   51   .279  .332  .461  .793 
Bengie Molina      329    93   39   .285  .318  .433  .751

Both of these guys are better than anything we have at the plate (at the catcher position), so we really should look at three more factors before deciding: peripheral hitting statistics, fielding, and affordability. I think we all know the last one will be the biggest factor anyway.

              SO   BB  Ratio GIDP SAC   SF    SEC
Hernandez    164   86  1.907   44   7   13   .253
Molina       107   58  1.844   49   9   14   .199

This one is hard to call because Hernandez strikeouts more and a bigger clip, but he also draws more walks and has a better secondary average. Secondary average is a great way of seeing a hitter’s value after batting average. Since both players have similar batting averages, Hernandez’s secondary average indicates he is the superior hitter. However, if the Astros goal is to lower their strikeouts (or make more contact) then Molina is their guy.

          FRAR   FRAA		
Hernandez   63      8
Molina      59      6

This means that Hernandez is the superior catcher. Mind you, he isn’t as superior as Scott Boras is going to make him out to be. Boras is the master at getting you to buy into his clients’ greatness. He’ll sell the Astros and other clubs on the fact that Hernandez is among the top five catchers in the game. If you believe that I have some land I want to sell you. He just might be a top ten catcher though and I’d love to see him in an Astros uniform. I’d also like to see a shortstop and left fielder as well. If the Astros go the Hernandez they might be able to afford one more piece. The operative word there is might. That is why my prohibitive favorite is Molina.

The Backups

There is never any shortage of candidates in this category. The list that follows in athletic order: Sandy Alomar Jr, Gary Bennett, Mike DeFelice, Robert Fick, John Flaherty, and Todd Greene. Which of these guys is really the best bet? I would go strictly to the fielding side and assume that all of them can produce an OPS better than .469.

          FRAR   FRAA		
Alomar      22     -4
Bennett     16    -22
DeFelice     5      2
Fick         7     -3
Flaherty    18     -2
Greene       0    -23

If I were forced to pick someone there it would be Robert Fick because he is pretty versatile and probably a superior offensive player at this point in his career, but we’re talking pretty slim pickings. None of them are horrible catchers and yet none of them would be a huge upgrade offensive except for the fact that they’re major league hitters (unlike Chavez and Quintero).

Handicapping the Race

You rarely see this kind of intrigue outside of the Soap channel. Roger Clemens said he wouldn’t come back unless Ausmus was his catcher. Ausmus is a free agent and may not want to be a part-time catcher. The two legitimate free agent catchers also might not take kindly to playing in only 80 or 90 games. When you throw in the fact that the best free agent catcher is represented by the scourge of baseball it adds up to one entertaining off-season on that front.

The worst possible scenario has Houston re-signing Ausmus and going after one of the six free agents above. The best case scenario has Hernandez or Molina agreeing to share duties with Brad Ausmus. The third option has one of those two in Houston and Ausmus somewhere else. Then, you have the outside possibility of a trade throwing a monkey in the wrench. Your guess is as good as mine, but I’m rooting for Bengie Molina.