Feb
24

The benefits of a better backup catcher

By

While some Spring Training battles involve a starting position, most center on the final few roster spots. The Yankees have a few such situations this year, including righty off the bench (Thames or Hoffmann) and utility infielder (Pena or Nunez). One spot not in dispute is backup catcher. Throughout the winter we have assumed that Francisco Cervelli will assume the role Jose Molina filled for the past two and a half years. The Yankees have made no moves to indicate otherwise, signing only Mike Rivera to fill the Chad Moeller/Chris Stewart/Kevin Cash emergency spot. The position belongs to Cervelli, uncontested.


Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

With Jorge Posada, one of the league’s best offensive catchers, getting the majority of the playing time this might seem like a small issue. Yet it’s exactly because of Posada that the backup catcher could play a large role on the 2010 Yankees. Jorge turned 38 at the end of last season, an age when many catchers have already called it a career. That’s not to say that his production will fall off a cliff in 2010, but we also probably shouldn’t expect his 2009 production. He had a stellar year, posting his second highest OPS since 2003 and his best ISO since 2000. Even if he hits at, say, 80 percent of that, he’ll still be well above average for a catcher.

With Posada’s age and recent injury history, however, it’s tough to ignore the possibility that he either misses significant time, or does see a stark decline in production. Again, that’s not to say that he will, but rather that I think the chances of his decline are great than they are for, say, Derek Jeter, the second oldest Yankees position player. Posada has spent 134 days on the disabled list over the past two years with injuries to his shoulder and hamstring. He also experienced a number of maladies later in the year, including a finger injury that he said bothered him in the last month and a half. His health is far from a guarantee, and if something does happen to him it means more Francisco Cervelli. While that helps on defense, it will certainly hurt the offense.

The potential doom scenario has made me wonder how much the Yankees would have benefitted from adding a more solid backup catcher this off-season. As it stands, if Posada gets hurt the Yankees will have Francisco Cervelli and his 106 career plate appearances playing every day, with journeyman Mike Rivera backing him up. That means the Yankees would go from having catchers well above replacement level, perhaps five or six wins combined, to catchers much closer to replacement. A Cervelli/Rivera combination might produce 2 WAR, a steep drop-off from Posada/Cervelli.

Unfortunately, acquiring a competent backup isn’t as easy as it might sound. If a catcher can hit, chances are he’ll find a starting gig somewhere, or else find a team with a weak incumbent he can supplant with a quality performance. The only way, then, for a team with a starter like Posada to acquire a viable backup is via trade. We did see one such trade this off-season, when the Indians traded Kelly Shoppach to the Rays after he realized a drop-off from his 2008 numbers. So why didn’t the Yankees make a more aggressive play for Shoppach, knowing that he could probably fill the starting role more capably than Cervelli?

Catchers like Shoppach, even after a down year, don’t come cheap. If the Yankees wanted to acquire him, and assume the risk that he won’t recover to his 2008 form, they’d have to sacrifice a player or players on the farm. While teams can benefit from trading prospects for veterans, such deals have to come in the right situation. The Yankees only have so many farmhands they can trade to fill holes on the major league roster, and acquiring a backup catcher just isn’t that high on the priority list. Perhaps it moved a bit higher this year because of the risks Posada poses, but not high enough to sacrifice someone like, say Zach McAllister or Ivan Nova.

While having a more reliable backup catcher would have been nice, the upgrade wasn’t worth the acquisition cost. If Posada’s performance declines or he gets hurt the Yankees will suffer a bit with Cervelli behind the plate, but it’s not a total loss. While he’ll never be Posada with the bat, Cervelli looks like a very good defensive catcher. That will close the performance gap between the two. For now, the Yankees will have to rely on Posada to catch another 100, 110 games. With their minor league catchers moving up the ranks, it might be the last year they need him to take on that workload.

Categories : Offense

111 Comments»

  1. …and utility infielder (Pena or Nunez).

    It’s Peña or Nuñez? I figured it was Peña or Russo.

  2. The potential doom scenario has made me wonder how much the Yankees would have benefitted from adding a more solid backup catcher this off-season. As it stands, if Posada gets hurt the Yankees will have Francisco Cervelli and his 106 career plate appearances playing every day, with journeyman Mike Rivera backing him up. That means the Yankees would go from having catchers well above replacement level, perhaps five or six wins combined, to catchers much closer to replacement. A Cervelli/Rivera combination might produce 2 WAR, a steep drop-off from Posada/Cervelli.

    My reply:

    http://tinyurl.com/ByTheBeardOfHeyZeus

    • pat says:

      Word. If Posada goes on the DL and Montero is killin it, I can see him getting a little taste of the Bronx. Between Pena, Girardi, Cervelli and Posada he could probably get better coaching in MLB than Scranton.

      • Plan A: Posada doesn’t get hurt, catches 110ish games. Cervelli fills in the rest. HeyZeus sits in Scranton all year practicing defense and sodomizing baseballs.

        Plan B: Posada gets hurt, The Second Coming makes his first arrival a few months earlier than originally planned, and the precocious kids form a quality timeshare. There is much rejoicing.

        • W.W.J.M.D says:

          This.

        • rbizzler says:

          Do you really want to risk The Jesus getting exposed with a forced call-up due to injury?

          Especially considering that the main flaw in his game is his defense, with specific mention being made to how he handles guys with better stuff.

          Although, I guess you could mitigate his exposure by having Frankie catch the more demanding pitchers (AJ, Joba) with The Second Coming working with guys like Pettitte and CC who have better control.

          Part of me is not interested in stunting the development/potential of Jesus by rushing him to the show, but I think that it should be considered if Montero forces the Yanks hand by continuing to terrorize MiLB pitching while making a requisite amount of progress as a receiver.

          • Do you really want to risk The Jesus getting exposed with a forced call-up due to injury?

            Since we’re
            A) keeping him forever and
            B) never trading him ever
            … Montero can’t technically get “exposed”. Because he has no trade value, he’s invaluable. He wouldn’t be getting “exposed”, he’d be getting “exposure”, as in getting his feet wet in preparation for his forthcoming larger role in 2011 and beyond.

            Part of me is not interested in stunting the development/potential of Jesus by rushing him to the show…

            Me neither. Plan B (call up HeyZeus for an extended stretch to replace Posada if he’s injured for an extended stretch) only occurs if Montero is mashing in AAA (and thus, promotion-worthy) as expected. If he looks like he’s not ready and needs more development time, obviously we wouldn’t bring him up and give him the Melky Cabrera 2006 treatment.

            I just think that specific scenario of events (Jorge gets seriously injured and Montero is slumping/struggling/regressing in AAA and not remotely ready) is rather unlikely. Whatevs.

            • rbizzler says:

              As you can see I kind of talked myself into the idea by the end of my post.

              And by exposed, I meant more from a confidence standpoint as I am not really all that concerned with what other org’s think about him. Plus, we can’t really trust all of the white noise about prospects that we hear. A-Jax and IPK were thought to be flawed players by many accounts, but they were able to be packaged for a solid return.

    • Riddering says:

      I knew there was a reason the worst case scenario presented in this post didn’t worry me too much.

  3. pat says:

    I too thought it was strange they didn’t sign someone better than Rivera to at least give the illusion of some sort of backup catcher competition. I guess the FO is sold on Cervelli’s D and game calling abilities.

    • AdamParker says:

      You gotta remember, the entire 2009 season turned around on Cervelli’s homerun in Atlanta! :)

    • I too thought it was strange they didn’t sign someone better than Rivera to at least give the illusion of some sort of backup catcher competition.

      Who, though? Because you first have to eliminate all the guys who took major league deals this winter, because they wouldn’t have signed here to be behind not only Jorge but also Frankie. Who does that leave?

      Chris Coste? Matt Treanor? Paul LoDuca? Are they really any better than Mike Rivera? Meh.

    • Am I the only Kevin? says:

      It is very clear why they didn’t bring anybody else in. Why the hell would you sign here? Not only are you competing for the backup job (at best) against a younger home-grown talent who likely is a shoo-in, but your fall back position is as the BACKUP at AAA. Jesus is going to be catching 60% or more of the AAA games.

      Who the hell would sign with us to compete with Rivera for the backup AAA job?

      • rbizzler says:

        Agreed.

        The catching situation is pretty settled with the big club, so it would be tough to lure someone away from a shot to compete for big league AB’s.

        Maybe the team could broker some sort of a partnership deal with The Office where the de facto 3rd string catcher (non-Jesus division) gets a recurring role on the show. Being that some of the writers have/had allegiance to the Sox, that might not work either. (I jest)

  4. Doug says:

    Personally think that if Posada’s out for an extended period of time, Yanks will make a deal for a catcher at that point in time. Didn’t do so in the offseason, gambling that Posada will stay reasonably healthy. But if he doesn’t, don’t see them going with Cervelli back there as the regular. And don’t see them bringing up the man-child to catch. He’s certainly not ready for that…his bat maybe, but not his glove.

    • Am I the only Kevin? says:

      If you get the scenario where 1) Jorge is out for a long spell after the all star break, 2) Cervelli looks really overmatched, and 3) Montero is OPS’ing 900 at Scranton, then you have a good chance of him getting the call to play in a platoon until Jorge comes back. As someone said above, aren’t you more convinced that he’ll get quality catching instruction from Pena and Girardi at the ML level then he would receive in Scranton? As much as we bag on Posada, I think Pena has helped him tremendously. Besides, you’d be able to shield his base-stealing and vulnerabilities by matching him up with Pettitte and CC.

      I agree with you to some extent – the likelihood of seeing Montero in 2010 is small. I just don’t think it is out of the realm of reasonableness (the chances of both Cervelli tanking in a full time role and Montero mashing both seem pretty decent).

  5. Maybe I missed it, but I don’t recall seeing any catchers available via FA fit to even touch Jorge’s bat. Very few of those available were the defensive equals of Francisco.
    With Jorge, we’re talking about a super-elite catcher in terms of offense- just look at the extra base hits, especially doubles, he’s put up until the last year or two. Is Francisco an offensive let down compared to Jorge? Of course!!! So also could we consider Del Crandall, Johnny Roseboro, Gus Triandos and perhaps even Ellie and Thurman as offensive let downs after Jorge. But who wouldn’t want one of the latter as their every day catcher? And Francisco certainly seems capable at this point of putting in an excellent showing on the defensive side, in terms of glove, throwing and blocking. Even league-average hitting (which FC surely can do, even given SSS) would make him an above-average catcher overall.

  6. Chip says:

    Actually, this is just another reason to keep Montero at catcher at least in the near future. If you keep Montero at catcher, he’s not only backup for the last year of Posada’s contract but he is essentially the backup for Nick Johnson as well (assuming a DH/C platoon would take place if he goes down) and could also be an option for the full-time catcher next season or again if Nick’s option isn’t picked up. Even if he can hold down catcher for like 3-4 years when hopefully one of Romine, Sanchez, Higgy or Murphy comes to take the job away from him it’s well worth the experiment

  7. Steve H says:

    Well the good news is the Yankees backup catcher is better than the Red Sox.

  8. T-Dubs says:

    If, Mo forbid, Jorgie went down for the year before the trade deadline I think the Yanks would try to poach a rental catcher with an expiring contract from a non-contender. Barajas, or Laird, or Zaun or someone.

    Or Bengie Molina when the Giants are scoring 2 runs a game and Buster Posey is lighting up AAA.

  9. Tom Swift says:

    Catcher is the position I am least worried about. We have a competent defensive catcher as a back up, and in the second half of the season, Montero might be ready for a cameo. I am most worried about SS.

  10. I would’ve liked to have seen them make a run at Gregg Zaun for the backup job and give Frankie C. a little more development time, but I’m fine with the plan.

    • Am I the only Kevin? says:

      Where the hell would he “develop?” High A?

      Montero is going to be catching 4 out of 5 at AAA, and Romine 4 out of 5 at AA. I guess he could go down to AAA and get at bats at backup C and some at 1B/DH, but I am not sure they would want his defensive catching skills to atrophy.

      • Oh, wow, total brain fart.

      • rbizzler says:

        Zaun is penciled in as a starter for the Brewers right now. Why would he take a job as a backup unless we seriously outbid other teams to get him?

        I understand your point, but I think acquiring catching depth is easier said then done. Hence the Yanks recent drafting patterns where they aim to have in-house options rather than trolling the FA market and overpaying for average/below average players.

  11. Tank Foster says:

    A player with Posada’s bat? Yes, make him a catcher. Someone with Montero’s bat? Sorry, I like LF. Yeah, I know, the numbers thing, the added value for that bat at catcher, etc. But we’re talking in Montero about a guy who could hit 500 HR as a position player/DH. No catcher has hit 500, and only 1 has hit 400. If Montero catches for any more than parts of a season or two in the majors, I’ll be pi$$ed. It’d be another matter if he were a good catcher, like Mauer. And in the latter case, I’d like to see Joe move to 3b or OF, although I realize that ain’t never gonna happen. It’ll be sad to see Minnesota Joe’s star fall quicker than it has to…

    • Big Juan says:

      But we’re talking in Montero about a guy who could hit 500 5,000 HR as a position player/DH

      Fixed.

    • The Evil Umpire says:

      Yeah I don’t think LF is going to happen, from what I hear Joe D’s monument covers more ground in the outfield these days than Montero would. Betcha you’ll long for the days of Danny Tartabull patrolling the outfield.

      I think da Jesus will split C/DH for the balance of Teix’s contract and then take over 1B at the ripe old age of 27.

    • Disagreed wholeheartedly. Here’s why:

      Having a catcher who can hit 350+ homers in his career is awesome. Having a 1B/DH who can hit for 500+ homers in his career is also awesome. The only thing more awesome than having a 350 HR catcher or a 500 HR first baseman?

      Having both.

      We don’t need to move Montero to 1B/DH so that he can hit more homers and produce more offense… we’re the Yankees, we can just sign someone else to play 1B/DH and hit 500 homers (or the equivalent thereof for the less-than-full-career he’d spend here). For example, Mark Teixeira. And we can thus keep Montero’s bat at C, even if it slightly diminishes his career totals.

      When looked at from a holistic roster acquisition standpoint, having a 350 HR career from a catcher is worth way more than having a 500 HR career at first base, because the former is more rare and thus harder to obtain than the latter. Getting more years, more games, and more homers from Montero is not worth the tradeoff of having Montero play less and homer less while doing so at catcher.

      Montero stays behind the dish until one of our other young turks (Romine, Murphy, Sanchez, Higashioka) forces his way into the big league all-star caliber catcher discussion and we can thus move Montero to another less demanding position while still retaining excellent offense from the C spot.

      • montero could easily hit 350 as a catcher and the next 150 as a dh

      • Chip says:

        I wish I could take your knowledge and put it in the head of Yankee fans everywhere. What a world it would be….

      • Chip says:

        Additionally, the Yankees got 423 homeruns out of Tino/Giambi/Tex from 96-09 but only 243 from Posada during that time. Posada is one of the greatest offensive catchers of all time (as in probably top 10 but that’s a different argument). I’m not sure a lot of people will argue that Tino/Giambi/Tex are among the greatest offensive first basemen of all time which just goes to show that huge offense at first and DH are easy to come by while huge offense at catcher isn’t.

      • Tank Foster says:

        Nice post, tsjc. You may be right, but I reserve my right to disagree. I have only 2 comments about your post:

        1. You have to be lucky to get 350 HR as a catcher; the position destroys alot of guys. The probability for very high career production from Montero is much higher anywhere other than behind home plate.

        2. You are looking into it from a purely team standpoint. Maybe this is the correct way of looking at it. I look at it from the perspective of doing the best possible thing for the player. Someone like Montero, unless he wants to play catcher, shouldn’t have his career jeopardized by playing him there.

        I think it’s hard to be sure which option is really better, statistically. Yes, getting high production from a 1b/DH type is easier than it is to get from a catcher, but there is no guarantee it’s going to play out that way. At the very least, it’s a pretty close comparison, having Monteiro playing 14 years and hitting 300-350 HR as a catcher, versus him playing 18 years and hitting 500-600 HR as a 1b/DH, adjusting for league average values at the opposite positions.

        Finally, a question: If it is such a great strategy to have a great hitting catcher, why aren’t more good hitting players converted to catchers early in their careers?

    • Chip says:

      I want you to think about this very carefully, who would you rather have on your team over their entire career, Mike Piazza or Vladimir Guerrero.

      Mike Piazza would not be a first-ballot HOF if he were a right fielder. He would be a very good hitter who would be in the hall of pretty darn good.

      • True, but Tank’s argument is that if Piazza played something other than catcher, his body would have remained in peak condition longer and he would have probably outhit Vlad in both counting stats and rate stats.

        Catching is a monumental grind. It depresses players offensive statistics mightily. Piazza may have been an even better hitter if he was a first baseman his entire life.

        • Chip says:

          True, but a team like the Yankees can’t get caught up on how many homeruns a guy can hit over his career but how he can most help the team in the semi-short run. The Yankees will probably have rights to Jesus until 2017 or so depending on when he comes up and they have to make the most of him in that time. If playing catcher for those seasons takes away home runs that he might hit when he’s in his mid-30′s, well that’s potentially a problem for another team or something to take into mind when re-signing him.

          I realize that you could argue he’ll hit better in those years but will it be enough to make more than a 20-run difference that switching from C to DH would make? It’s not like he’s going to be starting at first unless there is an injury.

      • Steve H says:

        Mike Piazza absolutely would be a 1st ballot HOF if he were a RF. He was an absolute beast with that bat and with a few extra seasons worth of games, by playing more in his prime in the OF, and likely lasting a little longer, he’d have 500+ HR’s with a 142 OPS+

        That is rarified air.

    • pat says:

      Montero will pretty much only have to catch during his physical peak. Once he hits 27, Tex is gone and Sweet Sweet can move to 1b, where he can mash for the next 15 years.

  12. chriso says:

    I don’t understand the consternation about the backup catcher role. If that’s the Yanks biggest question mark heading into the season, I’d say that’s great news.
    As for Cervelli, he’s an excellent defensive catcher. Like Jose Molina, he can easily spell Posada and, when he does, he’ll make the defense at that position better. Unlike Molina, he can hit. He doesn’t hit for any power, and he’s nowhere near the offensive player that Posada has been, but singles and doubles help to score runs, too. The idea that a Kelly Shoppach-type would have made sense for the Yanks really doesn’t make any sense. Catchers do, indeed, “cost” a lot in trades, relatively speaking, and with the kind of catching talent the Yanks have in the minor leagues, giving up a good young pitching prospect for a back-up catcher who, in a good year, is going to hit .240 with 7 homeruns seems silly. The Yanks, after all, have the best minor league catching talent in the game right now.

  13. James says:

    Cervelli kind of fell into our laps. Cashman has always been known to ignore the bench, but Cervelli has turned out to be much better than expected. I’m not sure why people on this site think he can’t hit. Every time I’ve watched him with men on base, he gets the run(s) in.

    Could he start? That depends on whether or not the Yankees are smart enough to let him start. He’s a terrific defensive catcher, and I see no reason why he can’t hit .300. I could care less how many homers he hits.

    • Hughesus Christo says:

      “He’s a terrific defensive catcher, and I see no reason why he can’t hit .300. I could care less how many homers he hits.”

      Lack of talent could come into play.

    • ROBTEN says:

      Cervelli 2009: .298/.308/.372 OPS+81

      BABIP: .325 (above .299 league average, so he will probably regress)

      wOBA .283 (below league average, which, while he might get on base more as per his past performance in the minors, means an adjustment to the mean in BABIP combined with a low wOBA and you have a backup catcher who will probably hit as well as a backup catcher hits)

      vs.

      “Every time I’ve watched him with men on base, he gets the run(s) in.”

      hmmm…which to believe

      • James says:

        Forget the nerd talk for a moment, when it counts, the kid comes through. A catcher doesn’t have to be a power hitter to be a valuable starter.

        Actually catching is pretty valuable, too.

        • Hughesus Christo says:

          Hitting is even more valuable, especially since Cervelli doesn’t throw the ball to himself.

          • James says:

            .298 not good enough?

            • That’s completely oversimplified. The sample in which Cervelli hit .298 is minuscule. It’s not predictive in the slightest. I’d say there’s maybe a 5 percent chance he hits even .280 in a 500 plate appearance sample.

              • James says:

                Cervelli is not getting 500 at bats, and neither is Jorge. Cervelli’s .298 average came at a time when the Yankees were caught with their pants down. Jorge and Molina were hurt, and Cashman had no experienced talent ready to fill in.

                When Cervelli was called up, it was during a key stretch in which the Yankees battled back into the race the AL East.

                Was it a small sample of what he can do? Sure, but by means was he up during garbage time. The kid was needed, and he came through big time.

                • Let’s recap.

                  James: Cervelli is a good hitter.
                  Everyone else: No, he’s not. Mountains of evidence say he’s a bad hitter who was playing over his head.
                  James: But he hit well last year.
                  Everyone else: It was a small sample.
                  James: Doesn’t matter; he’ll be a backup meaning he’ll always have small samples each year. Thus, he’ll continue to hit well since his sample sizes will always be small.
                  Everyone else: No, it doesn’t work that way.
                  James: Forget the nerd talk. Just look at what he did.
                  Everyone else: We give up.

                  … aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand, SCENE!

                • James says:

                  It’s true, if you look at how he actually played when we needed him most, you’ll see he’s clearly ready to be a major leaguer.

                  Sorry “everyone else”, but you’re wrong.

                  “Mountains of evidence” —Let’s see it smart guy.

                • bexarama says:

                  ietcvvm

                • bexarama says:

                  and by “tc” I mean TSJC not James’.

        • Forget the nerd talk for a moment,

          No.

          when it counts, the kid comes through.

          The nerd talk says that he’s a virtual lock to not continue coming through “when it counts”. He’s going to fail a shit-ton of times “when it counts” even if he didn’t fail in the extremely small sample thus far.

        • Tom Swift says:

          Without some level of statistical analysis, whether it is basic or at the sabremetric level, baseball is incomprehensible. In other words, people who disdain “nerd talk” may be happier watching figure skating.

          • Jd says:

            Stats lie my young, and inexperienced baseball fan.
            Stats say this was one of Arod’s worst seasons as a Yankee,
            when it was actually his best.

      • Please don’t cite league average BABIP. Different players will have different results on balls in play. It’s not at all the same as a pitcher’s BABIP.

  14. Schultz says:

    I don’t understand the problem. Cervelli catches this year (if Posada gets hurt) and it doesn’t matter who his backup is, it’ll only be for a couple of months. Next year, Posada is DH, Cervelli is still the backup, and we buy Mauer as one of two FAs that year (the other is Carl Crawford).

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