Mets catching options

Posted on June 21, 2010 by

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The Mets spent most of the season trying to sign free agent catcher Bengie Molina. I pointed out here, here and here why this was a bad idea. If you are too lazy to click on the links the main take away point is that catchers age in dog years and the top catchers in terms of HR and RBIs dropped off significantly from their age 34 season to age 35. Molina hit 20 HR and drove in 80 runs as a 34-year old in 2009.

The top 10 catchers in HR and RBIs at age 34 averaged 22.8 HR and 84.2 RBIs. Those same catchers (minus Molina, whose 2010 numbers are not final) averaged 13.8 HR and 59.6 RBIs as 35-year olds. So, how is our pal Molina doing this year? He has 3 HR and 17 RBIs in 55 games played. He is on pace to finish well below average for his 34-year-old peer group. And to top it all off, he has thrown out just 20 percent (10-50) of opposing runners who tried to steal.

Instead, the Mets ended up with Rod Barajas, who got off to a magical start with the bat. After a two-homer game on May 7th, Barajas had a .598 slugging percentage and had 9 HR in 82 ABs.

While Barajas got off to a great start at the plate, Josh Thole, my choice to begin the year as the Mets’ starting catcher, could not hit water if he fell off a boat. In the month of April, Thole had a .172/.242/.259 line. It appeared that the Mets had hit a home run all the way around with their decision at catcher. Molina was no good, Barajas was hitting a HR in nearly one out of every nine ABs and Thole looked overmatched at Triple-A.

But things were not as rosy as they seemed one month into the season. True, Molina continued to be not good but regression hit for both Barajas and Thole. After his 29-game hot streak at the start of the year, Barajas has appeared in 32 games (29 starts) and has a .252/.283/.383 line in his last 113 PA and has hit just 2 HR. Last year, Barajas had a .226/.258/.403 line. So, his OBP-AVG and SLG-AVG marks are not far from where they were in 2009.

Since May 8th, Barajas has an OBP .031 higher than his AVG and a SLG .131 higher than his AVG. In 2009, his marks were .032 and .177 higher, respectively. Right now, Barajas is hitting for a little better AVG and less power, but overall very similar to what he did in 2009. The surprise with Barajas is what he did at the beginning of the year, not what he’s done the last six weeks.

Contrast that with Thole. After hitting over .300 the past two seasons in the minors, it was a big shock to see him struggling so much the first month of the season. As you might expect, Thole was having a hard time with his BABIP. For the first month of the season, his BABIP was .213 compared to a .328 lifetime mark in the category.

But in the two months since then, Thole has returned to his normal ways at the plate. In his last 30 games, Thole is batting .347 (34-98). The big surprise is that he is actually delivering some extra-base hits. After hitting just 1 HR and notching 32 XBH in 384 ABs in the minors last year, Thole has 2 HR and 22 XBH in 156 ABs so far in 2010. He carries a .455 SLG and a .173 ISO compared to .422 and a .094 ISO last season.

Soon, the cries are going to go out to re-sign Barajas, possibly even to a multi-year contract. But before you get on that bandwagon remember that the hitter we have seen the last six weeks is the real Barajas, not the power hitter who opened the season. And also, remember the big dropoff among catchers from their age 34 to age 35 season. Because this year Barajas is in his age 34 season.

Thole does not appear to have taken any step forward with his defense this year, as he has already allowed 6 PB and has thrown out just 16% of opposing baserunners. If R.A. Dickey remains on the club, Henry Blanco (or whoever the backup catcher may be) would probably have to be his personal catcher. But there is virtually no way that Barajas’ defensive edge can make up for Thole’s edge in OBP, which would be at least a 50-point edge and likely closer to 100. For 2010, Barajas has a .275 OBP, right in line with his .283 lifetime mark. Thole has a .360 OBP in Triple-A.

And while it should not mean much to a big-market team like the Mets, not spending on Barajas should free money for elsewhere on the team. Bottom line, I hope the Mets open with a Thole-Blanco catching tandem in 2010.

For another take on Barajas, check out John Strubel’s piece posted just 30 minutes earlier here on the site. You can view that here.

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Posted in: Perspectives