Brian, Brayan, Brian

A rambling discourse on catching prospects, catchers, singles, benches, and 1991. Feel free to ignore my babbling.

The Braves’ catcher of the future, as you probably know, is Brian McCann. Presumably, McCann will be ready just about when Estrada gets expensive and/or old in about 2007; the Braves might phase McCann in or go ahead and plug him in. We’ll see. We’ll also see if he makes it; the casualty record for catching prospects is high, particularly at the High A/AA transition he’s about to make. Even those whose bats survive tend to develop — or be diagnosed with, anyway — defensive shortcomings that move them off the position. For those reasons, you want several catching prospects around in the hope that one of them makes it as a catcher. The Braves’ #2 catching prospect is Jarrod Saltalamacchia, but he’s a long way away.

Ahead of McCann in the Braves’ system, if not in their plans, is Brayan Pena, who was at Greenville last season and should be in Richmond this time. He does basically one thing as a hitter, make contact; in his minor league career, in over 1000 AB, he’s walked only 82 times, but struck out just 128. His career batting average is .298 (including an insane .370 in rookie ball in 2001 — yeah, he was “19”) but his career slugging percentage only .380. Over at NoPepper, Brad writes of Pena. In a comment, I mentioned my nickname for Pena, “Brayan Harper”.

If you’re younger than me, you probably only remember Harper as a Twin, in particular in the 1991 World Series, in which he hit .381 to lead the Twins (who hit only .232 as a team). Morris was the MVP, and if he wasn’t it would have been Kirby, but Harper had an argument. The thing is, though Harper was only in his third season as a regular, he’d actually debuted way back in 1979 with the Angels, was already 31 years old, and his career would be basically over with the 1994 strike.

Harper, you see, was a lot like Pena. He was a slow guy, not a great arm or a really finished catcher, didn’t have much power (but more than Pena’s shown yet), or walk a whole lot, but he hit .300. (Unlike Pena, who’s a switch-hitter, he hit righty, another strike against him.) He was 28 when the Twins, his sixth major league team, picked him up after he was released by the A’s (who admittedly had Mickey Tettleton and Terry Steinbach and thus weren’t hurting for catchers) and finally gave him a chance to play. In a half season, then five full seasons, he hit .295, .324, .294, .311, .307, .304. Now, you’ve all heard me disparage batting average, but this has value, especially at a position where a lot of guys don’t hit at all, especially bench guys, and particularly in those dark days of the late eighties/early nineties between the decline of Fisk and the rise of Piazza & Rodriguez. But between 1979 and 1987, Harper got 390 major league at bats. He wound up his career with 979 hits; honestly, he might have gotten 2000 if someone’d given him a job when he was 22 or so.

For one thing, he wasn’t getting enough of those singles, probably because of bad luck. Batting average fluctuates, especially when you don’t get many at-bats because you’re a backup. A power-hitter is at least going to hit some long foul balls or impress them in batting practice. That’s not going to work for a singles hitter; he needs to put up the high batting average or he’s going to get demoted.

And Harper was a lucky one of the type. Consider Jerry Willard, another guy you might remember from 1991, this time on our side. Willard was a lefty hitter, but other than that he was pretty similar to Harper, at a reduced scale. He couldn’t throw much or run at all, didn’t have a lot of power, but could hit singles. In his second year in the majors, 1985 with the Indians, he hit .270, which was pretty good back then, didn’t strike out a lot. And he lost his job. The next two years he was with Oakland, and while he did okay as Tettleton’s platoon partner, Steinbach came up and he joined Harper on the unemployment line. Willard’s biggest “hit” in his career was in the 1991 Series, when he hit a pinch-hit walk-off sac fly in Game Four to tie the series. It was his only appearance of the series.

And Willard was one of the lucky ones, because he came up when teams still carried three catchers, at least part of the time, and I finally get to my point, which was I think about Brayan Pena. Brad thinks of Pena as a backup, presumably for Estrada in 2006 and McCann from then on. I like the idea, but I doubt that it will happen, because nobody seems to care about backup catchers’ hitting anymore.

You see, children, once upon a time teams did really carry three catchers. And that was a lot of the time, not just Bobby in postseason when he wants to cause us all agita. Many teams actually platooned at the position — the Braves did in 1992 until Olson broke his leg in 1993, and Bobby had in his Blue Jay days. Doesn’t happen much anymore because (here I go again) teams are carrying so many pitchers they can’t afford a third catcher, and platooning loses a lot of its luster if you have to lose your only backup to counter the first switch. And those third catchers were often your Willard types — a guy who wasn’t a great catcher buy could at least stand around at an infield or outfield corner, pinch-hit, DH occasionally in the AL. Frankie Cabrera, though he was a power hitter, fits the type as well.

Today everyone, or nearly everyone, has a clear starter, who is usually (I’m looking at you, Matheny) supposed to hit, and a clear backup, who is almost always a catch-and-throw guy, at least in theory. (For instance, Eddie Perez is a catch-and-lob guy.) Almost none of these guys does anything well with the bat, because they aren’t supposed to. They’re always the last guy off the bench, because managers are all afraid they’ll get hurt and then an outfielder or someone will have to catch. Backup catchers mostly are asked to go out there every few days when the starter needs a rest and not hurt the team.

Brayan Pena’s defense may be good, but it’s his bat, such as it is, that’s gotten all the attention so far. And since good hitting catchers are always — except for Ivan Rodruiguez — considered bad defenders, even if they aren’t, Pena will get a bad defense rap. Which is why he’s probably not going to make it as a major league backup backstop. His best bet is to hope he can grab a regular job and hold onto it.

Special bonus “How Old Is Julio”? fact: Jerry Willard, as a minor leaguer, was part of the Von Hayes deal, one of five players sent by the Phillies to the Indians for Hayes in 1982. One of the other four was Julio Franco.

41 thoughts on “Brian, Brayan, Brian”

  1. Good stuff, if not particularly relevant. Just another file for the “if I ran a major league team” folder, I guess.

  2. “catch and lob guy”. that mac, is why I love reading your stuff. besides loving the braves, your humor suits me just fine.

  3. One of these days, Mickey Lichtman (mgl at baseball primer) will have significant influence over a team and do lots of crazy things that will be fun to watch how they turn out. For instance, one of his maxims is that catchers are as a group so poor offensively that it would be almost impossible for a decent hitter to be bad enough defensively to not be an above-average catcher. For example, he says the Pirates should start Defensively Awkward Craig Wilson at catcher even though he’s atrocious – because he’s be an amazing offensive catcher, around 3rd best in the league.

    I agree with you Mac in that it doesn’t make much sense to waste a roster spot on a “backup catcher” (do teams draw names out of a hat during the offseason?) with nothing, even a platoon advantage, going for them. Perez isn’t even a good defensive catcher, as you mention. Can’t we throw LaRoche back there a couple times a week? I hope Brayan has a long and successful career as some ace pitcher’s caddy.

  4. I don’t know about sending Laroche behind the plate, but I’d love to see him take the mound. How many around here are old enough to remember “LaLob”? Adam’s dad Dave threw a curveball that was probably about 45mph and had the tragectory of a slo-pitch softball pitcher.

    … back on topic.

    I think one of the biggest problems of the Braves for the last decade has been a lackluster bench. We have lived with pinch hitters who were backup middle infielders (DeRosa / Lockhart). That just seems backwards. Find a couple of guys who are good hitters, but not quite good enough to play 1B, LF or RF. As a class, they will be much better hitters than the defensively challenged MIs who aren’t good enough overall to play regularly. The backup MI should be the glove men and pinch runners, not the #1 or 2 hitter off the bench that Cox and Schuerholz have used.

    The master at that when I was a kid was Earl Weaver. Weaver used a 9 man pitching staff, something I just don’t see returning. But the principle was the same: have a clearly defined role for each player on the squad. Don’t carry a bench player who is ok at everything, but good at nothing. They have to be either a hitter for average or for power against either lefties or righties — or a great fielder up the middle. Weaver would always have a Bumbry, Lowenstein, Roenicke, Crowley or the like who was a real pinch hitter (and part time platoon outfielder).

    Weaver didn’t really carry a hitter as the backup to his starting catcher. Guys like Elrod Hendricks, or Andy Etchebarren were more of the catch and throw variety. But filling his bench with guys who could hit, he could find a role for an excellent defender in a limit role.

    Whitey Herzog, did pretty much the same thing until he got old and bitter his last few years in St. Louis and then as GM in California. But is his heyday in KC and St. Louis, he always had a good hitting catcher as his backup. John Wathan, before he got old in his early 30s, was perhaps the gold standard of the Brian Harper type player Mac mentions: high BAs and a few other skills. One of his first moves in St. Lou was bringing in Gene Tennace as his backup C/1B. Tennace responded by putting up .400 OBAs in limited play with good slugging too. When Tennace got old, Darrell Porter – a better hitter than fielder — moved into that part-time role. None were a threat to move Gary Carter or Pudge Fisk from the All Star team, but they had a useful role on the team other than merely being able to squat 30-40 games a year without falling over.

  5. Good stuff, Mac. Also in the early ’90s, remember that the Pirates had not one, but two catchers in the Bryan Harper mold. Mike Lavalliere would intermittently hit .300 with a few walks and zero power, but I’m especially thinking of Don Slaught. I’d venture to say that Slaught is almost completely forgotten, but how many catchers nowadays are even remotely capable of this:

    Slaught 1990-96, BA, OBP

    .300/.375
    .295/.363
    .345/.384
    .300/.356
    .288/.381
    .304/.361
    .313/.355

    All while typically playing about 40% of the time. Earl Weaver must have loved him, and Leyland was the perfect manager for him. Plus, you have to love a guy that could engender the line “Prepare for the Donslaught!” as he approached the plate….

  6. I agree the Braves had generally had poor benches and the reason is one word: money. JS has never spent on the bench and that is partly because, unlike the Yankees, the Braves have never had an unlimited payroll, even when they were a big market team. Even Ted Turner never spent like Steinbrenner. So, the bench has always been a luxury and it has hurt the Braves in the playoffs.

  7. I thought about Slaught, actually, but I figured I’d gone on long enough already.

    The bench was pretty good in the early nineties, when Bobby was platooning a lot. The Braves’ farm system was rich in position players at the time and guys like Brian Hunter or Tony Tarasco who weren’t good enough to play everyday became useful spare parts. And JS would sometimes pick up an outfielder late in the season to be a bench bat. Mike Devereaux, who won the MVP in the 1995 NLCS, comes to mind. But also Luis Polonia that year, and Jerome Walton the next. Greg Colbrunn on a couple of occasions.

  8. Kyle – have you ever tried catching? Not insulting, honestly asking. I consider it (in its own way) the most difficult defensive position – it just requires a different skill set from infield or outfield.

    For a catcher, athleticism is not as important as honing specific skills through practice – and it values endurance and mental acuity whereas non-catchers can occasionally daydream in the field (I know, not the good ones) and their plays tend to be more bursts of athletic energy.

    No major league team would ever, ever, ever throw a guy in there who has no MLB catching experience, I don’t care if he hits like Ted Williams. It’s just too much of a refined skill set. The only reason a guy like Piazza can handle it as well as he does is through a couple of decades of intense practice.

    I am more stathead than jock but sometimes I hear an idea and I wonder if it was ever tethered to the ground at any point.

    Anyway the good news is we have Estrada who ain’t bad at all.

  9. Yeah, I have to admit that if catching were physically less demanding then B.J. Surhoff would not have changed positions way back when. He is the best recent example of a good hitting catcher that was moved to preserve his bat. At least that is how I remember it.

  10. I actually caught in an old man’s league a few years back. It was an absolute gas. I caught a guy who had played in the minor leagues (I hadn’t played since HS) and it was just about the most fun I ever had playing baseball. One day 17 out of 21 outs were strikeouts, but I think I spent as much time running to the backstop and throwing guys out at first base (when I could find the ball) as I did actually catching his pitches.

    It’s no comparison to the big leagues by any stretch, but the era of the “offense only” catcher seems to have gone the way of the Dodo. Craig Wilson could probably catch. He was, after all, drafted as a catcher (by the Blue Jays). But I think his offense would probably suffer from the wear and tear of catching. Piazza and Bench are real exceptions. I think one of the reasons the running game has slowed down a bit is the stress on catching as more of a defensive position.

    I am old enough to remember the era of the offensive catcher, and there were stretches when there was a whole lot of running going on.

    Good stuff Mac. Loved the ramble. My biggest Harper memory of the 1991 series is that he threw out Keith Mitchell trying to steal second base late in Game 7. For most of the season, Harper would have been better served to send his throws to second via UPS because they’d arrive sooner, but on that play, he nailed Mitchell. It was then that I knew the baseball gods had damned us.

  11. Josh cited B. J. Surhoff as an example of a cather who was moved to another position to preserve his bat. Dale Murphy and Craig Biggio also come to mind.

  12. With respect, I was totally kidding about putting Adam LaRoche at catcher. I looked back at my post and realized this wasn’t exactly obvious, so for that I apologize. I did catch a few games in little league when the regular catcher (read: pudgy kid with strong arm) was on vacation – I had a great time, but I realize it’s not something that a major leaguer could do at the spur of the moment.

    Anyway, my point with the above post is not to stick Joe Random Hitter in at catcher and see how he does. MGL (and I tend to agree) believe that most teams are so fixated with catcher defense that they are quick to move guys like Craig Wilson or Justin Huber or Daric Bartin off the position. However, he notes that there is basically no way for them to play poor enough defense while catching to negate the HUGE offensive advantage they bring to the position. In short, catcher defense is overrated, and catcher offense underrated. I try to mutter that to myself when I watch Estrada let countless balls by him or misplay a throw from the outfield. That, and “McCann is coming, McCann is coming.”

    The counter argument is one mentioned here, that leaving a player at catcher hurts their offensive potential. This is an old scout’s maxim I suppose because I’ve never seen a study done on its truth one way or another, and I’m not sure how to go about doing one. I suppose one could gather a large sample of minor league catchers, split them into two groups (converted to other position, not) and compare their career stats from that point on to their projected career stats before the move, and see if there was any difference. Sounds like a lot of work, though.

  13. Yeah, for one thing LaRoche is a lefty, and there aren’t any lefty catchers. (Though the only real reason for this is that any lefty who can throw well enough to catch will be a pitcher. Which brings us back to the use-him-to-pitch-some idea.)

    But the Braves would have been far better off using Marrero as their backup catcher last season, even if Eddie was kept around as a spare. But given Estrada’s struggles against lefty pitchers, the Braves should have platooned there whether it was Eddie or Eli as the righty half.

    The counter to Craig Wilson is probably Mike Sweeney, who never did anything as a catcher but became a star once they stopped using him that way. Wilson did hit better after moving him out from behind the plate, but it wasn’t that dramatic.

    I mentioned this during the season in passing, and sort of alluded to it in my post, but I think that the best design is to have one regular catcher and a couple of guys like Willard, Slaught, Harper, Marrero, etc. — guys who can hit some and can play other positions. Ideally, you’d want a lefty and a righty. (Before he washed out, I thought Dave Nilsson might be the lefty.) LaRussa often does something like this, though he usually only has one backup of the type.

  14. Yeah, I wondered what happened to Nilsson. He played some for Richmond last year — I found an article describing his displeasure in squeezing his “260-pound frame” into a bus seat for a 12-hour ride, then a blurb saying he’s now a catching instructor for the DBacks. Good on ya, mate.

  15. Speaking of catchers that can hit some, LoDuca just signed a 3 year $18 million contract with Florida. That seems awfully high to me because I’m not sure his defensive or offensive production is worth $6 million a season.

  16. Aha! Thanks JC, I knew I saw lefty with him somewhere, but I guess it was just his batting.

    I think LoDuca’s first halves are worth 3 million a half, but his post-ASB’s…

  17. Has anyone been peering in on the discussions on the BravesCenter talk forum recently about a rumored trade with Texas?

    For a F***in’ A outfielder/1b whose last name contains some of the same lettres as Texas?

    perhaps it’s just wishful thinking gone too far, but the buzz at least at that site seems similar to what it was before the Hudson deal went thru.

  18. I think Benny DiStefano was the last left handed thrower to play catcher in the big leagues.

    I know Dale Long caught in a couple of emergency situations during his career in the 1950s and 1960s.

  19. I really doubt we will trade Furcal…as we have said before, we have never seen JS trading away players just because they are a year away from free agency.

  20. Hardly “just because”. Teixeira hit .281/.370/.560 last season. He’s not even at arbitration yet. You’d be nuts to not make that trade, even you wound up with a patchwork at shortstop.

  21. i agree with Mac – Teixiera is one of the best young hitters in the game. i’d do that deal in a heartbeat even if we had Furcal locked up for a couple more years.

    Two questions though:

    1. Where would we play Teixiera?

    2. Where is this rumor coming from?

  22. 1. Teixeira would, reportedly, play right field, at least for now, though I think he’d be better in left with Langerhans in right. He hasn’t played much outfield so far.

    2. It’s out of BravesCenter. There’s a debate on the forums about whether Bill Shanks, the BC guy, knows what he’s talking about or not. Many of the people who work on BravesBeat (not I — I don’t know him) have problems with Shanks.

  23. Thanks, Mac. Not sure why we’d put Teixiera in RF, either. From what i read, Langerhans has a good arm and is a plus defender over there, and Teixiera would be adusting to the OF. Very interesting, though.

  24. As you say, Mac, we’d have to be crazy not to do that. The thought of locking up Teixeria (however you spell it) through his arb years is almost too much to take. I can’t believe the Rangers could be so dumb, but they do need pitching :)

  25. I cannot for the life of me figure out why the Rangers would want to unload a hitter like Teixiera. BP cannot figure out whats up with the rumors of the Rangers trying to get Delgado when they already have a good 1b. There is no way this trade happens. Its got to be someone’s wishful thinking.

  26. Can the Rangers possibly be this desperate for pitching? I know they have a lot of offense on that team, but why would Texas deal for Furcal? Unless the Braves are receiving Young or Soriano in the deal, I don’t get it. Texas could likely land much better pitching somewhere else (Zito? Webb?) for Teixiera, without adding an un-needed SS who is about to receive a major raise.

  27. This involves a lot of ifs (probably too many), but follow for a sec..

    if the rangers pull off Teixera for Furcie and HoRam,

    then spin Soriano to the Astros (who are so desperate to replace Beltran’s bat and Kent’s presence at second, they give them Backe in return)

    then sign Delgado,

    Then they still have a slugging first baseman, have a better defensive middle infield with Furcal and Young back at 2nd, AND have 2 young studs to plug into the rotation in Horacio and Backe.

    plus, losing Soriano’s contract allows you to afford Delgado.

    If I were John Hart, I would have to at least consider that this plan would improve the team, even though it would initially seem dumb to dump Marky T.

  28. Speaking as someone who enjoyed Teixeira’s exploits at Tech, it has seemed to me that the Rangers have never been quite sold on him. It was he, and not Blalock, who switched positions. And I remember hearing some grumblings about him in the early part of last season, that he wasn’t living up to his potential. This was just before he starting tearing the cover off the ball, and while the Rangers would have to be idiots not to acknowledge that he’s one of the better young sluggers around, it doesn’t surprise me all that much that they would listen to offers.

  29. Should this transpire, I would have to seriously consider if Scheurholz is on a level higher than Man.

  30. If not for the off-the-field stuff, I would say this is a good deal, though. It’s only a million for a year, with potential for a little more based on performance. Maybe Raul will make a serious effort to improve his stock.

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