Watch any Little League game, and the one kid you won't
find tossing grass in the air and wearing his mitt on his head is the catcher.
As catcher you're involved in every pitch, you touch the
ball more than anyone else does and you're supposed to be in charge of the infield.
But there's a price to pay: People keep crashing into you and hitting you with
pitches and bats, and you have to spend all night in a crouch. Your career is
probably limited to less than 1,500 games behind the plate but you won't
get that far if you can't ignore the pain and contribute to the offense.
With the number of interesting things that can happen to
a catcher, it's surprising that seven of them played enough to qualify for the
The 2002 season was a career-worst year for Mike Piazza
not that there's anything wrong with that.
It was marred by nagging injuries, the Mets' inability
to win and persistent questions about his personal life such as why he
spends so much time hanging around with ALF.
His on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) dropped for the third year
in a row. He hit only .280 this season, allowed an insane 125 stolen bases and
he was healthy for only 119 starts (73% of his team's games, a career low).
Despite all that, he's still the best catcher in the game.
The Mets' season was almost lost before it began, and it
had nothing to do with the team's catcher. Piazza suffered his typical spate
of nagging injuries knee, back and hamstring in April, elbow in May,
groin in June, back in July, wrist in August and September. But he was still
hitting catcher in the game and among the seven most durable
who qualified for the batting title (502 plate appearances). He was also, by
many measures, one of the worst everyday defensive catchers in history. He caught
27 basestealers, or two more than backup Vance Wilson, who played 600 fewer
He was the Mets' best hitter, although that says more about
the rest of the team than about him. Likewise, his standing among his peers
says more about the state of major league catchers than about the state of Piazza.
He hit 33 home runs to lead his position (and his team). He also led catchers
in slugging percentage and RBI and tied for the lead with 12 errors.
Every offseason the question comes up when will
Piazza move to first base? But for at least the near future, he's blocked at
that position by Mo Vaughn's bulky contract. It's inevitable that the 34-year-old
Piazza will end up at first, but that might have to wait until his physical
breakdown has turned him into a merely average hitter.
In the Bronx, Jorge Posada and the Yankees
have similar difficulties behind the plate. Posada's not as bad as Piazza defensively,
nor is he as important to the Yankees' offense. But he too struggled with the
glove while enjoying an All-Star year at the plate. He had an offensive year
almost exactly in line with his career averages, while suffering a couple of
mild injuries, including a ball that ricocheted off the hole surgeons drilled
in his shoulder last offseason.
Posada, 31, tied Piazza's 12 errors and caught only 31
runners trying to steal while allowing 76 stolen bases. (Reports of a drop in
crime rates in New York City were apparently premature.)
He led all catchers in walks and on-base percentage. Like
all Yankees in 2002, he also piled up a ton of strikeouts. He played in more
games than any other catcher, starting 136, partly because his backups are always
a string of non-entities.
Posada's defensive liabilities didn't prevent another 100-win
season, and manager Joe Torre and the pitching staff seem to share full confidence
in his abilities. Torre, a former catcher, won an MVP after switching to another
position, so he may have a secret plan for Posada.
Don't forget: Jorge Posada's absence from
the last three weeks of the playoffs means we haven't heard on a
nightly basis how good he is.
IF ONLY HE WERE HEALTHY (AGAIN)
The time may have come to stop throwing the "best catcher
when healthy" title in Ivan Rodriguez's direction. Rarely has a player
been more often associated with the phrase "cleared to begin baseball activities."
Rodriguez hasn't been healthy for a full season since he won the 1999 MVP. Is
it worth spending top money on a guy who spends, at best, four months in the
This year's annual injury was a herniated disk, from which
he recovered in June. Considering the injury, he had another pretty good year.
His first home run didn't come until July, but he finished with 19. Rodriguez
also had his typical glowing results while wearing the "tools of ignorance,"
throwing out 15 of 41 basestealers. By now only the best baserunners even try
to steal against him. The number of attempts against his arm is even more impressive
considering that everyone and their grandmother can reach base against Rangers
Jason Kendall is the reverse Rodriguez. Injuries
to his thumb in 2001 and his foot in 2002 (for which he had surgery this month)
have totally removed him from the ranks of top-flight catchers. But he still
plays 140-plus games a season. He never strikes out and still steals an occasional
base, but he hit just three home runs this season. Talk of him moving to the
outfield has apparently ended, but there's still the possibility that Pittsburgh
will trade him. The Pirates held talks with the Rockies to re-acquire Denny
Neagle for Kendall. Who ever thought the day would come when Kendall was equivalent
to an 8-11 pitcher with a 5.26 ERA and a huge contract?
Philadelphia's Mike Lieberthal returned this year
from knee surgery, putting up good numbers despite a lackluster Phillies team.
His 500th plate appearance kicked in an option year in 2003, but the Phillies
locked him up to a long-term deal, assuring that he'll be behind the plate when
the new ballpark opens in 2004.
That is, of course, if he can stay healthy. Lieberthal
injured his knee getting out of a golf cart earlier this month. He expects to
be fine by spring training, but the Phillies might want to hire him a caddy.
The other name prompting comeback-player talk is the Giants'
ageless Benito Santiago. He capped a quality season with a stellar postseason
and a World Series appearance. More impressive than his age (37) is his recovery
from a debilitating car accident in 1998. But few seem to remember that Santiago
was eligible for the 2001 comeback player of the year, not 2002. He had a strong
year in 2001 after walking into Giants camp without a job. This year was slightly
better offensively but basically comparable to his 2001. Santiago's most difficult
task was magnified in the postseason when teams walk Barry Bonds to get
to you, you have to produce. Santiago hit .320 in the fifth slot during the
regular season and hit .308 with 12 RBI when Bonds was walked in front of him
in the postseason.
Santiago's defensive talents have degraded a little with
age, but he's as good as anyone at blocking the plate and can throw from his
knees like he did in his 20s.
Some Red Sox players felt that the loss of Jason Varitek
to a broken elbow doomed their 2001 season as much as Nomar Garciaparra's absence.
Varitek was certainly missed but he didn't put together the kind of year
he was on pace for when he went down.
Varitek, 30, had an offensive season in line with his career
averages but had one of the worst stolen base percentages among catchers in
2002. Ex-managers Jimy Williams and Joe Kerrigan believed it was OK for pitchers
to ignore baserunners. Without them in town, we'll have to assume that Varitek
isn't that good at controlling the running game.
SOLID AND CONSISTENT
Paul Lo Duca had a breakout year for the Dodgers
in 2001. He caught more games this year, which might explain his August, in
which he hit .180 with one home run. Los Angeles likes to have his bat in the
lineup, but he started only five games at other positions. In 2001 he played
24 at first and the outfield.
One might assume that a catcher, of all people, would know
all about home plate and how to frustrate a pitcher with selectivity. But
A.J. Pierzynski has 36 career walks in 293 games played. Bonds walked more
than twice as often in the postseason as Pierzynski walked all year. He should
take note of the fact that June and July, his two biggest walk months (five
and three), were also his best batting average months. But Pierzynski fits the
mold of the aggressive Twins, and you can't argue with their division title,
his .300 batting average or his Division Series-clinching home run against Oakland.
Michael Barrett is the other contraction catcher.
Barrett had an MVP-type April (.348, four homers, 17 RBI) but tailed off, finishing
with numbers about on par with his 1999 season when he played as much third
base as catcher. Barrett is only 25, so he should be in the Expos' (or whatever
they'll be called) plans for the near future. Barrett's backup, Brian Schneider,
also 25, had as good a year. The two of them make an excellent, and most important,
affordable combination for wards-of-the-state Montreal.
The world met Damian Miller last postseason. The
world was a little confused a year later when Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly
started a different catcher (Miller, Chad Moeller and Rod Barajas)
in each of his three postseason games. Brenly also confused some observers by
naming Miller as the third catcher on the All-Star team. Miller had a fine year
interrupted by back spasms he hits enough and is decent if unspectacular
at controlling runners but he was apparently, in the mind of Brenly,
an All-Star for his other unseen abilities.
Cincinnati's Jason LaRue, a .249 hitter with a little
power, experienced one of the worst innings ever by a catcher. On Aug. 14, with
young knuckleballer Jared Fernandez on the mound, LaRue was charged with three
passed balls. As tough as it is for a catcher to handle a knuckleball, those
three passed balls simply added to LaRue's total, which at the time already
was greater than that of any other NL team. He finished with a major league-leading
20 passed balls. At the same time, he threw out a better percentage (45.2%)
of runners than any other catcher and had only five errors.
Players, once labeled, often have trouble shaking that
label. Mike Redmond should probably be the official starting catcher
for the Marlins. Technically, veteran Charles Johnson gets that title,
but Redmond, who is a couple of months older than Johnson, had a better year
and has almost been permanently labeled as a "backup." He's not going to hit
30 home runs, but he calls a good game, has a decent arm and has hit better
than .300 in three of his four major league seasons. Johnson is a hometown favorite
who has some value behind the plate, but he hit only .217 this year. Manager
Jeff Torborg also announced that he'd play only 80 or 90 games next year.
Brad Ausmus is in Houston's lineup for his defense.
His control of runners dropped off a bit this season, but Jimy Williams will
wear a cap with a curved bill before he starts caring about stolen bases. Ausmus
was instrumental in the development of the Astros' excellent young pitching
When Darrin Fletcher retired July 24, Tom Wilson's
68 games of major league experience made him the Blue Jays' veteran catcher.
Prospect Josh Phelps, a catcher in the minors, is a major league first baseman,
so Wilson and Ken Huckaby are the Blue Jays' catching solution. Both
are past age 30, so they won't be there in 10 years, but together, they'll be
fine for the next couple of years.
The world champion Angels take this theory a step further
by filling their catcher spot with two guys from the same family. Bengie
Molina is older than his brother Jose by about a year, so he gets
the starting job (and likely the top bunk if he wants it on the road). Neither
hits a whole lot, but they play their position well, and Jose can bring his
.271 average to the Christmas dinner table, while Bengie might just have to
settle for showing Mom a Gold Glove (one error all year, five passed balls and
44.9% of runners caught). Neither Molina has his first initial on his uniform,
and they sort of look alike, so one might wonder if they'd be tempted to pull
a fast one and monkey around with the lineup.
The Orioles got into the Molina business with Izzy
Molina (no relation) for one game in May. But the real catcher in Baltimore
was rookie Geronimo Gil. "The Chief" is still a little raw (19 passed
balls), but pitchers seem to like him and he got off to a great start, hitting
.286 with five homers in April. It didn't take long for him to wrest the starting
job from Brook Fordyce.
Oakland's Ramon Hernandez, 26, managed to cut his
steals allowed in half this season, from 98 to 45. Unfortunately, his home run
total also dropped from 15 to seven.
The White Sox traded Sandy Alomar to Colorado so
they could give Josh Paul a chance behind the plate. The major league
jury is still out on Paul, but he and Mark Johnson were not a complete
embarrassment as a platoon.
TWO FOR THE PRICE OF ONE
In a similar technique to the Blue Jays, Angels and White
Sox, the Cardinals use two catchers about evenly, Mike Matheny and Mike
DiFelice split time for most of the season. Matheny didn't throw out runners
the way he did a few years ago, but he's still one of the best defensive catchers
in the game.
The Cubs also go the two-catcher route, though being the
Cubs, they naturally got it all wrong. Instead of two young catchers, they've
gone with veterans Joe Girardi and Todd Hundley. Girardi has value
as a leader and in handling young pitchers such as Mark Prior. Hundley found
himself the third-string catcher behind Mike Mahoney late in the season
and didn't help his cause when he gave some fans the finger.
Veteran Dan Wilson had a career year offensively
in Seattle. He has low error totals but doesn't overly intimidate runners. He'll
be a free agent this offseason, leaving Ben Davis' future open until
the team gets a manager.
THOSE OTHER TEAMS
Detroit's Brandon Inge has a great arm and is good
defensively. Prospect Mike Rivera started the season in Detroit but finished
at Triple-A Toledo. He'd made the jump from Double-A to open the season, however,
so he's still on track.
Tired of Alomar, the Indians handed the catching reins
to Einar Diaz. They won the division last year, but this season the floor
gave way as Diaz hit .206. That won't cut it, no matter how good his arm is
and in fact, it isn't good, as he needed to shut things down in late
September with elbow trouble.
After trading Davis to Seattle, the Padres signed Wiki
Gonzalez to a four-year deal. Tom Lampkin came over in the deal as
a backup to Gonzalez but ended up playing more when Gonzalez had injury trouble.
ON THE DECLINE
Javy Lopez was not the worst hitter on the Braves
this year. Vinny Castilla hit .232, a point lower than Lopez. Lopez signed a
one-year, $6 million deal with Atlanta for 2002 and was injured just as often
as he was in previous years. It seems unlikely that the Braves will pick up
his $7 million option for 2003. His backup, Henry Blanco, is said to
have the best arm of any player in baseball. He needs it too since he catches
Greg Maddux, who refuses to care about runners.
Sandy Alomar would seem like an odd choice for the
Rockies, but they simply have no good young catchers for him to block. He's
a free agent, but the Rockies signed his father, Sandy Sr., as a coach, so maybe
he'd enjoy returning as a backup. Ben Petrick, the ex-catcher-of-the-future
in Colorado, is now an outfielder. Alomar, in one of his worst career years,
was the Rockies' best catcher.
Ht.: 6-2 Wt.: 225 2003 season age: 31
Experience: 12 years with Texas; 1999 AL MVP; 10 Gold Gloves; .305
lifetime average, including eight years in a row hitting .300 or better.
Where he'll end up: New York, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco
are the only cities where he'll likely find no interest. He might be best
served by signing a one-year deal for a discount, putting up good numbers
and parlaying it into a long-term contract.
Market value: In flux. The new labor deal and his injuries may affect
THE ROAD TO COOPERSTOWN
Mike Piazza, Mets
Ht.: 6-3 Wt.: 215 2003 season age: 34
Credentials: Piazza is already the best-hitting catcher of all time,
although he's never led the league in any major category or won an MVP. Some
voters will likely hold his poor defense against him but he may still
get in on the first ballot with his offense.
Projected year of induction: We'll predict Piazza's retirement in
2008, a month after his 40th birthday. That puts him on the ballot for the
first time in 2014.
|Games caught: Piazza, 1,318; Bench, 1,742;