November 30, 2004

Bye Bye Blanco (Choosing a Backup Backstop)

Choosing a backup catcher never seems like a very important decision. The difference between a sub par backup and a great backup simply isn't that huge, and the limited playing time they get makes the gap in value even smaller. That is, of course, unless your rookie catcher who is supposed to be a stud behind the plate for the next 15 years or so goes down with a severe knee injury in the second game of his career. When that happens -- as it did with the Twins and Joe Mauer this season -- what you're suddenly left with is a very important backup catcher.

The Twins signed Henry Blanco last offseason because they wanted an affordable, veteran backup who was solid defensively and could help tutor and mentor Mauer in his first big-league season. Instead, Blanco ended up making a backup's wages ($750,000) while getting a starter's playing time, appearing in 114 games and totaling 353 plate appearances. However, despite what many Twins fans mysteriously believe, Blanco did not have a good season. He was excellent defensively and his durability was valuable, but he was one of the worst offensive players in the American League, hitting a pathetic .206/.260/.368. In fact, Blanco ranked as the worst catcher in the league according to Win Shares Above Average, which takes both offense and defense into account.

The Twins, being the same team that just gave Juan Castro $2 million over two years, picked up Blanco's $750,000 option for 2005 like it was a no-brainer, setting it up for him to once again enter the season as Mauer's backup. In a very surprising move, Blanco then turned around and used a playing-time clause in his contract to void the 2005 option, becoming a free agent. Now, I had no problem with the Twins picking up Blanco's option, because he was cheap enough and, for the most part, he's what you get when you go shopping for a backup catcher. However, the moment Blanco declined to accept the contract the team had just handed him for 2005, I would have cut all ties and started the search for a replacement.

The Twins, who are far more loyal to a guy who hit .206 than I ever could be, reacted a little differently, offering Blanco a two-year contract worth $1.8 million. In what has to be one of the more inexplicable decisions of the young offseason, Blanco -- a .216/.288/.356 career hitter who has played for five different teams in seven seasons in the majors -- turned down the two-year deal. Terry Ryan and company finally had enough, putting an end to the ridiculousness of bidding against no one for Blanco's services by signing longime Marlins' backup Mike Redmond to that same two-year deal worth $1.8 million.

I have a feeling that somewhere along the line with Blanco, Ryan had one of those moments where you just say, "You know what? I don't need this." He picked up the option for 2005 and Blanco wriggled out of it, which he had every right to do. Ryan then continued to negotiate with him and actually offered a two-year deal worth more money, and Blanco turned it down. At some point you just have to step back from the situation and realize you are going through all of this trouble for a guy who is simply not a good baseball player. A fine backup catcher? Sure. I happen to think he's wildly overrated by Twins fans at the moment, but he's certainly no worse than a number of other backups around baseball. The flip side is that he's certainly no better either.

In the end, the Twins said goodbye to Blanco -- who was starting to act like Carlos Beltran with his new-found free agency -- and brought in Redmond, who is quite frankly a superior player. And all for the exact same two-year deal they tried to hand to Blanco. Redmond hits like a typical backup catcher, which means he is simultaneously a poor offensive player and reminiscent of Mike Piazza when compared to Blanco. Redmond hit .256/.315/.341 for the Marlins this year, which is about 9% better than the offense Blanco gave the Twins.

Here's a look at how they compare over the past three seasons:

             PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA

Redmond 704 .273 .336 .354 .690 .240
Blanco 768 .204 .261 .336 .597 .201

Redmond has been 34% more likely to get a hit and 29% more likely to get on base than Blanco, and his overall offensive production has been about 19% better, which is pretty huge. If everything goes according to plan for the Twins in 2005, Mauer will play 100 games and catch around 900 innings, and Redmond will get somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 plate appearances. If he duplicates his numbers offensively from 2002-04 over those 200 trips to the plate, he will have been worth about 20 runs to the Twins, compared to the 15 Blanco would have created.

On the other hand, Redmond is not the defensive player that Blanco is, or at least his throwing arm can't compete. Although Redmond has a very good reputation for handling a pitching staff and calling a game, his caught stealing numbers have been poor in recent years, especially compared to Blanco. Redmond threw out 14-of-65 (21.5%) baserunners this year, while Blanco gunned down a very impressive 49.2% (30-of-61).

Here are their numbers over the past three years:

             SB     CS      CS%

Redmond 119 48 28.7
Blanco 101 62 38.0

When you look at the three-year span, the gap isn't nearly as large. Blanco's 38.0% is still outstanding, but Redmond's 28.7% is also respectable. One other aspect of their arms that is perhaps overlooked is the fact that, in addition to having a higher caught-stealing percentage, Blanco also keeps teams from trying to run. Redmond had a stolen base attempted against him once every 8.8 innings over the past three years, while teams tried to steal against Blanco once every 11.4 innings. There are some other factors at work here (the leagues they played in, the pitchers they caught for, etc.), but that's still fairly significant however you slice it.

While you can say with some certainty that Redmond should be worth about five runs more than Blanco as a hitter in 200 plate appearances, it is a lot more difficult to look at a catcher's defensive value, as the impact a catcher has beyond throwing out baserunners is nearly impossible to quantify. With that said, I think it's safe to say that Blanco could certainly be five runs (or more) better than Redmond behind the plate over the course of what would be 400-450 innings.

The one simple thing you can do for a defensive comparison is project stolen base numbers out to 450 innings caught and assign typical "run values" to steals (+0.2 runs) and caught stealings (-0.35 runs). By using their combined numbers over the past three seasons, Blanco would go 15-for-40 throwing out runners and Redmond would go 15-for-51, for a difference of about two runs in Blanco's favor. Tack on the added value that Blanco brings by keeping teams from running more often and perhaps he's worth three extra runs with his arm. Three runs isn't much, although it is enough to nearly offset the offensive gains the Twins make by replacing Blanco with Redmond.

If you think Blanco is also superior at calling a game, handling a staff or any number of the other "invisible" things catchers are counted on to do, then Blanco and Redmond come out with nearly identical overall values. All of which is why choosing a backup catcher often comes down to picking someone the team is comfortable with and sticking with them. Some guys -- like Redmond -- give you a little value offensively, while some guys -- like Blanco -- give you a little value defensively. When you add it all up, the thing that becomes abundantly clear is that guys like Blanco and Redmond are backup catchers for a reason and, barring injury, the impact of the decision is minimal.

In the Twins' case, the "barring injury" part is a little tricky, as I have major doubts about Mauer's ability to stay healthy and behind the plate for an entire season. Minnesota's backup catcher has added importance, and the Twins decided to go with offense over defense, but most of all decided they were sick of trying to deal with a run-of-the-mill backup catcher and his agent. Considering the Twins don't have the sort of payroll room to go after a "backup" who is more capable of being a valuable player if forced into a starting role, the end result of their decision was a good one. Perhaps most importantly, swapping Blanco for Redmond is a move that, if Mauer stays healthy, won't matter one bit.

Today at The Hardball Times:

- Re-Imagining the Big Zone Sixties, Part 1: 1963-1965 (by Steve Treder)

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