Catching for the Future

Mar 7, 2010, 1:31 PM | Updated: Apr 4, 2011, 7:51 pm

By Mike Salk

The Mariners took a risk this off-season by not spending significant money on a veteran catcher. After all, it is the only position that encompasses every element of the game of baseball: hitting, pitching and defense. And yet, the team was willing to enter the spring with a light-hitting second-year player who is coming off of three off-season surgeries (Rob Johnson), a young prospect with no more than eight major league games to his credit (Adam Moore), and a veteran who is not known for his defense but has also had two down-years offensively and has bounced around, unable to keep a regular job (Josh Bard). Phrased that way, the situation sounds bleak!

And yet, I feel confident in the Mariners catching corps. And, more importantly, so do they.

Rob Johnson appears to be a major leaguer. He has so many of the prerequisites for success at the position. He is tough (try playing through the multiple bone spurs and labrum tears he dealt with last year!), smart, and dedicated to learning the craft. He may not have the quickest bat, the most power or the best throwing arm, but he understands the game and draws rave reviews from both his coaches and pitchers for the way he works with the staff.

There are those that argue against Johnson’s ability, pointing to his poor hitting numbers and, even more damning, his defensive liabilities. And while there may be stats and even scouts to back up their arguments, they miss out on one of the most important aspects of the position. The catcher is the one who handles the pitcher both on the field and between outings. And pitchers are fragile. Not all of them – of course there are those pitchers that are so confident they need very little support. But a large number worry that their every decision will come back to bite them. Their job is so over-criticized and they experience so much failure that calming their emotions is important. And these fragile creatures have consistently asked to throw to Johnson. That means something.

Plus, despite some expected setbacks early, he enters 2010 with increased mobility in his hips and wrist. You should have seen him practicing his yoga with the team. he said he was able to do things he could not have done a year ago.

I’m not sure how Johnson’s career will develop. He may see his hitting improve and solidify a hold on a starting job for years to come. He may plateau as a backup backstop, helping to lead a pitching staff even though he plays only a few times per week. He has questions to answer this season including:

-can he make adjustments at the plate to produce offensively?

-can he bounce back from his surgeries?

-can he avoid further injuries and stay not just on the field but truly healthy for a full season?

But the organization seems confident he will answer enough of those questions to provide a positive effect on their major league club.

Adam Moore is more of a wild card. He has succeeded at every level of the game and appears ready for the next (and final) challenge. He has some pop in his bat which could give him every opportunity to fail at the major league level. But just as Johnson has been credited for his diligence with the staff, so too has Moore. In fact, the organization thinks so much of him that will allow him to compete for the starting job as a rookie this spring. Pitchers I spoke with rave about his maturity, coaches have been impressed with his leadership. Everyone notices the confidence with which he carries himself. And, from what I hear, there are those within the organization that believed he was ready for the majors well before he was called up for the last time in September.

What stands out about Moore is presence. He is polite to reporters and deferential to veterans. But he carries himself like a starting catcher. I know, I know. That’s vague and meaningless. But it’s true. And until we see him in more game situations, it’s all we have to work on.

If he can show that he belongs at the top level in spring training, the Mariners may have found their catching combo for the next few years. And having them so close in age, while it may mean they lack a veteran presence, means that they are an inexpensive solution to an important position. That means their catchers are a very valuable asset.

ADDED: After reading you responses via Twitter @brockandsalk. It dawns on me that I may need to add some information on Rob Johnson. It seems as if he hasn’t quite convinced all of you that he is a productive member of this team.

@BrianDLarsen tweets: So Rob Johnson can’t hit, catch, or throw but he’s so darn motivational. I say we replace him with this http://tiny.cc/5tgMH. He goes on to suggest replacing Johnson with a teddy bear, and that if there are pitchers who need his support, than maybe they aren’t MLB worthy after all.

@OlSalty adds that he believes the pitchers last year chose Johnson more because they did not want to throw to Kenji Johjima and also believes that he cannot “hit or catch competently.”

Let’s try to address these criticisms.

First of all, are we sure Johnson can’t hit, catch, or throw? He has exactly 100 major league games to his credit He was a rookie last year. And not just any rookie, but a rookie who was asked to catch a Cy Young candidate and revolving door of a pitching staff. And it’s not like he had a great mentor to show him the way! As @OlSalty himself points out, Johjima was a waste of a roster spot last year and I’ll add that Johjima had ZERO interest in helping Johnson develop. Trust me.

So, let’s compare Johnson’s offense to some other offensively productive catchers in their rookie years.

Johnson had an OPS last year of .615. Not exactly Bondsian. But how about Bengie Molina’s rookie year? In 1999, his OPS was .649 in 31 games before jumping to .739 the next year. His career OPS is now .726.

How about Arizona catcher Miguel Montero? The Diamondbacks are looking into locking him up long term after three years in the league. Montero put up an OPS of .832 last year, up from .689 as a rookie in 2007.

My point is this: maybe Johnson is a career .615 guy, but maybe he was just a rookie. And maybe that offense will improve with a surgically repaired wrist (pretty crucial to swinging a bat) and two repaired hips. He is also a player that has shown improvement the longer he stays at a certain level. In his first year at AAA, his OPS was just .579. But the next year that jumped to .703 and another year later it was at .804! Again, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume he could improve with the bat in 2010.

As for the point that if a pitcher needs support from his catcher than he isn’t major league worthy, well, I think that logic is flawed. Whether a pitcher deserves to be at the big league level or not often has no bearing on where they actually are at the time. Let’s assume the M’s have five starters they like on their team. They are, by definition, major league level. But what if one of those guys gets hurt falters? Then someone else has to take their place! And if that person isn’t quite mentally ready, who do you think talks them through things before and during the game?

Look, to say that Rob Johnson deserves to be a major league player simply because he helps guys feel good about themselves is probably not enough of a reason. But it can be part of his resume. And in this case, it’s a big part. And while it can’t be quantified with stats, it most definitely does exist.

Keep your thoughts coming!

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Catching for the Future