Monday, 2 December 2013

A Sad Day for Fans of Handsome Catchers...

... but a great day for fans of winning baseball games! We can finally get off the pins and needles, those of you who, like myself, have been nervously watching the catching market grow thinner and thinner without the Blue Jays having upgraded at the position. But now, at long last, this from Ken Rosenthal:

Hallelujah! Don't get me wrong, Navarro is no Yadier Molina on either side of the plate, but he really doesn't have to be to be a significant upgrade over J.P. Arencibia, who has been on a steady downward slide since breaking into the league in 2010. Since then, we've seen his wRC+ decline from 91 in 2011, to 88 in 2012, before absolutely cratering at 57 in 2013, the season which saw him post a historically bad .227 OBP. That is not a good trend to see with JPA heading into his very first round of salary arbitration which, due to the process' valuation of homers and RBIs, was likely to see him earn a raise up to a projected $2.8 million.

Now, a trade of Arencibia (or possibly a non-tendering should a trade be impossible) [Update: It's a non-tendering. Ouch.] is all the more likely, and quite frankly I don't see how any other scenario could possibly have been tenable. I mean, imagine you think you're good at your job, as J.P.'s public comments would suggest he does, and you're about to undergo a performance review. You stroll in there ready to talk all about the great things you've accomplished in your job, make your case, and then sit back feeling pretty good about yourself. Then, instead of agreeing with you, your employer proceeds to point out the countless ways in which you've been historically awful at said job, piling on failure after failure, until finally your entire sense of self-worth is so shredded that you don't even recognize yourself in the mirror any more. That's what JPA would have been in for in the arbitration process so, even if he got the raise due to his half-decent baseball card numbers (which he would), how would the two sides have been able to co-exist after such a gutting? I mean, it's not like JPA has exactly demonstrated a thick skin in the past.

So I never really considered going into 2014 with Arencibia as the starting catcher (or on the roster, really) an option, and felt pretty confident that the organization would see things in exactly the same way. I don't think he'll be as bad next year as he was this year, but there's a ton of room for him to improve and still not be anything close to good enough. Either way, I never really saw gambling $2.8 million on the chance of Arencibia being better than replacement level as an option for a team with contending aspirations. A change was going to come, but what was starting to make me nervous was the potential cost and quality of any upgrade that would be made. There just wasn't much in the way of value in the catching market this off-season, with most free agents either being expensive, or unlikely to provide much more than replacement level production. As I wrote here, Navarro was pretty much the only guy on the market besides Ruiz that I was in favour of them pursuing. After that, the appealing candidates were mostly on the trade market and that would have meant dealing from their stable of young pitching, which I'm hoping can mostly be avoided this off-season.

So what is it that made Navarro such an attractive option? I'm glad you asked! For starters, he had a very strong offensive season with the Cubs in 2013, posting a .300/.365/.492 line for a 134 wRC+ and 1.7 fWAR in just 89 games. That's significant, because WAR rewards players for playing time, so that he was worth 2.3 wins more than Arencibia in 49 less games is pretty incredible and might bode well for the Blue Jays should they be able to count on him for something more like an every day workload.

That's no sure thing though, as 89 games is the most he's appeared in since making it into 115 with the Rays in 2009. Expecting him to continue hitting like Jose Bautista is also probably nothing but a set-up for disappointment, as he's never had a wRC+ better than 105 (also with the Rays, in 2008), and is at 83 wRC+ for his career, but that's alright. His Steamer projection has him posting a .254/.321/.398 line for a 98 wRC+ and 1.6 WAR. That's pretty alright for a catcher, and the WAR total might actually be higher as Steamer only projects him making it into 81 games. If you extrapolate that league average offense over more appearances his WAR total could be a bit higher.

Of course, there's always the risk that he falls flat on his face, because as good as he was last year (and in 24 games in 2012), he was absolutely horrendous at the plate from 2009-2011, posting a 57 wRC+ over that time, which if you recall is JPA kind of awful. Something seems different in the past couple of season though. A quick look at his numbers is encouraging. His BABIP was .307, which is a lot higher than his career .273, but not so far off league average as to suggest that his whole 2013 can be chalked up to batted ball luck. For comparison, now top free agent catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia's breakout 2013 came along with a .372 BABIP, which is just screaming regression. In the past two seasons, it would also seem like Navarro's been making better contact than in the past. In 2012 (small sample) and 2013, he was hitting  more line drives at 28.2% than ever in his career. Additionally, in 2013 his IFFB%, or popup rate, was nearly half his career 12.6% rate at 7.2%. His 18.8% HR/FB is sure to regress, but there's enough there to make me hopeful that he's made some adjustment that's allowing him to make harder contact, and hard contact is always a good thing.

Defensively he's no great shakes, but he's not atrocious either, especially given the incredibly low bar to which we've become accustomed in Toronto. According to Matt Klaassen's catcher defense rankings, Navarro ranks 89th out of 101 catchers at preventing runs with his defense at -3.7 runs above average. That sounds pretty ugly, until you find J.P. Arencibia nine spots lower at 98th with a defensive value of -6.8 runs above average. If you add catcher framing into the equation, the race gets a lot tighter, as over at StatCorner J.P. is ranked in the top ten at 15.8 RAA, while Navarro is down at -3.7 RAA. I'm not entirely sold on framing as being quite as impactful as some rankings would have us believe (like... is Jose Molina's framing really worth a full 2 wins more than an average framer?), but no matter how much value you ascribe to pitch framing, there can be little doubt that Arencibia is better at that aspect of his job than Navarro. I'm inclined to just call the defense a wash given the difficulty of measuring catcher defense and the fact that they're both pretty below average. Give the framing to JPA, everything else to Navarro, call it a draw and move on.

At the end of the day though, the reason I was so in favour of Navarro isn't because he was the best free agent catcher available, but rather because he has the potential to represent the best value on this year's market. At two years and $8 million, he's essentially making the same money Arencibia probably would have through arbitration, but offers the Jays a much better chance of average or better offensive production with similar if not greater defensive "value" behind the dish. He's being paid to provide maybe a win and a half over the course of his contract, and he was worth 1.7 in just 89 games last season. All things considered, this is a move that just made too much sense for it not to happen. He's got his warts and some regression risk attached, no doubt, but a switch hitting catcher with upside and a reasonable contract? That's exactly the kind of modest but significant upgrades the Blue Jays should be trying to make at catcher and second base. Upgrading the rotation might require something splashier, but solidly average is a major improvement at those two positions, so if Navarro can live up to that this has the potential to be a great signing.

Follow Blue Jays Blackboard on Twitter @BJaysBlackboard
Like Blue Jays Blackboard on Facebook

No comments:

Post a Comment