A little more than ten percent of the Major League Baseball season has been played thus far. And while that seems like a lot, we are still in the early days of the season and “Sample Size!” needs to be yelled above the writer of any post when talking about player performance to this point. Throwing that caution to the wind, and yet looking back at it in terror, this series of thoughts centers on the early leader board for catchers around the majors. While Brian McCann is still at the top of his game and tied for the lead for catchers in wins above replacement (WAR), other catchers previously near the top like Carlos Ruiz and Giovany Soto have started off the season mildly and are only in the middle of the pack. Other long-time stalwarts like Jorge Posada (now a DH), Joe Mauer (chronic ailments) and Yadier Molina (still plugging away) are invisible. Alongside McCann are a few names unfamiliar to their position at the top of the league’s catchers.
Russell Martin is near the top, which shouldn’t be a surprise. This very writer predicted as such before the season started. After a few rough season, Martin is back where he was a few seasons ago. His start is hardly a fluke as he’s performed this well in the past. Apparently, all he needed was a kick in the humility basket to refocus his talent. Mission accomplished. But two catchers ahead of him are tied with McCann and they are Miguel Montero and Nick Hundley. Buster Posey is also tied for the lead in WAR with the names already mentioned, but again, that is hardly a surprise as he mounted his flag of excellence last year. But Montero and Hundley? Are they part of the changing of the guard in catching talent? Let’s take a look.
Let’s start with Nick Hundley of the San Diego Padres. The 27-year old Hundley–who is not related for catchers Ted and Todd Hundley–has been with the Padres for four years now. He’s never been more than a platoon catcher playing nearly half of the Padres games. Last year, he split time with Yorvit Torrealba, which is strange, because both hit right-handed. The year before, Hundley shared time with the aged Henry Blanco. This year, the position belongs to Hundley and he has played in sixteen of the team’s eighteen games thus far. And his numbers seem to have responded to his newfound status. Torrealba has moved on to Texas.
Thus far, Hundley has an impressive slash line of: .339/.397/.571, good for an OPS+ of 170. That’s pretty darned impressive. He has also slightly improved his ability to throw out potential base stealers and for the first time in recent seasons, his fielding is neutral instead of being in the negative category. Is there any indication that Hundley can keep this up? Unfortunately, there is not. He is a career .718 OPS guy after being a .783 OPS kind of guy in the minors (.743 in Triple A).
Sure, there have been late bloomers before. And sure, his minor league numbers are higher than his major league numbers in part-time duty. But there are other indicators that he can’t sustain his current slash line. The first indication is that he is not selective enough at the plate. In full time duty this year, his walk rate is 7.9 percent. That’s the same exact walk rate for his career. That lack of plate discipline leads to bad spells at the plate which will lower his overall numbers at the end. He is swinging at less pitches out of the strike zone according to Fangraphs.com, but the walk results are exactly the same.
On top of that damning bit of evidence is that his ground ball and fly ball rates are very near his career norms and the only spikes are in his fly ball to home run rate and his BABIP (batting average on balls in play). His homer to fly ball rate is nearly double his career norm and his BABIP is an unattainable .410. Hundley may be able to maintain his fielding levels with more regular work, but regression is truly likely for Hundley and he should fall on the leader board.
Miguel Montero is another story. Of course, we were all looking for a different Montero to bloom this year. But Jesus Montero didn’t make the Yankees this spring and this other Montero is doing what many hoped Jesus would do. Right off the bat, we know that Miguel Montero can’t maintain a .405 BABIP over the course of the season, so he’s not going to hit .359 like he is now. But McCann has a .410 BABIP and he’s not going to sustain that either. But unlike Hundley, Montero has a better history of plate discipline.
Montero also has a better history with his walk rate. Yes, his first two years in the majors has him hovering in the high single digits, which make his current rate of 13.1 percent look fluky. Montero did show more patience in the minors than Hundley ever did, so his walk rate should end up higher than Hundley’s. The one caveat of saying that is Montero is swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone this year than in the past, but perhaps that can be explained with his hot hitting and wanting to keep that rolling.
Montero has more sustainable power than Hundley, plays in a state (Arizona) that is more conducive to maintaining his power numbers and has a much higher minor league OPS than Hundley. If Hundley were to maintain his high ranking on the catcher leader board, it would be a shock. But if Montero were to do so, it would be much less so. Montero is known as a less than stellar defender behind the plate. But his numbers in 2010 and 2011 show little indication of that. The Fans Scouting Report seems to bear that out a little bit more. Montero has to remain solid defensively to stay among the leaders.
So, is this a changing of the (shin) guard? Maybe not. Posey will be there at the top as will McCann barring injury. Ruiz and Soto have shown a three year trend of improvement and should end up with good numbers. Joe Mauer may no longer be an every day catcher and Jorge Posada may never catch again. Martin will end up near the top. It seems safe to say that Nick Hundley will not end up there and Miguel Montero has a medium chance at doing so.
Filed under: Digging Deep - Analysis, Fantasy | Tagged: Arizona Diamondbacks, Braves, Brian McCann, Joe Mauer, Miguel Montero, Nick Hundley, Russell Martin, San Diego Padres, Twins, Yankees | Leave a Comment »