Whatever It Is, It's Catching

Francisco Cervelli's injury means we could be seeing a lot more of this. (AP)

Between Jorge Posada's cabeza, Jesus Montero's defense, Russell Martin's ongoing decline and Francisco Cervelli's ongoing battle to maintain his membership in the International Brotherhood of Backup Catchers, I've spilled a fair amount of virtual ink on the Yankees' backstop situation in the short time I've been at Pinstriped Bible. On Monday at Baseball Prospectus, I summarized the shape of things for each player in the wake of Cervelli's latest injury:

It's not often that injuries to a backup catcher are met with cheers heralding the imminent arrival of even a Jesus of less than divine provenance, but such was the case on Friday when the Yankees announced that Francisco Cervelli had suffered a fracture after fouling a ball off his left foot two days earlier. Cervelli will be in a walking boot for at least four weeks, and could miss six to eight weeks in all, obviously ruling him out for Opening Day. His absence opens the door for Jesus Montero, who ranked third on Kevin Goldstein's recent Top 101 Prospects list, to break camp with the team. What already looked to be a compelling season-long position battle at catcher just got even more interesting.

... As tough as it is to envision Martin catching the bulk of the games, it's tougher to imagine that the Yankees would simply keep Montero in the majors as a backup playing a couple times pr week rather than getting regular at-bats at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre while continuing to hone his defensive skills... Thus, one has to conclude that it's all on the table for Montero if he continues to impress the brass. Not that he'll be anointed the starter by Opening Day, but if he's staying, he's playing some significant portion of the time, and no $4 million fly-by-night rental is going to stand (squat?) in his way for long. True, the Yankees could break camp with Montero, give him a taste of the majors, and then pack him off to finishing school in Scranton once Cervelli heals, but if he's hitting up to his capability and not embarrassing himself behind the plate, that's going to be a tough sell.

Fifteen springs ago in Tampa, Tony Fernandez fractured his elbow diving for a ball in an exhibition game, costing him the season but opening the door for another highly-touted prospect. The Yankees headed north with 21-year-old Derek Jeter as their starting shortstop and never looked back. It's too early to daydream about Montero paving his own road toward Cooperstown, but the day when he can start that journey appears a whole lot closer.

As much of the piece was devoted to Martin's on- and off-field issues as to Montero's ascent; between the Best Shape of My Life meme and Yahoo's Tim Brown's recent piece about the former Dodger's issues, I termed Martin "the Unreliable Narrator of his own slide into mediocrity." Given former skipper Joe Torre's emphasis on accountability during his days in both the Bronx and L.A. and Martin's own slipperiness on that topic when it comes to taking responsibility for his conditioning and lifestyle, one can see how he played his way out of town, and why similar behavior could shorten the half-life of his relevance to the Yankees.

One thing I didn't get a chance to do in the piece is to take a closer look at the various catchers in the light of PECOTA. Here's what we have in BP's depth charts, scaled to the playing time estimates which preceded Cervelli's injury (estimates that I had something to do with):

Name      PA     AVG/OBP/SLG   HR  WARP   TAv
Posada 493 .256/.349/.438 21 1.2 .277
Martin 380 .264/.360/.379 7 1.8 .265
Montero 250 .286/.330/.469 9 1.4 .278
Cervelli 150 .257/.323/.351 2 0.2 .243

At the time those were generated, my estimates were based upon Montero splitting his time equally between DH and catcher. I'd bump up Montero's estimate slightly (300?) at the expense of Martin based upon the recent news, but it's a still bit early to suggest there's too much more playing time in store. In any event, PECOTA expects the offensive contributions of Posada and Montero to be more or less interchangeable, with the former supplying more patience at the plate and the latter more power.

The system sees Martin as a slightly above-average, but in the article (and the BP annual), I questioned whether his OBP would survive the move across leagues, since many of his walks occurred either while batting eighth in front of the pitcher or seventh while batting in front of a guy weak enough to bat eighth; those walks will dry up in the Yankees' stacked lineup unless he's in front of Ramiro Peña or some similarly light hitter.

Speaking of BP and catching, colleague Christina Karhl has a look at the evolution of the major league talent pool among backstops, noting that we're living in an era of better-hitting catchers, and coming up with a coherent explanation which includes some familiar names:

[W]e have a better collection of offensive talent behind the plate than at any time since the so-called Golden Age—when we had fewer teams, and needed fewer catchers. A full third of catchers with 100 or more PAs at catcher have produced above-average TAv marks in the last five years is the best mark since that smaller population of the '50s. Similarly, that 18.1 percent mark representing the weakest hitters — the Wil Nieves generation, if you will — represents the smallest group in that execrable cadre.

So, here we are, in the good times right now and right here, even without a [Johnny] Bench or a Mike Piazza or a Gary Carter. How did that happen? My own pet theory is that organizations have had the wisdom to expand on the pool of potential backstops, not unlike what our own Keith Woolner recommended back in the day. Examples of successful conversions of mediocre position-players to catchers abound — from Oakland's Terry Steinbach and New York's Jorge Posada (and later Russell Martin), to today, where Robinson Chirinos and Steve Clevenger represent examples from the Cubs' farm system alone, teams appear much more willing to give an adequate organizational-type hitter at another position a shot at claiming a big-league career for himself behind the plate.

Good stuff.

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