Gustavo Molina: Hitting is the Residue of Talent

Johnny Bench: Please don't squeeze those. (AP)

Catchers who are solid offensive performers are difficult to find, so it’s no surprise that the population of second-string backstops is largely populated by glovemen. Unless he is utterly hopeless behind the dish (say, Ryan Doumit), if a catcher has a bat that is even a tick above average for the position, he starts. There is probably an argument to be made that if a career reserve catcher is too good a hitter, he either got stuck behind Johnny Bench and never shook off the backup label or he never should have been given the label in the first place.

That last is a bit of an oversimplification—there are players who will be better in 200 plate appearances than they will in 500, no matter how good they look in the smaller sample. Still, the point remains that reserve catchers who have any kind of consistent hitting record (small-sample fluke seasons abound) are so rare that any look of the best-hitting reserves of the last 30 years brings up the same names over and over again: Ramon Castro (.237/.310/.423 career), Todd Greene (.252/.286/.444), Bill Haselman (.259/.311/.409), Jim Leyritz (.288/.379/.454 as a catcher), Todd Pratt (.251/.344/398), Mike Redmond (.287/.342/.358), David Ross (.233/.323/.446), Lenny Webster (.254/.324/.375), and Gregg Zaun (.252/.344/.388). Note that the difficulties of hitting with any consistency in a small sample is next to impossible, so you can look at the back of the baseball card for most of these catchers and find the odd .150 season.

Leyritz last played a significant role with the Yankees in 1996, leaving to make room for Jorge Posada to serve as Joe Girardi’s apprentice. Posada thus became the penultimate Yankees reserve catcher with real offensive ability. I say "penultimate" because the ranks of hitting reserves are so slim that my esteemed YES comrade John Flaherty’s nigh-identical 2003 and 2004 seasons, in neither of which did he get his on-base percentage to .300, rank as major accomplishments. Since Flash’s own offensive demise in 2005, Posada’s days off have been the equivalent of playing an eight-man lineup. None of Kely Stinnett, Sal Fasano, Wil Nieves, Jose Molina (not to begrudge him his 29-game/71-PA hot streak after being acquired in 2007), Chad Moeller, Kevin Cash, or Francisco Cervelli have provided much support to the offense, though Cervelli’s punchless batting average and occasional walk may eventually place him in the ranks of the Pratts and Zauns.

Having a reserve catcher who can hit is an area where a team can get a small competitive advantage given how much these cats actually play—every catcher needs a weekly day off, and many need more than that given how punishing the position can be. The days when Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, and Jim Sundberg okayed 150 games a year are gone. That means a team so fortunate as to find itself in possession of a David Ross can steal an extra game in the standings.

It is more common, however, to give one back. If you’re ancient like me, you can think back on Joel Skinner’s turn in pinstripes in 1987, when he hit .137/.187/.230 in 154 plate appearances—and somehow got even more playing time the next season. Instead, you could think back to ex-Yankee Kevin Cash, a career .183/.248/.278 hitter who managed to be worse than that last season in 49 games split between the Astros and Red Sox.

All of this is a way of working around to Gustavo Molina: Yankees backup catcher. If you search back through the history of this feature (if that’s at all possible), you will find discussions circa 2007 about the potential of Wil Nieves serving as the Yankees’ backup catcher. What I said at the time was that he wasn’t young, had no track record of hitting in the minors, and in fact had a substantial track record of not-hitting such that there was no reason to believe he could hit at a major-league level. Subsequently, the Nationals gave him far too much playing time and found that I was substantially correct: Nieves hit .244/.293/.215 in 199 games. I must confess that he did far better than I thought he would, while still hitting about half as much as the average major leaguer did over that time span. Ironically, he could get another crack at the majors with the Brewers because Jonathan Lucroy is likely to open the season on the DL. That is how thin the pool of backstops can be.

Everything I said about Nieves then goes double for Molina now. Nieves was a career .284/.314/.405 hitter at Triple-A. Molina has hit .211/.258/.333 there, and .235/.295/.348 overall in nearly 800 minor league games. Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

Molina’s offensive abilities are important because Russell Martin has already passed through the 150-games-a-year phase of his career and seemingly paid the price for it in injuries and declining production. He may be the starting catcher, but the Yankees aren’t going to ride him, both for fear of breaking him and because riding him won’t really accomplish much given his own diminished offensive capabilities. If Martin takes two games off a week, the Yankees might as well be asking a pitcher to hit for all the good Molina will do them.

In the last two postseasons, Girardi showed that he could start an offensive cipher like Jose Molina when he felt it necessary, then yank him after no more than a plate appearance or two. That would be ideal if the Yankees feel they have to live with Molina for awhile, but it won’t happen, because getting Martin a six-inning day off isn’t quite the same as a full day’s vacation. No, the Yankees would need a third catcher for that, and there is neither the candidate nor the room. Ironically, Molina wouldn’t be a terrible never-bats third catcher: the guy can throw.

It seems obvious that Molina is a transient addition. He will last just long enough for Cervelli to return, Austin Romine or Jesus Montero to show that they can be useful in the role, or for Brian Cashman to squeeze another backstop from a foreign roster. Until then, though, the Yankees are going to suffer whenever Martin needs a break.

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