Catcher By Committee.

     “Hitting in the number 3 spot today, game 162 of the season, catcher Victor Martinez steps to the plate.  Refreshed, relaxed, full of energy.  Anyone can notice the extra giddy-up, the exuberance that Martinez has in his body language of late.  As we have mentioned several times this season, the Indians have implemented a new program for their catchers.  The team has begun to use the Anaheim Angels approach of using two catchers, platooning,  Or, a “catcher by committee” if you will.  With Joakim Soria on the mound, Martinez is going to need all the energy that he has to catch up to that fastball.  Again, two on two out, Royals up 3-2.  If the Indians win, they hold off the Twins and win the division.  If they lose, a one game playoff will be taking place, as the Twins were already victorious earlier in the day.  And Soria delivers from the stretch; A first pitch slider missing a little inside to the switch hitting catcher, batting left handed against the right handed throwing Soria.  Well off target with his slider as Buck was setting up away.  Again, Soria delivers, this time a change-up catching the outer half of the plate for a strike.  Soria is showing his respect to Victor Martinez today, throwing a pitch that he rarely does throw, and trying to confuse the very smart mind of Martinez.  The Pitch…another ball, another off speed pitch.  This was Soria’s slider yet again, missing down and away this time.  Soria is nit-picking, and rightfully so.  Martinez has been as productive as most hitters this season, but of course this is only his 100th game of the season, due to the platoon the Indians have stressed.  So, 2-1 count.  A red-hot Victor Martinez at the plate.  One of the best closers in the game on the mound.  Here’s the pitch…And. That ball is drilled!!!   Back…At the track!  Outta here!  The Indians win!  The Indians win!  The Indians are going to play on into October!  Oh my, it cannot get any better than this!  Martinez just got around easily on that 94 MPH fastball and ripped it well into the right field seats…

     Ok, maybe the “catcher by committee” wouldn’t result in a division championship, definitely unlikely in this fashion.  And realistically, it is would be very difficult to find two catchers who are prodcutive enough at the plate to make it work.  One reason being that if a team does have two catchers that are good enough to play every day, then there is always another team that could use one of them.  Catchers who can hit aren’t exactly growing on trees.  So it would probably make sense to trade one of the catchers to improve the team in another area.  But, catcher is the most physically demanding position in baseball.  Just as running back is the most physically demanding position in football.  Now, I understand that running through a hole and knowing that you are going to be met by at least a defender, or more, is a little different than crouching down for a long period of time, over a great number of games.  But just as running backs retire earlier than that of other positions, or are not effective anymore, seemingly earlier than any other position.  Catchers are in relatively the same boat.  Catchers rarely acheive success late in their careers.  It is difficult to do, as their bodies have gone through more than any other position in the sport.  But I find the “Catcher by Committee” to be intriguing. 

     Mike Scioscia and the Angels applied this thinking to what they did last year behind the plate.  Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis split time as backstops; Mathis caught 793 innings, Napoli caught 625.  But one problem, possibly, with this is that Napoli was a significantly better hitter.  Jeff Mathis was terrible at the plate, an OPS+ of 55, which is not worthy of receiving any playing time, and 90 games was too much.  Mike Napoli killed the ball.  OPS+ of 147, in a decent sampling, yet not really a great sample size.  Mathis cannot hit, yet, while Napoli can.  I know there is more to catching than just hitting, but Napoli deserves more playing time in 2009, unless Mathis improves at the plate.  But part of me wonders if Napoli hit so well because he didn’t play much.  Maybe Napoli was well rested and never experienced the effects that most catchers feel over the long, 162 game season.  Napoli is a good hitting catcher, but if he were to have played, say 135 games last year, his numbers probably would have come down, because while he is good, I doubt he is that good.  So, playing more games–a greater sample size–Napoli would most likely have had his numbers decrease, at least some.  But, I wonder if Napoli plays 100 games each year, rather than 135, would he always put up better numbers in the shortened seasons then he would by playing 135 games?  It feels as though a catcher would be better, the more he rests, within reason, because they still need to get pretty consistent AB’s.  And I understand the difficulty that an organization would have committing time to two catchers, such as Napoli and Mathis, when one is so much greater at the plate. 

     But just because the Angels “platoon” may not be best example of this, the Indians might have a better chance to do this, assuming that they keep Kelly Shoppach this year, which seems likely at this point (as he is under contract, and still with the club).  The difference between Shoppach and Mathis is that Shoppach can actually hit well enough to start.  Shoppach may have experienced a career year in 2008 (OPS+ 123).  But it is safe to assume that he is roughly average at the plate, if not better, AND right in his prime.  And an average hitter, at the catcher position, is a pretty good player, assuming Shoppach isn’t challenged behind the plate. 

     But keeping Victor Martinez rested appears to make sense.  The Indians want his bat in the lineup, which I understand completely.  But if they could say, limit Martinez to catching around 100 games, while giving him some time off, and playing him at first some, they may increase his productivity at the plate.  Maybe a 100 games is too few, but Ryan Garko isn’t exactly Lou Gehrig at the plate.  Victor should be catching fewer games than most great hitting catchers, because of the personnel that the Indians have.  And first base does present an opportunity for the Indians to get Martinez some more AB’s while not having the team suffer any.

     Which leads me to yet another example of the platooning of catchers.  Let us say that Varitek ends up accepting the contract offer he has been presented, and the Red Sox have he and Josh Bard.  Neither catcher can hit much, and both might have the same problem; They cannot hit from the left side.  If last year holds any water, Varitek’s days having any kind of success from the left side are well over.  But since Jason is 37 now, platooning may be the best option for the team, with those two on the roster I mean.  Keeping Varitek rested, and hoping that helps his bat get through the zone in less than 4 seconds, seems to be the best option if they do not choose to trade for their catcher of the future (which still seems like a good option to me).  I could see a scenario where each plays 80 games, or something like that.  Varitek half the time seems a better option than Varitek full time.  Plus, that would give him the chance to stay in the clubhouse and have whatever positive effect he seems to have in there. 

     But I do wonder how much teams will explore having a “catcher by Committee in the future.  It
seems that catchers are expected to hit much more than they were in the past.  So in the future, where there are more catchers who are good behind the plate AND good AT the plate, maybe the option will arise to carry two starting catchers on as many teams as possible.  I don’t mean two Joe Mauer’s.  I mean maybe a Shoppach/Martinez combo.  Or a Posada/Shoppach.  Something like that.