A long, long time ago
I can still remember when
Backup catchers used to hit a bit
The year was 2011. It was a simpler time, when the Blue Jays under first year manager John Farrell had the most .500 season for the league's most .500 franchise over the last generation. Those halcyon days were something else as well: the "local maximum" for Blue Jays backup catching.
Jose Molina was back for his second year, his first as the backup to J.P. Arencibia. In 173 PA when he was behind the plate, he put a robust .294/.361/.444 line, good for a 121 wRC+. In addition to that, as we were just starting to learn, he was an elite pitch framer behind the plate. In short, it was as good a season as one could hope for from a backup catcher. Not coincidentally, the Jays only used two catchers in 2011.
Molina left for the greener pastures of Tampa Bay after 2011, with the Jays netting a draft pick as he has so good he qualified as a Type B free agent. The Blue Jays replaced him by trading for Jeff Mathis, who epitomized the light hitting, good defender stereotype of Blue Jays backstops. He actually turned in one of his better hitting seasons, putting up a sort of respectable 73 wRC+ over 217 PA as the backstop, including as the starter for a good part of the second half when Arencibia broke his wrist.
It was a huge step back from Molina in 2011, but that was virtually inevitable and it was still a decent showing considering his defensive reputation (which we now know from Baseball Prospectus's metric FRAA was well deserved). The signed Mathis to an extension, but then traded him to the Marlins, who apparently really wanted him. Then came the trade for R.A. Dickey, in which Josh Thole came back and it was clear the backup catcher's primary role would be catching the knuckleball.
But with Thole coming off concussion issues, the Jays signed 41 year old
Hank White Henry Blanco as backup. He didn't hit at all (41 wRC+) and only lasted until early June when he was released in favour of Josh Thole, who was hitting in Buffalo and had a track record of solid MLB hitting. But he didn't hit either, adding 125 PA of 42 wRC+, failing to capitalize on starter Arencibia's collapse. All told, backup catchers bled 10 hitting runs below average at the plate in 2013. Arencibia bled another 18.5 runs, one of the worst years in franchise history for catcher hitting overall.
In two years, the Jays had swung from great backup production to horrible backup production, so the Jays hit the reset button, bringing in Dioner Navarro. 2014-15 went much better. Thole stayed as backup/designated Dickey catcher, and actually turned in a decent 79 wRC+ at the plate in 2014. Navarro got shunted to backup in 2015, and although a butcher behind the plate hit well (87 wRC+), whereas Thole collapsed to a 34 wRC+ in his 52 PA.
Then the bottom seemingly fell out in 2016. With Navarro gone, Thole was the primary backup. But he didn't hit at all (31 wRC+ in 135 PA as backup), so the Jays brought back Navarro. But he didn't hit at all either (-61 wRC+ in 20 PA as backup). The backups combined for a 19 wRC+ and bled 14.5 batting runs in just 155 PA as Russell Martin shouldered a huge load. Those 155 PA were the lowest for Blue Jays backups since 2005, and the 5th lowest number in franchise history. Simply abysmal.
But then, 2017. This should have been an obvious and relatively cheap area of improvement. But the front office did basically nothing, signing Jarrod Saltalamacchia to a minor league deal in February. They were so happy with him, they were looking for replacement right before Opening Day and adding him to the roster.
And with good reason, as he struck out 60% of the time en route to a -77 wRC+ in 24 PA behind the plate (which is the nicest way to describe him defensively). Enter Luke Maile, claimed on waivers. He at least was solid defensively, but didn't hit at all either (one of the worst hitters since WWII with 100 PA when he went on the DL).
So the Jays were happy to pounce when the Cubs dumped Miguel Montero, who at least had a long track record of hitting and, whatever his other sins, was hitting in 2017 (111 wRC+ with the Cubs). But he's faceplanted too, with a 36 wRC+ in 89 PA behind the plate. The saving grace has improbably been Raffy Lopez, who started 2017 as the backup in AA but has posted a 107 wRC+ in 61 PA.
All told, with two games remaining, Blue Jays backup catchers have totaled 321 PA and have bled an incredible 28.5 runs below MLB average at the plate. That is easily the worst mark in franchise history, surpassing the -21 runs in 2003 (and that came in 376 PA). The 26 wRC+ mark is not actually the worst (actually a little better than last year!), though take out Lopez and it drops to 7 wRC+ which almost would be.
To be clear, this is not a franchise that has avoided backup catcher who didn't hit at all. Kevin Cash didn't hit at all in 2003-04, more than 10 runs below average in both years and almost 30 total. Alberto Castillo performed only marginally better in 2000-2001. Mike Matheny didn't hit in 1999. Sandy Martinez was pretty bad in 1995-96, Bob Davis in 1978-79, Rick Cerone was awful in the expansion year of 1977.
But never before has the level of production been so bad in so much playing time. Typically, if the backup wasn't hitting, the starter played more (like in 2016), or they cycled through multiple options until finding someone who was decent. Which I guess has finally happened in 2017, albeit after three feckless hitting options.
Thank goodness for Russell Martin. His 320 PA of league average hitting is the only thing standing between the Jays having one of their worst years of overall catcher hitting, as in 2013. That crown belongs to the 2001 Blue Jays, when Darrin Fletcher's 58 wRC+ as the starter was 22 runs below average, and backups added another 14 for a total of 36 runs below average. That edged out 1997's -33 runs, primarily from the combo of Alan Ashby and Cerone.
If the front office really wants to contend in 2018, they would be really wise to find a backup catcher who isn't a black hole.
Appendix: Blue Jays catching, 1977-2017
Note that while the primary backup is identified, the numbers are for all backups.
|Year||Primary catcher||PA||wRC+||wRAA||Primary backup||PA||wRC+||wRAA|
|2017||Russell Martin||320||100||0.8||Luke Maile||321||26||-28.5|
|2016||Russell Martin||504||100||1.4||Josh Thole||155||19||-14.5|
|2015||Russell Martin||476||116||10.8||Dioner Navarro||196||73||-5.2|
|2014||Dioner Navarro||425||94||-1.2||Josh Thole||213||67||-6.6|
|2013||J.P. Arencibia||470||60||-18.5||Josh Thole||166||42||-10|
|2012||J.P. Arencibia||355||90||-2||Jeff Mathis||263||66||-8.6|
|2011||J.P. Arencibia||467||92||-1.1||Jose Molina||173||121||5.4|
|2010||John Buck||415||114||8.6||Jose Molina||206||78||-4.5|
|2009||Rod Barajas||454||59||-20.6||Raul Chavez||204||58||-9.7|
|2008||Rod Barajas||356||85||-5.9||Gregg Zaun||292||86||-4.2|
|2007||Gregg Zaun||374||93||-2.6||Jason Phillips||250||42||-17.8|
|2006||Bengie Molina||392||97||0.7||Gregg Zaun||274||105||3.4|
|2005||Gregg Zaun||501||96||-0.2||Ken Huckaby||139||19||-13|
|2004||Gregg Zaun||362||104||4.2||Kevin Cash||273||37||-20|
|2003||Greg Myers||271||148||18||Tom Wilson||376||49||-21.4|
|2002||Ken Huckaby||282||47||-16.3||Tom Wilson||333||68||-10.9|
|2001||Darrin Fletcher||453||58||-21.9||Alberto Castillo||160||24||-14.5|
|2000||Darrin Fletcher||445||114||11.6||Alberto Castillo||221||36||-17.6|
|1999||Darrin Fletcher||448||106||6||Mike Matheny||232||45||-15.7|
|1998||Darrin Fletcher||446||87||-4.8||Kevin Brown||227||91||-1.4|
|1997||Benito Santiago||366||69||-12.8||Charlie O'Brien||278||71||-8.7|
|1996||Charlie O'Brien||375||90||-2||Sandy Martinez||274||58||-13.6|
|1995||Lance Parrish||202||51||-11.7||Sandy Martinez||344||57||-17.5|
|1994||Pat Borders||311||57||-15.6||Randy Knorr||136||85||-1.8|
|1993||Pat Borders||520||72||-15.3||Randy Knorr||114||98||0.2|
|1992||Pat Borders||521||85||-5.3||Greg Myers||138||78||-2.6|
|1991||Greg Myers||333||93||-0.6||Pat Borders||314||69||-9.4|
|1990||Pat Borders||368||123||11||Greg Myers||286||72||-8.3|
|1989||Ernie Whitt||402||126.4||15||Pat Borders||271||52||-15|
|1988||Ernie Whitt||453||112||9.7||Pat Borders||193||89||-1.1|
|1987||Ernie Whitt||478||109||7||Charlie Moore||174||51||-10|
|1986||Ernie Whitt||422||107||6.5||Buck Martinez||189||46||-12|
|1985||Ernie Whitt||447||108.2||6.5||Buck Martinez||169||30||-13.2|
|1984||Ernie Whitt||345||97||0||Buck Martinez||255||85||-3.5|
|1983||Ernie Whitt||380||115||10.5||Buck Martinez||245||107||5.3|
|1982||Ernie Whitt||292||96||0||Buck Martinez||327||93||1.2|
|1981||Ernie Whitt||217||71||-5.5||Buck Martinez||156||85||-1.2|
|1980||Ernie Whitt||324||71||-7.5||Bob Davis||243||53||-10.8|
|1979||Rick Cerone||514||72||-12.7||Bob Davis||101||-4||-11.8|
|1978||Rick Cerone||310||62||-10.9||Alan Ashby||312||108||5.1|
|1977||Alan Ashby||459||58||-19.8||Rick Cerone||157||24||-13.3|