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Assuming the Position 2005: Part 6 - Catcher
by Derek Smart
One of the big issue areas the Cubs needed to address during the 2004 offseason was offensive production from the backstop. Damian Miller had provided excellent defense and a steadying influence behind the plate, but the price for this was the worst season with the bat Miller had suffered since his 27 year-old rookie campaign in 1997, which featured all of 71 plate appearances with the Twins and a truly unfortunate .273/.282/.379 line.
Outside of that limited exposure in Minnesota, Miller had always hovered around league average with the bat, posting EQAs during his previous four seasons that ranged between .251 and .261 (.260 is considered average), and OPS+ between 93 and 96 (100 being average). Not so in 2003, as his EQA dipped to .239, and his OPS+ to a positively Girardian 78.
He was wonderful with the glove, but his stick was a giant liability, as was illustrated multiple times during the 2003 playoffs when the combination of Alex Gonzalez, Miller, and the pitcher of the day provided easy opportunities for the opposition to extricate themselves from potential Cub rallies. Something had to be done.
The solution requiring the least thought, but the most investment, was free agent catcher and Florida Marlins playoff hero, Ivan Rodriguez. He would certainly have improved the Cub offense, and while his defense was less formidable than it had been in years past when he was indisputably the best weapon against the running game in the Majors, he was still a fine glove and arm man.
The issue, of course, was his price tag, as any 32 year-old catcher with over 1,500 games caught and a history of back problems who asks for $10M per season and four guaranteed years needs to be looked on with, at the very least, extreme caution. The Cubs did this in spades, and while overtures for lesser sums and shorter commitments might have been made, they were never going to be party to a deal of the magnitude that was sought.
So, when it became clear that Sylvester McMonkey McBean would accept nothing less for his client than the 4/40 he'd insisted on all along (a sum that the Tigers, of all teams, were eventually willing to pay), the Cubs found themselves needing to look elsewhere for their upgrade, and Jim Hendry knew exactly which couch cushion his prize was stowed under.
Michael Barrett had been on Hendry's radar for at least a year, and probably longer. While Barrett may not have inspired the same level of obsession that Erubiel Durazo did for A's GM Billy Beane, there's no doubt he was a player that Hendry had targeted for some time.
Oddly enough, it was Beane who helped Hendry acquire the object of his desire, first making a trade with Montreal for Barrett, and then dealing him the very next day to the Cubs in exchange for the higher salaried, and now no longer necessary, Miller. The Expos were going to non-tender Barrett, so getting anything for him (in this case, a PTBNL) was a positive in their eyes, and by inserting himself in the deal, Beane got the defensive catcher he was after, while providing Hendry a dumping spot for the backstop he no longer wanted.
There was disappointment in Cubland that the big splash hadn't been made, a disappointment I shared in, even if I understood and agreed with the reasons for the lack of a blockbusting deal. Yet despite that, and the awful, injury-riddled 2003 that Barrett suffered through, I felt he was a positive addition to the team. Here's a little something I scribbled after the Cubs acquired him last year:
If  really was an aberration, which I believe it was, we might have a pretty decent young catcher on our hands. Is he likely to be an All-Star? No. Is he likely to be better than Damian Miller? I think so. Better and cheaper.
The question, of course, is whether I was correct in my assessment, or simply overcome with an undiagnosed psychosis (or quite possibly, both).
There's no debate about who was cheaper, as according to their BBREF pages there was a nearly two-fold difference in their salaries, with Miller coming in at an even $3M, and Barrett at $1.55M. So with that bit of obviousness dealt with, we're left wondering who was actually better. To the table, Robin!
Offensively, Barrett's the winner hands down, carrying better standard rate stats, better major counting stats, and better advanced offensive metrics. However, when we get to the last three rows, defense enters the picture and muddies things a bit.
(A quick set of definitions for those last three metrics: RATE2 is a defensive rate stat that's been adjusted for league difficulty and normalized over time where 100 is average; RAA2 is a defensive counting stat that's been adjusted for league difficulty and normalized over time expressing the number of runs a defender saved verses an average defender at his position; WARP3 is a rate stat that's been adjusted for league difficulty and normalized over time that measures the number of wins a player's combined offense, defense, and pitching would be worth versus that of a replacement level player. All of these statistics were developed by and are courtesy of Baseball Prospectus.)
For starters, the stats bear out what we've all noticed with our eyes, which is that Damian Miller is a superior defender, and Michael Barrett is passably mediocre. Their career numbers say the same thing, with Barrett posting a lifetime RATE2 of 95, and Miller coming in at a tremendous 111.
That's a huge difference in defensive ability, and it shows up in their WARP3 scores. Where Barrett looked much more valuable based on his offensive contribution, adding in defense actually makes Miller nearly half a win better than him. Based on the nearly identical difference between their VORP and RAA2 numbers, I'd expect them to be almost exactly even, but I'll accept the accuracy of what's there for lack of an alternative. (I'm not sure how WARP3 is calculated, and frankly, I try to keep my eyes away from those equations: my glasses are thick enough, and in a worst case scenario, I'd hate to stick my wife with the cleanup job after the harmonic vibrations caused by staring at incomprehensible math made my head explode. Yes, I took calculus in high school, but that doesn't mean I did well. I'm still an actor at heart, and actor is to math as politician is to truth. Avoidance rules the day.)
So, a case can be made that Miller was as good and maybe a little better than Barrett was in 2004, rendering my prediction inaccurate. I think Mr. B was still the better choice, since their overall production on defense and offense was nearly equal and he came at half the cost, but using the information above it can be argued that my statement about Barrett being better than Miller in 2004 was wrong.
But that's the past, and what we're really interested in is the future. What can we hope to expect from Barrett going forward? Well, at the risk of seeming to live in antiquity, it should be instructive to delve one more time into the historical vaults to see if any trends present themselves and light the path to destiny.
Barrett makes Jim Hendry look positively Carnacian, having his best offensive season ever as measured by EQA, and posting career highs (not shown here in the interest of reduced table size) in home runs (16), triples (6), hits (131), total bases (223), runs (55), and RBI (65), while coming within one of his career high 33 doubles. At first glance such total across the board superiority may seem strange, but it becomes less odd when one notes that 2004 was Barrett's age 27 season, an age when many players peak.
If there's a trend that really jumps out at me, and one that I find especially encouraging, it's the steady growth in Barrett's power over five consecutive seasons. His .202 ISO in 2004 was second in the NL among backstops only to Colorado backup catcher Todd Greene. It's not just a ballpark effect for Barrett either, as his numbers were actually better on the road last year (.258/.303/.455 in the Friendly Confines, versus .321/.374/.528 away from Chicago).
The disquieting trajectory is the reduction in Barrett's walk rate, although it's somewhat offset by the reduction in strikeouts; the implication being that while he's swinging a bit more, at least the balls he's swinging at are ones he can do something with, as evidenced by the previously mentioned increase in power and his fairly high batting average.
He also saw a nearly identical number of pitches/PA in 2003 and 2004 (3.56 versus 3.55), and the only full season where he saw more balls than that was in 2002 when his pitches/PA was 3.88; so he's exhibiting a level of patience that is relatively high for him, and while it's not translating into free passes, they are becoming hard hit balls, and I can think of little that's wrong with that. Would I like to see him walk more? Sure. But I also enjoy the occasional double.
So now we're left with the final question about Barrett: what to do with him? There's little doubt that he'll be the starting catcher for the 2005 Chicago Cubs, but should Jim Hendry offer more than a one-year contract and buy out a year or two of Barrett's free agency?
I like the direction Barrett is going: he's still young, his defense, while not mind-blowing, improved throughout the year, and there are encouraging trends in his statistical profile that make me think he's capable of posting a couple more seasons similar to the last.
I also think - punkish incidents with unpleasant Houston pitchers aside - that after a year of getting his bearings, Barrett has a chance to emerge as a leader on this team. There has been a tremendous dearth of player-originated guidance on the Cubs for a number of years, and while I have no numbers to back it up, there's something to be said for having an everyday player who can pull the other guys together and get them on the same page. I think Barrett has a shot at being that man, and while I have no way to quantify it, I do think it adds to his value in the way similar qualities added to Jason Varitek's value to the Red Sox.
Of course, Barrett is no Varitek, but I think a deal similar to what the Giants gave Mike Matheny (3 years at $10.5M) would be very reasonable for both Barrett and the Cubs. A little stability, a little cost certainty, and a solid young catcher with decent defense and well developed power. Sounds like a good fit to me.