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Assuming The Position 2006: Catcher
by Derek Smart
After the disappointment from the calamitous ending to the 2003 campaign wore off, one of the priorities for the Cubs was finding a solution at catcher who would be better able to produce on the offensive end, cheap enough to allow for expenditures in other areas, and young enough to be in the fold for an extended period.
It wasn't that Damian Miller wasn't useful - he did a great job defensively - but after the Cubs had so many issues with the bottom part of their lineup both in the run-up to the postseason and in the playoffs themselves - a problem that Miller bore no small responsibility for - the team was willing to make a trade-off of defense for offense.
Enter Michael Barrett, who at best, seemed an odd choice, and at worst, looked to be a disastrous gamble. It's true, he fulfilled the cheap and young portions of the bill, but with his best offensive seasons being barely average, and his most recent work at the plate a Grand Guignol horror show that would force DVD's of Hannibal onto the kiddie shelves, the chances that he would be the man the Cubs sought looked remote.
Yet Jim Hendry saw a player with power potential, solid contact skills, and decent plate discipline who had not only been yanked around in the field during his time as an Expo, but had his 2003 season rendered ineffective by injury. With all of these ancillary factors contributing to his failures, the signs that turnaround was possible, and what would appear to be the approach of his peak years, Hendry thought Barrett a better risk than some of the pricier alternatives.
As it turned out, Hendry was right, and following a solid campaign with the stick in 2004, Barrett was rewarded with a three-year contract worth $12M. The lingering questions presented by this deal were whether his offensive work would continue on the same level, and perhaps of greater concern, whether his unspectacular defense could be improved, or at the very least, prevented from regressing.
For starters, let's take a look at what results we get when we pose the first query.
One of the things that becomes clear when looking at his stat line from year to year is how Barrett's career before his time as a Cub was marked by wild inconsistency. It is, in many ways, similar to the high degree of variability shown by Aramis Ramirez before he came to Chicago, except that Barrett hadn't had that one exceptional year to make people sit up and take notice.
Which is why giving Barrett the three-year deal was extra risky. In the case of Ramirez, there was at least some support for the idea that his 2004 was the culmination of a previously ordained excellence, while with Barrett, his 2004 seemed a lot closer to a thing you find reasons to dismiss.
Yet, more rigorous inspection of this series of numbers reveals that, if one were so inclined to remove the 2000-2003 seasons from his record, you'd be looking at a progression that seems far more linear and logical than the scattershot meandering of his performance during his mid-twenties.
As for reasons why this might be, a close look at the 2000 season reveals that Barrett began the year, to put it diplomatically, in rough fashion, making six errors in his first five games at third, promptly earning himself a spot on the bench. He was given occasional chances after that, but his defense continued to be poor while his offense suffered mightily, and he was eventually sent to Ottawa in mid-May.
A month later he was recalled to the big club after tearing up the joint in AAA, but then the team immediately began to tinker with him, playing him at third while working on his catching skills in an attempt to get him ready to more frequently don the tools of ignorance. This eventually led to yet another trip to Ottawa at the beginning of August to give him a chance to play behind the plate full time without the pressure of being in the Majors.
A mere eight days later, he was back with the Expos and suddenly anointed as their everyday backstop, only to be sidelined a month later with a sore elbow which kept him out for two weeks. He made it back, but by then it was the end of September. He played in only five more contests.
Needless to say, it was a bumpy beginning to his career as a full-time catcher, and while it doesn't totally explain why his work at the plate was less than stellar in 2001 and 2002, it helps give us an idea of how he could have veered so far from the track he seemed to be on before. It's hard enough for a young player to perform without being bounced around like a superball in a cobblestone room.
So, with an understanding of his wacky past, and a little faith, one could have reasonably concluded that his offensive work would remain consistent for the life of his contract, and thus far that faith has been justified. What changed dramatically last season, and not in a happy way, was his defensive work.
Never a strong point - in part because one could make a case that he was still learning the position - if you place much stock in Baseball Prospectus' RATE2 statistic, Barrett's glove fell off a cliff in 2005 (for the uninitiated, an average defender's RATE2 will be 100). Below lie the unhappy figures.
After settling in just below league average from 2002-2004, things got incredibly ugly last year. Bear in mind, this stunning patch of incompetence includes the first 13 games he played in 2005 where Barrett threw out an amazing 9 of 14 would-be basestealers. In fact, during the season's first month, he looked like he had really turned a corner when it came to nailing runners.
However, for those of you keeping score at home, that means of the 77 stolen-base attempts he faced after April 21st, Barrett managed to throw out only 12 of those men. That's good for a 15.6% success rate and a free trip to the Mike Piazza Center For Guys Who Can't Throw Good.
If there's positive news to be gleaned from these relatively dismal tidings, it's that some of his poor performance in the throwing department can be attributed to a shoulder injury that started bothering him early in the year, which eventually morphed into a groin injury that was troubling from around mid-season on.
In other words, while we didn't see it after April, Barrett may well have made some good progress that was unfortunately masked by a state of physical impairment. It could have simply been luck and sample sizes too, but from what my paltry memory recalls, there was a significant difference between the strength and crispness of his throwing early on compared to the middle and end of the season, so there may, indeed, be reason for hope.
Of course, there are other sources of concern with Barrett's defense. He is still sub-par on blocking pitches in the dirt, and while his apparent inability to properly execute a rundown is a minor quibble when considering the number of opportunities one is afforded for such things, it is still deeply maddening. It's true that he hasn't had the same serious issues with footwork that plagued him in 2004, but he needs to continue to work to keep this and other things under control in order to not be a liability in the field.
The discussion of Barrett raises the question, and a particular classic among catchers, of how much of a player's value comes from their fielding contributions versus their offensive production. Statistics like WARP do a solid enough job of quantifying a player's total value, but it's reasonable to be wary of any metric that takes defense into account, and to be doubly so when they're used to measure backstops.
No other position on the field has so many, dare I say, intangible aspects that we simply haven't a clue about the impact of - they are intangible, after all. The most troublesome example being game-calling, which seems to combine strategy, skill, luck, and the personal interplay between pitcher and catcher into an inextricably tangled hash whose component parts couldn't be separated with a superconducting super collider and the staff of Fermilab (if you've ever heard announcers praise a backstop's game-calling ability, while in the same breath condemning a pitcher for falling in love with his slider, then you've had a small glimpse into this mess).
So in some ways, I'm forced to pull up short when it comes to evaluating Barrett - or any catcher, for that matter. Offensively, he seems on a solid path, and one that puts him easily into the upper echelon of the admittedly depleted ranks of Major League catchers (he was fourth in MLB in VORP, for example), and while he has some obvious weaknesses on the defensive end, it's unclear how much of his problems were due to physical issues, and how much was simply the nature of the beast.
When it comes to his game-calling, I'm at a loss as to where to begin, not just for the reasons I stated above, but because the plague of ouchies that visited itself upon the Cub pitching staff makes such an evaluation for 2005 exponentially more difficult.
So in the end, my thoughts go thusly: Barrett is an offensive asset at a more than reasonable price, who if he wants to really give his team an advantage in 2006 will do whatever it takes to ensure that his defensive contribution returns to levels that are merely sub-par. Perhaps it it sets the bar kinda low, but it would still be a step up.