a thought on baby catchers

photo by Samara Pearlstein

So I’m sitting here watching the Red Sox/Mariners game, and Matsuzaka is being all kinds of careful with Kenji Johjima. I get to thinking, you know, Johjima hit him really well in Japan League, and is hitting really well right now, all of which is probably contributing to Matsuzaka’s tentativeness (Daisuke went on to strike him out, but ignore that for now).

This got me thinking about my favorite pet whine topic: BABY CATCHERS.

This is a whine topic because, to put it simply, we don’t have any. I mean, obviously that’s a literal lie; we have a minor league system, and they have catchers on all those teams. The Whitecaps even have Jeff Kunkel, a baby Tiger catcher whom I adore because he’s a Wolverine (I do not say former…. once a Wolverine, always a Wolverine) (and while I’m watching a Mariners game, my mind often turns to another Wolverine, JJ Putz, who’s makin’ good in the Majors out there in Seattle).

But none of our baby catchers are tearing the snot out of the minors or anything like that, and so none of them are making the kind of clamorous noise that would convince the Tigers’ front office that they’re ready to slide into Pudge’s place when his battered ancient catcher’s body finally explodes into a million pieces (each of which will still insist that it’s good to go and can totally play in tomorrow’s game).

Now, some of them could be pretty good defensive catchers, and some of them could be pretty good at calling games and handling pitchers. I’d assume most of them are, or they wouldn’t even be in the minors. But you HAVE to hit to some degree to get to the majors. You just have to. If you’re some super magical amazing Gold Glove style defender, maybe you’ll make it without hitting much, but… well, unfair as it may be, the Tigers have become accustomed to having the catcher’s spot in the lineup filled with someone who is, in addition to all the defensive wonders and the unmatched skill in pitcher groping, a very accomplished hitter.

I mean, look at the superbasicidiot current stats for the starting catchers (or top two play-time-getting catchers per team, in the case of AA and A squads) of our minor league teams:

Dane Sardinha, Toldeo Mudhens (AAA): .258/.288/.318 with 1 HR, 3 BB and 18 SO in 23 games.
Steve Torrealba, Erie Seawolves (AA): .265/.294/.286 with 0 HR, 2 BB and 9 SO in 15 games.
Joel Roa, Erie Seawolves (AA): .222/.250/.370 with 1 HR, 0 BB and 6 SO in 11 games.
Dusty Ryan, Lakeland Flying Tigers (A): .180/.241/.420 with 4 HR, 3 BB and 20 SO in 14 games.
Adrian Casanova, Lakeland Flying Tigers (A): .256/.293/.333 with 0 HR, 2 BB and 6 SO in 11 games.
James Skelton, West Michigan Whitecaps (A): .304/.328/.321 with 0 HR, 2 BB and 10 SO in 15 games.
Jeff Kunkel, West Michigan Whitecaps (A): .132/.195/.158 with 0 HR, 3 BB and 9 SO in 11 games.

…. aaaaand I can’t seem to find the ’07 stats for the O-Tigs (short season A), so, eh (probably because they haven’t started playing yet this season… aaaaand I’m an idiot).

(On a sidenote, I was wondering what on earth had happened to Maxim St. Pierre. He was definitely a Tiger in ’06… he was on the Team Canada provisional roster for the World Baseball Classic… he somehow ended up on the Royals, and the Royals sent him to the Brewers for a pitcher, Ben Hendrickson. I can’t find him on any of the Brewers’ minor league rosters, though. He has basically disappeared into the baseball ether. Anyone know more?)

Obviously all these numbers are suffering from small sample sizes, but they’re still not incredibly encouraging. What I see is a bunch of guys struggling to hit for average (James Skelton temporarily excepted), with little or no patience at the plate, and with no power to compensate for these bad habits (Dusty Ryan temporarily excepted). None of those numbers leap off the computer screen and scream readiness to start ascending rapidly through the ranks. Jeff Kunkel’s numbers actually made me WINCE when I saw them. To put it bluntly, there ain’t no Cameron Maybin in this group here.

This problem isn’t something that the Tigers suffer alone. Most teams have little or nothing in their minor league systems when it comes to catching prospects. The teams that DO have catching prospects, then, are going to want to hang onto their guys, or else demand insane lots of things for them. It’s not something that can be easily addressed via trade.

Our backup catchers are Vance Wilson, who is a hundred years old and on his way out just like Pudge, and Mike Rabelo, who is good enough to backup, but who is unlikely to ever rise above that (perfectly respectable) role. This is not something that can be addressed with what we already have.

So we come back to the start of this post, when I was thinking about Kenji Johjima.

What about those other leagues?

Mightn’t there be another pretty good catcher over there, or at least a catcher who is better than Mike Rabelo or Dane Sardinha? Someone in the Japanese League… maybe even someone in the Korean leagues? I honestly don’t know. I don’t think the Japanese League is packed chock full of Kenji Johjimas; he’s a damn good player, not someone you find every day, but… it’s a possibility, right? I assume someone in the Tigers’ front office is looking into it. It might turn out to be the only possible solution when Pudge finally has to bow out.

Or Jeff Kunkel can start hitting and become the next great Michigan catcher. You know. Whichever.

(The baby catcher in the photo at the top of this post is my cousin Sam. He plays for the Walled Lake Central Vikings. Right now he is hitting much better than most of the Tigers’ catching prospects.)


6 responses to “a thought on baby catchers

  1. We’ve been spoiled over the years with the Tigers having a catcher who could hit damn well. Freehan, Parrish, Pudge. After looking at those ugly stats, I think Pudge can plan on getting another contract from the Tigers.

  2. Don’t forget Mickey Tettleton, Big Al.
    As for the catching problem, this was precisely the impetus for my College Catcher Wish List series (yes, that’s a plug) and it’s why I hope the Tigers take advantage of a draft that’s supposedly deep in college catchers. Of the mostly sorry group described above, I’m most intrigued by Skelton. He walked a lot in Oneonta last year, and could maybe turn into a Jason Kendall-type eventually. Even that’s a long shot, though, and I certainly share your concerns.
    One other prospect to keep an eye on once the short season leagues start up later this summer is Jordan Newton. I think he was a sixth round pick last year, so he’s got to have something going for him, right?

  3. Matt, the thing with Skelton is… he is tiny. TINY. I mean, I dunno how much you’ve seen him in person, but, the first time I saw a photo of him in catcher’s gear… he’s not much larger than my cousin Sam up there. Unless he has a big growth spurt on the way (which I guess is not outta the question), I just can’t see him lasting long and staying at catcher.

  4. ivantopumpyouup

    I think St. Pierre went to San Diego and then Milwaukee (or the other way around) but is no longer in the organization :( I liked him. But only ’cause he was French.

  5. Samara had it right with him signing with KC and then getting traded to the Brewers’ system. Her mention of his name made me wonder how he’s doing, and I found him on Milwaukee’s AA team’s – Huntsville Stars – stat page. He was batting .156/.243/.156 before being removed from the roster on May 2nd. My curiosity really piqued after seeing that, I headed to the Huntsville newspaper to discover an article that just mentioned before the game that day he was released.
    As for James Skelton, your comment on his size made me look up his profile and it had somehow escaped me that he was only 165 pounds. I guess that explains the lack of power, but I have to assume he’ll fill out to where he’s about the size of Inge. Not that his time behind the plate went well, either.

  6. Yeah, I dunno about even filling out to Inge’s size… look at him in comparison to Kunkel:
    Just a small frame. Sigh alas and such.

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