Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Mysterious Case of the Disappearing OPS

When I was growing up, there was a sweet-swinging lefty named Angel Martinez. He was going to be the one. Unfortunately, 450 plate appearances into his big league career he'd demonstrated an astounding ability to combine a lack of plate discipline with a lack of power and a lack of contact, and after going to Chicago to catch Kerry Wood's legendary 20-strikeout game, he returned to the minors for the bulk of six more seasons.

Then there was Carlos Delgado. I guess he turned into a decent player, but he only caught 5 innings in the bigs.

There was Kevin Brown, buried behind Darrin Fletcher.

Then there were three at once: the Catchers Of The Future circa 2002 were Jayson Werth, Kevin Cash and Josh Phelps. One could really hit, one could really catch, and the other  - well, the other could kind of hit, but couldn't really do anything else (much less catch) and never amounted to much more than an occasional platoon bat.

There were others. Guillermo Quiroz. Curtis Thigpen. Robinzon Diaz. The most you could say about the large percentage of these guys was that their disappearance was quiet and painless. Kevin Cash showed up on the Red Sox and OPSed .545. Josh Phelps was a below-average offensive DH for a couple of months with the Devil Rays. Diaz brought back a decent return. Here in 2011, most of the names on that list are Crash Davising their way through yet another minor league season or retired. (The obvious exception being underperforming $100 million man Jayson Werth, but he left his tools in Syracuse a good many years ago.)

And so now, after a decade of transforming players like Ken Huckaby, Gregg Zaun and Rod Barajas into major league starters, there is a new wave of COTF in Blue Jay land. JP Arencibia is the poster boy, but it seems every day we are reminded of the cavalry. Travis D'Arnaud lighting up New Hampshire. Some kid named Carlos Perez with pretty mechanics and sub-.700 OPS in A ball.

There are concerns, however. Perez may never hit. D'Arnaud may be a superstar, but a halfseason in AA only means so much. And Arencibia is starting to look like his #lazycomp - the man he replaced, John Buck. John Buck was a very bad hitter for the first five years of his major league career, and through the first 300 plate appearances of his career, Aaron Cibia has been similarly awful, showcasing slightly more power at the expense of even more on-base. For all of the glowing praise he's received for breaking up Verlander's perfect game with a ("feisty/gritty/well-earned/disciplined") walk, his on-base percentage this year is .273. That's better than Rajai Davis and it's better than John McDonald, but it's not a pretty figure. His .297 wOBA paints a slightly less dismal picture, because it takes his 25 extra-base hits into account, but it still places him as one of the lesser lights in a thoroughly middling offense.

Even more concerning than the season snapshot is the progression that we've seen since April, going by OBP/SLG:

April: .328/534
May: .316/.465
June: .205/.377
July: .220/.156
To recap: his power has diminished in every month, capped by a July with only a single double, and his on-base has steadily fallen from low-.300s to low-.200s. Since June 1, JP Arencibia has been the least valuable Blue Jay hitter. I think it's fair to say that even if Michael Pineda implodes in the second half, we can kiss that Rookie of the Year candidacy aside. Add in a mediocre CS ratio and defense that generally rates as poor, and Arencibia simply hasn't been very good this season.

To be fair, to be a major league rookie is not an easy thing. Alex Gordon fell well short in his bid as Rookie of the Year pre-season favourite, and The Bautista Himself was a below average hitter in his rookie age-25 year. But most great hitters who debut at that age show portents of the players they will become, and all Arencibia has shown is an ability to lift and separate on the odd mistake fastball. Given the position he plays, that should be enough for him to retain some facsimile of a major league job for a few years to come - I mean, Miguel Olivo has 3500 career PAs - but let's just say I see a lot of bullpen catching in Cibia's future.

And so the catcher mill keeps churning.

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