Position Roundtables: Backup Catcher

Dave · March 8, 2005 at 6:26 am · Filed Under 2005 Roundtables 

Dave: Backup catcher: Dan Wilson

We could sit here and pile on Dan Wilson if we wanted. It wouldn’t be
hard to talk about how only 4 major league catchers who received at
least 200 at-bats last year had a lower VORP than Danny Boy’s -2.1.
We could explain how his ability to call a game is vastly overstated
and lacks any objective evidence to support the claim. But you know,
I think we’d be preaching to the choir. I’m not sure there are that
many people out there that still believe Dan Wilson is a productive
major league player. So why belabor the point?

Few teams get any kind of productivity from their reserve catcher. In
this instance, we’re just going with the flow, giving a veteran
millions of dollars because the other guys like having him around. I
have a hard time getting too worked up about Wilson’s spot on the
roster anymore; veteran backup catchers who have jobs because of their
character are everywhere, and the criteria for how to get that job at
the major league level isn’t likely to change anytime soon.

Derek: But — you just argued in the DH roundtable that we should get worked up
about the marginal difference between Ibanez and Jacobsen and not shrug
that off. Here we have the team committed to a catcher who can’t hit or
play defense that well, and it’s okay because everyone does it? That the
division is so close we can’t accept punting even one game a season.

No! I refuse to give up! You’ve persuaded me to argue against you!

I’m going to make the same argument I made in the DH piece — when teams
make lazy decisions like this, putting other priorities ahead of
winning, they should file for non-profit status and do something useful
like support animal shelters or child welfare or conservation or…
whatever. One of the things we constantly derided Gillick for was the
same kind of failure to look for every opportunity on the roster for
improvement, in the way the A’s do.

Say instead of Wilson the team played a good backup, someone like
Mirabelli, or even one of the interchangeable guys like Stinett. That’s
a game. Or figure that they find someone out of AAA, like Mike Rose, and
give him a shot.

Moreover, the problem I see is that as a tandem, there’s really no
point. Wilson’s become a no-hit, no-field catcher which doesn’t provide
an alternative to Olivo. There’s no reason Hargrove would pick one over
the other. I’d almost prefer the team play Rene Rivera if they’re going
to punt offense in their backup catcher, or put Ibanez back behind the
plate if they’re punting defense. At least have a backup that can do
something well besides look good and be a hometown favorite.

Jeff: As long as we’re using each other’s arguments to respond to each
other, Derek, you just argued in the right field thread that
we shouldn’t concern ourselves with whether Ichiro should play center
field because it just isn’t going to happen. I think it’s safe to
conclude that discarding Dan Wilson isn’t going to happen, either.

Personally, I’m on your side regarding the “take every advantage you
can find” philosophy, but it’s clear that the organization has
different priorities — priorities that, frankly, are far from
non-profit priorities. Having a backup that can’t do much but look
good and be a hometown favorite is part of the team’s nice-guy
marketing strategy. They would much rather, it seems, let a popular
player retire on his own terms than cut him loose when he is no longer

In my ideal world, the team would absolutely seek a superior, less
costly alternative to Dan Wilson. Like Dave, though, it’s pretty far
down the list of things that have me reaching for blood pressure

I do find a certain perverse appeal in the idea of sticking Ibanez
back behind the dish. Of course, if the team tanks and is out of it by
June, I also think they should bring up Wiki Gonzalez for the express
purpose of catching road games in place like Texas, leading outfield
wind sprints and carrying Adrian Beltre’s bags. Really test that
“laziest player in Major League Baseball” label.

Before the inevitable paeans to Dan Wilson’s game-calling and
pitcher-handling begin, I want to make clear that I’m open to the
possibility that such things exist. Before I consider a trait true,
though, I would like to see the trait demonstrated in some way, and
I’ve never seen satisfying evidence. If anybody has any such evidence,
I’d love to examine it, but I’ll starting holding my breath in
anticipation right after I grab those blood pressure meds.

Derek: Let me be entirely clear about my opinion on Ichiro! and the
right/center thing:

The cost of having Ichiro is that you pay him a lot of money, and he
plays in right field. Consider it a contract clause, and then think:
would I rather have Ichiro! in right or no Ichiro! at all?

Then you make a decision about what’s best for the team. That’s the same
decision you make through the whole roster in the offseason, with
different variations. Do you want a good backup catcher, or a bad one?
Or even a not-so-bad one?

As to the team’s motivations — I understand that they have reasons
other than winning for making some of these decisions, and that having
Wilson return is an easy fallback, but my point isn’t that they’re a
non-profit, but that they’re making decisions that hurt their chances of
making the playoffs and winning a World Series. If they’re out rescuing
puppies or hiring good-looking players in the hopes that they’ll sell
more uniforms, they’re not running a baseball team — they’re like the
NASCAR teams that don’t want to win but are out there as billboards,
cheering when their car gets on camera while being lapped by the
eventual winner. Technically, sure, they’re racing. But that’s not
really what they’re doing.

While every team must make compromises like this, every decision the
Mariners make that takes them away from “putting the best possible team
on the field” should be met with howls and hurled rotten fruit (please,
do not hurl fruit of any kind).

As to the issue of retirement — I don’t think that’s important. You
might sell out Dan Wilson’s final game, but a farewell tour won’t draw
more people every game. And beloved figures are always welcome to come
back as broadcasters and public figures if they play out the end of
their careers elsewhere. In a situation like this, the team needs to cut
their losses on Wilson early, and if that means he has two bad seasons
in Pittsburgh to finish up his career, so be it.

Jason: As long as Dan Wilson’s truly the backup, I’ll be happy. I don’t want
him starting 99 games (his average the past four years) or even 75. While I
really like Miguel Olivo, as I mentioned earlier in this series, I
also fully acknowledge the fact that he might not be “the guy” at catcher
for the next five years. That said, I think you have to give him 120 or so
games behind the dish this season to prove otherwise, and that means a token
one or two starts a week for fan-favorite Wilson — nothing more.


86 Responses to “Position Roundtables: Backup Catcher”

  1. Paul Covert on March 8th, 2005 2:37 pm

    On this whole “randomness” bit (how did we get off on this, anyway?):

    I don’t think any of us would claim (or at least I would certainly hope not) that Bucky Dent hit the winning home run in 1978 because he had some mysterious clutch-hitting ability that Jim Rice or Reggie Jackson didn’t. It just so happened that he got good wood on a ball at the right time.

    Does that mean it was *pure* luck? No. For one thing, he had to at least have the strength to hit it over the Green Monster in the first place. For another thing, he was also an established major-league hitter with the ability to at least hit a home run a month or so. If it had been you or me at the plate, the homer just flat-out wouldn’t have happened.

    On the other hand, even if had been Jim Rice or Reggie Jackson, wouldn’t have been *pure* skill. Not even Barry Bonds can hit a home run *every* time; which means, in particular, that not even Bonds can hit a home run every time it would help win a game for his team.

    What we can say, though, is that Bucky Dent hitting the key home run in the tiebreaking game was “more lucky” than Jim Rice or Reggie Jackson hitting it would have been, because Dent had less power-hitting skill than they did.

    Therefore, luck vs. skill is not an absolute matter in either direction. You develop your skills as best you can; you go out on the field and give it your best shot every time; and whatever happens, happens. The more skill you have, the better your chances are; but none of us can control events absolutely (especially not if there’s an opposing team involved).

    Would I want my team’s players or management to have that mindset? Yes, absolutely. No doubt about it. If my guy strikes out in a key situation, I don’t want him taking his swing apart to figure out what he did “wrong”; I want him to just put it out of his mind and give it his best shot next time up. If he goes 0-for-20, of course, that’s a different matter; but I don’t want my guys paying attention to small samples under a microscope, or trying to deal with the inevitable disappointments that come from having unrealistic expectations of oneself.

    Would that decrease their motivation? It shouldn’t– not if they understand that the more skill, the more focus, and the more in-game smarts they play with, the better our chances are at winning the ring.

    (This, by the way, is what I dislike about the expanded (three-round) playoffs. It weights the skill-to-luck balance more heavily in the “luck” direction, and so promotes an increased level of ignorance in our sporting culture.)

  2. Paul Covert on March 8th, 2005 2:38 pm

    (Further note: Yes, I agree with John and Brian, both of whom posted while I was typing.)

  3. John in L.A. on March 8th, 2005 2:45 pm

    #53 But you said it much better, Paul (Covert)

    /For what it’s worth, the article about the Patriots I was referring to was Dr. Z’s last column about football dynasties.

    Here’s a quote (I can do this, right?)

    “So what can bring down the Patriots’ dynasty, which includes three Super Bowl triumphs in the last four years? Team getting old? I think this is the least likely problem. They have shown a ruthless streak, particularly this season. Tom Landry used to be the king of the cold. The theory was-get rid of them when you can still get something for them, or as Calvin Hill once put it, “Just when you’re on top, that’s when you feel like you’re standing on the banana peel.”

    Two years ago the Patriots got rid of Lawyer Milloy, a team leader, a good locker room guy. It was a cold decision. Too much money to pay for a guy on the downside. The team was in shock. For one week. Then they went about their business of winning another Super Bowl.”

    It seems to me very relevant to the discussion.

  4. Dave on March 8th, 2005 2:46 pm

    Paul, you don’t like Beane as a person. We get it. No need to turn all our threads into anti-Beane/sabermetric rants.

  5. paul mocker on March 8th, 2005 2:50 pm

    Oddly enough I might be one of those purists. I prefer an LCS and a WS. But the purists who think that the best regular season record determines the best team are wrong. Look at 2003. Yankess had best record but Flordia beat them. But did you know their records, regular season plus playoffs, were the same if you looked from May 15. (I can’t look up the exact date now but it is around that time.)

    Unbalanced schedules and strength of division make it even tougher for those who wish to argue the primacy of the regular season.

    But BB should not be complaining about luck. He should have already analyzed why his teams are o for 4. And now they are going backward. He should be changing his strategy.

    His disciple in Toronto seems to be doing it.

  6. John in L.A. on March 8th, 2005 2:50 pm

    Paul… I am not a “stathead”, I am not very good with them at all. I love reading them, but it’s not how I approach baseball, because it’s not my strength.

    And I don’t know why you are wielding the word like an insult. And I further don’t know why the sophmoric “man crush” barb.

    I’m just a guy who likes baseball. And common sense, not stats, is what tells me that the smaller the number of games played, the bigger role luck can play. I’ve seen the better team lose in the playoffs often enough to know that to be true.

    I really don’t see why it upsets you so.

  7. paul mocker on March 8th, 2005 2:54 pm

    Your assumption turns out to be wrong.

    I like him as a person. I read the book. It had an effect on my life for the positive – a huge effect I won’t go into now. There is a lot to admire about him.

    Would you like me to put words in your mouth?

    If so it would be: Dave, I forgot that I to examine all the evidence before I make an assertion about someone.

  8. Cool Papa Bell on March 8th, 2005 2:56 pm

    Mocker, please explain why losing 12 games out of 20 is proof that a certain strategy doesn’t work, especially when 16 of those games came against teams with triple the payroll. Why should Beane change his strategy? And what makes you think he could come up with a BETTER team with his extremely tight budget? Don’t you think it’s possible he’s doing the best he can with the resources available?

  9. troy on March 8th, 2005 3:00 pm

    The Copernicus reference was gratuitous hyperbole, but the point stands – just because the players wouldn’t buy it doesn’t mean it’s not true. And I’m not from Oakland (actually I’ve never even been there), I don’t like the A’s, and I’m not really into mancrushes. And way to ignore the point that you totally blew it when you said Oakland hasn’t won a playoff game since 2000.

  10. paul mocker on March 8th, 2005 3:06 pm

    John I’m not upset. What you say makes sense. But is there an A’s fan who thinks the A’s had the best team in any of the 4 seasons they lost? Of course not.

    No one cares about luck. The best team, with a few exceptions (1981?), wins the World Series. Someone in charge of a baseball team thinks luck determines his team’s success. Some will give him a free pass. I won’t. Derek said BB analyzed it. I responded that I doubted it.

    I responded to what Derek asserted. See above.

  11. Joshua Buergel on March 8th, 2005 3:12 pm

    I’ve said it before when we talked about Wilson and I’ll say it again. Every play starts with the catcher calling the pitch. I’m perfectly okay with it being Wilson back there giving Olivio all the tips he knows on the pitching staff and the players in this league.

    Except for all the plays where the pitcher calls his own pitch. Do you know how many pitchers call their own games? I don’t, but it’s certainly not 0%.

    Imagine a player saying the playoffs were a crap shoot. His teammates would laugh him out of the clubhouse.

    Imagine a player who doesn’t believe in himself or his teammates. Instead, he thinks “random variation” controls playoff outcomes.

    Yeah! Or imagine a well-respected, award winning manager who thinks you have to be hot to win postseason series!

    “This team is good. We don’t need to reevaluate much. If you don’t get hot in these things, you’re just not going to win them. We don’t have anything to be ashamed about.”
    — Bobby Cox, Braves manager


    “Getting hot”, in this case, captures exactly the same thing that Beane was talking about, which is that playoff series have high variance. While a player or manager might not use the same terminology, there is a tacit understanding among at least some of them that playoffs are inherently more of a crap-shoot.

    And yes, others posted while I was working this up. Oh well.

  12. paul mocker on March 8th, 2005 3:14 pm

    troy stick with me. My point stands in spite of the mistake.

    Except for hiring a decent baserunning coach he might be doing the best he can. Is his best worthy of sainthood? best 5 GM’s in the game? No. Best 10 GM’s in the game? No.

    However you splice it, Cool, he is 0 for 4. Look at the talent he has had. (People will look back on the great players the M’s had from 1998 until 2003 and say the same thing.)

    Assuming a 50% chance, O for 4 comes out to about 3%. It’s not luck.

    He continues to clip coupons. He had 2 very good pitchers. He dealt them away. Did he talk with the new owner about the 2005 payroll budget before he traded away Hudson and Mulder?

    I think he is very good but he has flaws in his program.

  13. paul mocker on March 8th, 2005 3:16 pm

    Cox is on point. Why hasn’t Beane’s teams been hot? He points to Beane’s dilemma.

    He has won a few so he knows the program.

  14. Cool Papa Bell on March 8th, 2005 3:28 pm

    How is Beane not a top 5 GM? Name one who has done more with less.

    Also, just looking at the number of series wins is grossly misleading. We are only talking about 20 games here, and the A’s won 8. I’m sure if you picked any arbitrary time period, like the second week of May of the past four season, the A’s have lost 12 games. That is completely meaningless. 20 games mean nothing. Any result is reasonable in that limited number of games. Just look at the last ALCS. The Yankees were just a handful of outs away from sweeping and humiliating the Red Sox. Instead, Rivera blew game four and the Red Sox ended up humiliating the Yankees. If things were just a tiny bit different in that game four, the outcome of the series, and our perceptions of it, would be completely different.

  15. firova on March 8th, 2005 3:37 pm

    According to the contract board, the Mariners are paying Wiki Gonzalez $2.25 million to play at Tacoma and Dan Wilson $1.75 million to backup in Seattle. Question: How much worse than Dan Wilson is Wiki Gonzalez? If for 40-50 games he is not substantially worse than Wilson, we can then deduce that Wilson’s public image is worth something like, oh, $1.75 million to the team. Wilson is certainly going to be on the roster, but I would still like to hear a discussion about the other catchers in the organization. Is Gonzalez not capable of catching 40-50 games at the major league level and what are the possibilities for Ryan Christianson and Rene Rivera? Are they all in fact substantially worse than Wilson and in what ways? Will they hit far fewer singles than he does? Uncertainty over Olivo’s readiness certainly must come into play, but let us assume he’s going to catch 110 games or so.

  16. troy on March 8th, 2005 3:40 pm

    Billy Beane’s not in the top 10 GM’s in the game because his teams are 0 for 4 in playoff series? Teams that, based on payroll, had no business even making the playoffs? Man, good point. Beane sucks.

  17. Ralph Malph on March 8th, 2005 3:44 pm

    How the heck did the Dan Wilson thread turn into the Billy Beane thread? I refuse to participate in another Billy Beane debate.

  18. Joshua Buergel on March 8th, 2005 3:45 pm

    Cox is just expressing the same idea that Beane did with different words. The best team doesn’t always win, the hottest team often will. That’s not luck, precisely, because someone played a better game, but a short series permits all kinds of deviation from the expected results. Or, to hear Paul O’Neill (as competitive a player as you’ll find, as well as a world class jerk in my opinion, BOOOOOOO!) tell it in 1999:

    “Breaks are part of the game. The ball finds a hole like tonight, and we win. It’s a double play, and we still might be playing.”

    — Paul O’Neill, Yankees outfielder, on his go-ahead single in Game 1


    I can dig up these quotes all day. The thoughts that Beane expressed are no different. Different words, yes, perhaps more blunt than most are used to reading, but still the same thought.

  19. paul mocker on March 8th, 2005 3:45 pm

    13 different teams won a 1st round series since 2000, Papa.

    Hey! Sorry for being unclear. 2000 is about when Beane became GM. Correct me if that is wrong. So I’m don’t think it’s an arbitrary time period since it encompasses all of the time he has worked as a GM.

  20. Cool Papa Bell on March 8th, 2005 3:47 pm

    Rivera is still young and raw and needs a couple of more years in the minors before he has a chance at being a quality major leaguer, and it wouldn’t be smart to stunt his development just to get a marginal upgrade on the bench for a year. Christianson had arm surgery last year which limited him to DH’ing at the end of the season, so he can’t be counted on to play catcher effectively until he actually plays some games and proves his arm is strong enough. As for Gonzalez, the only reason I can give is that he isn’t much of a reciever, which is usually the only thing that matters to a club when selecting the backup, especially when the starter is highly questionable at blocking the plate.

  21. Ralph Malph on March 8th, 2005 3:51 pm

    There’s another reason which is that Wiki is coming off major knee surgery. I’m sure the M’s didn’t want to go into this year counting on him as the backup for that and many other reasons.

  22. Cool Papa Bell on March 8th, 2005 3:52 pm

    Selecting the last 5 years is not arbitrary, but only looking at the first week of October is. There is NOTHING special about the playoffs that makes all teams play at there absolute best. There is just as much variation from game to game in October as there is in April and May and June and July and August and September. No team is consistent from week to week. There is constant fluctuations in how individuals perform throughout the season, and that effects how a team performs on any given day. To judge Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics organization solely on 20 games stretched out over four years is completely unfair.

  23. Dave on March 8th, 2005 3:53 pm

    Beane became GM in 1997, not 2000. Look, Paul, you think the fact that Beane won 8 out of 20 games in October is significant of some flaw. We don’t agree. Now, move on.

    Christianson is about as likely to catch for the Mariners as Ryan Anderson is to pitch for them. And Rene Rivera just isn’t anywhere close to being major league ready. There’s legitimate question as to whether his bat will ever be. Wiki, well, he’s just an enigma who the coaches can’t stand. The M’s have basically nothing at the minor league level behind the plate.

  24. paul mocker on March 8th, 2005 4:03 pm

    Then we agree. Thanks for being mature.

    The M’s seriously need to make a play for the Indians prospect catcher. Like I said before if we are more than 6 games out by August 15, package Boone, Choo, and a pitcher for a catcher.

  25. paul mocker on March 8th, 2005 4:20 pm

    [edit — mgmt]

    Who are the prospects out there for catcher? I noticed that Beane got Kendall for two players – average pitchers. Bavasi missed a chance there to send Franklin and a LHP to Littlefield.

    Sickels named the Indians propect catcher in his Top 10.

  26. Dave on March 8th, 2005 5:00 pm

    You’re probably thinking of Ryan Garko, who is a longshot to catch at the major league level. He’s a good hitter, but he’s almost certainly on the Mike Sweeney/Craig Wilson career path. The Indians aren’t interested in trading him, either.

    And no, the Mariners missed an opportunity to pick up a breaking down, past his prime, overpriced catcher in Kendall. Feel free to search the site; we’ve talked about that trade quite a bit, and we weren’t in favor of the M’s acquiring him.

  27. Xteve X on March 8th, 2005 5:04 pm

    Damn, mocker your whining grows tiresome … you’re getting owned here. Chill for crying out loud or take your beefs with the authors backline.

  28. John in L.A. on March 8th, 2005 5:12 pm

    I wish this were off-topic, but sadly it isn’t.

    I can only speak for myself, but the recent increase in people bickering/taking pot shots at the people that run the site is really unpleasant to read.

    Disagreeing/arguing is great… but I’ve seen so many just insults and digs and aggressiveness that I have to throw in my two cents:

    We are guests here. Behave yourself.

    And, owners, I personally see nothing wrong with you having a very heavy hand with people just here to snipe at you.

    This is one of the smartest baseball sites on the net… and that is also true of the comments section. And I would hate for a few people to spoil that.

    So I’m just saying that I personally, would not take it as reader-censorship if that moderation queue was used fairly heavy-handedly.

  29. Christopher Michael on March 8th, 2005 5:23 pm

    #83 Actually I tend to like it. The guys running this site are smart and it shows when they reply back. I know its frustrating for them but I don’t mind reading their retorts.

  30. firova on March 8th, 2005 6:13 pm

    I want to be careful not to drag this down into a discussion about backup catchers, but if Wiki Gonzalez is no great receiver behind the plate, I don’t understand why it is a problem if he is only catching 40-50 games and is not a major downgrade from Wilson in the skills department. I’m not a sabremetrician, but I was hoping someone here could actually tell me why Gonzalez is such a poor catcher that he must automatically be slated for Tacoma, $2.25 million salary and all. I know Wilson will be in Seattle no matter what, but I just want to understand the dimension of the problem we have with Gonzalez, because it is a lot of money. If he can’t be trusted to catch in a backup role, is the club simply waiting till the end of the contract to dump him or will we see him in Seattle in case of injury to Wilson or Olivo? Or is there still a possibility that Gonzalez will develop this year and actually replace Wilson in 2006? I guess I just can’t get past the $4 million Seattle is paying for half a catcher.

  31. Joshua Buergel on March 8th, 2005 7:04 pm

    If he can’t be trusted to catch in a backup role, is the club simply waiting till the end of the contract to dump him or will we see him in Seattle in case of injury to Wilson or Olivo?

    The money we owe to Wiki isn’t really money we owe to Wiki, it’s the remnants of the Cirillo money. Wiki was just a body that was thrown in to make things work out. He’s basically a replacement player that coaches usually wind up hating after a while, if the Padres beat writers are to be believed.

  32. DMZ on March 8th, 2005 7:40 pm

    While we’re off topic, I just deleted a ton of posts and I’m really mad about it. That’s all.

  33. John D. on March 8th, 2005 7:47 pm

    You would make back-up catcher a separate category (instead of making it part of the bench).
    See what you did! (83 and counting.)

  34. firova on March 9th, 2005 1:06 am

    Yeah, I know the Mariners didn’t really want Wiki, he was part of the Cirillo deal, but why does he have the contract in the first place, Padre beat writers notwithstanding? And what skills does he now possess that are so much worse than Wilson’s? I guess no one really knows at this point because he missed most of last year. His numbers don’t look great.
    Dan Firova never made $2.25 mil, but he did catch a few games for the M’s.

  35. John D. on March 9th, 2005 9:24 am

    [85, and counting)
    I see that the Pirates just relesed J.R. House, a promising catcher, who had shoulder surgery, and will sit out the season.
    Shouldn’t the Mariners take a flyer on him, claim him to use him in 2006?

  36. Christopher Rao on March 10th, 2005 2:10 am

    Probably a day or two too late, but I’ll throw in my cents: Arguments over Wilson’s value fall into about 4 clear cats: 1) offensive stats 2) defensive stats 3) intangible value 4) marketing value. The overwhelming reason to keep Wilson is (4), demonstrable in various ways, despite have poor offense and intangibles that, while arguably beneficial, do not appear to be demonstrable. The biz metaphor I’d use is the guy who brings in a lot of business but isn’t really good at his actual job. Still has value, I think. Especially when a large part of the fan base suffered through years of bad teams and fairly likeable players. Yeah, it ain’t NYC (where I grew up).

    The more interesting question is when you decide to “ruthlessly” cut the type of marketing plus/performance minus player. I think you do this not now, when we are really not a threat to win anything, but maybe in ’06 or ’07, when every last roster spot may count towards actually winning in the playoffs. The same kind of time when you burn prospects to get established talent to put you over the edge.

    As to sniping at the crew of the USS – yeah it’s a drag, and yeah it makes my time here less fun. I heartily endorse deleting posts, especially b/c the USS is not run by one mercurial hand but by several very smart guys. I think this has a balancing effect that shows in the generally wise decision-making I see here, and leads to a higher quality blog. Anyone who thinks that Dave, DMZ and Co. are capriciously censoring worthwhile criticism should go out and start a better blog (good luck!). Seriously, thanks for the hard work guys, and for consistently being a thoughtful and relaxing ending to my stressful days 🙂