2006 Position Roundtables: Starting Catcher
Last year, we did a series of posts leading up to the start of the season where we covered each part of the roster in a string of emails, and then posted them here. Starting today, we’re launching this year’s crop, beginning behind the plate. The goal is to post two per week, likely on Mondays and Thursdays, up through opening day. These will give us a chance to cover each spot in enough detail to hopefully give you guys an idea of what we expect from the 2006 team.
So, without further ado, let’s kick off the roundtables.
Starting Catcher: Kenji Johjima
In 2005, the Mariners gave seven catchers a total of 563 plate appearances. As a group, they hit .215/.249/.311. In case you want some run context for that line, if the M’s team had matched that number, they’d have scored 2.46 runs per game. No other position in baseball, on any team, yielded the same kind of offensive futility for their organization as did the Mariner catcher. The seven men who wore the tools of ignorance for the M’s last year had all the offensive prowess of a triple-A reserve infielder. They combined to be worth 14.7 runs less than a replacement level major league catcher, which is essentially defined as the expected performance of a minor league veteran that a team could acquire for free. Had the M’s handed all 563 of those plate appearances to, say, Alberto Castillo, they’d have improved by 15 runs.
Needless to say, Kenji Johjima’s not exactly filling big shoes. He could decide to swing with one hand and still be an improvement over the disaster that was the Mariner Wheel-O-Catchers-2005. There’s a 0.0001 percent chance that the M’s don’t see a huge improvement in catcher offense in 2006, and that tiny decimile essentially accounts for the chance that Johjima is kidnipped by an angry Rene Rivera, and the M’s end up signing Derek to fill the gap while the rescue party searches the high seas. Barring that, expect the M’s 2006 catchers to run laps around the 2005 catchers.
So, we know we’ll be better. But how much better? What do we expect from Johjima in his first year in the states? All the translations of his Japanese numbers turn out very well. The different projection systems stick him anywhere from .250/.320/.400 to .270/.340/.480. It’s a pretty big gap of expected performance, and we certainly don’t have anything near the certainty with him that we do with other spots on the roster. While his numbers in Japan were terrific, there are some reasons to expect less in the states.
First off, Johjima will be 30 in June, and catchers don’t age particularly well. It’s not uncommon for backstops who were great in their twenties to fall apart offensively in their early thirties. It’s not the norm, but it happens frequently enough to not be ruled out. When added to the cultural adjustment, the move to Safeco Field as a right-handed batter, and the M’s emphasis on defense as the number one job of a catcher to the point of potentially stunting offensive development, there are legitimate reasons to expect a more significant decline than a straight numerical translation of his Japanese numbers might suggest.
Of course, there’s also a flip side. The scouts love him. His performances have been legitimately tremendous. He’s already in the U.S. working on his game, and he’s skipping the WBC to commit his time in spring trianing to learning the pitching staff and getting acclimated to Major League Baseball. Scouts are convinced he’s going to be a star here, and pretty much every statistical projection system has him hitting at a level that will make him one of the three or four best catchers in baseball in 2006.
When the scouts and the stats agree, there’s no good reason to be pessimistic. Johjima’s probably going to hit, and hit well, from the day he puts on a Mariner uniform. With the rest of the division running Jason Kendall, Jeff Mathis, and Rod Barajas out there as his competition, it will be an upset if the Mariners don’t have the best catcher in the division. If he hits .280/.350/.440, which is about where I have him pegged, he’ll be an easy choice for the all-star team.
And, keep in mind, even if you think he’s going to be a total bust, he’ll still be 15 to 20 runs better than what the M’s had last year.
The concerns about his language and his ability to handle his pitching staff are overblown, the same kind of thing we heard when people were scraping for arguments for why Ichiro wasn’t a valid Rookie of the Year candidate. It’s somehow not a big deal for catchers to speak broken Spanish, or English, depending on their background, but if their first language is Japanese, well, that’s entirely different. I was particularly amused by the various crazy evaluations of his English, which ranged from “speaks none” on up. None? Really? Have you tried to talk to him?
From all accounts, Johjima’s invested much time and effort in improving his English and doing preparation work. And let’s be realistic, how much English does he really need to know?
Moyer: known to call his own pitches, preparation freak
Washburn: “Why do you make more than I do?”
Pineiro: “Be the good Joel, okay?”
Meche: “Man you are hooooooooooorrible tonight.”
Felix: what are you going to tell Felix? “Dial it down” maybe?
A friend of mine is the first person ever to play hacky-sack at the South Pole. It’s true.
She traveled via icebreaker down to Antarctica and, once there, discusses with her compatriots whether certain activities had ever been engaged in on the coldest continent. Here’s their chance at history, to be the first person to swing a golf club there, or do the hula hoop, or put an icy boot onto a hippie footbag.
My point is: people are fascinated with firsts. Though position players have come over from Japan with success, the fact that a catcher has never done so is going to cause much more of a kerfluffle than it should.
Is there reasonable justification for this? Kind of. It’s true that catcher is a unique position.
From where I sit, though, the trickiest part about Johjima’s transition to the majors is going to be teaching announcers along the Mariners radio network how to pronounce his name. Up here in Bellingham, I’ve already heard “Yojima,” “Jawjima” and “Hojima” — and it’s not even spring yet.
At least we got the pressing issue of the internal “h” cleared up long ago. Now, all Kenji has to do is treat Major League pitchers the way he did their counterparts in Asia, and we’re in business.
I agree that the concerns about his language are overblown, but I still think its a legitimate concern on a minor level. It’s not a big deal for a hispanic catcher to speak little english because every baseball team on earth has several other spanish speakers, and pretty much every infield in baseball has a spanish speaker who can come in and translate a mound conversation if need be. If Johjima spoke Spanish instead of Japanese, he could haul Beltre, Betancourt, or Lopez over and everyone would get along just fine. But Ichiro’s not jogging in from right field on trips to the mound, so Johjima has to learn more english than a hispanic catcher would.
In the end, it’s probably not a big deal, but I don’t think the straight comparison to spanish works.
Honestly, the thing that probably worries me most about Johjima is Safeco. It’s eaten some good hitters alive over the past few years. As much as I love Mike Cameron, it was painful watching him try to hit there. If Johjima rocks a few balls that are run down in the LF-CF gap, is he going to be able to overcome that and not let it get in his head?
This is a fair and sobering point about Safeco. It’s been a damper on many a right-handed hitter.
One other item on the language point that bears repeating: Johjima worked with English- and Spanish-speaking pitchers in Japan with, by all reports, no problem. I doubt this will be a bigger issue on this side of the Pacific.
It’s funny; a year ago we were doing these roundtables and Jeff and I in particular were quite upbeat about the M’s starting catcher — Miguel Olivo, a relative unknown. Now here we are, all of us excited at the prospect of Kenji Johjima, yet another unknown.
I’ll echo the comments made so far — there’s no way he doesn’t improve on the abysmal performance the M’s got out of their “catchers” last season. The language issue? Overblown. I won’t go so far as to make a projection, as there are tools for that sort of thing and my knowledge of Japanese baseball is slim-to-none (and getting narrower all the time, a friend of mine used to say).
As a veteran but not-yet-old catcher, Johjima’s the perfect way to bridge the gap until Clement is ready in two years. My one concern is not having JoeJessica around to back him up — there aren’t any good backup options in the system right now, meaning we could be in for 140 games of Johjima along with the classic catcher fade in August.
In any event, that’s a minor concern. Johjima gets my full endorsement as, by miles and miles, the best move the M’s made this winter.