2006 Position Roundtables: Starting Catcher

Dave · January 29, 2006 at 11:14 pm · Filed Under 2006 Position Roundtables, Mariners 

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.


I agree.

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.


26 Responses to “2006 Position Roundtables: Starting Catcher”

  1. Baseline on January 29th, 2006 11:34 pm

    Anything has to be an improvement.

    I don’t think KJ will be able to touch Olivo’s -12.8 VORP (for the love of all that’s holy lets hope not), wich was good for deadlast in the league, going away.

  2. Deanna on January 29th, 2006 11:58 pm

    The impression I got from Johjima at Fanfest was that he’s doing his best to try to speak English as much as possible, also that he understands a lot more than he speaks.

    My biggest worry is the effect of Safeco on him as a righty hitter… and how he’ll do in a 162-game season, being as the Pacific League usually plays around 135-140 games per year. And yeah, Rivera looks like the only other catcher on the 40-man right now. Ack.

    Also, Johjima jerseys are already available at the team store for the paltry sum of $210. I went for the more economical number t-shirt for $20.

  3. milquetoast on January 30th, 2006 12:45 am

    If we really had Alberto Castillo as our catcher, would he really have been 15 runs better? His career line 222/295/296, and as a righty in safeco, his numbers would probably go down. Of course it’s hard to imagine a level of futility that was achieved by Miguel Olivo in 2005, but that seems an outlier in his career, and that sort of futility can possibly happen to, say, Alberto Castillo who, in his history, has also had some stunningly bad numbers.

    How exactly is replacement level defined then? Dave says it’s the expected performance of a minor league veteran that can be acquired for the minimum. My question centers on how we define this expected performance. Barring injury, it would seem that no major league team would knowingly start a replacement level player. I presume that major league backups are probably also better than a minor league veteran. If that is the case, do we get the “expected performance” of by averaging the translated performances of the 32 best minor-league catchers? (and even then, the “best” of these catchers are likely worth more to their teams than the minimum.) Also I’ve never been convinced that translated minor-league performances are entirely accurate. I’ve read through the definitions of “replacement level” but I still can’t get a handle on it. If anyone could please not just define it, but show me how it is actually calculated, that would be very helpful.

    Additionally, I tend to think that what we were working with WAS replacement level (we just kept bringing in minor league catchers.) and so even though the performance was incredibly abysmal, it was also random fluctuation. If we bring back the exact same group, we can expect them to be a lot better than last year.

    All of which is to say, I can’t wait for Johjima. I think he’ll be great.

  4. Paul Covert on January 30th, 2006 1:06 am

    Johjima gets my full endorsement as, by miles and miles, the best move the M’s made this winter.

    Yeah… what was the second-best move, “Not Trading Jeremy Reed for Mediocre Pitching Prospects”?

    How exactly is replacement level defined then? … If anyone could please not just define it, but show me how it is actually calculated, that would be very helpful.

    The difficulty is that there’s no one agreed-upon way of calculating it. Keith Woolner wrote an article in the print BP a few years back in which he argued for a shifting level of VORP as a percentage of league-average, depending on position (catcher 90% of league average, first basemen 80%, everybody else 85%).

    Clay Davenport, on the other hand, writes here that “A replacement level player is one who has .736 times as many EqR as the average for that position; that corresponds to a .351 winning percentage.” But that only applies to Davenport’s metrics (“RAR”– Runs Above Replacement– and so forth), not to anyone else’s.

    So there’s not an absolute consensus on how to specify the replacement level. Indeed, I have personally thought that the ideal approach would be sort of a sliding scale, reflecting the fact that there’s no one point at which talent suddenly becomes freely available– it just becomes easier and easier to acquire as you go further below league-average. However, to do this right would be really, really hard.


    Back on the topic of catchers: It’s interesting to note how catcher has replaced shortstop as the low-offense position on the diamond over the last generation. Using Davenport’s EQA metric:

    Year –C– –SS–
    1975 .255 .235
    1985 .251 .243
    1995 .248 .244
    2005 .245 .254

    Whether this has occurred for good reasons or not, I don’t know– maybe shortstop defense was overrated before, maybe catcher defense is overrated now, or any of various other possibilities.

    But in any case, I do agree that it’s nice to have a catcher who seems likely to swing a respectably good bat.

  5. Churchill on January 30th, 2006 3:55 am

    I’ll certainly take the under on the median projections for Johjima – and be ecstatic about the massive improvement of production from the position.

    Hopefully he hits – and fields/communicates/sells tickets enough to keep Rivera’s starts to a bare minimum.

  6. Matthew Carruth on January 30th, 2006 6:54 am

    Catcher defense is highly overrated right now. It’s rare for a catcher to be worth more than +/- 10 runs in a season.

  7. Adam S on January 30th, 2006 7:15 am

    Even if catcher defense is overrated, going from Olivo to Johjima, who’s a gold glover and kills the running game, is a huge upgrade. I noticed none of the authors said anything about his glove.

    I think this signing and the potential gain at the catching position has been well underplayed by the media. The projections Dave mentions seem to work out to VORP of 25-40 with 30 being likely (a bit more if those are already Safeco adjusted). Going from -15 to 30 is 5 wins and he could add a couple on defense, which would be +7 wins. And if he hits the high end of the projection and catcher defense is worth something that could be a 10 Win gain!!

    If the Mariners surprise this year, I think it’s Johjima and/or Beltre who will be leading the charge.

  8. toonprivate on January 30th, 2006 8:10 am

    So at this point what IS the narrative on what happened to Olivo? No one, not even Olivo, could have been worse last year, and it came totally out of nowhere. Did the Safeco Effect lead to bad adjustments that ultimately rendered him clueless at the plate? Unknown injuries? A bad relationship? And after he moves on to SD, he suddenly has a great month or so: So why did the Padres let him go? Olivo has me confused…

  9. Safeco Hobo on January 30th, 2006 8:28 am

    One thing i would like to point out is communication is a two-way street. What difference does it make if its the pitcher that speaks English and the catcher that speaks Japanese or if its the pitcher that speaks Japanese and the catcher that speaks English.

    I don’t think it’s much different from when Sasaki came over and had to work with Wilson. Its just their speaking roles are reversed.

    I think by May everyone will forget this “HUGE language barrier”, and everyone will be busy talking about the latest “Everett said what?”

  10. msb on January 30th, 2006 8:48 am

    When asked by a fan just how many homeruns he was going to hit this year, Johjima played the crowd by first looking around at Safeco’s dimensions ….

    It was interesting hearing others talk about Johjima this weekend — the general consensus seems to that he is smart (as well as ‘baseball smart’, we hear via Dan Wilson based on their work together in the video room last week), incredibly hard working and ready to bond with his pitchers (his workout day now starts at 8 because he knows that at 8:30 Jamie will be down at Safeco working out), confident enough in his conversational English to lean over and make a comment to Moyer during a lull in the Q&A, and eager to learn (Rafael Chaves mentioned that Jo had already come to him)

    #8– Bavasi talked briefly about Olivo at Fanfest; Olivo came up because someone asked the (inevitable and innaccurate) “why does everyone the Mariners cut go on to be better elsewhere” question, to which Bavasi reasonably replied “give me names” — the best she could come up with was Mike Cameron whom Bill pointed out left as a free agent … McLemore? free agent, to Texas, now retired … and then another fan mentioned Olivo.

    Bavasi pointed out that Olivo did the same thing in San Diego that he did here — a fast start with a tail off — and that San Diego had not brought him back for next season … he then commented [massive paraphrase here] that he wasn’t sure that as talented as Miguel was, he would ever figure things out.

  11. Matthew Carruth on January 30th, 2006 9:29 am

    “Even if catcher defense is overrated, going from Olivo to Johjima, who’s a gold glover and kills the running game, is a huge upgrade. I noticed none of the authors said anything about his glove.”

    Well no, that’s the point. It’s usually not a huge upgrade. Killing the running game isn’t actually worth much of anything since steal attempts are often losing propositions. It’s much more useful to be able to induce the other team to try and steal and hold them under the 70% or so success rate needed to break even in terms of run value. And finally, Olivo had an okay arm. He saved about a run per season.

  12. LF Monster on January 30th, 2006 9:32 am

    #7 I totally agree that good years from Beltre and Kenji could propel this team with improvements elsewhere. Reed would be the third name I’d mention offensively. I whole-heartedly beleive that the Mariners will have one of the better (top 10) offenses in MLB 2006. Unless the pitching staff proves much better than I fear them to be, there’ll be no playoffs this year regardless.

    Language can be difficult, but we’ve all had our experiences with these barriers and know it can be dealt with. Due to accounts that he’s working at communication, not only in English but Spanish as well, I have no concern that there will be an issue more than rarely.

    Hobo said it right, but I add…and how many pitchers have come from Japan with no interpreter on the mound? (How many have done well?) Only real difference being that a pitcher works with 2-4 catchers usually and a catcher works with 12-20 pitchers over a season.

    Isn’t replacement level simply when you can’t take any more of watching this player? He’s now below replacement level!

  13. Evan on January 30th, 2006 9:41 am

    That’s a really good point. Why wasn’t it a big deal for Sasaki to work with Wilson, but it is for Johjima to work with Washburn?

    And Sasaki didn’t even try to learn English, compared to Johjima hurling himself in local culture with wild abandon.

  14. Dave on January 30th, 2006 9:52 am

    That’s a really good point. Why wasn’t it a big deal for Sasaki to work with Wilson, but it is for Johjima to work with Washburn?

    Because Sasaki threw 60 innings a year, while Johjima is going to catch something north of 1,000?

  15. Evan on January 30th, 2006 10:46 am

    But isn’t the whole point behind the various closer mythoi that their innings are the most important?

  16. Rusty on January 30th, 2006 11:05 am

    Anyone have access to a hit chart of Johjima’s hitting in Japan? Safeco doesn’t kill all right-handed hitters, just ones who like to pull the ball with arms less massive than Sexson’s.

  17. eric on January 30th, 2006 11:14 am

    Or put it this way, what do you need to tell Sasaki besides “keep your sinker down”?

    That said I do think the language thing is overblown, most Japanese people I have met (I’ve been there a few times) can speak and understand English well enough to have a one on one conversations, especially people under 40.

  18. Evan on January 30th, 2006 11:25 am

    And, Johjima’s already addressed the media, IN ENGLISH.

    English also has a fairly rigid grammatical structure, much like Japanese. I don’t think learning one is terribly difficult for a speaker of the other. It’s not like we’re asking him to learn an antisyntactical language like Icelandic.

  19. eponymous coward on January 30th, 2006 1:05 pm

    Additionally, I tend to think that what we were working with WAS replacement level (we just kept bringing in minor league catchers.) and so even though the performance was incredibly abysmal, it was also random fluctuation. If we bring back the exact same group, we can expect them to be a lot better than last year.

    Probably, but some of that goes into the Mariners hitting bad luck last year (their Pythag numbers indicating they should have been better than they were, and so on).

    So, even given the potential trainwrecks that some of our offseason acquisitions might be, a .500 season is very much within reach (and, commensurately, a slim chance of contention and postseason play based on simple luck), thanks to having players like Johjima instead of Dr. Tongue’s Evil 3D House of Awful Catchers.

  20. Evan on January 30th, 2006 1:58 pm

    Rusty – Sexson doesn’t really look like a pull hitter from his charts. He only seems to pull singles (and he hit flyball outs to the opposite field).

    But, as I reread your point, you didn’t say Sexson was a pull hitter. You just said he was strong enough that being a pull hitter wouldn’t hurt him, and that’s probably true.

    Nevermind, then.

  21. Smegmalicious on January 30th, 2006 3:32 pm

    EVAN, you don’t think learning English would be hard for a Japanese speaker of vice versa? Let me tell you, from experience, that you’re both insane and wrong.

    Though I don’t think language will be a big deal, Japanese cribs a lot of english words for baseball terms and most Japanese kids learn basic english in school. This combined with his willingness to learn and the fact that MLB pitchers don’t need all that much attention from catchers during a game tells me it will be no big deal.

  22. Rusty on January 30th, 2006 3:59 pm

    Thanks Evan. Yeah, I’ve seen Sexson pull some shots to right field where it seemed like the ball was heading out of the stadium. And you’re right, he sprays homers to all points of the bleachers. Obviously, having strong arms is somewhat essential for right-handed power hitters at Safeco. Boone and Edgar could pull it to right on a given occasion, but the key was that they also hit the ball to the opposite field if the location of the pitch demanded it. They both had big arms.

  23. darrylzero on January 30th, 2006 4:41 pm

    22, wait, I thought right handed batters “pulled” home runs to left field, and hitting to right field was the “opposite way.” I’m inclined to agree with your general point, but I feel like you’ve got the fields switched. Or I’m confused.

    21, I think all Evan was trying to say is that Japanese and English share more logical similarities than some other languages (say either with Icelandic I guess). I only took two years of highschool Japanese, but I feel like this is at least partially true. At least there’s no third articulation point or anything like in Thai (I don’t speak any Thai, that’s just from an old college psych course). It’s not as similar to English as German or the Romance languages are, but it doesn’t require the same huge logical leaps that could be necessary crossing other linguistic barriers.

  24. Rusty on January 30th, 2006 7:25 pm

    Yup, I got the fields backwards.

  25. little joey on January 31st, 2006 2:43 pm

    Given the uncertainty about Johjima, I’m really surprised that the Mariners are ready to count on Rene Rivera as a back up. If they’re serious about his future, he should repeat AA. I wonder if they might be looking for more competition from Corky Miller that we’ve assumed.

    Rivera is not going to do anything above replacement level with his bat. While he is a fantastic back stop, he’s going to be a drain on the team if Johjima is injured or really underperforms. Even 200 at bats would look pretty bad. I’m holding out for BP to be printed- what does his PECOTA look like?

    I guess it’s not a huge deal-even if Johjima bombs, he won’t be worse that last year’s catchers. Still, I might have kept Torrealba around.

  26. GaryIverson on February 1st, 2006 6:30 am

    Dont know if any of you listen to KJR 950 but an interview with Hargrove produced this interesting little tidbit. When asked what the lineup would be today, Hargrove put Johjima in the two hole between
    Ichiro and Ibanez. For a player that there are questions about by us fans, Hargrove apparently doesnt have any!!

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