All-Time All-Mariner Roster: Catcher
Dave and I have decided to write about something fun this year, and since the 2008 Mariners won’t give us anything good to write about, we’re finding it ourselves. So, today, we launch out on a 25 part series where we build the All-Time roster for the organization, going from the starting catcher all the way down to the long man in the bullpen, picking the best single season at each position. In most spots, there are arguments for more than one season, so we’ll talk through our thoughts before coming to a conclusion.
Today we discuss the catcher: Kenji Johjima 2006 or Dan Wilson 1996?
When we talk about the best seasons in franchise history, I think there’s an immediate expectation that the performances we’re going to be talking about are obvious, huge offensive years. However, we have to remember that value is relative, and that the scale for a quality season for a catcher is vastly different than at other positions. So, while Kenji’s 2006 batting line of .291/.332/.451 might not jump off the page, it’s actually a very valuable performance, especially considering the context. There isn’t a park on earth worse suited to Johjima’s offensive skillset than Safeco Field, and he still managed to perform well while transitioning to Major League Baseball.
In fact, his OPS+ for 2006 was 103, meaning that he was a better than league average hitter. Not better than average hitting catcher – better than average hitter period. This isn’t a regular accomplishment for a full-time catcher. This decade, there have only been 42 seasons where a catcher has accumulated 500 or more plate appearances and had an OPS+ of 100 or higher. That’s an average of six catcher seasons per year. 2006 Kenji Johjima is part of that class.
He isn’t the greatest guy at blocking the ball in the dirt, and when compared with Dan Wilson, he’s going to come up short defensively, but there’s no doubt that Johjima’s 2006 season was the best offensive performance the Mariners have ever gotten from behind the plate. With our ability to evaluate catcher defense still a work in progress, I think we have to acknowledge that Johjima’s performance as a rookie was the best we’ve seen from a backstop since the franchise began in 1977.
Kenjiâ€™s 2006 is right up there, but Wilsonâ€™s 1996 is better. We may not know how to evaluate catcher defense nearly as well as other positions, but we know enough to establish that Wilson is superior, enough that it overcomes any differences in offense.
Having seen Dan Wilsonâ€™s long decline into awfulness, we forget just how good he was at his peak, and 1996 was absolutely primo Wilson: he was 27, had a great offensive year, and he played outstanding defense.
Johjima hit .291/.332/.451 in 2006, for an OPS+ of 103.
Wilson hit .285/.330/.444 in 1996, for an OPS+ of 94.
Thatâ€™s a significant difference, but itâ€™s not all that huge. And itâ€™s the Kingdome, yes, but the Kingdome was never the offense-crazy haven itâ€™s been made out to be. Looking at b-r, I see that in 1996, it rated out as 96, favoring pitchers, and the multi-year factor ran about even. Thatâ€™s not a great park factor number.
Now compare defensive lines. First, the obvious: runners caught. Wilson allowed 61 stolen bases and caught 39, which works out neatly to a 39% thrown out rate (see how considerate Wilson was? He made sure the percentages were super-easy to calculate).
Johjima allowed 57 stolen bases and caught 29 runners, a 34% thrown out rate.
Wilson allows 4 more and nails 10 more in fewer innings. Using my handy run values from The Book, thatâ€™s about four runs worth of difference.
The difference isnâ€™t in the staff, either — in 1996 the Mâ€™s got 66 starts out of left-handed starters, who generally dampen the running game, while the 2006 Mariners got 67 (as I count it â€“ itâ€™s Hitchcock + Mulholland + Moyer + 8 by Johnson against Washburn + Moyer + 8 Woods starts + 2 Feierabend + 1 Jimenez).
And thatâ€™s just with the running game. What about their ability as a backstop?
Wilson: caught 1130 innings, allowed 5 passed balls, 29 wild pitches, and made four errors.
Johjima: caught 1172 2/3 innings, allowed 10 passed balls and 39 wild pitches, and made seven errors.
Iâ€™m going to ignore the errors for a second. The run value of a passed ball or a wild pitch is about ~.285 runs (btw, not to plug Tango too often, but this chart is awesome). If we can credit those passed balls and wild pitches to Wilson, and I donâ€™t see why we shouldnâ€™t, thatâ€™s another four runs in his favor.
Already, not counting any mobility, foul-catching, pouncing-on-punt kind of more traditional defensive measures, you get +8 runs to Wilson. Was a 27-year old Wilson a better fielder than a 30-year old Kenji? Itâ€™s hard to make defensive comparisons, but yes.
Unfortunately, here the evidence fails me: I donâ€™t want to get into separating out how many foul balls they caught, and when I look at the assists, plays where the catchers fielded the ball and then threw somewhere else to get the out He had 57 of them in 1996, while Kenji had 59 in 20 more innings caught. I wish I could get UZRs or PMRs or something useful for 1996 v 2006, but we donâ€™t. Iâ€™ll throw my hands up here and call it even, but I suspect that if I really tried to suss an answer from the stats we can know, weâ€™d find Wilson the more mobile and effective fielding catcher as well.
The eight runs saved we can easily grant Wilson make up for the offensive gap between them and more, and make his 1996 the better season.
You know, when I was writing the pro-Johjima part, I had a feeling that I was arguing a losing position. Reading that, I know that feeling was right. 2006 Kenji was good, but 1996 Wilson was better.