Can We Finally Stop Underrating John Jaso?
January update: Sigh…
Over at the official team site, Greg Johns weighs in with a piece on the team’s options at catcher for next year. There’s nothing earth-shattering in there, as it contains a bunch of non-committal quotes from Jack and Wedge about how they’re going to sort out the catching situation. The piece focuses primarily on Montero and Zunino at the beginning, then closes with these two paragraphs on John Jaso:
Jaso was a pleasant surprise for the Mariners both as a clutch hitter and capable catcher, but his playing time was limited by his difficulties against left-handed pitchers. The lefty swinging Jaso batted .302 with a .927 OPS in 308 plate appearances against right-handers compared to .119 with a .393 OPS in 53 plate appearances against southpaws.
Jaso caught many of Felix Hernandez‘s starts, including his perfect game, and Wedge gave him more of a full-time role either at DH or catcher as the season played out. But it remains a reasonable debate as to whether Jaso excelled because Wedge put him in the best position to succeed by limiting his exposure to lefties or if he should play every day, no matter who is on the mound.
I’m not trying to pick on Johns here, who I like and who does a good job covering the team’s beat. But, I gotta be honest, the continual downplaying of John Jaso by the local media is getting tiring. Jaso’s playing time wasn’t limited because of his problems against left-handers – it was limited because Eric Wedge didn’t realize that he was actually a good player, and ignorantly kept him on the bench for the first month of the season before an injury forced him into putting Jaso in the line-up.
Let’s not talk about him like some young kid who had a good September but doesn’t have a track record for the team to really know what they have yet. John Jaso is a 29-year-old with 1,048 plate appearances in the big leagues. He has the equivalent of two full major League catcher seasons under his belt, and during that time, he’s hit .255/.359/.395, good for a 116 wRC+. Here is the entire list of Major League catchers who have hit accumulated 1,000 or more plate appearances in the big leagues since 2008 (when Jaso debuted, albeit briefly) and posted a wRC+ of 110 or higher:
Buster Posey – 142 wRC+
Joe Mauer – 139 wRC+
Mike Napoli -133 wRC+
Carlos Santana – 124 wRC+
Victor Martinez – 121 wRC+
Brian McCann – 118 wRC+
John Jaso – 116 wRC+
Alex Avila – 115 wRC+
Miguel Montero – 113 wRC+
Jorge Posada – 113 wRC+
Carlos Ruiz – 112 wRC+
Yadier Molina – 110 wRC+
Ryan Doumit – 110 wRC+
That’s the whole list. Notice how none of them have been pigeonholed as part-timers by their franchises? Every catcher who shows this kind of offensive performance is rewarded with a regular job. Now, let’s look at just the left-handed hitting catchers in baseball, which includes four guys from that list and one regular who hasn’t even been anywhere near as good but is still considered an everyday guy on a contender, and see how they’ve fared against left-handed pitching over this same time frame.
Joe Mauer – 117 wRC+
Brian McCann – 100 wRC+
Alex Avila – 89 wRC+
Miguel Montero – 86 wRC+
A.J. Pierzynski – 85 wRC+
Notice how they’re all significantly worse against lefties than against righties? Mauer’s the only one who even grades out as an above average hitter against lefties, and he’s still not even remotely as effective against LHPs as he is against RHPs. McCann, Avila, and Montero are three of the better catchers in baseball, and all have their problems against southpaws. Pierzynski has been a starting catcher for the better part of the last decade, even despite his problems against left-handed pitching.
Instead of deciding that struggles against left-handers are some kind of deal-breaker, these franchises have realized there isn’t really such a thing as a left-handed hitting catcher who excels against left-handed pitching. Mauer — one of the game’s truly elite players, who is making $23 million per year for the next six years — is the only example in the sport of a left-handed catcher who you feel strongly needs to be in the line-up against most left-handed pitchers. Every other guy on that list can comfortably be platooned, and in fact, most of them have been to some degree.
Again, same 2008-2012 time period, here are the percentages of plate appearances that these five regular left-handed catchers have gotten against RHPs and LHPs.
In other words, if we extrapolate out to 500 plate appearances over a whole season, these “full-time” left-handed catchers will get between 110 and 180 plate appearances against lefties. And, really, 180 is artificially high because the Twins use Mauer at 1B/DH against left-handers occasionally in order to keep his bat in the line-up. McCann is really more of the example of what an “everyday” left-handed catcher would expect, and out of 500 plate appearances, he’d face 160 lefties.
Jaso, for his career, is at 86/14, so he’s been platooned more heavily than any of them, of course. But, this idea that he just can’t handle an expanded role falls apart when you actually apply the math. Let’s assume that the Mariners and Rays had given Jaso the kind of workload that Montero/Avila/Pierzynski got, so his platoon distribution was actually 77%/23% instead of 86%/14%. We’re also going to assume he wouldn’t have performed any better against left-handers than he actually did even while seeing them more often (a dubious claim, especially since most of his problems against LHPs stem from a low BABIP, but that’s a separate argument), and that playing regularly wouldn’t improve his overall performance against righties, which has been argued by local beat writers before when we called for Raul Ibanez to be platooned. For now, we’ll just forego both of those discussions which could argue for improved overall numbers from Jaso and just go with what he actually did.
To reallocate his playing time into a more “full time” role, we’re going to simply shift his 1,048 PAs from its current distribution and into one where 77% of his plate appearances come against right-handers and 23% come against left-handers. The redistribution would leave him with 807 PAs against righties and 241 PAs against let-handers, so it moves 90 plate appearances from vs RHP tally into the vs LHP side of the ledger. Now, let’s recalculate Jaso’s total offensive performance after re-weighting his line against each side by his new distribution.
|Vs RHP||807||125||Vs RHP||897||125|
|Vs LHP||241||61||Vs LHP||151||61|
By playing him like a “regular”, Jaso’s career wRC+ would drop all the way from 116 down to 110. Truly, a crushing blow to his value. If you prefer it in run values, the total negative from not platooning him any heavier than Montero, Avila, or Pierzynski would have cost him a whopping seven runs over the equivalent of two full seasons worth of playing time.
Here’s the reality – the idea that his line is massively inflated because of the way he was handled simply doesn’t add up. Jaso’s overall line is slightly better than it would have otherwise been had he faced a more normal split of righties and lefties, but the gap is not anywhere close to what it’s being made out to be. Even if John Jaso had been put into a Brian McCann-style role, he still would grade out as an above average hitter, simply because his performance against RHPs has been so good.
No, he’s not good at throwing out opposing base stealers, having gunned down just 20% of opponents trying to take a base off of him in his career. But, guess what? A.J. Pierzynski’s only thrown out 23% of career base stealers, and Brian McCann’s at 24%. The Major League average for caught stealing this year was 26%. Jaso is marginally worse at this than most regular catchers, but the gap is in all honestly not very large.
And no, opposing runners simply aren’t taking advantage of Jaso and turning games into a track meet when he’s back there – teams have attempted one steal every 11.4 innings off of him during his career, compared to a league average of one attempt every 9.9 innings off an average catcher.
There is simply no argument to be made that Jaso’s problems against left-handers or his throwing serve to significantly drag down his value to the point where he’s best served in some kind of part-time bench role like he was used this year. His usage this year was a mistake, and one that should absolutely be corrected in 2013.
John Jaso is a Major League quality starting catcher, and based on his MLB performance to date — again, in over two full seasons worth of playing time — he’s showed that he’s probably one of the 10 best catchers in baseball. That doesn’t mean you have to run him out there against every left-hander, but using him like the Diamondbacks used Montero or the White Sox used Pierzynski is completely rational. That’s around 120 starts per year, with a bias towards using his days off when a left-hander is on the mound.
John Jaso is pretty obviously the team’s best hitter right now. He might very well be the team’s best player, even with his moderate power, big platoon splits, and his mediocre throwing arm. While Eric Wedge failed to recognize Jaso’s strengths and simply focused on his weaknesses, that doesn’t mean that we have to do the same. Jaso isn’t a perfect player, but besides Joe Mauer, there are no perfect left-handed hitting Major League catchers. Other organizations have realized that the positives so far outweigh the negatives that they’ve simply found a capable right-handed hitting back-up to start 40 games a year and let their lefty hitting catchers be significant assets to the organization.
The Mariners just need to do the same thing. At some point in the near future, it’s quite possible that Mike Zunino is going to push John Jaso out of the way, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that there’s some kind of sense of urgency to get him to the Majors to fill a gaping hole. The Mariners already have one of the better catchers in baseball and a guy who has done everything possible to deserve a shot as a full-time regular Major League player. At this point, not giving him that opportunity would simply be stubbornness. There are just no other part-time players in baseball that have played this well and not been given the chance to run with a full-time job. When someone performs as well as Jaso has over 1,000+ plate appearances, they get a chance because they’ve earned it.
Wedge might not love Jaso’s skillset. He might prefer a catcher with a cannon arm or better framing technique, or a louder personality who takes charge and looks more like a general behind the plate. None of that should matter. It’s time for Jack to simply tell Eric Wedge that John Jaso is his starting catcher next year, and that the roster will be built accordingly. Jaso has earned that opportunity.
Pretending that he’s just some kind of unproven, unknown entity with questionable value is not an accurate representation of the facts. John Jaso is a very good Major League hitter, and as a left-hander who can also catch, that makes him a pretty rare commodity in the sport. Rather than focusing on what he can’t do, it’s time for everyone to recognize what John Jaso can do, and give him the opportunity show it over a full season.