The Day The Internet Cared About John Buck
(Note that Marc is working on a simultaneous post on the subject. I think there’s value in having a couple of perspectives, even if they end up being pretty similar. This way we improve the odds of covering all of our bases!)
The Mariners designated John Buck for assignment on his 34th birthday. I haven’t gotten to my own 34th birthday yet, but if there’s consolation here, it’s probably that, by your 34th birthday, you don’t really care about your birthday anymore. The occasion is one reminder that John Buck is getting older. Getting designated for assignment is another reminder that John Buck is getting older. Might as well pile it on. Buck was once a key part of the deal that sent the incredible Carlos Beltran from Kansas City to Houston. He was 23, and that was more than a decade ago.
Though, at this writing, it hasn’t been formally announced that Jesus Sucre is being called up, that looks to be a foregone conclusion. Lloyd McClendon referred to a catcher in Triple-A who’s recently turned the corner, and it ain’t Humberto Quintero. What the Mariners have done is decide to swap backup catchers behind a starter who usually starts, but the process here is more interesting than the move itself, and that’s because Buck and Sucre have very different strengths and weaknesses. Aside from the getting-on-base part. Neither one of them gets on base.
Matthew and I analyzed this immediately in the podcast, but I felt like it also deserves to go in writing. Buck isn’t getting dropped because he’s slugging .286. I mean, it’s not good that he’s slugging .286, but that’s over double-digit at-bats, and it’s not like Buck has lost all of his power. He is what the Mariners thought they were getting. This is about Buck’s defense, and perhaps even more about Sucre’s defense. According to people like Ryan Divish and Shannon Drayer, some of the clubhouse is upset that Buck is gone, but Divish also noted that pitchers have grumbled about Buck’s defense over the course of the first three months.
Buck seems to be a perfectly adequate pitch-blocker, and though he doesn’t have an awesome arm, it’s not like the Mariners have been shredded by the stolen base. It’s possible that Buck and the Mariners’ pitchers haven’t often been able to get on the same page. It’s probable that the pitchers have noticed Buck’s mediocre receiving. Buck has long graded as one of the worst pitch-framers in the majors, and this season’s been no different. Even worse, for him, Buck hasn’t been compared to an average framer; he’s been compared to Mike Zunino, who in a sense has spoiled the arms. They’ve come to expect to be received in a particular way, and Buck’s been poor. Apparently it didn’t take very long for pitchers to notice this. It’s a skill you can evaluate in as little as an inning or two.
Who is Jesus Sucre? This is Jesus Sucre. In no time at all, a year ago, Sucre demonstrated that he’s a terrific pitch-receiver. It felt downright magical to have him catching Mariner pitches, because before him it had been so long since the Mariners had a player of his type. A decade ago or whenever, we made fun of Rene Rivera for being a defensive specialist, but now it turns out Rivera is pretty valuable specifically because of that defense. Sucre is a defensive specialist. At the plate, he puts the bat on the ball and he could conceivably be worse, but Sucre is a guy who could make millions because he handles a pitching staff. To my knowledge he doesn’t have issues blocking, and he’s equipped with a hell of a throwing arm, but mostly, Sucre calls a game and catches a game. Buck’s skill is providing a big home-run boost every so often. Sucre’s skill is about fractional boosts, over and over and over again. You notice Buck’s thing more than you notice Sucre’s thing, but, quietly, Sucre succeeds, helping through strike accumulation and run prevention.
Now, because we’re talking about backup catchers, this isn’t a huge, season-changing decision. As a catcher, John Buck started 19 of 89 games. This is a minor role, and over such a limited down-the-stretch sample, you can debate whether or not, on paper, this is a good call. Buck’s a better hitter than Sucre is. That much is almost certain. How much more valuable is Sucre’s defense? How much more valuable is it, really, over three months or so? If I were to work out all the analysis, we’re probably talking about a difference in some direction of a few runs. This is almost like swapping one reliever for another.
But that’s why this is so interesting. It’s a move that, on paper, makes a small difference. Mariners people keep referring to it as a baseball decision, and it’s evident that Buck was very well-liked in many corners of the locker room. Zunino referred to him as the glue. If you figure that Buck and Sucre are just about a toss-up, the Mariners have chosen the guy with analytical support, and they’ve actively hurt their own clubhouse. You might consider this evidence that the Mariners want to maximize talent instead of maximize chemistry. You might consider this evidence that the Mariners didn’t place a high value on John Buck’s chemistry-building skills.
That’s…surprising to me, and though I’m biased by my own perceptions of the front office, I didn’t think the Mariners would willingly do something like this in a competitive season. People speak too highly of strong cohesiveness, and baseball people live in fear of clubhouse disruptions. So this is something of a gamble, given the way the roster apparently responded last night, but the Mariners’ decision-makers believe the team will get over it and move forward with a stronger defensive unit. I suppose it’s worth noting that, for however strong Buck allowed the family to become, there were pitchers who didn’t love pitching to him. So he wasn’t exactly revered all-around.
Someone said on Twitter that the Mariners’ clubhouse felt like a clubhouse that had just been through a 12-inning loss. When the Mariners lost in 12 innings on April 3, they won the next game. When they lost in 11 innings on May 2, they won the next five games. The Mariners responded to an eight-game losing streak by winning 10 of their next 12 games. The team’s bounced back from pain before. Some of that, apparently, might’ve been due to Buck’s leadership, but it makes you wonder about something related to chemistry-building.
Let’s just say that Buck had a positive overall impact on the Mariners. Let’s say that he was a strong leader, and let’s say that he helped unite the active roster. Let’s say Buck played an important role in the roster really starting to feel like a team. Basically, let’s say that Buck was as awesome for the chemistry as it’s been alleged. Why should that all now fall apart? Are we to believe that John Buck was the keystone? If everything relied on John Buck, was the clubhouse all that strong, really?
If Buck was an awesome leader, and if Buck really helped bring all the Mariners together, why should we believe those lessons would now be forgotten? If there exist bonds that only exist because of John Buck, well, those bonds exist now, so there’d be nothing left for Buck to do. Maybe Buck had contributed almost all that he could, chemistry-wise. It’s been said that Buck helped this team develop confidence early on that it could really be a contender. Well, it’s a real contender, this team. All the players know it now. So maybe Buck did exactly what he was supposed to do, and he just did it in three or four months. Maybe Buck’s projected chemistry production the rest of the way was low, despite a big first half.
In short, I’m not convinced this’ll actually be that bad for the chemistry. Not that any of us can actually analyze the chemistry, but the Mariners clearly don’t think Buck was going to play a pivotal role down the stretch, and they’ve promoted a better defender. It’s kind of a bold move in that sense, but McClendon and Zduriencik are banking on the team being stronger than a veteran backup catcher, and now the team’s real strength has been bolstered, that being the run prevention. No one would disagree that Jesus Sucre is the superior defender. He’s quieter, at the plate and in terms of his personality, but he sure can catch pitches. He sure will make pitchers feel more content when they’re pitching.
And hell, who knows, maybe that’s better for chemistry. If pitchers are now comfortable 100% of the time, how would that not work to the team’s benefit? Maybe Buck and Sucre are good for chemistry in different ways. Maybe Buck’s strength was the kind of stuff he did in the first half, and now Sucre is more of a chemistry specialist. Maybe Buck helped the team feel like a good team. Now that the team is a good team, Sucre can go in and help the pitchers forget that they’re not pitching to Mike Zunino, when he’s resting on the bench.
I’m not sure this is a good move or a bad move. I lean toward the former, but more than that, this is an interesting move, despite it being a move involving a pair of backup catchers. It’s a move that makes you think about a lot of things, and it’s a move that’s a hell of a lot more complicated than it might seem like at first glance. In the middle of a surprising season, the Mariners have made a small roster tweak that’s been unpopular within a strong and tight clubhouse. The Mariners knew damn well what John Buck had meant. They promoted the defensive specialist anyway, defending the call as a baseball decision. Down the stretch, Jesus Sucre’s unlikely to play all that much baseball.