Offseason Outlook: The Two-Headed Marlins Catcher

In our previous Outlook series, I spent some time mulling over Cody Ross and his chances of coming back to the Marlins. Thanks to the recent trade of Jeremy Hermida to the Boston Red Sox, that becomes a much greater possibility, which leaves me a pretty happy camper.

As you might recall from my Ross analysis, I valued Ross at about even given the Marlins depressed WAR rate. In the open market, Ross’ projected 2.2 WAR would worth well into the $9-10M range, so the Marlins should get good value out of Ross by paying him only $4M. Continuing with the theme of surplus value and arbitration offerings this offseason, the Marlins are likely face another arbitration case that may bring back significant dividends to the team.

Of course, going by the title, you may be able to tell that the player I am talking about is catcher Ronny Paulino, one half of a surprisingly good tag-team duo at the catcher position. Paulino and lefty catcher John Baker teamed up to provide the Marlins great value for their payment. How much? Let’s break it down.

The Marlins began platooning John Baker and Ronny Paulino early in the season. This approach had two major benefits: 1) It obviously allowed them to maintain the platoon advantage versus starting pitchers, and 2) It allowed the main starter (Baker) to get optimal catcher rest over the course of the season. Even with this plan, the Marlins still had a lot of questions about their two backstops and how much production they would provide.

Baker was coming off a monster first season in the majors, but questions lingered about whether he could continue this production. Last season, Baker hit .299/.392/.447, good for an astounding .365 wOBA. Included in this line was a stellar 11.1% unintentional walk rate. From a catcher, that is All-Star level hitting. However, the elephant in the room with regards to this production was Baker’s BABIP, standing at a hefty .367. From a slow-footed catcher, this seemed hard to sustain and likely to regress.

Sure enough, Baker regressed a good bit int he 2009 season, but it was not enough to take the wind out of his offensive sails entirely. His .333 wOBA according to FanGraphs was still above average for a hitter and was more than acceptable for a catcher. However, along with his BABIP regressing to .332 from .367, Baker’s walk rate dropped from 11.1% to a much more meager 8.5%, still above the league average but much lower than the grand expectations set up for him in 2008. If you include Baker’s defense as measured by the best method we have available, Baker was only three runs worse than average as a catcher, which would put his season total in WAR at 2.1 WAR, worth a hefty $9.5M in the open market.

Of course, Baker was pegged as one half of a platoon and did that well in just 423 PA. What about his partner, Ronny Paulino? After being jettisoned by the Pittsburgh Pirates and arriving here in Florida via trade, Paulino was installed as the lefty bashing half of the platoon, and lefty bash “the Caveman” did, hitting .290/.343/.458 against lefties in 143 PA. He faired OK versus righties as well, batting .250/.336/.380 almost as many PA, giving him a grand total of a .272/.340/.423 batting line, a .334 wOBA that was almost identical to Baker’s. Add in the fact that Paulino was a slightly above average defender, on the order of around two runs above average, and you have a package that racked up 1.8 WAR in just 266 PA and 63 starts at catcher.

This puts the combination of Paulino and Baker, platooned accordingly, at 3.9 WAR worth of production, a market value of $17.6M for the Marlins. They were paid a combined $840K, yielding the Marlins a hefty surplus value. Of course, the tandem combined for 689 PA, more than any one catcher all season this year had. Without having added all of the defensive totals up, my guess is that only four catcher tandems in the league beat out the Marlins’ two-headed monster in terms of production, including Joe Mauer plus anyone else, a tandem where Victor Martinez played, Brian McCann and David Ross for the Atlanta Braves, and Jorge Posada and company for the New York Yankees.

What does this mean for next year? Well, Baker is expected to stick around, as he likely has one more season before arbitration kicks in. Using a Marcels projection, I have Baker projected at a .335 wOBA. The last two seasons, Baker has recorded -4 runs (via TotalZone) and -3.2 runs (via devil_fingers’ work linked above) on defense in a total of about 151 defensive games (nine innings/game). Projecting that and regressing 75 games (I wasn’t sure about this regression, anyone know a better number?) and I got a value of five runs below average per 150 games. Let’s assume Baker gets the kind of play he got this season (423 PA and 100 starts). At that kind of playing time, this is what you might expect:

2.4 wRAA + -3.2 catcher defense + 7.7 positional adj. (catcher) + 14.1 replacement adj. = 21 Runs Above Average, or 2.1 WAR.

Paulino, on the other hand, faces his first arbitration hearing of his career and may not be tendered a deal given his status as the backup catcher. According to Lou over at SoFlaMarlins, Paulino stands to make something along the lines of $880K next year, but he would definitely be worth more. Running the same sort of Marcels projection on Paulino yields an expected wOBA of .314, but this number does not take into account the likelihood that he would platooned to favorably face lefties. For his career, Paulino has faced around righties in around two-thirds of his PA, vs. one-third of his PA versus lefties. If we expected him to face a 50/50 split of lefties versus righties, as he did this season, and if we use the general rule of thumb as written in The Book that the platoon advantage yields .015 points of wOBA, we can actually expect a wOBA of .319, still not great, but acceptable given his backup status.

Projecting Paulino’s defense from data over the last four years yields a rate of 2.2 runs above average per 150 games. Projected at this season’s playing time, here’s what we might expect:

-2.1 wRAA + 0.8 catcher defense + 4.8 positional adj. (catcher) + 8.9 replacement adj. = 12.4 Runs Above Average, or 1.2 WAR.

If the Marlins choose to retain Paulino’s services and deploy the two catchers at a similar fashion as they did this season, the Marlins could expect 3.3 WAR and $14.9M of value out of an investment of $1.2M. Consider me on the side of retaining both players. If the goal for the Marlins is to make maximum value out of their minimal resources, getting that sort of surplus is an excellent start. Essentially, the Marlins have two players who are slightly below average compared to other position players in terms of defense and hitting, but play at the most difficult premium position on the diamond, catcher. Two catchers of this quality are not likely to be easy to find on the open market, especially at such depressed prices. Free agent veteran catchers like Gregg Zaun and (shudder) Miguel Olivo are available for cheap on the free agent market this offseason, but the Marlins’ best bet would be to stay within the organization and take those surplus wins from the guys they currently have.

Tags: John Baker Miami Marlins Ronny Paulino

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