Today, we begin our position-by-position breakdown of the 2011 Florida Marlins here at the official 2011 Marlin Maniac Season Preview. Last season, I started off this same series saying this:
Tack on a few runs here and there if [John Baker and Ronny Paulino] both play injury-free for the season and you may be looking at a 3.5 WAR tandem playing catcher for the Marlins, an impressive feat given the salary we’re paying (around $1.5M) and the way these players were picked up by the Fish. If there’s a problem with the Marlins lineup, it isn’t with the catchers.
Boy was I wrong. Marlins catchers hit .276/.350/.419 in 2009 for the Fish, but that number dropped to a paltry .226/.289/.338 in 2010 as the Marlins were forced to employ Ronny Paulino as a full-time backstop and play Brad Davis and Brett Hayes more than the team would have liked after John Baker went down with an elbow injury and had to undergo Tommy John surgery as a result.
The Marlins front office resolved to fix the catcher problem and did so by employing Buck, signing the free agent catcher to a three-year deal worth $18M. The move was roundly panned by critics who felt the Marlins simply overpaid for one good season, but the truth of the matter is that the Fish did not overpay so much as not consider the other cheaper options still available in the market. In a rush to fill what was deemed a hole in the roster, the team jumped at the first chance to sign a target player instead of waiting out the market appropriately.
Buck is not as bad as people are making him out to be. At the same time, he isn’t the Buck we saw in 2010, the one who hit .281/.314/.489 and earned himself a nice contract as a result. As with many things in baseball, Buck’s true talent lies somewhere in between all of this. We know the power is real; Buck hit 14.7 percent of his fly balls out of the park for home runs last season, and this number does not differ all that much from his career 12.7 percent mark. For those concerned that his power was a product of assistance from Toronto’s Rogers Center, it will be relieving to hear that Buck actually split his homers right down the middle between home and road games. And it isn’t as if he played in a hitter’s park most of his career; he was a long-time Kansas City Royal before joining the Toronto Blue Jays in 2010, and their park is not kind to home runs (five-year regressed HR park factor of 0.95). Buck still hit 12.2% of his fly balls out of the park in his time as a Royal, so his move to Sun Life Stadium should not adversely affect him much.
At the same time, do not expect a .281 AVG or .314 OBP next season. As strong as Buck is, he also happens to be quite an out machine at the plate; he is the proud owner of a career OBP of .301. You don’t have to be a Moneyball fan to know that is just terrible. The problem is that Buck had an abnormally large amount of hits on balls in play last year, as his .335 mark was a career high by a wide margin. Take away that 2010 season and Buck’s career BABIP drops to .280, and it should not surprise anyone to see that sort of mark in 2011. The last time he had a BABIP that low, Buck hit just .224/.304/.365 (.292 wOBA). The biggest problem is that Buck tends to heavily accentuate his poor BABIP with a bad walk rate (career 6.4 percent BB%) and a terrible strikeout rate (career 23.9 percent K%).
Buck’s only major tool is power, and that doesn’t change when you take his defense into account. Though he looked better last season, Buck is generally considered an awful catcher, on the order of five to seven runs worse than average in a full season’s workload (about four or five runs worse for a usual catcher’s full season). All of this doesn’t paint a rosy picture for Buck. In fact, I once likened him to Mike Jacobs with a little less power, and the comparison seems pretty apt.
Buck, career: 2553 PA, .243/.301/.421 (.311 wOBA), 23.9% K%, 6.4% BB%, 12.7% HR/FB%, .289 BABIP
Jacobs, career: 2117 PA, .253/.313/.475 (.335 wOBA), 22.9% K%, 7.8% BB%, 15.4% HR/FB%, .287 BABIP
So why pick him up and pay him $6M? Because while Jacobs’s production at catcher and his poor defense are replacement level or worse, Buck’s production and poor defense are right in line with that of an average catcher. Since 2008, there have been 23 catchers who have racked up more than 1000 PA. The sample represents players who have been consistently starters at least two of the past three seasons. Buck and his .322 wOBA ranks 13th in that list, and he really hit about as well as the four guys in front of him and the one guy behind him. His 3.5 fWAR ranks among the worst catchers, but that is in part due to his limited playing time compared to the rest of the sample; even with Buck’s bad defense and one-sided offensive skillset, he still put up 1.5 fWAR per 450 PA.
Now, that projection is nothing to write home about, but what it shows is that Buck is still a viable major league catcher, and just about an average one. When you look at the projections, this assessment holds; my projection at the time of the signing had him at just about 1.7 WAR, with a good amount of leeway to knock that down a bit more due to defense. I projected him via a crude method to put up a .320 wOBA with a .247/.302/.432 slash line. ZiPS mostly agreed with me, pegging him for a .251/.305/.434 line. PECOTA and the Fans at FanGraphs are a little less favorable, but at this point we are splitting hairs of OBP and SLG. If Buck hits at this level, he should be worth his contract.
Projection: 500 PA, 1.7 WAR
Baker is recovering from an injury that kept him out for much of the season last year, and that injury also cost him his gig as the big half of a solid platoon with Paulino. Baker isn’t likely to be ready by Opening Day, but when he is, he should steal a good number of PA from Buck. If Baker can recover from his woes in 2010, he should return to being a generally decent hitting catcher when faced with right-handed pitching. The Marlins have been smart to keep him away from lefties; out of 744 PA in his career, Baker has faced a lefty only 108 times, meaning he has seen righties 85.5 percent of the time. As long as the team keeps utilizing him in this manner, they shouldn’t expect a bad player, perhaps one that produces at a similar rate as Buck in terms of WAR.
Projection: 150 PA, 0.7 WAR
Looking at that production, the prospects look a little less rosy than they did at the start of last year. Neither Baker nor Buck are good defenders at catcher, so if that is what you are looking for, you have come to the wrong place. But both players are good enough offensively to help offset those defensive troubles, and a combination of both players should add up to just around 2.4 WAR for the team. The Marlins will essentially be paying $6.5M for about an average set of players, which is worth the price of admission.