Buck vs. Baker: Battle of the Johns


A Marlin Maniac reader emailed me over the weekend with an interesting comparison that I thought was worth mentioning and discussing. As you can tell from the title, the comparison was between two of the Marlins’ current catchers, starter John Buck and the injured but rehabbing John Baker. The reader pointed out that Baker’s healthy 2009 season looks very similar to Buck’s current 2011 year as the starter.

Player PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA fWAR
John Baker (2009) 423 .271 .348 .410 .333 1.6
John Buck (2011) 464 .231 .320 .391 .311 2.0

The comparison in terms of hitting seems pretty similar. It is clear that Buck has performed at a lower level than Baker at the plate, with a lower batting average, OBP, and wOBA. And while that might tempt a person to once again ask “why pay Buck $6 million,” the last column discussing FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement shows that Buck actually has an edge over the 2009 version of Baker with just about every aspect of his game underperforming Baker’s season.

How can that be? There are multiple factors that have to go into consideration when we make the comparison between Baker in 2009 and Buck in 2011. These factors are the things that are propping up Buck’s value and making Baker’s season appear less valuable despite the offensive superiority.

Offensive environment

The first consideration we have to make is with the offensive environment. Believe it or not, 2009 and 2011 are drastically different in terms of offensive expectations. Consider the following:

League Avg AVG OBP SLG wOBA
2009 .262 .333 .418 .329
2011 .255 .321 .398 .316

In just two seasons, the run environment has dropped significantly. In 2009, the average team was scoring 4.61 runs per game, while in 2011 that same average team is now scoring 4.28 runs per game, a dropoff of more than 0.3 runs. That dropoff in offensive production means that the expectations of the average player have also dropped. How does this matter when it comes to comparing Baker and Buck? The gap between Baker and Buck’s performances looks fairly large, on the order of 11 runs per 600 plate appearances. However, the difference in terms or 8.5 runs in 464 PA. However, when you compare the two based on their respective league averages, you see that the difference between Baker’s 2009 performance and Buck’s 2011 work is on the order of three to four runs because the change in the run environment. In other words, because the run environment is lower in 2011, we expect less of Buck than we did of Baker in 2009, and as a result a .311 wOBA is not as bad of a performance as it initially appears. A straight statistical comparison of their base numbers is not an apples-to-apples comparison.

Platoon advantage

There is another factor that is also affecting the comparison between the two players: they have not faced the same distribution of pitchers in terms of lefties and righties.

Player Lefty PA (%) Righty PA (%)
Baker, 2009 42 (10) 381 (90)
Buck, 2011 101 (22) 363 (78)

This aspect of the discussion tinges the two players’ respective offensive performances. Baker, a left-handed hitter, was used as part of a platoon alongside the right-handed Ronny Paulino. This hid Baker from lefty pitchers and allowed him to face righties for the vast majority of his plate appearances. We know that left-handers have the platoon advantage versus righties, and that helped Baker’s offensive performance stand out. Compare this to how Buck has been utilized in 2011. Buck has made 114 of 139 possible starts at catcher for the Marlins, essentially translating to a full-time role. Baker, on the other hand, made 99 of 162 starts, a percentage of 61 percent.

The distribution of starts for Buck has basically made it so that he faced a more significant number of pitchers against whom he did not have the platoon advantage. Buck has faced righties in 78 percent of his plate appearances, forfeiting the platoon advantage in those shots at the plate. He has uncharacteristically performed better without the advantage, hitting a .322 wOBA against righties versus a sub-.300 wOBA versus lefties, but for his career he has a .336 wOBA versus lefties and a .304 wOBA versus righties, meaning we would expecthim to follow a similar platoon situation as other right-handed hitters. While Baker had his more limited opportunities limited to shots with the platoon advantage, Buck has had to battle through both lefties and righties without the advantage of a platoon partner.

Playing time

Going hand-in-hand with the idea of Baker being a part of a platoon, playing time is an important aspect of a player’s value. After all, the more time a player can play in the field, the less time a replacement-level performer (a guy much like Brett Hayes) has to occupy the field and stink up the joint. In the case of Baker, his playing time is naturally cut down because he is part of a platoon; the Marlins have to afford an adequate platoon partner for him, costing the team more money. On the other hand, Buck is able to play full-time and thus affords the Marlins the ability to run a replacement level backup catcher knowing that said catcher will play significantly fewer games for the team. Buck has already surpassed Baker in terms of playing time with a little less than a month left to play, meaning that he will likely reach 500 to 510 plate appearances by the end of the year. Those extra PA over Baker’s 2009 playing time would have garnered 2.5 runs more in favor of Buck, and those 2.5 runs are about the equivalent of a $1 million in free agent market value.

In addition to that, there is the practical aspect of the Marlins having to afford Buck’s contract. Going into the 2011 season, the team had no catchers that it could count on, as Paulino left as a non-tender and Baker was still recovering from injury. At this point, it is obvious that Baker was not going to be ready for the 2011 season, as he just began rehab very recently. The Marlins committed to paying money for Buck because they needed someone to man the field; even if Baker was as strong a performer as Buck when on the field, he simply was not going to be ready to be on the field until late 2011 at the earliest. The team’s $6 million went into paying for a backstop who was going to play games this year, and given that his performance has been more than decent, the team should not be disappointed.

Yes, John Baker would have been a good option if healthy. However, Baker was not healthy this year and would have needed additional help to post the numbers he had in 2009. The Marlins did well to pick up a backstop, and that player is performing decently given the environment he is in. While I like John Baker as much as the next guy, the elbow injury really forced the team’s hand, and at this point his role on the Marlins is uncertain with Buck playing well and the team committed to him as the starter through 2013.

Tags: John Baker John Buck Miami Marlins

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