Catching tandem failed Marlins this season
By Michael Jong
Before the year started, I previewed the Marlins’ various position situations and gave particularly high praise to the two-headed catching tandem of John Baker and Ronny Paulino. Last season, the Marlins got somewhere along the lines of 3.5 WAR between the two players splitting time, and I projected them to put up similar numbers before the season started. Had this been the case, the Marlins would have done fairly well for themselves.
Look how much difference a year can make. With the 2010 campaign almost over, the Marlins have not gotten nearly the production they were expecting from their platoon. Baker struggled early in the season and went down with an elbow injury which required Tommy John surgery, and while Paulino started hot, his season too whittled away slowly under the brunt of full-time play. Eventually he too was finished for the year, suspended for a drug violation. The remains of the catching situation for the Fish have not looked pretty and are part of the reason why the Marlins are just hovering over .500.
Projection vs. Reality
Without even considering defensive numbers, let’s look at what the Marlins should have and eventually did get offensively from their catchers.
Pretty drastic difference, right? Baker never got on track from his struggles early in the year before he had to be shut down due to injury, forcing Paulino to play full-time catcher. After not having played a full-time role since 2007, Paulino was thrust into the job this season. He played a lot during the time period before his suspension; from the team’s 34th game until the end of June, a span of 55 games, Paulino made all but two starts, including all but one start in June. After his bat cooled off in June after an initially torrid April and May, the Marlins began fitting Brett Hayes and Brad Davis into the occasional start, but perhaps the fatigue of playing 53 out of a possible 55 games at the most demanding defensive position finally got to Paulino. He had a poor July (.174/.224/.232, .204 wOBA) and found himself suspended by mid-August.
After the suspension, the Marlins got their fair share of Hayes and Davis, neither of whom proved to be effective. Aside from a couple of homers and that incident with Nyjer Morgan, Hayes has been barely above replacement, hitting for a .281 wOBA. Davis too has done nothing in his recent opportunities.
Why the struggles?
Baker’s injury really forced the issue for the Marlins. The club had built a platoon situation so that they could avoid the injurious pitfalls of a rigorous full catching season, but the early exit of Baker forced the team to play Paulino full-time. I too was a little surprised to see the Marlins push Paulino out there every day despite the potential wear and tear that move could have cost. Perhaps this was part of the reason why Paulino struggled so much in July.
The other more important point was that the Baker injury exposed the weakness of the platoon: the inability of the backup to hit same-handed pitchers. No team wants to be left with their backup playing on a regular basis, as most backup catchers are awful hitters. Paulino turned out to be no exception. While he is a decent hitter to use when facing lefty starters on a given day, sending him out on a daily basis has shown to be a mistake. Over his career, Paulino has a .281 wOBA against righties, and split projections based on that performance show that his split is probably close to .03 wOBA (difference between a .330 against lefties and a .300 versus righties).
Had the injury occurred to Baker, the Marlins might have gotten away with having the big half of the platoon start. After all, the majority of starters are obviously right handers, so having your lefty hitter start all your games is going to remain more beneficial than having your righty do so. But with Paulino, his weakness against right-handers was exacerbated playing everyday, and the Marlins felt it in his performance between June (solid) and July (atrocious).
The Marlins have been rumored to be interested in free agent catcher Victor Martinez this offseason, and it would be interesting if the club decided to go after a solution at the position instead of maintaining the status quo. Perhaps the late season struggle of Paulino or the potential severity of Baker’s injury (especially as it pertains to his already poor defense) scared the Marlins into thinking of an alternative. Tomorrow, I plan on looking at some potential alternatives the Marlins could go after in the free agent market this offseason.