(Why a) backup catcher matters

Remember the climax in Mr. Holland’s Opus? Well, this is kind of the same thing, except instead of American classical music, it involves White Sox backup catchers. And I don’t have any kids, much less a son with a disability that robs him of being able to appreciate my work. And this site isn’t shutting down, I’m just done with extended griping about catchers.
Now that I think about it, this isn’t like Mr. Holland’s Opus at all.

The chart above represents the combined OPS of White Sox backup catchers since Kenny Williams took over GM duties in 2001.  As we already knew, it’s taken a nosedive the past two years.
What’s worse is that depending on how you look at it, 2006 was the worst season for Sox reserve catchers in the 16-year existence of U.S. Cellular Field.  The only season that comes close was 1993, when Ron Schueler and Jerry Reinsdorf kept Carlton Fisk around long enough to break the games caught record, then gave him a motorcycle, a pink slip and an unofficial restraining order, in that order.
That year, Sox backups (Fisk, Mike LaValliere and Rick Wrona) combined to post a .512 OPS — just three points worse than Sandy Alomar, Chris Widger and Chris Stewart posted in 2006.  But when factoring in that Alomar & Co. hit 40 points lower than the 1993 crew, I think it’s safe to say that no Sox starter received less help than A.J. Pierzynski did in 2006.
You don’t even need to look at OPS to prove that point — just look at the plate appearances.  Sox backup catchers have combined for 309 plate appearances in the last two years.  To find two consecutive seasons in which reserves totaled less than 400 plate appearances, you have to bring the strike into it.
This is why I kept banging the drum into the offseason regarding this spot that figures to get less playing time than any other.  And this is why I did the Backup Catcher Dance (imagine a flapper with an inner-ear problem) when I saw that the Sox signed Toby Hall early Sunday afternoon.
How bad was it in 2006?  Despite the miserable OPS, the Sox were far better off in 1993 because of LaValliere’s presence.  Spanky had his faults — slap hitter and slow as balls to name two — but he also came to the Sox boasting a career .355 OBP, not to mention he was only 32 (two years younger than Widger in 2005).  Considering he’d never caught full-time and didn’t have full mileage on his knees, the Sox could wager on a bounce-back season.
Sure enough, in 1994, Spanky rebounded with a .281/.368/.331 line, and he and Ron Karkovice formed an effective if fairly fugly tandem behind the plate.
Entering 2006, Williams didn’t have anything close to a LaValliere on his hands.  Widger was excellent for the first half of 2005; he was awful for the second half, past his prime, and he’d already been out of baseball once before.  If a dolt like me could see warning signs, I don’t see how it couldn’t have registered on Williams’ radar, and I was afraid that an opportunity to improve the situation would pass him by for a second straight year until Sunday.
Looking at who Williams deployed there for the first six years of his term, it seemed like Williams wasn’t all that concerned with the role.  It’s an interesting contrast to his previous boss.  Schueler had the opposite reputation of Williams — he sat on his hands and waited for prospects that never developed.  Yet when it came to the second catcher, Schueler threw the kitchen sink at the problem.
Williams used seven different backups in six years (not counting emergency or September call-ups) — Mark Johnson, Josh Paul, Miguel Olivo, Jamie Burke, Ben Davis, Alomar and Widger.  That might seem like enough if he didn’t keep going back to Alomar, but since he’s acquired the guy three different times, it’s not like Williams exactly explored other opportunities.  While Alomar provided some fine offensive years in the past, he predictably aged his way into roving instructor material all the while.
Schueler chewed up and spat out catchers like sunflower seeds.  He had a Widger once  — he was called Barry Lyons.  He returned to the big leagues at age 35, slugged .531 in 64 at-bats with the Sox in 1995, and the Sox cut him after the season.  He tried old guys (Tony Pena, Pat Borders, Charlie O’Brien), young guys (Johnson, Robert Machado), and guys in between (Chad Kreuter, Brook Fordyce).  Fordyce and Kreuter gave the Sox some serviceable years, but when the others fell flat, Schueler cut bait.
Williams had an apparent difference in ideology, which isn’t always bad.  But if the Sox didn’t change personnel going into Spring Training, I would’ve been in panic mode.  After all, Alomar is now three years past his “sell by” date, Stewart looked overwhelmed at the plate, Pierzynski struggled with the workload in the second half and turns 30 in two weeks, and the Sox will still have to face an enormous amount of left-handed pitching this year…
…for some reason, this Calvin and Hobbes strip came to mind.
Then look at the Twins and Tigers.  Joe Mauer won the batting title, and when he took days off, Mike Redmond filled in and hit .341 for the season.  Vance Wilson’s OPS was only 20 points lower than Ivan Rodriguez’s.  They may not be even in the Top 10 reasons why the Sox finished behind Detroit and Minnesota, but at the same time, I think there’s a reason why Sandy Alomar’s teams went 7-18 this year when he started.
That’s why I think Hall is crucial to the success of next year’s team.  In his worst season, he posted a .666 OPS — sub-standard (and hellish), yes, but also 150 points better than Sox backups hit last year.  Plus, his starter numbers from years past include a vast majority of his at-bats against righties.  Over the last three years, Hall has posted a .770 OPS against lefties, .645 against righties.
Considering he’ll mostly be facing southpaws, I’d be surprised if he didn’t clear a .700 OPS at season’s end, which would raise the performance level of backup catchers back to 2000-01 standards, when the Sox were stacked back there.  That’s when Schueler traded Fordyce — who was hitting a fine .272/.313/.464 — for Charles Johnson, who finished the season hitting .326/.411/.607.  Add in the best of Mark Johnson’s career and an up-and-coming Josh Paul, and those were the Sox’s glory days behind the plate since the mid-1980s version of Fisk.
After months of obsessing about this spot, I’m now immensely satisfied.  The Sox are better equipped to face lefties, A.J. won’t have to handle everything himself, and the upgrade came at a minimal price — only cash, and not that much of it.

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Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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