White Sox Season Preview - Catchers

White Sox Season Preview - Catchers
Oh you, old thing // Rick Scuteri, US PRESSWIRE

On Thursday against the Rangers, Adam Dunn homered and doubled.  He homered off of Neftali Feliz, and hit the double off of a lefty.  A left-handed pinata, but still, a lefty.  Gordon Beckham also homered (a bomb).  Hector Santiago struck out three Texas Rangers in two innings, including Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz.

It's very clear where the path of continuing to analyze Spring Training games leads at this point.  It leads to mania.  It leads to emptying out the waste from hole punchers and tossing it in the air as confetti, and buying a bunch of cheap champagne from Jewel and pouring it on my head in the parking lot

So with that, it's time to begin the season previews properly, to avoid disaster.

Of course, there's a danger with the previews as well, hence my hesitance to get around to them until a third of the way into March.  There's a concern about repeating myself.  Anyone who reads this blog regularly--or in passing, really--can probably get the impression that I'm not bullish on the 2012 White Sox.  This comes after being brazenly bullish on them in 2010, and trying to slightly temper my bullishness when everyone, their mom and their pet cow was bullish on the Sox in 2011.  It comes after being burnt a few times, and seeing even less reason to get suckered in than there was before.

The same thing applies to the catcher position group, where most can tell that it's been a stretch since these eyes looked upon the figure of Anthony John Pierzysnki and felt the pangs of adoration and wonder, at least in the way I used to.

The excited clapping to himself after big hits, the fist pumps on inning-ending strikeouts; I'm sure my heart will ache once the trappings of A.J. are gone.  But there's just no time to romanticize the second-division starters of non-playoff teams.

Pierzynski is 35 years old, and has over 5700 major league plate appearances, so there's an idea of who he is as a hitter.  Even his most recent trends are about two years in the making.  Everything gets put in play.  Everything.  He's never posted a walk rate over 5% as a White Sox, and he's struck out in less than 10% of his plate appearances three years straight, bottoming out at 6.6% last season.  He does this by swinging at everything, having the shortest at-bats on the team, and really limiting the number of pitches to drive he sees.

That limits his ceiling as a hitter, but also solidifies his floor.  Here are his wRC+ marks (weighted runs created) since joining the franchise (100 is average, over 100 is above-average, under is below)

86, 93, 80, 85, 90, 79, 92

He's going to hit between 80-90% of the league average, which is certainly fine to get from the catcher slot, but isn't traditionally the performance line that buys you 8 years as an entrenched starter with one team unless the right circumstances arise (like the starting rotation blooming and winning a World Series in your first year behind the plate). Pierzynski's endurance as a player is deeply tied to the success of the starting rotation.  While his game management and pitch-calling is impossible to measure, the rave reviews for his work are too steady to question any longer.

A lot was made about Pierzynski's struggles with the running game last season, and he's expressed optimism about new management putting a renewed emphasis on it.  Whatever lethargy Guillen brought to the running game must have been around for a while, because A.J. hasn't thrown out more than 1 out of every 4 base-stealers since joining the team.  He performed better in Minnesota, but now we're getting to the point of pondering whether a player in his mid-30's can restore performance levels from his mid-20's.  A.J.'s a human, so he probably can't.

Age is the secret ingredient here.  As steady and durable as Pierzynski has been, he's 35.  Aging catchers are such a sure bet to break down that teams start seeking out replacements at this stage even before any of the warning lights start going off.  It simply would not be a surprise, or even to his discredit, if Pierzynski's performance or the workload that he's capable of collapsed in the near future.  It would be a surprise, however, if he could do enough to earn a new contract.

Which raises the question of whether Tyler Flowers can be expected to replace him.  His brief cup of coffee in 2011 where he produced a 91 wRC+ provided optimism.  To avoid repeating myself too much, here's an excerpt from something I wrote on this beaten-to-death topic on Southside Showdown:

Flowers also does everything Pierzynski doesn’t.  He’s exceedingly patient at the plate, waits for pitches to drive and flashes good power when gets them.  He’s too big and creaky to be a particularly effective stopper of the running game, but has a stronger and more accurate arm than A.J.

...

The striking-out-all-the-time thing is pretty much the opposite of A.J. too.

Flowers used this Nega-A.J. approach to produce a .209/.310/.409 line in a teeny tiny sample of 129 plate appearances last season.  Which is, you know, fine.  Just enough power and patience to make him a viable player so long as he can keep his average over the Mendoza line.  The .261 BABIP suggests some improvement through regression, but his flyball heavy approach suggests probably not.

If this holds, Flowers can stay on for a little while.  He can replicate Pierzynski’s production, which again, doesn’t make him an asset, but more of a half-decent player for a fully-decent wage.

But Flowers' doesn't have the floor of Pierzynski.  The ~30% strikeout rate that already pushes him out to the absolute margins of viability may balloon even further with the increased exposure of a larger role, and certainly makes him unpalatable to any manager who values contact.

All the bat-handler talk suggest Ventura probably thinks about it a little bit.

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After the drama involved with adjustments to his swing in 2010, the organization was very quick to embrace the hints of being able to stick that Flowers offered in his emergency call-up last season.

Their reasoning is clear, an aging Pierzynski doesn't figure to serve a purpose given where the franchise is headed. and looking at the farm it's questionable where the next big league catcher--let alone a starter--is coming from if it's not Flowers.

Plate appearance distribution is going to be dependent on team performance.  A surprise run at the division probably necessitates the stability of Pierzynski, where as a listless rebuilding year quickly makes 2013 the focus, and A.J. could be traded at the deadline, pending his approval.

Pierzynski's appetite for playing time is legendary, so while it's unlikely that Flowers would be restrained under 200 plate appearances unless he struggled horribly, some of those may need to come in spare moments at 1st base.  Pierzynski's slotting in #2 spot of the lineup suggests he figures prominently in Robin Ventura's plans

In either case, the White Sox are topping out at middle-of-the-road production from the position.  Slightly below-average, ~2 WAR, just ok; however you want to express it.

A lack of any true positional studs is a reoccurring organizational problem, and too many black holes was the 2011 team's problem.  These guys neither fix the former, nor add to the latter*.

*In case of injury, anyone who would be called up would be very awful

 

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