J.P. Arencibia, Mashed Literature, and the Relative Importance of Quality Catching

There’s been a lot of virtual ink spilled about J.P. Arencibia. He’s the #1 catcher on a team that some favour to win the World Series. Most people are a little more cautious than that, though: they think the Jays are a solid playoff contender. The World Series dreams are just that: dreams. For now. However there’s been a major overhaul of the pitching staff and Jays’ fans are at least modestly aware of J.P’s shortcomings.

Joining the team are starters Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, and R.A. Dickey. Incumbent starters include Brandon Morrow, Rickey Romero, and J.A. Happ. Gone from the 2012 rotation are Henderson Alvarez, Kyle Drabek, and Drew Hutchison (who replaced an ineffective Joel Carreno). The upgrade is intuitively obvious to even the most casual observer. This presents a sticky situation, so we should ask: is J.P. Arencibia the right man for the job?

At the Dish

This is the least important facet of any catcher’s game but, as history shows, talented offensive catchers add dimensions to clubs with playoff aspirations. Names like Gabby Hartnett, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Ernie Lombardi, Roy Campanella, Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench, Thurman Munson, and Gary Carter are splashed across the pages of baseball playoff history. More recently, fellas like Ivan Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, Jason Varitek, Joe Mauer, Buster Posey, and Yadier Molina have emerged as game-breakers.

Does J.P. Arencibia add dimensions to the Jays? Well, the bad news is that he’s not as good as any of these guys. The good news is that players like Tim Laudner and Pat Borders have been successful in the playoffs.

So, what is there to commend him offensively? He has pretty good power, as catchers go: in his first two ‘full’ seasons he has 81 xbh (36 doubles, 4 triples, 41 HR; .211 career ISO). Aside from that, the cupboard’s pretty bare. He doesn’t draw many walks—only 56 in 893 career PA’s (6.3% BB rate for his career)— and he doesn’t hit very many singles, meaning he hasn’t been on base very often. Then there are all those strikeouts. For his career, JP strikes out at an alarming rate (28.2%). On the other hand, several projections for the 2013 season have him pegged somewhere between 25.0% and 27.1%, down from his 29.0% rate of 2012. Perhaps they’re right. He likes to swing the bat; hopefully there are fewer misses when he swings.

Behind the Dish

Game-calling, defense, and pitcher handling are a catchers’ bread and butter. The problem is that we have a terrible time trying to quantify this stuff, but I digress. Several catchers over the past few decades have been weak offensively, but have been successful. Jim Sundberg of the Royals in the early-to-mid ’80s comes to mind. He had a reputation as a superb defensive catcher, game caller, and handler of pitchers. Every now and then he would chip in offensively, but it wasn’t his forte.

Arencibia has a good reputation as a teammate and seems eager to learn. Already the story is circulating that he and fellow Nashville resident R.A. Dickey have been doing the MLB equivalent of playing catch since Dickey was acquired and signed. Of course, R.A. Dickey and his knuckleball are key challenges facing J.P. Arencibia this season.

However, his struggles defensively are well known and are the focus of any contribution he can make. Let’s think laterally for a moment. Now that Jarrod Saltalamacchia plays in Boston, he and Arencibia are very comparable on offense. (It should be noted, however, that if JPA played half his games in Fenway he’d likely be good for an extra 10-15 xbh per season, which would put him well ahead of Salty on offense.)

Defensively they have similar struggles: passed balls and wild pitches sort of rule the day for these two. There are several catchers at or near the bottom of MLB in these departments and two of them are Blue Jays (JPA; Thole). Right down there with them is, you guessed it, Jarrod Saltalamacchia. (Of course, wild pitches count against pitchers but the point is the number of balls that get past the catcher.) When we think of J.P. Arencibia, we wouldn’t be crazy to compare him to Salty. If that helps us, great; if not, dump it.

J.P. Arencibia’s RPP (passed pitch runs) is a MLB-worst -11.6 over the past two seasons, meaning he doesn’t block pitches very well. When we combine this with a -8 rSB figure (he costs his team runs runs when opponents steal bases), it gives us a picture of what he’s like as a catcher. Just dividing his game numbers in half, it’s like having about 52 pitches sailing to the backstop each year. Is this the kind of guy in whom pitchers will place their confidence? I’m not so sure. After all, he costs his team about 10 runs per season on defense and his offense isn’t strong enough to counterbalance it.

In his favour, of course, is the trend: he’s getting a little better each year. He’s also willing to learn, and with the veterans that the Jays have acquired to compete for the back-up backstops job (Thole, Nickeas, Blanco), there’ll be plenty of opportunities for him to learn.

To J.P. or not to J.P., that’s the bare bodkin…

Okay, so I’ve mashed William Shakespeare and Mark Twain together to suit this article. Sue me. If J.P. Arencibia was a greater factor in Toronto’s offense, I’d be concerned. Because he isn’t, I’m not. We’re not talking about Mike Piazza or, sadly, Matt Wieters here: it’s J.P. Arencibia. Management has given him the starter’s job and have committed to him in that role. Trading away several catching prospects, including Travis D’Arnaud, is evidence of their commitment.

Offensively, I’d say that if the Jays were more like the Tigers of the late ’80s/early ’90s or the Diamondbacks of several years ago, there could be troubles. Teams that strikeout a lot tend to be one-dimensional and don’t do very well. These Jays won’t strike out as much (sayonara, Kelly Johnson), and are multi-dimensional. They have speed, power, and will get on base. JPA is one of perhaps three Jays that will K more than 100 times (Bautista; Rasmus).

Their offense may also be the key to his poor defense. As the Jays of the early ’90s and the Yankees with Jorge Posada proved, a lot of runs will make up for some pretty poor defense.

These Jays aren’t the Baltimore Orioles of Earl Weaver’s heyday (pitching, defense, 3-run homers; several 100-win seasons). No, they’re more like the Yankees of the last two decades, with their suspect defense at key positions (Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Chuck Knoblauch, and even Derek Jeter), and their terrific offense and ‘pen (Mo). I’m not saying that the Jays are the next dynasty or anything like that. But if they can win a title, all the talk about J.P. Arencibia’s suitability will be water under the bridge. And not the Golden Gate Bridge, either.

Wes Kepstro

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