The Rays' Catching Conundrum

The Rays are entering the third month of this 2011 season with some fairly obvious question marks throughout the ball club. What are we going to do with Wade Davis? Will Alex Cobb handle the pressure? The shortstop situation is one that appeared temporarily remedied, only to be undone by an Elliot Johnson injury. Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac are not delivering the type of defense, let alone offense, to give the pitching staff the backing we've become accustomed to. However, I don't care to freak out over that, I'm hoping Reid's slumping bat will wake up, or Sean's defense will come around, or Elliot Johnson gets healthy, or hell, maybe the front office goes big and hooks a Jose Reyes. There's youth at that position, and therefore a reason for legitimate optimism.

A more gloomy topic for the Rays is their catching.

Many a-heated discussion has erupted over the streakiness of certain players early this season (i.e. Sam Fuld, Davis, Jeff Niemann, Casey Kotchman), often pushing certain players into polarizing figures for Tampa Bay diehards. Amongst this bluster is the outstandingly-streaky defensive performance of Kelly Shoppach. Mr. Shoppach had not been a particularly valuable defensive commodity since 2007, but this season he has managed to climb his way to the top of the leaderboards in CS%, gunning down 54% of would-be base stealers and causing rave reviews in Rays Nation. Coupling this with Shop's otherworldly 0.045 WP+PB/G and you have one of the finest defensive catchers in baseball. Conversely, the angst towards John Jaso and his defense has become nearly irrational.

Jaso's 2011 CS% is down 5% from last season (23 vs. 18), but neither number is particularly strong when compared to the 29% MLB average. But perhaps this has been because of who Jaso has caught as opposed to his actual (in)abilities. In the 28.2 innings Jaso and Jeff Niemann hooked up for this season, base stealers were successful nine of ten times. That right there is one-third of the thefts allowed by Jaso this season. Jeff's inability to hold runners is world renown after allowing 21 of 23 stolen base attempts to succeed last season, and he holds a 16% CS% lifetime. Naturally, in just 2.2 frames in which Niemann and Shoppach teamed up in 2011, Shop had one CS, zero SB allowed. Little tidbits like that one precisely typify the streakiness (sample size caveats) of the seasons the two are having behind the plate. Jaso's WP+PB/G last season was a touch above league average at 0.463, this season that number is nearly doubled. Much of this is on the strength of the 12 wild pitches that have been thrown on his watch, which appear to be clustering on Jaso's ledger disproportionately. It may seem like I'm making excuses for Jaso, and it's because I am. My point is a two-pronged one though: 1.) John Jaso is an average to below average catcher, defensively and 2.) Sample sizes are too small to be this angry. Realistically, there is not enough MLB data to quantify Jaso's defensive contributions, and Shop is just plain hot right now. Expect regression.

The other half of their games, their offense, is far easier to quantify.

Fangraphs tells me that Jaso has an 87 wRC+ and Shoppach has a 40 wRC+. While relying on a single quick and dirty number is inherently flawed, the size of the disparity really negates any discussion about the hitting prowess of the two, in relation to each other. With Jaso, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. His BB% was remarkably high last season, but not entirely out of whack with prior minor league numbers. This season's 7.9% BB% would be Jaso's lowest walk rate at any level, since his first professional season in 2006. Nothing is readily jumping out in his O-Swing/Z-Swing% vs. his O-Contact/Z-Contact% this season, except that he is swinging at more balls out of the zone, possibly meaning that the 27-year old is pressing a bit to match last season's output. His 90.9% contact rate and 4.18 pitches per plate appearances, both team highs, provide value in themselves, and on a team that is using Evan Longoria to leadoff, it seems all too obvious that Jaso should be in that slot. In the land of Friedman and Maddon nothing is obvious and I've learned to stop asking questions and let the genius flow. Jaso's wRC+ is slightly below league average for his position, but I'm optimistic he can make up the ground with the stick faster than with the glove. Shoppach's offensive line is a disaster. He has two XBH in 77 ABs this season, both of which were home runs. His K% has been preposterously high his entire career, so the fact that he's striking out 40% of the time this season is not necessarily cringe-worthy. However, the incline in his swinging strike rate over the last two years might be. I just don't know what to realistically expect from the 31-year old at this point. But I think it nigh time for the Rays to address the situation.

The solution to the problem may be in Durham.

Jose Lobaton is taking care of business at Triple-A. After dropping a .260/.339/.385 last season, Lobaton is now producing a .324/.412/.559 line. These numbers are out of line with his track record. This isn't to say that the 26-year old is or is not legitimate. And for the sake of this argument I don't care to justify his presence on the big league club solely on a couple months of hot minor league hitting. Rather, taking a look at his 2010 MLE numbers at ML Splits here, and realizing that he'd be the right-handed half of the parent club's current platoon, it's tough to understand why he's being kept down. His Major League equivalent numbers against lefties last season were a solid .288/.316/.388. His split against southpaws this season (raw Triple-A numbers, not MLE) is .371/.436/.571.

The apparent justification for Shoppach's presence on the roster entering 2011 was the $3.3 million owed to him. His hot glove seems to be enough to keep Rays' brass satisfied, but at what cost? 0.1 WAR? Really? Shoppach's MLB service time could prevent a designation for assignment to the minors, if he is unwilling to accept it. The chances of him clearing waivers are another concern, considering the amount of moolah on the line, but certainly an outright release for a player with his numbers would not be unheard of.

So tying everything together and looking forward, expect a minor rebound in Jaso's offensive numbers and understand that he's probably never going to become a defensive wizard, so stop complaining about it. Just except the fact that he's a decent young catcher, who should get some more looks at leadoff. Kelly Shoppach's days as a Ray should be numbered, in sync to the number of days that Jose Lobaton remains at Triple-A.

This post was written by a member of the DRaysBay community and does not necessarily express the views or opinions of DRaysBay staff.

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