Kelly Shoppach may see most of the playing time behind the plate to begin the 2011 season due to a rather nutty injury to Rays catcher John Jaso. Shoppach and Ben Zobrist are two of the candidantes for most improved player but I chose to focus on Shoppach as I believe Zobrist is expected to improve while it would surprise many if Shoppach showed significant improvement. Shoppach probably will not perform up to his 2008 numbers (OPS+ of 128) but it would be equally hard for me to believe that he could recreate the numbers he put up in 2010 (OPS+ of 81).
Anyone who has watched a Rays spring training game has noticed that Shoppach has lost weight and appears much leaner. How this translates to on the field performance is the big unknown. Shoppach spent the offseason after 2008 rehabbing his knee following surgery and had a poor 2009 season. He also had a knee surgery early in 2010 which may have attributed to some of his struggles with the bat. He will continue to be the grip it and rip it guy, which means a lot of strikeouts, but hopefully, he will have his legs under him and we will see an increase in power and slugging percentage. Shoppach has many obstacles to overcome, including the negative perceptions (and many unflattering nicknames) created by a very poor 2010 postseason, but if I had to pick a Ray that was going to be the most improved in 2011, I would lean toward Kelly Shoppach.
Kelly Shoppach had what appeared to be a breakout season in 2008 with the Cleveland Indians. Due to an injury to starting catcher Victor Martinez, Shoppach played in 112 games and had 403 Plate Appearances. He responded by putting up a slash line of .261/.348/.517 and also 21 homeruns. Most impressive about his 2008 season was his ability to hit right handed pitching as he put up a slash line of .246/.339/.496. The only negative to Shoppach's 2008 season was the fact that he had to have knee surgery at the end of the season.
In 2009, Shoppach again found himself receiving a bulk of the playing time after the Indians traded catcher Victor Martinez. Unfortunately for the Indians, he was unable to answer the call against right handed pitching. Overall in 2009, Shoppach put up a slash line of .214/.335/.399 with only 12 homeruns and a dismal slash line of .191/.313/.340 (257 PA) against righties. It was a different story altogether against lefties as Shoppach hit .304/.420/.625 (70 PA).
Following the 2009 season the Indians traded him to the Rays for RHP Mitch Talbot. He seemed to be a logical fit for manager Joe Maddon, who seemingly always finding a way to put players in a position to maximize their skill set to achieve success. In the case of Shoppach, he would be used as the right handed part of the catching platoon with Dioner Navarro and occasional DH. Shoppach season never got on track as he underwent knee surgery (injured on a home plate collision with Curtis Granderson) on April 18th and was activated on June 4thafter only 4 games and 13 at-bats on his rehab assignment in Durahm. Shoppach never was able to get his legs back under him as he had another dismal season hitting .196/.308/.342 (187 PA) and only mustered 5 homeruns. His splits remained consistent as he struggled against RHP .114/.232/.200 (84 PA) and hit well against LHP .261/.364/.455.
Shoppach certainly isn't a fan favorite and much of this has to do with the not so flattering 2010 ALDS performance and some to do with his rather poor 2010 regular season. It is my opinion that a disproportionate amount of the weight over the Rays failure to defeat the Texas Rangers in the 2010 ALDS, especially Cliff Lee in Game 5 of the 2010 ALDS has been placed on the shoulders of Kelly Shoppach. Certainly, Shoppach's throwing error allowing the go-ahead run to score played a big role in this perception but John Romano of the St. Petersburg Times cemented the meme his story titled Starting Kelly Shoppach was biggest slipup for Tampa Bay Rays. Romano begins his article making it very clear that the loss to the Rangers was a collective effort and then goes on to ask why Shoppach was in the lineup but goes a step further and asks why wasn't Dioner Navarro on the roster for the ALDS? Romano does provide plausible arguments as to why based on his 2010 Shoppach's 2010 season why he shouldn't have been on the roster (but few reasons on why Navarro should have):
- He wasn't good at throwing out runners. His caught stealing percentage of .171 was one of the lowest in the American League, and the worst among Rays catchers.
- He didn't seem to be particularly good at handling the staff either. Rays pitchers had a 4.35 ERA when Shoppach was behind the plate, which was far worse than either Jaso or Navarro.
- As for his offense? In the history of Major League Baseball, no player had ever struck out more than 70 times while getting fewer than 160 at-bats in a season before Shoppach did it this season (71 Ks in 158 at-bats.