During the offseason there has been a lot of talk about the Mets and Blue Jays making a deal. On the surface it makes sense, as the Mets need outfielders and a catcher while the Blue Jays are looking for a front-end starter. The two teams seem to match up pretty well.
For me the problem comes in the catching department. Toronto has prospect Travis d’Arnaud, who if he can stay healthy – he’s only played 252 games the past three years – is perhaps the best backstop prospect around. But Toronto would likely prefer to keep d’Arnaud and trade J.P. Arencibia, instead. Arencibia does one thing very well. But does that make up for what he doesn’t do?
Let’s take a look at some triple slash lines for some catchers and see which one you like most.
A. .219/.282/.438 (.720 OPS)
B. .233/.275/.435 (.710 OPS)
C. .225/.263/.414 (.674 OPS)
D. .233/.309/.425 (.734 OPS)
E. .279/.359/.366 (.725 OPS)
Do you have a favorite? A and B are Arencibia’s lines from 2011 and 2012, respectively. C is Rod Barajas in his time with the Mets. D is Kelly Shoppach in 2012. And E is Josh Thole from May 3, 2011 to May 7, 2012 when he suffered his concussion.
It’s important to remember that while OPS is an excellent “quick and dirty” calculation to determine a player’s offensive worth, not all OPS is created equally. On-base percentage is more important than slugging and Thole holds a huge advantage in OBP.
A good rule of thumb is that OBP is worth about 1.7 to 1.8 as much as SLG. So let’s compare Line A (Arencibia) to Line E (Thole) with this information and see what we have:
Line A: .282 * 1.75 = .494 + .438 = .932
Line E: .359 * 1.75 = .628 + .366 = .994
It’s basically a wash in raw OPS and then when you give OBP its proper weight, it becomes advantage Thole.
Of course, we have no idea if Thole can get back to this offensive level. When he returned last year from the concussion, he was dreadful. Because of the uncertainty surrounding his ability to bounce back, it is a big risk for the Mets to count on Thole as their primary catcher next year.
But, if you think that Thole is unacceptable from an offensive point of view even if he does recover – well, there’s no way you should advocate replacing him with Arencibia.
Of course, offense is hardly the whole package when talking about a catcher. Neither Arencibia nor Thole is renowned for their defensive work, although both were better in 2012 than they were in 2011. It’s hard to measure catcher defense but let’s look at a few things:
Unofficially, 13 of Thole’s 18 passed balls came when knuckleballer R.A. Dickey was on the mound. It’s hard to know how many of the 31 WP allowed by Arencibia could have been stopped by a better backstop. In 2011 he had 54 WP in 1,059.2 innings caught, meaning either Toronto pitchers are pretty wild or that Arencibia is not exactly an acrobat behind the plate. Arencibia holds an advantage in throwing out runners. One more runner attempted a steal against Arencibia, who allowed four fewer stolen bases than Thole.
Perhaps Arencibia is a hair better than Thole defensively, but if so it’s not by much. There’s no UZR for catchers but last year Thole had +4 Defensive Runs Saved while Arencibia checked in with a +3. Overall, I would call it a wash.
Arencibia does one thing well and that’s hit home runs. In 825 lifetime ABs in the majors, Arencibia has 43 HR. If you are going to excel in one thing, hitting homers is a pretty good category. But the problem is that if he’s not hitting the ball out of the park, he’s not doing much else to help you. His .275 OBP last year was the sixth-worst mark in the majors among those with at least 300 PA. And last year’s OBP matched his lifetime mark in the category.
If you liked either the Rod Barajas or Kelly Shoppach experience, I am sure you will find Arencibia to your liking, too. While the Mets could certainly use another power RHB in the lineup, it seems a mistake to view Arencibia as any kind of an upgrade over a healthy Thole once you consider their total contributions. While “healthy” is a big qualifier, if the Mets do make a trade to acquire a catcher, I hope it would actually be an actual upgrade and not merely just treading water.
Arencibia appears on the surface to be a better option than Thole because of his power bat. But there’s more to baseball than just home runs and a healthy Thole is just as productive as Arencibia. The only thing is their value takes different shapes. If you want an upgrade from Thole, the Mets should hold out for d’Arnaud or look elsewhere for a catcher.