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Backstop Blues

Last Friday, Alex posted a link to a Bill Madden puff piece speculating as to what Yankee life would be like after Mariano Rivera. Certainly Rivera deserves his due, but at a time when we’re all desperate for some meaningful baseball news, this seemingly annual bit of warmed over column leftovers turned my stomach.

Part of my problem with the piece, I now realize, is that, while Rivera has undoubtedly been one of the greatest closers in baseball history and is a level above even the best closers in the game, the gap between what he does and what a journeyman such as Todd Jones is able to do in a given season is much smaller than the gap between the what one can expect from an ace starter or one of the league’s top hitters and a comparable journeyman. I mean no affront to Rivera, but it’s true that, in this post-Eckersley era, closing ballgames is no more difficult than kicking field goals. The league average success rate of both is in the area of 75-80 percent. In 2005, Rivera converted an excellent 91 percent of his save opportunities. Todd Jones converted 89 percent of his. Those of you who play fantasy baseball already know this. Nearly every team has a guy who can rack up 30-plus saves with a decent ERA and a handful of strikeouts. Unless you get completely caught napping, you’ll wind up with at least one of them on your fantasy team. Getting something useful out of your catching position, on the other hand, is something only a lucky few are able to do.

Indeed, the man the Yankees will miss most when the time comes just might be Jorge Posada. For all the lumps he’s taken over the years for his defense and baserunning, Posada has been the second most productive catcher in all of baseball since 1998. Only Mike Piazza, the most productive catcher ever, has contributed more to his team(s) over that eight year span. Now that is going to be hard to replace.

What’s more, though Posada, who will turn 35 on August 17, is nearly two years younger than Rivera, who turned 36 this past November, history suggests that the Yankees will have to replace their catcher before their closer. Let’s use some very simple standards to determine a productive season for a closer and a catcher. For closers we’ll use 30-saves (a standard Rivera has reached in eight of his nine seasons as Yankee closer, saving 28 in his injury-shortened 2002 season). For catchers we’ll use 15 Runs Created Above Position (or 15 more runs created than the league average catcher, a standard Posada has reached in seven of his eight seasons since taking over the majority of the catching duties in 1998, with 17 RCAP in his disappointing 2005 season).

While 16 pitchers have had 30-save seasons after the age of 35 (three of them, including Todd Jones, doing so in 2005, and seven of them doing so more than once), there have been just 12 catchers who have been 15 or more runs above average in a single season after the age of 35. While this suggests that a third more closers than catchers have had productive seasons after age 35, the gap is actually far wider. Remember, the first 30-save season in baseball history was Ted Abernathy’s 31 saves in 1965. Meanwhile, Hoyt Wilhelm, who is second only to Eckersley in saves recorded after the age of 35, never once saved 30 games in a single season. If I lower the standard to 20 saves twelve more pitchers join the list, and Ellis Kinder, who save 27 in 1953 at age 38, is the earliest among them chronologically.

The list of catchers with 15 RCAP seasons after the age of 35, meanwhile, stretches back to Jim O’Rourke’s 1887 season with the New York Giants. O’Rourke created 28 more runs than the average National League catcher in 1887 at age 36. The following year he move to left field.

Thus, there have been barely more than a third (37.5 percent as many to be precise) as many 15 RCAP catchers over the age of 35 in the last 119 seasons than there have been 20-save pitchers over the age of 35 in the last 53 seasons.

For yucks, here are the dozen backstops that made the cut, four of whom, lead by extreme outlier Carlton Fisk, did so more than once. Note the absence of many of the greats of the position, including Bench, Berra, Cochrane, Dickey, Carter, and, yes, Piazza, who is entering his age-37 season:

Catcher Year Age RCAP
Carlton Fisk 1990 42 28
Carlton Fisk 1989 41 26
Carlton Fisk 1988 40 26
Wally Schang 1928 38 21
Fred Jacklitsch 1914 38 15
Ernie Lombardi 1945 37 26
Carlton Fisk 1985 37 19
Earle Brucker 1938 37 17
Gabby Hartnett 1938 37 17
Ernie Whitt 1989 37 17
Greg Myers 2003 37 17
Gabby Hartnett 1937 36 43
Bill Dickey 1943 36 37
Jim O’Rourke 1887 36 28
Wally Schang 1926 36 26
Walker Cooper 1951 36 21
Mike Grady 1906 36 17
Ernie Whitt 1988 36 15

So what does the future hold for Posada and the Yankees’ catching situation. Well, to begin with, Posada has a $12 million option for 2007 that will vest when he catches his 81st game of the season. He’ll also become a 5-and-10 player on June 27 (ten years in the majors, five with the same club), giving him the ability to reject a trade. So barring a complete collapse, Jorge will at the very least be the teacher part of a student-teacher platoon in 2007 (scary thought, I realize).

That said, with no in-house prospects other than 19-year-old Jose Gil, who has yet to catch an inning above rookie ball, the next Yankee catcher will have to come from another organization. With that in mind, we’d all be well advised to keep an eye on the Dodgers, who have a pair of catching prospects in camp this spring competing to become the next L.A. backstop. According to this article from yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, the Dodgers will likely have to commit to either 23-year-old home grown prospect Russell Martin or erstwhile Yankee prospect Dioner Navarro sometime in the next year. Navarro is a full year younger than Martin and will likely be the Dodgers starting catcher this season. Martin has yet to crack triple-A, but could prove to be the superior hitter in time. Either one could greatly improve the Yankees future behind the plate if he finds he no longer has a future in Tinseltown.

As for Posada, the Yankees have long hoped that because he wasn’t converted to catching until his age-20 season, and was brought along slowly in the majors, splitting parts of three seasons with Joe Girardi, he would age slower than the typical catcher. However Jorge’s declining production over the past two seasons at age 32 and 33 (from an admittedly staggering high of 49 RCAP in his near-MVP season of 2003) seems to have dashed that hope. Entering his age 34-season, I’m hoping for one last gasp from Posada before his decline takes full hold. If we do get such a season from Posada, be sure to enjoy it. As the Yankees will find out all too soon, catchers who can produce like Jorge, at any age, don’t come around nearly as often as reliable closers.

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