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Color By Numbers: Back It Up

Posted By William Juliano On April 19, 2012 @ 1:43 pm In 1: Featured,Baseball,Baseball Musings,Bronx Banter,Yankees | Comments Disabled

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Backup catcher can be a thankless job. Off all the bench positions, the second string backstop is arguably the most scrutinized and most criticized, particularly because so many people tend to overlook defense and hone in on their typically meager offensive contributions.

Most Games by a Yankees’ Catcher, Since 1918
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Note: Includes games in which the player PH for the existing catcher.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

Over the years, the Yankees have been blessed with several elite catchers. From Bill Dickey to Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson, and Jorge Posada, the Bronx Bombers have often enjoyed a comparative advantage behind the plate. Combined, that quintet has played 44% of the team’s “catcher games” (based on total games played at catcher, not in each season) and accounted for around 50% of most statistical contributions from the position. However, these all-time greats have had some help along the way.

The Best vs. the Rest: Comparison of Yankees’ Catchers, Since 1918
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Note: Includes games in which the player PH for the existing catcher.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

In addition to the All Stars mentioned above, the Yankees have had 114 catchers since 1918, ranging from Billy Shantz, who appeared in only one game but never had an at bat, to Rick Cerone, who played 567 games as a catcher and finished seventh in the 1980 MVP balloting.  This less than stellar group of backstops has compiled a batting line of .254/.326/.367, which, while paling in comparison to the rates posted by the team’s better catchers, still seems respectable (for context, major league catchers hit a combined .245/.313/.389 in 2011). However, those totals include the contributions of several starters, and today, we’re only concerned with the backups.

Most Games as a Yankees’ Backup Catcher, Since 1918
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Note: Includes games in which the player PH for the existing catcher. Backup role defined as any catcher but the one with the most games behind the plate in an individual season.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

Norwegian-born Arndt Jorgens ranks as the most prolific backup catcher in Yankees’ history. From 1929 to 1939, Jorgens served as a second stringer to Bill Dickey, joining the likes of Benny Bengough, Buddy Rosar (both of whom also rank among the top five) and Joe Glenn in that role. Interestingly, Dickey’s Hall of Fame successor, Yogi Berra, also ranks as the second most tenured backup. Berra was a second stinger, at least in terms of catching, both at the beginning of his career and the end, when he moved to the outfield to make room for Elston Howard. Turnabout was fair play for Howard, who spent the first five years of his career alternating between the outfield and Berra’s primary backup.

Top-10 Career OPS by a Yankees’ Backup Catcher, Since 1918
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Note: Includes games in which the player PH for the existing catcher. Backup role defined as any catcher but the one with the most games behind the plate in an individual season. Totals above exclude years in which the player led the team in games behind the plate. Minimum of 150 career plate appearances.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

Older Yankees’ fans probably remember Ron Hassey very well. In 1985 and 1986, the plodding catcher posted a prolific OPS of .846, while serving as Butch Wynegar’s primary backup. In the process, he also earned the nickname “Babe” because his lefty swing and titanic homeruns resembled the Bambino. In the 1990s, Mike Stanley was a similar-styled player. Before ascending to the starting job in 1993, his bat made him a fan favorite when he was Matt Nokes’ backup in 1992. After becoming the lead man, Stanley turned the role over to Jim Leyritz, who provided steady offense behind the plate in nine seasons as a second stringer for the Yankees. However, Leyritz greatest notoriety came in the postseason, during which he authored two of the most dramatic home runs in franchise history.

10 Best/Worst OPS Seasons by a Yankees’ Backup Catchers, Since 1918
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Note: Includes games in which the player PH for the existing catcher. Backup role defined as any catcher but the one with the most games behind the plate in an individual season. Minimum of 75 plate appearances and seasons by Yogi Berra and Jorge Posada excluded.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

Considering the relatively limited playing time of a backup catcher, their offensive performance is difficult to predict. For every Benny Bengough who surprises with an exemplary season, there’s a Joel Skinner who consistently makes fans groan every time they see his name penciled into the lineup. Although the Yankees have recently had some success getting offense from their backup catcher, Jose Molina (2007) and John Flaherty (2003-2004), for the most part, the team’s second stringers have been light with the bat. Luckily, there is organization depth at catcher because as frustrating as it is to have a backup who can’t it, it’s much worse when the same is true about the starter.


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