Let’s all agree on one thing: J.P. Arencibia is a divisive figure among Blue Jays fans. He’s a fan favorite for what some might call the “wrong” reasons. His popularity outstrips his productivity by most measures, but the popularity game is not always won on the field of play.
Arencibia is off to a…strange start to 2013. Hitting for power like never before, currently sitting second in the AL with nine home runs. He’s also making outs like never before – quite an accomplishment for a man who entered 2013 with a .275 on base percentage. More than anything, Arencibia is a frustrating player to watch. The power is nice — using all fields is a welcome offensive adjustment as noted by Mop Up Duty earlier this year — but the approach, the complete inability to draw a walk, is troubling. Two walks against 42 strikeouts? That is downright unpleasant.
Somewhere north of unpleasant was J.P. Arencibia striking the big blow in last night’s epic comeback against the Rays, smacking the go-ahead home run in the ninth off Fernando Rodney. That was nice and not the first big hit by Aaron Cibia this season. After his heroics in the 9th, it is easy to forget that J.P. Arencibia didn’t start last night’s game, he was on the bench in favor of backup Henry Blanco.
Manager John Gibbons said the move was made in an attempt to “get (Mark) Buehrle going” which is a totally loaded statement for somebody with an agenda (such as myself). It isn’t fair to infer that Gibby believes Blanco is the superior defensive catcher to Arencibia. It is also not crazy and possibly not wrong.
At first blush, this hasn’t been a great year for Arencibia behind the plate. Nobody came off worse during the Opening Day fiasco than Aaron Cibia, allowing passed balls while trying to contend with the knuckleball. He appears crossed up more often than the starting catcher of a big league team should, struggling to get on the same page with the million or so pitchers he’s caught already this year. This is a guy who lacks a sterling defensive reputation to begin with.
There are many facets to the catcher’s defensive game: throwing, blocking balls, pitch framing, whatever. Anecdotally, Arencibia struggles in this realm. Most refer to him as a “poor” defensive catcher, including the Fangraphs defensive metric which views him negatively early in 2013. Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus does a weekly pitch framing wrap-up, noting that “Arencibia rates as a very poor receiver” due to his technique.
The BP post includes the below GIF, featuring Arencibia butchering a ball he clearly expected to behave differently than it did. Crossed up, we can safely say.
The post also includes another GIF of Arenciba beautifully receiving and framing a borderline pitch, getting the strike call he desperately needed (I assume.) While the ugly miscues stand out when JPA is behind the plate, is there a chance he isn’t so bad as a pitch framer?
ESPN Stats & Info complies reams of data, and it says maybe Arencibia is redeemable as a pitch framer yet. Though he doesn’t rate on Lindbergh’s leaderboard, the Blue Jays as a staff actually fair well in some measures we could attribute to receiving skills.
As a staff, the Toronto Blue Jays rank fourth among all 30 teams for called strikes on pitches thrown outside the zone. Only the Rays, Brewers, and Red Sox have strikes called outside the zone at a greater rate. The Rays and Brewers employ Jose Molina and Jonathan Lucroy, two of the most acclaimed pitch framers in the biz. As a group, Jays pitchers see their pitches inside the zone called for strikes at the league average rate and get calls on the black at a league average rate.
If we include last season as well, the Jays are still above-average but only slightly. In 2013, Casey Janssen is the most frequent recipient of borderline calls, with Brandon Morrow and Mark Buehrle receiving the most calls overall.
Does it mean anything? Maybe not. All I know is J.P Arencibia is the man behind the plate for the bulk of these calls so, just maybe, J.P. Arencibia isn’t the worst pitch framer in the business. Maybe he’s good? It isn’t to say there isn’t much work to do on his defense nor does mean he’s any easier to figure out. He’s bad, but maybe not that bad? He’s maybe not so bad that he and his prodigious power can’t play every day on a good team?
These aren’t bad questions to ask of the Jays starting C, as the Jays commitment to the University of Tennessee product suggests he isn’t going anywhere in the foreseeable future. Might as well do what we can to figure out exactly what he is and what he isn’t while he’s here.