Mike Wilner of the Jays’ radio crew, and the host of the Fan 590′s post-game show, was one of the first and most visible proponents of blowing old school narratives apart and looking at the game of baseball through a Sabermetric prism– not only in this city, but you’d have to think in just about any, as far as members of an official team broadcast crew are concerned. For that, he has long been an extremely welcome voice in the local media for those of us intolerant of irrational bullshit and the typical radio call-in dreck.
And that’s why it’s especially weird to see him doing what he’s been doing this week, defending J.P. Arencibia for being in a “slump,” despite the catcher’s abysmal career .267 OBP and 86 wRC+ through now more than eleven-hundred big league at-bats.
For example, here’s an exchange from the first caller on last night’s JaysTalk:
Caller: I just wanted to comment that tonight, I really enjoyed the game– thought the boys played great; very entertaining– but what’s it going to take for them to take J.P. Arencibia and stick him on the end of the bench?
Wilner: I think it’s going to take a lot. I really do. I mean, there’s no question that he’s in a massive slump right now, and I think, with the 0-for-4 tonight, he’s like three for his last forty-one, I want to say. Not 100% sure of that, but he did pick up the walk tonight. He’s in a big, big, big, big slump, and guys go in big, big, big, big slumps. You know, when he pulls out of it he can get as hot as anybody– granted, the hot streaks do not last as long as the cold streaks. But look at Jose Bautista– he just went through a 4-for-45, and he’s come out of it beautifully. So… I know there’s a lot of people who are very upset with J.P. Arencibia, and J.P. Arencibia’s in a trough right now– you’re looking at him basically at his absolute worst. What I can’t understand is why it appears as though so many Blue Jays [fans] are willing to believe that this isn’t J.P. at his absolute worst– that this is normal for J.P. Arencibia. It is certainly far from that.
Technically it’s hard to say that Wilner is wrong here– depending on your definition of far. Arencibia’s .283 wOBA in 2013 is clearly below the still-not-good .304 he posted last year, and .311 from the year before that. And if fans are harping, in particular, on his bad May (.263 wOBA) and worse June (.126 wOBA so far), perhaps he has a point.
But are they? Or are fans just feeling conned that they’ve defended and grown to like Arencibia as a “personality,” while having been hoping in the back of their heads for some kind of large, 2010-esque step forward that feels less and less likely to happen?
That was the year, you’ll remember, when Arencibia, already being labelled yet another Ricciardi first-round bust, repeated Triple-A in Las Vegas and posted a .301/.359/.626 line– good for a .411 wOBA.
Thing is: repeat year.
Also: he walked in 8.3% of his plate appearances that year, and “only” struck out in 18.5%. This year those rates, which FanGraphs will tell you become reliable after 200 and 150 plate appearances respectively (JPA has 232, currently), are at a horrific 2.6% and 32.3%.
Bringing up his not-very-impressive and Vegas-influenced (oh, but also kidney- and vision-problem-influenced!) minor league line, as Wilner does in last night’s post-game piece at Sportsnet, seems a hell of a thin straw to grasp at here, 1100 plate appearances into his big league career.
“Arencibia has never done anything that should lead people to believe that he’s going to struggle to reach base 25 per cent of the time on a regular basis,” he says in the piece.
Except, y’know, the .237 on-base through a third of this season, and the .267 mark for his career– obviously not under 25%, though you could probably argue that staying above that mark has been a struggle. Or, more likely, you could concede the point while noting that saying so– and using a .250 OBP as any kind of benchmark– means putting a serious shit-tonne of lipstick on one hell of a pig.
“Truth is,” we’re told, “you could do a lot worse for a bottom-third of the lineup catcher. It would be nice if people weren’t so quick to pile on when he’s down.”
OK. But… could you? A lot?
Arencibia has been a starter for three seasons now, and over those three years, among 16 qualified catchers, he ranks last in wins above replacement (per FanGraphs), and 14th in weighted on-base and wRC+. This year, among the 12 qualified catchers, he’s second-last across the board in those categories.
Change the minimum number of plate appearances to 150 for this season and he’s got the third-worst fWAR and his wOBA puts him 23rd of 28.
Among catchers with at least 700 plate appearances over the three year span, he’s 24th of 28 in WAR and– hey!– way up in 19th in wOBA. Of course… he’s 20 points of wOBA behind the hitter in 18th spot, is virtually tied with the guy who comes in 22nd (a .303 wOBA versus .300 for the Reds’ Ryan Hanigan), and is riding his strong-ish (.311 wOBA) 2011, despite his numbers dropping off in 2012, and again so far this year.
So, again… a lot?
I wouldn’t say so.
And this is a guy, as Wilner correctly states, “who made it to the majors on the strength of his bat”– which is another way of saying that he’s not very good at anything else (and no, I’m not ready to make any conclusions about his framing from the interesting piece this week at Mop Up Duty, which shows he’s stolen more strikes than he’s lost).
The promotion last week of Josh Thole, who seemed a natural fit as a platoon partner until JPA started putting up reverse splits this year, signals to me that all of this isn’t lost on the front office, at least.
“It’s really not fair to continue to heap scorn on Arencibia, who has been the exact same player this year as he was in the previous two, when most people were far more willing to overlook his flaws,” I wrote at the time– a statement that echoes some of what Wilner says, and I think continues to hold true. “It’s just… the notion of Arencibia as a passable starting big league catcher is wearing awful thin. And I really don’t know how badly this lineup really needs another all-or-nothing thumper when they can at least marginally upgrade their defence behind the plate and add a guy who offsets the power drop by actually getting on fucking base sometimes.”
Maybe I’m being completely blinded by the frustration of J.P.’s hackery and not paying enough mind to the principles of how offensive value is calculated, but it sure feels to me right now like guys such as Munenori Kawasaki– who offers absolutely nothing in the way of power, or even batting average, but battles and takes good at-bats and has walked enough to get on base about 33% of the time– are much preferable options at the bottom of this lineup, with their ability to at least keep rallies going until someone who stands a chance of doing some damage get up.
Crazy belief or not, Arencibia, in my mind– and many others, for damn good reason– hardly qualifies anymore as someone capable of doing damage. The successes are just too few and too far between. He needs to hit for more power than just about every catcher in the history of the game in order to stay on the right side of barely-passable, and when he doesn’t– like he is now, with nine extra base hits over 38 games, and a .183/.209/.303 line since April fucking twenty-fifth– little things like the fact that he’s posted an on-base above .301 in just three of the 16 calendar months he’s appeared in as a big leaguer, start to become a little more glaring. Meaning: holy shit, it’s so fucked that this is even a conversation.
Can, as Wilner suggests, he be better? Sure. Can he be better enough? I’m really having a hard time believing it, or understanding what the point of defending him is, at this point, trough or not. His abysmal production right now just makes it all the more clear that there is a major issue. Nice guy, I’m sure, but is it really piling on when he’s just always been kinda fucking terrible? Are we really at the point of pining for him to scrape his way up to well below average? We’ve seen from Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, and perhaps even now Adam Lind, that you should never give up on a guy, but holy fuck, that doesn’t mean we have to use kid gloves when he’s been objectively terrible.
The Blue Jays need to reevaluate their catching situation. Period. Especially with a view to 2014.
“Holy Shit!” Addendum
The fuck? Here’s something I should have noticed in the course of my pouring over Arencibia’s FanGraphs page– but fortunately was pointed out by a commenter after the first part of this post went up. Arencibia has 121 plate appearances at Rogers Centre this season and has, unbelievably, posted a “Good Arencibia”-like .288/.298/.619 line. The on-base still isn’t there, but the home runs– ten of his twelve on the season– push his weighted on-base to a beyond-acceptable .386 at Rogers Centre.
Meanwhile, on the road, in 111 plate appearances, his wRC+ has been effing minus-1. A .171 wOBA! A .132/.171/.208 line!
I mean… what the hell??? How do you possibly account for that? Randomness mostly, I’d guess– I mean, the samples aren’t huge and the 29.4% HR/FB rate at home screams crazy luck (granted, as does the 6.7% rate one the road)– but… it’s just weird.
I don’t have anything particularly insightful to add about this, it just kinda blew my mind.