It has not been a good season for the Toronto Blue Jays. Not in any way. Expectations were high coming into the season after a series of moves designed to overhaul the starting rotation and vault the Jays into contention as the Yankees aged the Red Sox prepped for their next wave of young talent.
2013 didn’t work out like that, of course. Injuries and ineffectivness robbed Jays fans of their coronation before it even happened, to say nothing of the Red Sox and Yankees and their ongoing success.
The reasons for Toronto are numerous, starting with the ugly numbers posted by the starting rotation. Add black holes of production in left field, second base, and behind the plate and you have a last place team where a World Series contender was supposed to sit.
It is behind the plate where the Jays have really suffered, ranking last in the league in WAR from their backstops. J.P. Arencibia is the everyday catcher for Toronto and he stands on the brink of history. Very, very dubious history.
For much of the season, J.P. Arencibia seemed content to simply make news after squabbling with Blue Jays television analyst and former teammate Gregg Zaun for persistent negativity.
It is easy to be negative and crush underperforming players. Those who cover the same team every day would be well served in providing their audience with something a little more substantive than just saying “this guy sucks” 162 times a year.
The real problem is Arencibia makes himself very difficult to defend as his numbers sink lower and lower as the season progresses. Yes, Arencibia is hitting for power, posting 20 home runs as an everyday catcher. That’s tough to do, considering how difficult a position it is to play. Unfortunately for J.P. and Jays fans, Arencibia’s 20 homer year might be the most hollow in recent baseball history.
Consider his on base percentage, a paltry .241 at time of writing. Only nine other hitters to qualify for the batting title ever posted an OBP below .250. Only three of those hitters got on base worse than JPA’s current clip.
If getting on base isn’t a skill J.P. can count on, he at least has his power, right? Unbelievably, Arencibia’s inability to make consistent contact has robbed him of even .400 slugging percentage. A low OBP and a low slugging percentage makes for a very low OPS – on base plus slugging. OPS isn’t perfect but it is a reasonable snapshot stat for overall production. J.P. Arencibia is the only qualified player in baseball history to hit 20 home runs without cracking a .650 OPS. The only one. Ever.
Nobody should want to be the only anything ever on the low end. But that is where Arencibia currently sits. The worst season by OPS for a 20 home run hitter. Maybe you prefer OPS+, for its league-adjusted goodness? How many hitters that were eligible for the batting title, do you think, hit 20 home runs with an OPS+ below 70? Again: just one. Poor old J.P. and his OPS+ of 67.
It isn’t that Arencibia is the worst hitter ever. His ISO (isolated power, calculated by dividing extra bases by at bats for a quick measure of extra base hit strength) is .177, well above league-average for 2013 or any other season, including the days of peak offense at the turn of this century.
Again, Arencibia’s overall numbers suffer because his power seems to come at the expense of everything else. He’s again the only qualified hitter in the Live Ball era to post an above-average ISO while producing more than 30% below league average (wRC+ < 70).
If you notice a theme or recurring term here, it should be “qualified” as it is the factor which cannot be ignored. In order to qualify for the batting title, a hitter must register 3.1 at bats per team game. There are plenty of crappy hitters in the league – Arencibia is FAR from the worst hitting catcher in baseball. Six different catchers have 200 plate appearances this season with a lower weight runs created plus (like OPS+ but beefed up and improved) than Arencibia. Only five catchers have hit more homers than JPA since he became a full time player in 2011, and two of them are barely catchers.
It isn’t that he’s bad, it’s that he’s left out there, day after day, where his bat is exposed as simply not good enough. The things he does well at the plate are overwhelmed by his shortcomings when he’s forced into such a heavy workload. The Blue Jays don’t have a better internal option (any more) so J.P.’s it.
Arencibia gamely catches four out of every five games for the Blue Jays, putting up worse monthly numbers along the way. After his blow up with the local press, he quieted down and continues working with the endless array of pitchers, thanks to the Blue Jays injury woes, to the best of his abilities.
He is what he is – he might be an ideal backup at this point. He can step in and crush a mistake but his voluminous playing time in 2013 did the Blue Jays no favors in 2013. So difficult is it to find catchers and so well “compensated” are receivers by the WAR positional adjustment that Wins Above Replacement seems like the kind of stat capable of overlooking a player’s struggles when they’re playing a difficult position with great regularity.
But this sad tale wouldn’t have an ending so rosy now would it? Of course not. Again using the “qualified” modifier, we find just nine catcher seasons at or below Fangraphs replacement level since they lowered the mound in 1969. Two of the nine names are actually designated hitters who happened to catch a bunch of games.
So, fairly, seven other catchers couldn’t sneak above replacement level while playing every day. It’s the essence of the idea of “replacement level” – finding somebody else who can catch just about every day is very, very hard. So hard that is almost doesn’t matter how bad they if they’re able to stick it out behind the plate. Almost.
This is less of an indictment of J.P. Arencibia than of the Blue Jays front office. They know who and what the 27-year old is at this point in his career – that they saw fit to trade away his heir apparent and allow this player to produce at this level for this long is not a good look. Improved as his defense might be, he is an offense-first catcher who hits like a catch-and-throw guy but plays as much as the elite backstops in the game. The pieces don’t fit yet the Blue Jays keep hammering him into a role for which he appears unsuited.
Perhaps looking solely at esoteric offensive statistics misses the point. The Jays decision makers surely value the other duties their catcher performs and feel comfortable allowing him to do…whatever it is he does at the plate, so long as he takes care of business behind it. To say nothing of his profile off-the-field, where the gregarious University of Tennessee product is beloved by fans. Simply farming him out or non-tendering such a popular player will take some serious finesse.
Can the Blue Jays afford to go into another season — year two of their assault on the post-season with a beefed up payroll — with a historically bad catcher taking major reps behind the plate?
Jays fans will quickly point to 1993, when Toronto won the World Series with just such a one-dimensional player as defense-first catcher Pat Borders .254/.285/.371 with just 9 home runs for a team that won 95 games.
Is J.P. Arencibia the defensive equivalent of Pat Borders? Can the Blue Jays sew up some of the other gaping holes in their lineup, allowing them to carry a substandard bat like Arencibia’s? Does JPA have a fresh World Series MVP trophy sitting at home, buying him all kinds of leeway to stink it up for another year? We know the definitive answer to just one of these questions.
So the catcher position remains a very large question mark for the 2014 Toronto Blue Jays. J.P. Arencibia is arbitration-eligible for the first time after this season, meaning his middling production stands to get more expensive for 2014. But by how much? And, more pressingly – can the Jays and Alex Anthopoulos find anybody else to do the job better? Finding a catcher better than J.P. Arencibia is easy right up until the moment you actually try doing so. Jays fans are about to find out just how steep a price they paid for a Cy Young winner.