April 20, 2012; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox former catcher Carlton Fisk walks past former players Johnny Pesky, seated right, and Bobby Doerr, seated left, during the 100th anniversary celebration at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Investing in old catchers


Surely somewhere in the middle of Tom Fornelli’s (@SouthSideAsylum) attempt to wage war with all of Twitter on Monday and argue that it was a good idea for the White Sox to let A.J. Pierzynski walk in free agency, it was referenced that re-upping a 36 year-old catcher may not be the best use of millions of dollars. Baseball itself probably isn’t the best use of millions of dollars, but good luck stopping that train.

But how bad is it to trust an old catcher to keep on truckin’? Let’s investigate.

In his efforts to wildly distend the concept of a full-time catcher’s workload, A.J. Pierzynski only once failed to accumulate 500 plate appearances in a season during his White Sox tenure. It was in 2005, when he had yet to really get his hooks into all of us, and even then he still went to bat 497 times.

If we decided to be generous and ask, “How have catchers 36 years and older faired in seasons where they have received over 450 plate appearances while starting behind the plate 70% of the time?” what would we get?

First, just 21 catchers of this age group have logged this workload this since 1901. 17 of these seasons have taken place since 1980. Seven of those have featured above-average offensive performances according to OPS+. Sorry, no, just six. Less than a third, though Birdie Tebbets, Brad Ausmus and Luke Sewell were never above-average hitters to beging with. (Tebbets and Sewell are pre-1950, though)

Half of those above-average seasons were carried out by Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk. The best season on this list is the bright-burning absurdity of Fisk hitting .285/.378/.451 in 521 PA’s as a 42 year-old. Beyond that sorcery, we have:

  • 38 year-old Jorge Posada for the Yankees in 2010: .248/.357/.454 in 451 PA
  • 36 year-old Ernie Whitt for the Blue Jays  in 1988: .251/.348/.410 in 468 PA
  • 37 year-old Benito Santiago for the Giants in 2002: .278/.315/.450 in 517 PA
An esteemed group, to be sure, but a small one. 76 catchers fitting this age criteria were able to work in a part-time (300 PA) capacity, but to say that the White Sox were playing the percentages in betting that Pierzynski isn’t going to hold up into his late-30′s is putting it politely. A.J. is otherworldly in his durability and willingness to sit behind the plate (I went into a catcher’s squat to put air in my tire today, and oh, not pleasant at all) but the Sox bet on him to show his humanity.
Were they cheap? Maybe, who’s to say what their budgeting limits and motivations are. Especially cruel and heartless? No.

Rios’ back
On the subject of humanity–lo and behold Alex Rios has immediately backed off any intentions of being ready earlier than the final set of spring training games this weekend.
“It is not something that we have to worry about,” (Rios) said. “It is just going to take time to heal. I felt better this morning but on certain moves I still feel a little pinch there. I had pretty decent progress from yesterday until to today. I feel looser. Let’s see what happens.”

A regiment of electric stimulation and oral medication are part of Rios’ treatment by the team medical and training staff.

Let’s not belabor concerns over Rios’ health any farther than this line from Dan Szymborski’s comments on his ZiPS projections for the White Sox.
“A quiet offseason for the Chicago White Sox leaves them likely to be around .500 in 2013, still enough to be threatening if the pitching stays healthy. One potential issue: There’s not a lot of organizational depth to handle any nasty surprises.”
A testament to what hanging around and dominating Triple-A hitters can accomplish. Even the most invincible pitching staff in the majors eventually has an opening.
If Axelrod’s occasionally nibbling approach and mediocrity is too much of an assault to the senses to appreciate his improbably rise from Indy Ball, here’s a video of his work with people suffering from cerebral palsy to play while the opposing team is circling the bases. Now you’ll feel a pang of guilt for yelling at him in anger.
Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan

Tags: A.J. Pierzynski Alex Rios Chicago White Sox