Padres Editorial: Trading Stolen Strikes for Runs Batted In (A.J. Preller’s Faustian Roll of the Dice)

Courtesy: UT San Diego
Courtesy: UT San Diego

Once upon a time – a.k.a. my teenage years – I was a pitcher.

Not the kind destined for Division 1 scholarships or Class A ball clubs, but the kind who loved being in control of a game’s tempo and (on good days) an opposing team’s offense. …That is, till my curveballs stopped curving and whiplash set in from watching pitches become runs………But I digress.

I remember there was one catcher on our team who had everything a pitcher could ask for: intelligence, confidence, in-game awareness, a cannon for an arm, and best of all, an amazing rapport with each and every battery mate. If there’s such a thing as a “Pitcher Whisperer,” he was it. The guy made me feel better, calmer, and more focused on the mound. And unlike me, he ended up going straight to Class A ball. I bring this up because in my humble opinion, Rene Rivera was that guy for the Padres’ pitching staff last year.

Back then, none of us worried about him being able to calm down a starter early in the game, or helping our bullpen keep games close whenever he was behind the dish. This year – and granted, it’s only May – we (or at least I) don’t feel that same sense of assurance.

Full disclosure here: I dig Rivera’s whole story. I even tweeted out some articles and stats that got “favorited” by his wife. So I feel a bond. And the fact is, the dude’s a journeyman player who signed with the Mariners in 2001, found himself out of baseball in 2010, then signed a minor league contract with the Padres in 2012 and proceeded to start 89 games for us in 2014.

All while accruing some pretty eye-popping defensive stats:

 

  • A catcher’s earned run average of 3.10, the lowest in the majors in 2014 (for 600+ innings caught) and the lowest in Padres history (per Bill Center)
  • 33 of 91 base-stealers thrown out – a 36% success rate that was the highest in the Majors in 2014 and most for a Padres catcher since 2001
  • Ranked among the Top 5 defensive catchers in the majors by Baseball Prospectus for 2014

 

Now, Jeff Sullivan of @fangraphs wrote an incredibly thorough pre-season article on this whole defense-vs.-offense subject for Fox Sports last December (http://www.foxsports.com/mlb/just-a-bit-outside/story/san-diego-padres-defense-catchers-pitch-framing-derek-norris-122614), complete with an awesome GIF of the graphic difference between Rivera’s and Grandal’s strike zone, and that of Derek Norris and Tim Federowicz (http://cdn.fangraphs.com/blogs/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/padrescatchers.gif).

By Jeff’s count, this “framing value difference” between these two catching duos amounted to a differential of 20-30 runs over the season. That’s hardly an insignificant number (especially with our anemic offense last year). But clearly, that’s where A.J. believes Derek’s offensive skills can help compensate for all those lost strikes, outs and runs.

To his (and Derek’s) credit, after last night’s run explosion Norris is now hitting .329 with 14 RBIs and a .827 OPS. In 23 games. That’s also not an insignificant number. So the question becomes one of sustainability.

Can Derek maintain this kind of gaudy output? Can Darren Balsley help improve his framing, the expansion of his strike zone, and his pitch selection? And will Norris develop the same chemistry, rapport and trust with our eclectic bullpen that Rene did last year?

Time will surely tell.

I, for one, went into sky-is-falling mode seeing this year’s 10-5 squad proceed to go 1-7. OK, make that 2-7. And in my own frantic, over-reactionary way I turned to stats and sentiment to help me wrap my head around it all. That, and find a scapegoat.

Why? Because as a Padres fan, I’m still conditioned to see the glass half-empty. And to assume that the good times with this team don’t ever last for long. But that’s clearly not A.J. Preller’s mindset. He’s a glass-is-already-half-full-and-getting-fuller guy. That’s what makes him the Rock Star he is.

As much as I still love Rene and am rooting for him to emerge from his horrific offensive funk (.143 Avg with 10 hits in 70 Abs), I’m rooting even harder for A.J.’s vision to help get us into the playoffs. Even if it means abandoning my decades-long bias towards defensively-gifted catchers. To paraphrase our newly-minted hashtag/mantra, “In Preller I trust.”

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Neal Hughlett
Digital Creative Director/Copywriter at @mmbideas. Wannabe sports journalist, flamed-out athlete, and diehard baseball junkie despite all of its strikes, lockouts, steroid scandals and Scott Boras. Ex-Californian proudly repping the Padres & Chargers deep in the heart of Red Sox & Patriots Nation.

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Neal Hughlett
Digital Creative Director/Copywriter at @mmbideas. Wannabe sports journalist, flamed-out athlete, and diehard baseball junkie despite all of its strikes, lockouts, steroid scandals and Scott Boras. Ex-Californian proudly repping the Padres & Chargers deep in the heart of Red Sox & Patriots Nation.