6/23/09

On Aging Catchers

It may surprise some of you - it certainly did us - that Brad Ausmus is still (!) playing.  The Bossmus, if you will, was a longtime backstop for the Houston Astros, so much so that when he was playing, there was talk of his being a player-coach and assuming managerial duties for the team immediately upon retiring.  Of course, his 10 years in the dirty dirty was the most unproductive stretch of his career; even this year, as a 40-year old, he's putting up his highest OPS since he was a spry 30 year old.  In fact, his age-30 season was one of only two seasons in his entire career when he posted a league-average 100 OPS+ or higher.  The three-time Gold Glover (a meaningless award, the nature of which we'll attack in a post sooner or later) and one-time All Star (another meaningless award that we'll attack, probably in the same post where we post our ballot) has stuck around because of presumed defensive and game-calling skills.  Which, we suppose, is as good a reason as any to keep a catcher around.  And it's not like game-calling gets worse with age.  

But really despite the fact that we never much cared for him as an Astro, and despite the fact that he was never, you know, that good, we respect a guy who can catch until he's 40.  And who, thusfar, is doing a good job of ensuring that no one is going to mention the Brad Ausmus Dodgers jersey as one that belongs in the company of Jerry Rice's Seahawks jersey, Michael Jordan's Wizards duds, Wayne Gretzky's St. Louis Blues getup, or Steve Carlton as a Minnesota Twin* (we ran out of "jersey" synonyms.)

*Goodness, Steve Carlton looks unhappy to be in a Twins jersey.  Poor guy.

ANYWAY, the revelation that Brad Ausmus is not only alive, but also appearing in actual Major League Baseball Games got us to thinking about the recent run of hangers-on we've had at the catching position.  We find it astounding that, given the high demands of the position, people can continue to do it until they're collecting AARP benefits - we kid because we're young.  In terms of the old dudes - meaning those over 35 - currently backstopping, we're in a veritable golden age (har har): Ausmus (40), Gregg Zaun (38), Jason Varitek (37), Jorge Posada (37), and Ivan Rodriguez (37).

*In the course of our research for this, we discovered that Jason Kendall is only 35, as is Jason LaRue - also still active! - while no Molina is older than 34 (3 guesses as to which one!), and Yorvit Torrealba and Miguel Olivo are only 30.  We don't know why we thought Torrealba and Olivo were older, but...that seems young, doesn't it?

Zaun is currently employed almost entirely because he's old; the Orioles felt like they needed an older dude to show young stud Matt Wieters the ropes.  Which, we guess, justifies paying a guy who's had more concussions from a knee to the face (1) than good offensive seasons in which he's seen over 250 PA (0).  Hey, it's their money.  

On the other hand, we have Varitek, the Red Sock for life, and Jorge Posada, a Yankee stalwart.  Both have had several excellent offensive seasons, though Posada's been noticeably better with the bat throughout his career (132 OPS+ for hip-hip-Jorge, 100 for Tek).  Varitek, like Ausmus, has drawn effusive praise for his game-calling ability, though his overall defensive prowess has declined some with age.  The same can be said for Posada, who, after shoulder surgery last season, is probably going to be relegated to a lot of DH duty during the final years of his contract. 

Ivan Rodriguez, of course, was what catchers strove to be.  He had a bat like Piazza, but he could actually play defense - he threw out almost 50% of baserunners.  He was a 2-time MVP and appeared in more All-Star games than we care to count.  He even stole the nickname of one of the best catchers of all time; because of this larceny, we refuse to call him Pudge*.  As far as we can tell, no one ever praised his game-calling ability, but maybe that's because it was lost in the sea of adulation heaped upon his bat.  Of course, now he's a .300 slugger who lost a ton of weight after steroid testing started, inviting loads of speculation, but let's forget about that because we just don't care.

*Seriously, how did this happen?  Why recycle nicknames?  There's a good reason why B.J. Ryan isn't "The Ryan Express," and it's not just because he can't hit 90 anymore.  There's a reason why Albert Pujols isn't "The Big Hurt."  There's a reason why Felix Hernandez isn't "Wild Thing."  The reason is because THE NAMES WERE ALREADY USED.  We can't support Rany Jazayerli's campaign to get nicknames for Royals players (hello, Mexicutioner) enough.  Bill Simmons had a good riff on this re: LaDainian Tomlinson being nicknamed LT.

But with these guys, it's not about the future, or even the present.  It's really about the past.  Age doesn't seem to be a drag on catchers the way it is on most positions, even though it seems like catchers should wear down faster.  Most GMs (clearly, we're not looking at you, Jon Daniels or Brian Cashman), for example, wouldn't want to trot out a 35+ year old shortstop.  But man, if there's a catcher who's old and able to produce at something mildly approaching mediocrity, that's a hot commodity right there. 

Why?  Well, consider the cliches.  Catchers wear the "tools of ignorance," they're like "coaches on the field," they know more about what's going on at any given time than anyone else out there.  They're responsible for managing their pitcher, for working the umpire, framing pitches, and, if they're especially resourceful, asking the batter what that guy at his wife's strip club was doing wearing her panties on his head.  Ooh, Rexie, I don't think this one's got the distance...

These intangibles, if you will, are things that people attribute to those who play the game The Right Way.  They're the guys who run out ground balls, chatter in the infield, and drink milk after games.  You know...white guys grinders.  And catching is the ultimate grinder position.  Hell, it's practically the only position where a player might actually break a sweat.  So, if a GM wants an easy way to endear his team to the media and fans, he can bring in the aging veteran behind the plate who does all those things because he cares about the game.  He's been around.  He understands pitchers and umpires.  He'll help the team while hitting about as well as you or we might.  

In a way, this makes the cliche that catchers are like managers on the field one of the truest ones every uttered.  Backstops get recycled just like managers do.  Brad Ausmus, Astro For Life, played with Detroit, San Diego, and LA.  Ivan Rodriguez, Bob Boone, and Tony Pena bounced around to several different teams.  GMs just love the catcher who's been around and seen everything.  With catchers, you can take that "veteran presence" that GMs love to bandy on about after they waste heaps of money on, oh, let's say Aaron Rowand, and multiply it by 100.  The same logic that leads to the Rockies hiring Jim Tracy, who's getting all the credit for the team starting to finally play up to its talent level, leads to the Cardinals paying Jason LaRue to play for them despite his hitting .185/.286/.323 in the three years prior to this season.

What we're saying is, mamas, forget about raising a lefty if you want him to have a long baseball career.  Raise your boy to be a catcher and he'll be set for life.  

1 comment:

  1. Carlton in Twins garb is almost as bad as seeing Richie Ashburn wearing a Mets uniform.

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