Steve at Friarhood Radio recently had me on his show to discuss Jed Hoyer’s off-season moves, the role of sabermetrics in today’s game, and more. I get all rambly, as usual, but it was good fun. Big thanks to Steve for the chat.
One item that came up in conversation is whether Nick Hundley can succeed as a big-league starting catcher. Others have expressed their concerns to me about Hundley’s ability this winter — many people see him as more of a backup type. It’s an understandable point of view, but one with which I do not agree.
In a recent FanGraphs article discussing Brian Cartwright’s Oliver projection system, Cartwright notes in the comments that “MLB catchers have an average .311 wOBA, about .330 for the those with 81+ games started.” Hundley’s wOBA (technical explanation here) was .316 in 2009 and .308 in 2010. In other words, it was right around average for all catchers and slightly below for regulars.
Hundley is 27 years old and has 812 big-league plate appearances under his belt. His list of comparable players through age 26 includes the man with whom he shared catching duties last year, Yorvit Torrealba:
Player PA BA OBP SLG OPS+ Hundley 812 .242 .302 .398 93 Torrealba 800 .250 .315 .384 84
Hundley is a better hitter now than Torrealba was at the same stage in their respective careers. This is damning with faint praise, but here’s the important point: With Torrealba departing in favor of three guys (Rob Johnson, Guillermo Quiroz, Gregg Zaun) who are at best big-league backups, the Padres now get to see what Hundley, a product of their oft-maligned farm system who is entering his physical prime, can do in an expanded role. He shouldn’t be much, if any, worse than Torrealba was.
One thing I look for in young hitters is whether they improve in certain areas from year to year. Specifically, I am interested in their power development and ability to control the strike zone. Here’s how Hundley has fared in each of his first three seasons according to relevant metrics:
Year ISO XBH% BB% SO% BB/SO 2008 .121 .056 .051 .241 .212 2009 .168 .087 .097 .263 .368 2010 .168 .091 .081 .215 .379
The first two columns of numbers deal with power, while the rightmost three cover plate discipline. These aren’t great (which is fine, because I don’t think Hundley is going to be great — “adequate” is a better word to describe his potential), but they’re acceptable. His power is improving, and although he drew fewer walks last year than in 2009, he also struck out less.
If Hundley isn’t making great gains, he also isn’t giving ground. For a youngish receiver who is learning his craft (former Padres bench coach Ted Simmons has discussed the difficulties of getting acclimated to catching at the big-league level, and he should know), holding steady is acceptable for now.
I once had a spreadsheet that attempted to divine the future path of young players courtesy of Bill James’ old Brock2 projection system, but it seems to have disappeared and I can’t find another copy. It was fun to play with and sometimes yielded good results — Alfonso Soriano as the new Jeff Kent worked for a while; so did Albert Pujols as the new Manny Ramirez. Other times (Corey Patterson as the new Steve Finley), not so much.
I’d love to run numbers for Hundley right now. I’ll bet his next five years would look a little like this:
Age PA BA OBP SLG HR 27 403 .236 .303 .404 12 28 397 .249 .324 .405 12 29 437 .230 .321 .422 16 30 445 .251 .334 .431 14 31 422 .260 .355 .452 14
Call it .245/.328/.423. Call it Jason LaRue, because that’s his line for those ages and it should remind you of someone.
I’ve been beating the “Hundley as LaRue” drum for a while. At the risk of choking on my own Kool-Aid, I said of Hundley in the Ducksnorts 2009 Baseball Annual that he should be
…someone who hits for a low average, knocks the occasional home run, draws some walks, and plays solid defense… like Ron Karkovice and Jason LaRue.
Well, considering that LaRue’s most similar player in history is Karkovice… What the heck, here’s Karkovice during that same age span:
Age PA BA OBP SLG HR 27 193 .246 .310 .413 5 28 381 .237 .302 .392 13 29 453 .228 .287 .424 20 30 248 .213 .325 .425 11 31 382 .217 .306 .387 13
This works out to .227/.303/.407 — not quite as good as LaRue, but in the same general vicinity. Again, these aren’t presented to inspire false hope in Hundley. He isn’t great now and I don’t think he has greatness in him (not everyone gets to be Joe Mauer), but Karkovice and LaRue enjoyed long and successful careers. Both were adequate big-league catchers for many years.
I expect similar contributions from Hundley going forward. Stick him in the no. 8 hole and let him do his thing. Assuming you’re getting production from other positions (an admittedly dangerous proposition with the Padres), there shouldn’t be a problem.
* * *
Other people’s stuff…
- Card Corner: 1971 Topps: Earl Wilson (Hardball Times). Bruce Markusen tells a great story about the former Padres right-hander.
- Padres believe they have enough on offense (Padres.com). Belief is funny… it can make people say and do crazy things.
- Most underrated players in the game (ESPN). Jayson Stark’s list includes Padres right-hander Mike Adams.
- 2011 MLB Power Rankings, The Ides of January Edition (Part I, #21-#30) (Seamheads). Jeffrey Brown ranks San Diego at no. 22, calling this “a best-case-scenario” for the team that won 90 games a year ago. It’s a popular stance right now, as it was headed into 2010. We’ll see if it’s right.
- San Diego Padres Top 10 Prospects (Baseball America). Anthony Rizzo (no. 2) and Reymond Fuentes (no. 4) are too high for my taste. Jaff Decker at no. 7 makes no sense to me. Jason Hagerty at no. 10 is a gutsy call. I have a good feeling about Hagerty, even though he is a bit old. Rizzo is cited as having the best power in the system. Right-hander Eugenio Reyes, who has yet to make his full-season debut, has the best fastball. Also, add Jonathan Mayo to the list of folks who prefer Casey Kelly to Simon Castro. And speaking of Kelly, Ben Davey at Friar Forecast previews this year’s projected Double-A San Antonio pitching staff.
- Father of Padres military programs retiring (U-T). Padres Director of Military Affairs Jack Ensch, a former POW, is calling it a career. I was introduced to Ensch once, and he struck me as someone who genuinely loved his work. Money quote: “I hope the Padres never view the military just as a revenue stream. Our programs were always designed to honor, respect and support military service with no strings attached.” Well said. Congratulations and thanks!
- Sabermetrician In Exile (The PostGame). Jeff Passan tells the fascinating and bittersweet tale of Voros McCracken, the man who helped revolutionize baseball analysis with DIPS. [h/t @craigcalcaterra]