In Defense of Nick Hundley

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:

 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:

 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 ( 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]

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9 Responses »

  1. I like Hundley as well, I just find his plate approach maddening. He seems to have no idea of the context of his situation and goes hacking away at the first offering he sees. How he succeeds like that is beyond me, but somehow he does.

  2. I hope you’re right, GY… because Hundley is the only catcher with major-league potential in the Padres system that has played in more than 5 games above A-ball.

  3. @SteveC … I’m a Luis Martinez fan …

    Does he have “major-league potential”? I’m far from knowing … but I’m hoping …

    GY, thanks for the link to the article about Voros McCracken … I’m an old guy … those were the days … glad to know yet another significant thing was birthed from it (i.e., I’m also a BP fan) …

  4. Excellent summary. Hundley is a perfectly serviceable starting catcher. On the wOBA stat, keep in mind that fangraphs’ wOBA is not park adjusted, so Hundley looks even better.

    The Padre offense looks like it should have league average hitters at just about every position. Unfortunately, this strategy works a lot better when you have Adrian Gonzalez to lift your offense above average and make up for the inevitable disappointments.

  5. I think what it boils down to is the fact that the Padres need to find the right hitting coach. We have been through too many hitting coaches the last couple of years. Once we find the right hitting coach, I think our bats will do a lot better (including Hundley’s). By the way, I love the site! Great job.

  6. I’ve seen both Karkovice and LaRue, and I think Hundley has a better stance and better swing than either of them. I think he has a chance to be better than adequate with the bat. He hit .292 with 7 of his 8 homers at Petco last year, so whatever he knows, I hope he shares it with his teammates.

    I’m not as bothered by his going after the first pitch, as Sandy Alderson would be. Pitchers try to get ahead in the count, and Wally Joyner tried to get the Padres to offer at that first pitch more often, reasoning that it’s often the most hittable pitch they’d see in an AB, and ended up butting heads with Sandy.

    Dick Williams urged his Padres kids in ’82-’83 to go after the first pitch if they thought they could get a hit, so Sandy’s “work the count” philosophy isn’t universal – or necessarily correct. HOFer Eddie Mathews preached swinging at any pitch in your hitting zone, anywhere in the count. The problem is, ask today’s players about their own hitting zone and many of them will say “Huh?”

  7. @ Lynchmob

    I think Martinez gets a cup of coffee in a pinch but I don’t ever see him becoming an everyday player.

  8. Great analysis. I’ve tried to explain why Hundley is a perfectly adequate starting catcher to people before. I looked at OPS+, which likes him pretty well in comparison to catchers. I didn’t delve into the power and plate discipline the way you did, but this certainly adds to my belief that he’s a solid offensive performer as a catcher. I’ll leave the defensive analysis to the professionals and assume if the Padres are happy with him behind the plate, he’s good enough.

  9. Really good article on Hundley, Geoff. I like having a good defensive catcher who is average at the plate rather than having a good offensive catcher who is just average on defense. This team’s first consideration should be about defense rather than offense because with our pitching staff, that is how we are going to win games, and I’m sure the Padres front office realizes that the market inefficiencies are leaning toward better deals on good defensive players rather than better deals on good offensive players. It’s like they say, “defense wins games, offense sells tickets.” Remember when the Pads had Bard, and he had to roll the ball to second base?