True Grit

Catching the Bus in 2011

2010 will stick in the mind of many as the year that Jason Kendall was allowed to take control of the starting catcher position for much longer than necessary. Until he was finally taken off of the 25-man roster after the August 30th game, Kendall had started 118 games at catcher to Brayan Pena’s 13. Six of those 13 were in August when Kendall was experiencing the pains of his injury. Without looking up the stats, I can tell you that the percentage of Kendall’s innings at catcher out of the total catcher innings up to that point were more than any other team in the league. That includes teams with solid catchers like Joe Mauer and Victor Martinez.

For a team that was already derailed by May and that could use some more experience for its backup catcher, that’s pretty ridiculous. Unless your catcher is on fire or a perennial All-Star, no catcher needs to log that much time. It was fairly perplexing, though typical of the Royals, and caused much frustration amongst the Royals’ fan base.

With Jason Kendall out 8-10 months while he recovers from rotator cuff surgery, the catching situation for the Royals at the beginning of the 2011 campaign is up in the air. While there was some suspicion that the Royals might sign another veteran backstop like Bengie Molina or Rod Barajas, it hasn’t (yet) come to pass and several of those players have signed contracts around the league. Where does this leave the Royals to start 2011?

Ned Yost is hopeful that Kendall will be recovered and ready for Spring Training so that he can get on the field to start the season. I’ll help the countdown on this:

  • September 3rd: Kendall has surgery
  • February 14th: Pitchers and catchers report
  • September 3rd to February 14th: 164 days, or about five and a half months
  • February 27th: First official Spring Training game
  • September 3rd to February 27th: 177 days, or nearly six months
  • March 31st: First regular season game
  • September 3rd to March 31st: 209 days, or roughly seven months
  • I don’t know if Yost was being hopeful about Kendall’s return to put on a good face for the media or because he truly thinks they might get Kendall back that soon, but it’s very unlikely to happen that way. While Kendall is a supposed Iron Man, coming back from surgery that quickly would be ill-advised. Not only that, but being ready for the season’s start would mean having a month or more to prepare to play, which would make him recover even faster. I just can’t see that happening, and I would hope they treat him with a similar care as that used with Mike Aviles this past season. I say this not only because I don’t want to see players go out with life-changing injuries, but also because I want to see some consistency in the organization.

    Anyway, like that shows, Kendall should not be anywhere near the starting lineup when the season starts. Really, I would suspect that it wouldn’t help any even if he was in the lineup. Good clubhouse influences, if that’s what Kendall is, don’t need to play everyday, Dayton. So, don’t rush him back just to get his “mentoring” self back in the lineup.

    Leadership aside, Kendall provides no offensive strengths and few defensive strengths that would help the team in any way. Brayan Pena showed he was more than capable of equaling Kendall’s output in 2010. Pena posted a line of .253/.306/.335 in 174 PA’s to Kendall’s .256/.318/.297 in 490 PA’s. While not superb, Pena out-slugs Kendall, which can somewhat balance the lower OBP. Pena walks less and strikes out more, but hits twice as many extra-base hits as Kendall. Pick and choose what you want, but it’s clear that Kendall isn’t really any sort of big improvement over Pena. That likely says more about the state of Royals catching right now, but it is what it is.

    So, offensively there’s no reason to hurry Kendall back (particularly if he’s started second in the lineup again). What about in terms of calling a game?

    A while back, the guys at Royals Review looked at the differences in the Royals’ catchers’ ability to frame pitches (can’t track down the page for some reason). The conclusion was that Pena does a much better job of framing pitches than Kendall. If you take a look at the pitcher ERA’s and average runs scored per 9 innings, Pena does have an advantage. When Pena caught in 2010, the pitchers had an ERA of 4.75 to Kendall’s 5.13. The results are similar with runs scored, as Pena posted a 5.04 runs per 9 innings and Kendall a 5.44.

    You can bicker over who caught better pitchers and argue all day, but Pena did seem to guide the pitchers to a slightly better result than Kendall. What that exactly means is hard to tell without more information for each pitcher and individual game results, but at the very least it suggests that Pena holds his own in game-calling. Saying that Kendall needs to start because his veteran toolset helps the team hold down on defense is, at best, erroneous. It’s just plainly not clear that Kendall’s experience adds anything to the team or helps the pitchers nail down solid results. To me, that’s another reason to not worry about rushing him back to the lineup.

    The last piece of the puzzle is defense. Again, limited data for Pena makes it difficult to discern exactly where these two guys stand. Between 2009 and 2010, Pena fielded all 21 possible chances and all six bunts for outs. In 2010, Kendall fielded 83% of his 30 chances and 73% of the 11 bunts for outs. Small sample size swamps swirl, however, so we have to be careful with what we take from this. Still, that data is from 2460 opponent PA’s for Pena and 4495 for Kendall, so the overall sampling is reasonably smooth.

    They both threw out baserunners at a rate of 29%, so it’s hard to statistically derive anything from that. From watching them play, it seems that there isn’t really clearly a better arm of the two. Accuracy-wise, 10 of Kendall’s 13 errors were on the throw, whereas one of Pena’s three errors was on the throw. Take that with a grain of salt, but it’s something to keep in mind. I would objectively say that Kendall’s blocking ability is better than Pena’s, but again, there doesn’t seem to be enough of a difference to strongly suggest Kendall start over Pena too often.

    What we have here is a standstill. There doesn’t seem to be a clear better player between the two. Neither is especially good at anything or will be leading the league in anything. Of course, that suggests that signing Kendall was unnecessary, especially for the money it took to bring him in. Anyway, rushing him back to the field would accomplish little to nothing for the Royals. If anything, taking the chance with the younger Pena as the starting catcher on Opening Day would be the best idea for the pure reason that it’s not hurting anything and it gives us more time to see what he can really do.

    While a Kendall/Pena duo could be a better set than the likely Pena/May set the Royals will trot out to start the season, it really damages nothing in the long term and, I would argue, creates better team unity among the young guys than starting an aging, not-yet-healed Kendall would. It’s all debatable, but the point is that to rush back Kendall would be ridiculous and pointless, so don’t do it Dayton/Yost. It’s not worth it.

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    Tags: AL Central Baseball Brayan Pena Jason Kendall Kansas City Royals KC Lucas May MLB Ned Yost Royals

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