Once upon a time, the Rangers had depth at catcher at least as envied as what the Red Sox have right now. In 2007, Texas traded Mark Teixeira and received Jarrod Saltalamacchia as one of that package’s headliners; they also had control over the promising Taylor Teagarden, and Max Ramirez was starting to get some attention as a catching prospect too good to keep in the minors. Catcher Gerald Laird was coming off of a surprisingly good season in 2006, in which he started to shed his “backup” label and played in a then-high 78 games.
Laird followed up his .296, 102 wRC+ performance in 2006 with an underwhelming .224 average and 59 wRC+ in 448 PA, and after the Teixeira trade he was all but replaced by Saltalamacchia. With Salty finding some success and Teagarden and Ramirez in the wings, the industry consensus seemed to be that Laird would get marginalized and the Rangers would release some of the pressure by trading one or two of their young catchers.
In 2008, it was Laird who led the team with 381 PA. His .276, 89 wRC+ performance complicated the Rangers catcher picture. While we were all watching how Texas would juggle their Salty/Teagarden/Ramirez trio, it was Laird who showed the world that he deserved a prominent role.
Why am I going into this? Yes, it’s early February, the slowest time of the year — but I also want to make a point. I think Laird still has that 2008 stamp on his forehead, and I think that stamp still matters right now.
Have you ever made the mistake of trying to remember something as “the thing other than the thing I think it is”? It’s a horrible experience, because at some point, you start to learn that the right thing is the right thing, but then you’re always doubting yourself. I think this Laird bit is a little like that. Once upon a time, Texas had the biggest catching prospect traffic jam that people could remember, and yet it was Laird who showed the world. I do think that people — myself included — still have this “Laird is better than I think he is” belief banging around in their heads.
Which is not to say that I think the D-backs front office has misunderstood who Laird is. They had about six weeks to monitor and study the catcher market after the Rule 5 Draft selection of Oscar Hernandez, and I applaud the team for sticking to their guns and resisting whatever trade price was requested for the likes of Dioner Navarro. They know who Laird is: a catcher with a history of being a good backup who may already have fallen off of the aging curve cliff.
There is no scenario in which Laird starts the majority of games next year. Detroit tried that in 2009 after he was traded by Texas; in that year, Laird had a career-high 477 PA, rewarding the Tigers with a crap sandwich of a season, hitting .225 with a 65 wRC+. He still led Tigers catchers the following year with 299, but he was even worse: .207 and 52 wRC+. In the four seasons since, Laird hasn’t topped 200 PA.
Laird did rediscover some of his Rangers success once he was relegated to backup duties. A decent year with the Cardinals preceded two of his finest seasons in 2012 (Tigers, 95 wRC+) and 2013 (Braves, 112 wRC+). His 2014 was alarmingly bad, which is why Laird was available to be signed in early February; .204 and a 49 wRC+ made him one of the worst backup catchers at the plate last year.
For what it’s worth, Steamer projects Laird to have a .232 average and a actually-not-bad-at-all-for-a-backup 71 wRC+.
Laird at the Plate
In a nutshell, Laird’s career can be summed up as: mostly good results as a backup, mostly bad results as a pseudo-starter. Inconsistency will mark just about every baseball career, but there’s an extra explanation when it comes to Laird: not every time share is alike.
Backup catchers can be assigned mostly as one pitcher’s personal catcher. Us D-backs types are more familiar with the model where the starter starts as often as he can, with the backup working on optimal off days, when there’s a day game after a night game, etc. But there’s a more offensive-minded model, where catchers who hit from different sides of the plate are mostly platooned.
The Tigers, Cardinals and Braves have experimented with using Laird in that latter fashion. Check out his platoon splits:
In terms of the percentage of left-handed pitchers faced, high twenties and low thirties, especially at lower PA totals, is a pretty good indication that the handedness of the opposing pitcher wasn’t taken into account by a manager. Surprisingly, Laird’s early success doesn’t seem to have been fueled by pitting the right-handed hitter against southpaws.
In 2010, though, it looks like the Tigers really made that effort. 2009 was that year when the Tigers first hard Laird and he underwhelmed in a starting role. In 2010, they drew his PA back, starting lefty-hitting Alex Avila more and trying to tap into the platoon advantage. Didn’t work.
After Laird’s Cardinals hiatus in 2011, the Tigers doubled down on the platoon experiment in 2012, managing to bat Laird against lefties 57.1% of the time. The team was rewarded for an excellent hitting season as backup catchers go (95 wRC+), but not necessarily because of the platoon advantage. If Detroit really thought Laird was vulnerable against RHP, it’s possible that they kept him away from tough RHP, which would help explain his success that year — and in 2013, when Laird was even better in a very similar role for the Braves.
In each of the last four seasons, Laird has had about as many PA as a starting position player might get in 1 or 2 months of a season, so it’s hard to draw any strong conclusions. 2014 is no exception, but it doesn’t inspire much confidence, especially with the knees of a 35-year-old catcher. And don’t daydream too much about Laird as a pinch hitter, either; even though most hitters encounter a pinch hitter penalty from being “cold” (or some other reason), Laird’s performance as a pinch hitter in his career has been particularly weak (59 wRC+ in 47 PA).
Steamer’s 71 wRC+ for Laird makes him look like a better-hitting option than Tuffy Gosewisch (57 wRC+ Steamer projection) or Oscar Hernandez (58 wRC+ Steamer projection), but not by much. And if you were wondering… Steamer has Peter O’Brien at a 95 wRC+.
Laird Behind the Plate
Framing is a little weird. The excellent RPM stats at Baseball Prospectus by Harry Pavlidis and Dan Brooks show a vast lake of catchers who were within a few “framing runs” of average last year — and a handful of catchers on the extremes. 76 catchers had at least 1,000 “framing chances” as defined at BP. 16 had 10 or more “framing runs” (I’m using the “by count” method), and just 3 had -10 or fewer.
Far and away the worst was Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who took away the equivalent of 18.7 runs through framing. Dioner Navarro was third-worst, at -10.3 framing runs. Fourth from the bottom was Welington Castillo, he who is mostly displaced with the Cubs by Miguel Montero. And Laird? He’s 68th of 76 catchers at -6.2 framing runs.
It’s actually much worse than it sounds. All of the catchers with worse framing runs totals than Laird had fewer framing chances. So let’s look at it on a rate basis.
Before running these numbers, I raised the framing chances cutoff from 1,000 to 2,000 (Laird had 2,460). That means farewell to Jordan Pacheco (1,244 chances, -2.1 framing runs) and Tuffy Gosewisch (1,943, -1.0 framing runs), but what can you do. That left me with a list of 54 catchers instead of 76.
Turning the framing stats into a rate statistic (by diving extra strikes by framing chances), Laird went from being ranked 46 of 54 to being ranked 53 of 54. Saltalamacchia was tagged for -.019 “extra” strikes per framing chance, and Laird was right behind him at -0.18.
In terms of framing, then, all we need to know to say “there was no catcher available worse than Gerald Laird,” is that Saltalamacchia was not available.
Like the Nick Punto minor league deal (and this Laird deal is a minor league deal), there’s essentially no risk in bringing Laird to camp, and it’s hard to ding the front office for making a move that at least theoretically improves the team. To the extent that Laird is seen as a good-enough solution to the black hole catcher problem, though, adding him could do more harm than good. The Laird signing only changes a bad situation into another kind of bad situation.
The D-backs are still left with imperfect options. According to Steamer (and I think ZiPS, although there’s no public ZiPS projection yet for Laird), it’s Peter O’Brien who is the most promising hitter, even right now; still, folks like Jeff and J.J. Cooper of Baseball America have been hearing from everyone other than D-backs types that O’Brien doesn’t have a prayer of playing MLB-caliber defense at catcher. Put O’Brien in that category. In the other category are less offense-minded options like Tuffy Gosewisch and Oscar Hernandez, but even there it doesn’t seem like anyone is poised to be a real plus in terms of framing. And as Mike Petriello of FanGraphs explored earlier this week, the loss of Miguel Montero means that if the D-backs don’t find and go with a good framer, they will be taking a big step down.
And that’s maybe the biggest takeaway here: although the market has spoken on catchers who are good framers, the D-backs have seemed to ignore that factor. After dumping Montero they’ve publicly backed O’Brien, brought back Jordan Pacheco, courted the Blue Jays on Navarro, and now actually signed nearly the worst framer of them all in Laird. Laird may only make a bad situation a different kind of bad, but if it’s true that the team is largely ignoring defense at catcher, the situation may only get worse.
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