A.J. Pierzynski ended up being the biggest acquisition for the Giants in the 2003-04 offseason, and also ended up being the most controversial. A.J. did perhaps the worst thing a player under the microscope can do in terms of performance, by starting and finishing very slow, despite being hot in the middle of the year and being a key cog of the #2 offense in the National League. Bad first and last impressions led to some bad blood with fans, and it’s starting to show.
But would the Giants be better off letting A.J. go? Will playing Yorvit Torrealba strengthen the team or weaken it? Is the money earmarked for A.J. better spent elsewhere?
The two big advantages to Yorvit are his cost and his defense. Torrealba is absolutely one of the best defensive catchers in the majors. He’s got an incredible arm, and Giants fans have been treated to seeing him pick off runners both on first base and third from a crouching position. He also does a great job of stopping balls from getting by him. And no one can doubt his enthusiasm on the field, as he’s one of the most animated players on the Giants.
But A.J.’s fairly animated and has quite a bit of a personality himself, which caused a bit of a controversy (that most members of the Giants consider overblown) early in the season. A.J.’s arm is neither as strong or as accurate as Yorvit’s, but his bat makes a huge difference. Even in a down year, A.J. batted .272/.319/.410, which keeps him as one of the top regular catchers in the National League. And again, that was a down year. What was very notable was that, despite leaving a small park and moving to a stadium that is murder on left handed power numbers, he hit the same number of home runs in less at bats. He also, despite a free swinging attitude that frustrated a number of Giants fans, dropped his strikeout rate by more than 50% from 2003.
But he hit into those double plays. And boy, did he. His 27 GIDP’s led the majors (2nd was 25), despite having less plate appearances than anyone else in the top 15 in that category. It was the total number of double plays he had grounded into combined in 2002 and 2003. And all this, paradoxically, while lowering his Groundball/Flyball rate from 1.51 to 1.32.
Combine that with his performance over the year, and it’s no wonder that people have bad feelings. In April, he batted .236/.267/250, something one could possibly attribute to adjusting to his new park. In May, he improved but was still below average, batting .268/.297/.437. But it was an incredible summer (including batting .368/.439/.598 in June) that brought him back to a .300 average overall at the time, But he went ice cold again in September, batting a .173/.244/.240 that drastically changed his stats, dropping him to apparently mediocre numbers. Again, extraordinary circumstances could help explain that (he had family and property in hurricane riddled Florida), but it left fans with a bad taste in their mouths.
Meanwhile, Torrealba remains a relatively unknown offensive product. His 2003 stat line, batting .260/.312/.390 had led to many fans believing he’d be ready to take over as starter, but his batting average dropped dramatically, .227 in 2004. What’s intriguing is that his OBP dropped only slightly (to .302), which indicated much better plate discipline, and his slugging percentage was actually able to rise. So perhaps he can improve, but it’s no guarantee.
So the issue then comes down to money. A.J. made a surprising $3.5 million in 2004 after going to arbitration. This wasn’t so notable in general, being an All-Star from the AL and having a career batting average over .300 with good numbers all around for any catcher. What was notable was that the Giants went to arbitration at all, which was a first in Sabean’s administration, and that they tried a ridiculous low-ball offer, which almost forced the arbiter to side with A.J.’s number, which probably would’ve lost if the Giants had come with a more legitimate number.
A number of fans are prognosticating that the A.J. money this year could be as high as $5-$6 million through arbitration, and that he’d probably leave as soon as he could, despite public announcements that he would like to stay in San Francisco. They think that money could go towards another hitter on the market that would improve the offense to compensate for plugging Torrealba into the lineup.
But are they right?
Well, one can start with that amount of money he’d make this year, even if he went to arbitration. He is, after all, coming off of his worst year offensively since being a rookie, as well as having some much publicized deficiencies with his double play rate. While he’s still a promising young player (only a year older than Torrealba), he’s not likely to receive a raise of 50% or more through arbitration. And if he signs a longer term deal, Sabean is likely to make it a lower base salary with incentives or option years, as he has with other players recently. So the money would not likely make as big a difference as some think.
Behind that is the issue of pitching matchups. The Giants in 2003 were one of the worst hitting teams against right handed pitching, and getting A.J., a left handed bat, was a key part of raising that average and evening out the offense. This year, the Giants were 5th in the league against RHP, batting .270 (league leaders St. Louis and Colorado each hit .276). While that rise had as much to do with the re-emergence of J.T. Snow as a hitter, taking A.J. out of the equation would hurt the team.
But perhaps the most unexamined factor in this dilemma is each catcher’s pitch-calling. The way a catcher calls a game, and knows a pitcher’s stuff and uses it right, can make a difference in a pitcher’s performance. It makes enough of one that some top pitchers (like Greg Maddux) often have unofficial ‘personal catchers’ they may use or request.
While A.J. and Yorvit had similar overall Catcher ERA’s (the ERA while that catcher is in the game; A.J.-4.23, Yorvit-4.47), I took a closer look, looking at each catcher’s numbers with the 6 most important pitchers on the staff: Jason Schmidt, Kirk Rueter, Brett Tomko, Jerome Williams, Dustin Hermanson, and Noah Lowry. That way, we could take out the gas can bullpen’s effect and see how the catchers handled the pitchers they caught the most. The results were interesting.
• A.J. – 156 IP, 3.00 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 3.05 BB/9IP, 9.75 K/9IP
• Yorvit – 69 IP, 3.65 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 3.13 BB/9IP, 10.70 K/9IP
• A.J. – 162.2 IP, 4.48 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 2.93 BB/9IP, 2.55 K/9IP
• Yorvit – 27.2 IP, 6.18 ERA, 1.70 WHIP, 4.22 BB/9IP, 3.90 K/9IP
• A.J. – 121.1 IP, 3.93 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 2.60 BB/9IP, 4.67 K/9IP
• Yorvit – 72.2 IP, 4.21 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 3.59 BB/9IP, 5.57 K/9IP
• A.J. – 82.2 IP, 4.79 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 2.94 BB/9IP, 7.72 K/9IP
• Yorvit – 38.1 IP, 5.16 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, 4.46 ERA, 7.51 K/9IP
• A.J. – 93.1 IP, 4.74 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 2.80 BB/9IP, 5.11 K/9IP
• Yorvit – 36.0 IP, 3.00 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 3.75 BB/9IP, 6.75 K/9IP
• A.J. – 69.1 IP, 2.46 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 1.55 BB/9IP, 7.27 K/9IP
• Yorvit – 22.2 IP, 7.15 ERA, 2.12 WHIP, 4.76 BB/9IP, 5.56 K/9IP
• A.J. - 685.1 IP, 3.91 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 2.74 BB/9IP, 6.00 K/9IP
• Yorvit – 266.1 IP, 4.49 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 3.78 BB/9IP, 7.16 K/9IP
(Stat Key: WHIP = Walks + Hits per inning; BB/9IP = Walks per 9 innings pitched; K/9IP = Strikeouts per 9 innings pitched)
With the exception of Jerome Williams, A.J. clearly seems to make Giants pitchers more effective. What’s interesting is the way Yorvit calls games. Even with pitchers with whom A.J. has a better record with, Yorvit seems to be able to get those pitchers more strikeouts in a game. But he also allows more walks. That might seem to indicate that Yorvit is more aggressive in calling positions, probably locations, even when his pitcher doesn’t have the control. The walk rate adds to the WHIP, which is a major factor for all these pitchers.
This isn’t to say that Yorvit can’t learn how to be a better pitch caller. Nor is it saying that Yorvit is not a starting caliber catcher in the majors right now (considering the shallow pool of catchers in the majors, currently). But when it comes to next year’s team, it appears that having A.J. will not only help the offense, but he has the ability to markedly improve the pitching staff over his likely replacement. It’s an undervalued talent, but perhaps the most important one a catcher should have. In my opinion, the Giants would be smart to keep A.J. for this year, and should consider signing him for more.
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