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If Nothing Else, JPA Should At Least Stick Around

I have no idea if JPA — which sounds like the name of some backwoods, Alaskan air strip (or, sure, Brazil) — is an actual nickname for the Toronto Blue Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia, but his name is surprisingly long (13 characters, not including the space), which is nuts, considering his name is actually just one name and two letters (my name, in the short version — Brad Woodrum — is only 11 characters); so what I’m saying here is that I couldn’t fit “J.P. Arencibia” in the title. But he still certainly deserves the post.

Last year, the Blue Jays handed their chief catching duties to 25-year-old Arencibia, and he promptly clobbered some 23 home runs and began looking like the legitimate heir to homer-happy, walk-disenchanted John Buck — from whom he received his starting role. Arencibia’s homers came with an uninspiring .282 OBP, putting him at a less-than-awesome .309 wOBA and 92 wRC+.

A lot of hope is riding on J.P. Arencibia — not only has he shown some early promise, but he also comes with a solid pedigree. As recently as last year, Marc Hulet rated him as the No. 3 prospect in a deep Blue Jays system. In 2012, JPA will once again saddle up as the Jays’ starting catcher, but how will he do?

He is a look at the projections from a slew of friendly and familiar prognasticors:

System HR OBP SLG wOBA
Steamer 25 .287 .462 .321
Bill James 24 .281 .457 .317
RotoChamp 23 .293 .454 .322
Fans (40) 24 .295 .438 .317
ZiPS 24 .281 .442 .310

Nary a projections system thinks ol’ J.P. will muster an OBP north of .300 — and why should they? Even in the minors he often flirted with .300 and sub-.300 on-base rates. (He also stayed near or above a .300 BABIP too, which is worth keeping an eye in 2012.)

But a recent piece from Jeff Zimmerman (Effects of Intentional Walks on Non-Intentional Walks) got me thinking — with serious homerun power like Arencibia has, wouldn’t pitchers start tender-footing around him? Wouldn’t his 23 homer — if’n he can sustain that power in 2012 — encourage his walk rate to go up?

I decided to look at previous players in this situation: specifically rookies or second-year players who hit 20 or more homers while sporting a sub-.300 OBP. Since expansion (1961), there have been only 10 such players to accomplish such a thing, with Cory Snyder doing it twice:

Player		HR	OBP
Cory Snyder	33	.273
Chris Young	32	.295
Mark Trumbo	29	.291
Jeff Francoeur	29	.293
Tony Clark	27	.299
Gary Gaetti	25	.280
Cory Snyder	24	.299
J.P. Arencibia	23	.282
Bo Jackson	22	.296
Dave Hostetler	22	.300
Chris Davis	21	.284

Not really an inspiring group, but altogether they have a (combined, not averaged) career OBP of .309 and a combined 96 wRC+. Which, you know, is not great.

It is important — in fact, pivotal — to note that JPA is the only catcher in that group. If we switch our criteria from rookies/near-rookies to catchers, we these 12 players:

Player		HR	OBP
Lance Parrish	33	.287
Johnny Bench	27	.299
Todd Hundley	24	.295
J.P. Arencibia	23	.282
Miguel Olivo	23	.292
Matt Nokes	22	.293
Jeff Newman	22	.267
Jody Davis	21	.300
Carlton Fisk	21	.289
Bengie Molina	20	.285
Ron Karkovice	20	.287
Gary Carter	20	.290

Okay, now we’ve got an impressive crew at hand. These fellows combined sported a .319 OBP and a 103 wRC+ — of course much of that comes from Hall of Famers Johnny Bench (career 125 wRC+) and Carlton Fisk (career 118 wRC+). A raw average among this group produces a .307 OBP and a 96 wRC+.

Which, for catcher, is pretty dang good. Since 1961, catchers have averaged an 88 wRC+, so 96 is actually 8 percentage points above the catcher average. What is even more interesting: The career lengths of these fellows. Newman by far had the shortest career, but still put up enough plate appearances for five full seasons:

Altogether this group averaged 5508 PAs — or about 11 seasons of 500 PAs. That’s pretty intense. Of course, we’re leaving out defense in these considerations — which plays a major role in a catcher’s career length (at least the length of time they spend catching). And, as far as I know, Arencibia is at best above average defensively, but most likely just average.

So what should we take away from this? Well, from the looks of it, Arencibia’s power — whether it sustains or not — probably won’t result in some Barry Bonds OBPs. Given his above-featured comparables, it is safe to assume his OBP will increase in some fashion — only Jeff Newman (.264 OBP) has a lower rate than JPA (.275) — even considering the uninspiring rookie group. But, at the same time, given that his duties are to field the toughest position in sport, good power and overall league-average offense may be more than enough for him to stay in the league a long time.

Arencibia seems to have a weekness for cutters and changeups. According to Joe Lefkowitz’s Pitch F/x data on JPA, he is swinging at changeups out of the zone 39% of the time, and flailing at 38% of cutters out of the zone. That’s pretty significant — and so it is no surprise that those are also the two pitchers he cannot seem to handle in the majors. According to our Pitch F/x pitch values, cutters have slayed JPA to the tune of -3.75 runs per 100 pitches, while changeups account for -0.94 runs/100.

If he can master those changes and cutters — that is, just ignore them when they go flitting by for a ball — then he might somehow aspire to the heights of some of his more illustrious catching brethren. And then, no doubt, JPA would be cleared for takeoff.

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