Catchers Good Enough to DH

In a game on May 16, Jorge Posada, who had missed time earlier in the month with a strained calf, fouled a ball off his right foot. It didn’t seem like a big deal. Players foul balls off their feet all the time, and rarely does it result in anything other than some swelling and soreness. The foul, while certainly painful, didn’t appear to be anything out of the ordinary. That Posada caught the rest of the game made most people forget about it. But then Francisco Cervelli started the next game, with Jorge not so much as DHing. It was then that we learned of Jorge’s discomfort after the foul.

Three days after the foul, the Yankees revealed that Posada had a hairline fracture, and that he would miss three to four weeks. His retroactive date was May 17th, meaning he becomes eligible for activation today. On the 19th the possibility of him missing just the minimum seemed remote, if not impossible. Yet there’s a good chance that the Yankees could activate him in the next couple of days. Part of that comes from Posada’s quick recovery. The other stems from the Yankees’ roster construction.

Over the weekend Posada took batting practice and ran sprints on the field, which represent two of the more important tests prior to his return. A normal position player might find himself activated by this point, but Posada, a catcher, might not quite be ready. The Yankees still have no idea if he can squat for a full game, and might want to give him a few more days, and perhaps a rehab game, to help ease him back. But they might not have to. With Cervelli showing that he can handle a heavy workload at catcher, both behind and, so far, at the plate, the Yankees can easy Posada back while getting his bat into the lineup.

Few catchers carry a bat heavy enough to warrant a regular DH role. In fact, only eight players in baseball history have spent at least 15 percent of their playing time at both DH and catcher. We also have some modern examples who, while not accumulating enough time at both catcher and DH, have established themselves as catchers worthy of the DH spot they sometimes occupy.

Brian Downing

Downing broke into the league in 1973, the year the American League introduced the designated hitter rule. He did play one of his 34 games there that year, though he was more of an all-purpose player, manning the outfield corners and catcher positions. By 1975 he was a full-time catcher, though not always a healthy one. The injuries forced him off the position by 1982, at which point he became an outfielder and DH. The move apparently aided his power. He hit .260/.365/.363 in 2,423 PA as a catcher in his prime, and .272/.375/.453 in 3,527 PA as a DH mostly in his waning years.

Carlton Fisk

Fisk picked up the AL Rookie of the Year award the year before the DH rule came into play. The Red Sox took advantage of it only a handful of times in the ensuing years, but in 1979, amid a few injuries, the Sox used Fisk as their DH for 42 games, while starting him behind the plate in just 35. The White Sox then started using him more at DH starting in 1985, though he still only played about a dozen games there per year. Fisk never took well to playing half the game, hitting .236/.291/.388 in 677 PA as a DH. That might also be attributable to lingering injuries. As we’re seeing with Posada, teams can keep a good catcher in the lineup more often by playing him at DH. Unfortunately, with Fisk his production at DH didn’t necessarily justify the playing time.

Mickey Tettleton

Like Downing, Mickey Tettleton benefited greatly from time spent out of the squat and in the DH spot. He hit like most catchers during his first few years in Oakland, which is to say weakly. He did manage a few average years, a plus, but that production didn’t come close to what he did once the Orioles and Tigers started playing him at other positions. DHing was a big part of that, as Tettleton hit .243/.381/.455 in 1,522 career PA. Then again, he was no slouch as a catcher either, hitting .242/.362/.433 in 3,209 PA. He is just one of 19 catchers, who played at least half their careers behind the plate, to boast an OPS of .800 or better. He ranks 13th at .818.

Mike Stanley

Stanley might have been a catcher in name, but in practice he left much to be desired with his receiving skills. While he played more games at catcher, 751, than at any other position, he also played 301 at first base and 323 as a DH. He hit very well as a catcher, .277/.387/.469 in 2,584 career PA. As a DH he fared a bit wrose, .256/.359/.438 in 1,124 career PA. His .827 career OPS ranks just ahead of Tettleton on the all-time catcher list.

Joe Mauer

The Twins do well by playing Joe Mauer at DH instead of giving him full days off. That keeps his potent bat in the lineup. The only year since 2005 in which he didn’t DH more than 13 games came in 2008, when he started 135 games behind the plate. He missed the first month of 2009, and ended up DHing 28 games. That certainly helped his MVP cause, as he hit .330/.406/.482 in those games. He’s back to catching a bit more frequently this year, likely because the Twins have the lefty DH combo of Jason Kubel and Jim Thome. But when Mauer has a nagging injury, he presents a better option than both at DH.

Victor Martinez

Like Stanley, Martinez doesn’t play behind the plate because of his receiving skills. He’s there for his bat, and it has been quite a potent bat during his nine-year career. In fact, because he doesn’t profile as an everyday catcher, the Indians frequently used him at first base. He has played just 34 games at DH in his career, and like others hasn’t taken well to it. He holds a .235/.316/.395 line when playing half a game. The Red Sox have played him there for four games this season, and he is 1 for 16.

Posada

Posada came into the league in the late 90s, splitting time with Joe Girardi behind the plate. While Girardi was there for defensive purposes, it was Posada’s bat that enticed the Yankees. Strangely, the Yankees did not often employ him as a DH when Girardi caught. In his career he has played 64 half games, hitting .217/.332/.362 in 247 PA. His season with the most PA as a DH, though, came in 2008, when he battled a shoulder injury for most of the season and posted the worst offensive numbers of his career. Chances are, injuries explain the poor play at DH for many of the above players.




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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.


13 Responses to “Catchers Good Enough to DH”

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  1. Joe D says:

    When this post is followed up on in 2015, Mike Napoli will be in excellent company.

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  2. lincolndude says:

    I’d add Mike Napoli to this list. Scioscia doesn’t put him there, but he’s plenty good enough to DH.

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  3. PhD Brian says:

    I have seen research papers that show that almost anyone will hit worse as a pinch hitter and DH than as a starter. It has to do with adrenaline. It takes lots to hit a ML fastball and DHs and PHs have a harder time getting into a game mentally. Accordingly, I would think the DH and PH penalty to hitting would doubly apply to catchers because they have such a role in the game when they catch that not catching has got to be dull.

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  4. jfpbookworm says:

    Another issue with catchers DH-ing is that most teams only carry two catchers, which means that if for whatever reason the starting catcher needs to be replaced, the team either uses a non-catcher behind the plate or loses the DH. I suspect most managers are more averse to this than statistics would warrant because they’re the sort of things the press is likely to focus on and second-guess.

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  5. Colin says:

    Mike Piazza would belong on this list, if he hadn’t spent nearly all of his career in the National League. He played in 83 games at DH for Oakland in 2007, putting up a 275/313/414, which is obviously much worse than his peak years.

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  6. Eric R says:

    Well, I only have 2003-2004 data handy, but, I grabbed all players with 100+ PA each at DH/PH and non-DH/PH in the same season and sumemd them up. My sample includes 37 player-seasons with 7761 PA as non-DH/PH and 9649 PA as DH/PH.

    The non-DH/PH PAs resulted in .267/.346/.468/.813 vs the DH/PHs at .288/.360/.482/.842

    The non-DH/PHs had lower OBP and SLG, but that was largely AVG driven given small edges in ISO and walk rates:

    non-DH/PH walk rates 10.8% vs 10.1% for DH/PH
    non-DH/PH ISO .201 vs .194

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  7. Steve says:

    . Strangely, the Yankees did not often employ him as a DH when Girardi caught.

    This is only strange if the Yankees didn’t have other excellent options at DH. Which, in those days, they usually did in the persons of Darryl Strawberry, Chili Davis, Tim Raines, etc…

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  8. KJOK says:

    Ted Simmons spent most of his career in the NL, but he did have 279 games at DH, and he certainly fits the profile of “good enough to be a DH” catcher.

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  9. pack says:

    I didn’t think that V-Mart went to first until the tribe traded Broussard and didn’t really have another first baseman. For the sox at least, his bat is significantly better at first (sss), like >900ops.

    Can you work something out showing wOBA difference from swapping out from C’ing to a non-catching position? Do the other catcher show similar splits? I don’t recall inge getting much better with the stick going to third.

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  10. Ari Collins says:

    The issue with players doing worse at DH isn’t necessarily because it’s harder to hit when you’re not also fielding. I think there’s some selection bias going on, as players tend to DH more as they get older and as they get more injured. I’d like to know if there’s some way to tease out that selection bias and find out how much worse players are actually hitting when DH-ing.

    Of course, the pinch hit numbers clearly show that players don’t do as well coming in cold, which could be related to the DH issue.

    Anyone know any more?

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  11. Wally says:

    I think a better article would be DH’s that hit like catchers.

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