Almost three years ago, the Colorado Rockies signed an extension with their 26-year-old catcher, Chris Iannetta. Iannetta was coming off of two good offensive years for a catcher. Although the team had made him split playing time with Yorvit Torrealbea during 2009, the new contract seemed to indicate that Iannetta was going to be the main guy going forward. It was not to be. Iannetta ended up getting fewer than 700 plate appearances for the Rockies in 2010 and 2011 combined. While he did not exactly light it up as he had in 2008, it was baffling why the Rockies would extend a promising catcher then jerk him around in favor of obvious stopgap players like Miguel Olivo.
Whether the Rockies were right or wrong to do that, by the end of 2011 it was pretty clear that Iannetta had worn out his welcome in Colorado. Wilin Rosario, a prospect who had good power, and (perhaps most attractive to the Rockies) shared Olivo’s aversion to walks and blocking pitches, was ready. The Rockies struck a deal with the Angels after the season that sent Iannetta to the Angels for Tyler Chatwood. For some reason, the Angels had a hole at catcher. Or maybe, given Iannetta’s hitting style, Mike Scioscia just really appreciates irony. In any case, despite Iannetta’s injury-marred season, rather than making a decision on Iannetta’s club option for 2013, the Angels replaced it with a three-year, $15.5 million contract last Friday.
As far as hitting goes, it now seems pretty clear that Iannetta’s .264/.390/505 (129 wRC+) line back in 2008 was pretty far over his head. However, while his strikeouts and flyball tendencies will generally lead to a low average due to a relatively low number of balls in play and a low average on those that do go into play, Ianetta has generally had enough walks and pop in his bat to be a decent hitter for a catcher. Sure, that 78 wRC+ in 2010 is ugly, but that is only one season, and a small sample (223 PA) of a season at that. In 2009, his wRC+ was 99, in 2011, it was 105. His 2012 line (.240/.332/.398) superficially looks as poor as 2010, but once one makes the adjustment for moving from the league’s best hitters park to the Angels’ pitchers park, it was worth about the same as 2011 relative to the run environment: 103 wRC+. The drop in power the last two seasons is a bit troubling, but Iannetta still has some power and draws walks. He looks like he can be a league average bat for at least the time being, and given that he is a catcher, that qualifies as good offense.
Of course, “good offense” has not really been a big part of the job description for Angels catchers the last few years. At least not if they wanted to actually play catcher. Iannetta has sometimes looked awkward behind the plate, but while (admittedly limited) catcher fielding metrics are overly fond of him, they do not see him as a black hole of catcher defense, as least as far as pitch-blocking and controlling the running game go.
There are other aspects of the catcher’s job, of course. Some, such as game-calling, are difficult to measure. Maybe Scioscia likes what Iannetta does with that, I do not know. However, what is pretty interesting is that in one of the formerly seemingly-inscrutable aspects of catching, Iannetta is actually pretty bad. We do not have any updated numbers for 2012 (at least that I have seen), but frmo 2007-2011, Iannetta was one of the worst pitch framers in baseball, costing the Rockies about 10 runs per 120 games caught. That is not to say that 10 runs below average is his true talent, but simply to note that it does cut into his value. (Jeff Sullivan’s reflections on this in the case of Zack Greinke are worth checking out if you haven’t already.)
Playing time and the lingering effects of his injury may or may not be an issue. On one hand, Iannetta has only played more than 100 games twice in his career: 112 in 2011 and 104 in 2007. On the other hand, most of that time was not missed due to injury, but due to the awesomeness of Yorvit Torrealbea and Miguel Olivo. And even coming off of the injury, he still managed decent offense for a catcher.
Overall, $5 million dollars a year for a player who is probably around league average is a nice deal these days. Given that the Angels reportedly are planning on turning down Dan Haren and Ervin Santana‘s options, so that will free up some money. Of course, that money might be slated for a run at Zack Greinke, but ifthe Angels are going to keep spending like that, then $5 million dollars for a catcher is chump change, especially given their lack of depth at the position.
While this contract is hardly thrilling, it does make sense for the Angels. I do, however, expect that the Hank Conger Fan Club will be furious.
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