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John Buck Has a Big Night

Toronto Blue Jays catcher John Buck had a big night on Thursday, blasting three home runs against the Oakland As.

The graph doesn’t really convey Buck’s contribution (only showing two of his home runs). Any team’s total WPA (adding up WPA plus and minus) is always equal to either +.500 or -.500. Buck’s WPA last night was .449. That doesn’t mean his offense was worth almost 90% the Jays’ victory, of course, since there were negative WPA contributions (as always for any team) as well. But it’s still an impressive number. WPA is a cool toy for quantifying a game story, not one responsibly recommends it as a way of evaluating player skill. But it is fun to look at occasionally.

But about player skill… Now, if less than four weeks of a season is a small sample size, then one game is, well… But Buck’s power surge wasn’t a total fluke. Full disclosure: I’ve always irrationally liked John Buck. I can be pretty honest about him, though. He’s not a defensive whiz, especially when it comes to controlling the running game. Marc Hulet has been impressed with Buck’s work with the Blue Jays pitching staff this season; I’ll have to take his word for it.

As for offense, Buck hasn’t quite turned out to be the second coming of Mike Piazza. Buck hit 18 home runs in 2007, although his problems with contact and poor BABIP skill resulted in only a .319 wOBA. In 2009, when he was clearly on his way out with Kansas City, he had a career-high .332 wOBA — good for a catcher. Still, in 2009, as in every other year of the Dayton Moore Era, Buck was sharing time (at best) with another catcher, in this case Miguel Olivo* (and before him, in 2007, there was Jason LaRue).

* To be fair, Olivo is so awesome that he’s currently displacing Chris Iannetta in Colorado (ahem).

While Buck has a putrid .296 career on-base percentage, this is less because of an refusal to take walks than a poor batting average grounded in low average on balls in play. In 2007 and 2008, Buck had above average walk rates, and wasn’t too bad in 2009 in limited playing time. But he very high strikeout rate (around 25% for his career, and edging upward). While his O-Swing percentage in 2010 reflects his overall struggles at the plate in 2010 (until last night, at least), he’s usually only slightly below average. It’s his poor contract rate that kills him, around 75% for his career, and under 70% in 2009 and almost down to 60% so far this season.

Buck isn’t what you’d call a good hitter, although he’s adequate for a catcher. However, one thing he has done increasingly well is get the ball in the air (which also contributes to his low BABIP). Starting in 2007, he began to hit flyballs around 45% of the time, and a respectable amount of those flies have gone out. While he had a bit of bad luck with that in 2008, more recently years have seen him at about 14% HR/FB and up. According to Hit Tracker, other than 2008, Buck’s true home run distance and speed of bad have been clearly above average almost season. While 2008 can’t be ignored as a ‘mere outlier’, 2007 and 2009 do seem to be closer to his true talent level, power-wise. Buck’s current ZiPS Rest-of-Season projection calls for a .211 ISO, which is in-line with his 2007 (.207) and 2009 (.237) numbers. Perhaps moving out of the home run-suppressing Kauffman Stadium will make a difference as well. It will be interesting to watch.

Anecdotally, I’ve personally heard some cool stories about monstrous John Buck homers, which is sort of fun, because those stories are usually told about players like Adam Dunn and Ryan Howard. Objectively speaking, John Buck isn’t anything particularly special as a baseball player. But he’s got some power at the plate, and last night, it showed up.