In a testament to the weakness of the position, Jordan Pacheco spent 505 plate appearances being seven percent worse than league average with his stick, and yet he ended the season as the eleventh-best catcher, worth five dollars in 5×5 mixed leagues when all was said and done. It’s a head-scratcher, at least going forward.
Coming up through the Rockies system, Pacheco rarely struggled and yet also failed to impress. He only spent 91 plate appearances at Double-A and then added 485 plate appearances in two tries at Triple-A. And yet if you combined all of those plate appearances, you wouldn’t get a league average walk rate or league average power from the Rockies prospect. He spent most of his time at catcher but started sprinkling in time at third when the scouting reports weren’t kind to him behind the plate. It made sense that he was talked about as a third-base stopgap (until Nolan Arenado was ready) or a utility player, given his offensive and defensive profiles.
Seen in this light, Pacheco’s 2012 was just about what you could expect. He played at first base (43 games), third base (82 games), and yes at that most important position, catcher (five games). He didn’t walk (4.4% walk rate) and he didn’t strike out (12.1% strikeout rate, 6.1% swinging strikes) and didn’t show power (.112 isolated slugging percentage). He put the ball in play on the ground (1.36 ground balls per fly ball) and offered a good batting average (.309) on an iffy (but supported) batting average on balls in play (.344 BABIP, .342 xBABIP).
All of this work fit in with his minor league numbers, so why was any of it a surprise? Well, for one, it seemed like the team had better options at each position. Todd Helton and Jason Giambi made for a decent (if older than time) platoon at first. Wilin Rosario was ready to have a great debut season, and Ramon Hernandez is a fine caddy, even at his age. Chris Nelson had more power and also more experience in the big leagues going in. It didn’t look like there were 300 PAs waiting for Pacheco, much less 500.
You see what happened. Todd Helton only managed 283 (bad) PAs before succumbing to season-ending injuries to his hip and knee. Jason Giambi was mostly only used against left-handers and managed a season-low 113 (bad) PAs. Ramon Hernandez managed his worst work with the stick in the second-least PAs before a bad hamstring injury ended his season in September. Chris Nelson? He was fine, but second base was so bad that he was needed there for 21 games. And there you have one massive, Jordan-Pacheco-sized hole in the lineup.
Pacheco’s offensive and defensive contributions are so meh — after all, he was worth only .2 wins above replacement after all that playing time — that it’s almost more important to try and figure out where he might play in 2013 than to try and project his work when he gets in the game. After all, he’s going to be most interesting in leagues where those five games started make him a catcher, at least if he can manage 500ish plate appearances again.
It seems unlikely, given the fact that Nolan Arenado is another year closer to the bigs, the evidence that Chris Nelson was more valuable than Pacheco with the stick, and the possibility that DJ LeMahieu‘s defense is good enough to make him a valuable backup second baseman to Josh Rutledge. Pacheco’s bat is not going to play at first, his glove isn’t going to make him a good backup catcher (he ended the year 70th out of 110+ catchers in Matt Klaassen’s ratings), and suddenly he’s out of places to play.
And yet, there are openings. Todd Helton says he wants to return, and that means that Pacheco can be his caddy versus lefties, and also that there will once again be an old man at first base in Colorado. LeMahieu’s offense was worse than Pacheco’s, too, so if their defensive work looks similar in spring training, you might find Chris Nelson backing up Josh Rutledge at second base and third base open for business. And there’s also the fact that Pacheco’s best skill — batting average — is easy to overvalue. If he’s hitting .300, he might find his manager talking about ‘needing to get his bat into the lineup.’ And Jim Tracy held Chris Nelson out of the final games of the season to preserve his .301 batting average, so the Rockies do like batting average on some level.
Spring Training will reveal more about where he will play in 2013, so early drafters and deep keeper leaguers may not want to draft or keep him without knowing more. If your league needs ten starts at catcher, he’s not for you, either. But if your league drafts late, or is a deep dynasty, and you need a cheap catcher, things could break right for Pacheco in 2013. Again.