Would it be too hack-tastic to use the experience of the spring season as a figure for the annual rebirth of baseball in Spring Training? Yes. So I won’t. Indeed, I suspect at this point Spring Training feels for others like it does for me: not an exciting time of newness, but as a never-ending sea of pointlessness that makes one ashamed for ever having enjoyed it at all. (I would make a joke about Harry Potter here, but after the Cougar Town outrage, I am steering clear of controversy.) At this point during Spring Training final roster decisions are being made. There is not much else to write about, so one can hardly blame people for latching on to last-minute stuff like this, even if the alleged contests are pretty much set from the beginning.
Case in point: the (alleged?) battle for Royals back-up catcher between George Kottaras and Brett Hayes.
This seems like a lame, bottom-of-the-barrel thing to write about because is not only a back-up catcher battle, but one on a team where the starter is obvious, thus making this decision rather trivial. Salvador Perez is just 23, has fewer than 500 major league plate appearances, and I am already tired of people acting like he is some sleeper they are introducing to the world. Yes, his 2011 promotion to the majors and his performance since then have been surprising. However, even before that Perez was getting buzz from prospect watchers, and has gotten so much hype the last two years that people writing about him as if he is a hidden gem at this point is pretty funny.
There is still a lot of uncertainty, but Perez looks good and has the potential to be more than good. He is signed to an insanely club-friendly deal. The Royals are probably concerned enough to keep the big guy healthy after he missed the first half of 2012. Even so, the matter of who turns out to be Perez’s backup seems to be rather trivial, given that the Royals likely plan on Perez catching 130 to 140 games this year if he avoids injury.
The other, more important reason the battle seems so irrelevant is that there seems to be little contest between the two backup candidates. On one hand, we have George Kottaras, whom the Royals picked off of waivers from the As during the off-season. As I wrote last summer when Oakland acquired him from Milwaukee, Kottaras has been limited to part-time duties in the past because he is not exactly a rifleman (to put it quite kindly) when it comes to throwing runners out.
Kottaras has a decent bat, and it is better than decent for a catcher. He strikes out a lot and does not hit for average, but he has enough plate patience and power to make him about an average hitter. Steamer, Oliver, and ZiPS all project him to be about a .320 wOBA hitter. He is a good fit for the Royals’ situation because he hits left-handed and Perez is a righty, so if they want to strategically choose when to rest Perez, they could do it against right-handed starters and get a bit of a platoon edge.
On the other hand, we have Brett Hayes, whom the Royals also got off of waivers, this time from the Marlins (enough said?). Hayes is a right-handed hitter, but his disadvantage with respect to Kottaras from the platoon standpoint is actually small compared to fact that Hayes simply has never shown the ability to hit sufficiently, even for a backup catcher. One might point out that Hayes only has 357 career plate appearances in the majors over four different seasons, so it is a small sample. He never really hit in the minors, either.
The projection systems take all of this into account and are regressing small samples heavily to the mean do not see Hayes as hitting anywhere close to league average. Oliver is the most optimistic, projecting him for a .299 wOBA in 2013, but both ZiPS and Steamer project him for a .267 wOBA, which is just about his career line, too. That the Marlins never saw fit to give him much playing time tells you what their scouts think of his bat. The word on Hayes is that he is a “catch and throw” guy. The deeper meaning of that phrase is something worth unpacking at length. The obvious intention of the phrase is that a catcher is a defense-first backstop who can’t hit. Many fans have probably come to realize the truth that the bat part of the equation is generally more true of the defense part.
Even accepting that Hayes is better defensively, how much better would he have that Kottaras defensively to be as good as Kottaras overall? Using Steamer and ZiPS (as we did in the Positional Power Rankings), Hayes projects as a .267 wOBA hitter and Kottaras as a .323 wOBA hitter. Over a full season, that is a difference of more than 25 runs. Looking at the spread, Kottaras would need to be the worst defensive catcher in baseball and Hayes the best for the projected difference in offense to be close to surmounted. I can buy that Hayes is a better defender than Kottaras, perhaps a lot better. I have a hard time believing that the difference between them behind the plate over a full season would be the equivalent to that between, say, Yadier Molina and Wilin Rosario.
It might not be believable to closer observers, either. Royals beat writer Bob Dutton does not think there is much of a difference between Hayes and Kottaras defensively, despite Hayes better reputation. So maybe this is all making a mountain out of a molehill. It is that time of year when those of us who write about baseball tend to do that sort of thing.
For all the jokes I have made about the Royals, it is hard for me to see them choosing Hayes over Kottaras. Although Oakland let Kottaras go and his defense is pretty bad, just looking around the league I can see several teams where he could be more than just a 20 to 30 game backup. Despite all of this, there are reasons why this might turn out to closer than it looks (although this does not mean they are good reasons).
As of this writing, Kottaras is hitting .313/.476/.406 in the Spring: good on-base percentage, but not power. Hayes has hit.306/.375/.556, showing good power for once. Obviously, no one really believes in the significance of Spring Training stats. Whatever else I have said about the Royals in the past, I cannot believe they put much weight in it, either. But stranger things have happened.
In addition, it does often seem that many teams prefer glove-first to bat-first backup catchers. I do not know if that holds up to empirical scrutiny, but teams often talk that way, at least. Again, this would not be really a good reason, but it is out there.
Finally, there is the matter of money. Hayes is in line for $600,000 this year and Kottaras is due $1 million. That amount of money is trifling in baseball, especially for a team trying to “go for it” by trading all of Wil Myers‘ cost-controlled seasons for two years of James Shields, or for a team who elected to pay Luke Hochevar $4.6 million then sent him to an already-loaded bullpen. Still, we have often seen teams that are penny wise and pound foolish.
The simple truth is probably that the Royals are waiting as long as they can for other teams to make their roster decisions and they can stow Hayes at AAA. If we look hard enough, we can find reasons that the Royals might choose Hayes over Kottaras. But it takes a lot of digging, squinting, and extremely low expectations. It takes a lot of work, but if you put it in, you can start to wonder. It is a surefire symptom of Last Week of Spring Training Fever.