In Wednesday afternoon’s game against the Chicago White Sox, Terry Collins was faced with what looked like a simple choice: with a 1-0 lead, backup catcher Rene Rivera, who had the game’s lone RBI, but entered the day hitting .148/.281/.259 for the season and .210/.259/.329 for his career, came up with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning. Normally, you’d look at the Mets meager bench options and consider leaving Rivera in, but today, Collins had his best hitter, Yoenis Cespedes, available on a day of rest. Rivera hit for himself and struck out. The White Sox tied the game in the 7th, and Cespedes would enter to hit for the pitcher in the 9th with one out and the bases empty, a far less juicy situation. Kevin Plawecki, the catcher on the bench that Collins wouldn’t use behind Cespedes, would ultimately make the final out of the game as the last pinch-hitter available in the 13th inning.
An occasional fan complaint on Twitter or comment threads is that Collins won’t hit or run for his starting catcher anymore unless he has another catching option available to him after the backup catcher that he’d have to burn on the bench. I decided to use Baseball Reference’s Play Index tool to find out the truth: how often Collins took his starting catcher out of the game, and how that compared to the rest of the National League.
Since 2011, when Terry Collins was hired, the Mets have had a replacement catcher enter the game 90 times. This is the fifth most in the National League in that timespan, a bit above the league average of 80.5 appearances. Interestingly, the Cardinals (140) and Giants (125)—two teams you would generally want to emulate—are the only two teams with over 100 appearances. But Collins, for whatever reason, greatly slowed his roll somewhere around the beginning of the 2013 season. The Mets have only replaced their starting catcher 35 times from 2013 to 2016, against a league average of 46.5 times, and as we’ll get into a little later, the vast majority of those were not aggressive in-game moves. The only teams with fewer backup catching appearances over that time are the Rockies, Phillies and Braves, while the Theo Epstein-era Cubs joined the Cardinals and Giants as teams using in-game backup catching options way more than anyone else. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be aligned with the Cardinals, Giants, and Cubs of the last four years than the Rockies, Phillies, and Braves on matters of baseball strategy.
Since there was such a sea change in 2013, I decided to dig a little deeper on when Collins has deployed a second catcher. For starters, an abnormally high amount of these appearances—29—have happened in September. Why would Collins be willing to aggressively replace his catchers in September but not earlier? This has a simple answer: because of roster expansion, you almost always have more than two catchers available from September 1st on.
Of the 61 times Collins has replaced a catcher from March through August, 10 came in extra-inning games. Eight of these 10 instances were in double-switches where the backup catcher likely would’ve been coming into the game anyways as the last man on the bench or close to it, or straight backup catcher for starting catcher swaps that you would make for fatigue or injury reasons. In only two of those eight games did Collins replace his catcher with another position player to gain an offensive advantage—and oddly, both were in the same week in July 2012:
- Daniel Murphy hit for backup catcher Mike Nickeas on the 17th of July, doubled, and was stranded.
- Andres Torres ran for starting catcher Josh Thole on the 22nd, and was quickly erased on a double play.
Collins made moves like this at appropriate times in 2011 and 2012 in regulation games just as he did in these two extra-inning games, but then virtually stopped in 2013.
Only 18 of the remaining pre-September second catcher appearances happened from 2013 to the present, and those are the ones I wanted to take a deeper look at. A mere two happened in 2013 itself. On April 7th, John Buck hit for the pitcher on his day off in the eighth inning down 3-2, and stayed in the game for the ninth in a double-switch; the Mets would come back to win 4-3. On June 25th, Daniel Murphy hit for Buck with the tying run on second in the ninth inning against current Met Addison Reed. Murphy reached on an error, tying the game and Anthony Recker came in for defense in the ninth–but the Mets would get walked off. Buck was upset about being hit for and his displeasure, and the fact that Terry Collins spoke with him about it made the papers. Collins would not hit for his starting catcher again until September—after Buck was off the team, and after Travis d’Arnaud and Juan Centeno came up to give the Mets three catchers.
During the 2014 season, Collins removed his starting catcher in eight pre-September regulation games, all in the season’s first half. On April 4th, Collins double-switched Anthony Recker into the pitcher’s spot for d’Arnaud hitting seventh in the order in the seventh inning, leading 4-1; he’d do the same in the seventh on April 14th with a 5-2 lead and on May 5th in a tie game in the ninth. On April 20th and June 4th, Collins did the reverse, double-switching d’Arnaud in for Recker in late game situations. On May 10th, Collins pinch-hit Bobby Abreu for a struggling Travis d’Arnaud (seriously, this happened) in the eighth inning of a tie game, then did the Anthony Recker double-switch into the pitcher’s spot again. On June 5th, Abreu hit for d’Arnaud again to lead off the eighth down a run, and this time the pitcher’s spot cleared and Recker came in to catch in Abreu’s spot. It has been nearly two years, and Terry Collins has not hit for a catcher for obvious offensive purposes with only two catchers rostered since. He’d only remove his catcher once more before September, pinch-hitting for Taylor Teagarden in a blowout on June 16th.
In 2015, Collins replaced his catcher only five times before roster expansion. Three happened in a short span in May where the Mets had called up Johnny Monell as a third catcher with the specific intent of being able to hit or run for catchers, since using a backup wouldn’t cost Collins the bench catching option. On June 20th, Kevin Plawecki replaced d’Arnaud because d’Arnaud had suffered an elbow injury that would sideline him for over a month. Only once, on August 16th, did Collins optionally utilize his only bench catching option, putting Anthony Recker in to catch the ninth inning down 8-1 to the Pirates.
So far this season, Collins has had a second catcher enter the game three times. On April 16th, Plawecki entered for d’Arnaud after d’Arnaud was hit on the elbow by a pitch. Just nine days later, Plawecki would again enter with d’Arnaud’s elbow once again ailing him; d’Arnaud has yet to return from the disabled list. Collins has made one other catching move in 2016, but it wasn’t an aggressive hitting move; on May 14th, having already burned his best bench options, Collins double-switched Rene Rivera for Kevin Plawecki in the bottom of the eighth down 7-4 to the Rockies, allowing him to “save” a pinch-hitter in the top of the ninth.
Collins has never been forced to use even a position player emergency third catcher to catch with the Mets, but even the fear of having to deploy that emergency option seems fairly unwarranted. For most of the time period in question, Collins has had better than normal emergency catching options amongst his non-catching position players. Eric Campbell, who has spring training experience catching, has been on the roster for large chunks of the 2014-16 seasons. Mike Baxter, who caught in instructional leagues as a prospect and occasionally caught bullpens, was around for a lot of 2012 and 2013. In 2016, the Mets have one of the better theoretical third catching options in baseball hanging around: starting second baseman Neil Walker has caught over 200 professional games. Walker was twice ranked as a global top 100 prospect by Baseball America during his minor league catching days, and unlike some converted catchers like Joe Mauer, Walker was not moved off the position because he was no longer physically able to play it. He was a bad defender there for a projected major league starter, but a below-average major league defender is a heck of a lot better than most emergency catchers. Walker was at least sometimes considered Pittsburgh’s emergency catcher, at least in years where they didn’t have Ryan Doumit — an actual third catcher who also played the corners — hanging around.
So what happened in 2013 that caused Collins to back off hitting or running for his catcher in “normal” two catcher situations, then totally stop the next year? There’s no easy answer. Buck’s comments to the media as a veteran presence loom, but Buck was off the team by the end of that August. The Mets have largely had lousy benches, and at least sometimes have had a healthy and slugging Travis d’Arnaud that you wouldn’t hit for. But there’s also been a lot of Anthony Recker, Taylor Teagarden, Kevin Plawecki, Johnny Monell, and Rene Rivera mixed in there, and at times the Mets have had strong pinch-hitting options—including d’Arnaud himself. Like Wednesday, some of those were big spots where Collins opted not to hit for a catcher, and perhaps that cost the team a run. There isn’t a single obvious incident that would be scaring Collins; I’d like to know why the Mets can’t be a little more progressive in their use of backup catchers.
Photo Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports