MLB: New York Mets at Philadelphia Phillies

Receiving Gifts

Baseball Prospectus readers are six times more likely than other MLB fans to apply their love of numbers to non-baseball pursuits. [Citation needed.] Since you’re mathy enough to be reading this, you’re probably familiar with the psychological studies demonstrating that people are happier to receive a gift they asked for than the one you regifted purchased after devoting considerable thought to what the recipient would like best. Some strident economists even consider the practice of giving non-cash gifts “an orgy of wealth destruction.” A University of Minnesota professor showed that you pay more to buy a gift than the recipient would ever have been willing to spend on it, which deadweight loss costs billions of dollars a year. People are spoiled jerks. And so we come to Mets fans.

No! you say. Mets fans aren’t spoiled. The team is owned by an 80-year-old half-billionaire who’s too busy retiring personal debt to raise payroll to a level befitting a team playing in the country’s biggest media market. The franchise player suffers from a narrowing of the open spaces within his spine, which puts pressure on his spinal cord, the nerves that travel through his spine, and a host of Mets fans. The 40-man roster contains eight outfielders but no center fielder. All the catchers stink.

Mets fans may be conditioned pessimists, but at this time of year it’s important to look on the bright side. The Mets may be the only MLB team with a top-three rating for ballpark food, mascot and broadcast crew (with an unparalleled fight song). Though the Wilpons might be done spending this offseason, they did open the checkbook to re-sign a superstar. David Wright expects to stay healthy and productive for the first time since 2013. The team optimistically hopes to shed itself of last year’s misguided trade-deadline acquisition, even if that means admitting the sunk cost. Once that’s done, there are plenty of center field options available in trade. It’s a good time to root for the Metropolitans. Still, Mets fans are spoiled about their catchers.

Since 1968, only four catchers have been elected to the Hall of Fame: Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter and Mike Piazza. The Mets employed two of those all-time greats, from 1985 to 1989 and from 1998 to 2005. In Carter’s first two years with the Mets, he hit .288/.366/.487 (141 OPS+) as the strongest run-producer for the Mets’ only World Series winner in the last 30 years. Piazza’s greatness was more sustained. He produced a .295/.371/.539 line over eight Met seasons, which is why the hat on his Cooperstown plaque shows the interlocking NY.

The period between Carter and Piazza was by no means barren. In 1991, the season after Carter left the Mets, a pre-yips Mackey Sasser hit .307/.344/.426 in 100 games behind the plate. Four years later, 27-year-old Todd Hundley broke out with 15 home runs. In 1996, Hundley set the single-season record for dingers by a catcher, with 41. He followed up that record year with another 30 round-trippers in 1997. For those three years, Hundley hit .269/.375/.535–a 141 OPS+ comprising a better three-year peak than any similar stretch of Carter’s career.

The post-Piazza Mets first featured Paul LoDuca behind the dish. His two-year tenure produced a .297/.334/.404 line that is superficially comparable to the .288/.362/.434 Buster Posey put up last season, but was in fact–adjusted for park and era–significantly inferior (91 to 112 in OPS+). Since LoDuca left in 2008, the Mets have struggled to find even an average backstop. Brian Schneider, Omir Santos, Rod Barajas, Josh Thole, and John Buck conjure up few warm memories.

The Mets recognized a need to develop an everyday catcher when they traded R.A. Dickey, coming off the 2012 Cy Young Award, for the best catching prospect in the minor leagues, the No. 15 prospect in all of baseball. You may have heard that this deal also gave the Mets a tall Texan who had pitched well in the Low-A Midwest League. The first two seasons of Noah Syndergaard’s MLB career already exceeds (by your choice of WARP, fWAR and bWAR) the value that Dickey has produced in four years with Toronto–and at minimum salaries, no less. Even the minor-leaguer Toronto threw into the deal eked out the No. 10 spot on the 2017 Mets prospect list.

Though the Mets would never wish to reverse what will go down in history as the Syndergaard Trade, it’s fair to say that d’Arnaud has never developed into the star catcher the Mets hoped for. His .312 TAv in 268 plate appearances in 2015 seems like an outlier when surrounded by .205, .268 and .239 in three times as many PAs over 2013, 2014 and 2016. I mean:

Injuries may have stunted d’Arnaud’s development as a hitter, but whatever the reason for his lack of production, the Mets don’t possess the next Mike Piazza.

Except … as BP has developed the most comprehensive public statistics on catcher defense, Piazza’s reputation has been burnished by improved quantification of pitch-framing and pitch-blocking. Despite hitting during his ages 24-27 seasons worse than Piazza hit in his final, age-38 season, d’Arnaud has posted a positive FRAA every year he’s played in the majors. Like other stat-friendly teams, the Mets value catcher framing. Like few teams, they carry three catchers who contribute behind the plate if not at it. Kevin Plawecki and Rene Rivera combined with d’Arnaud to post the fourth-most framing runs in baseball last season, behind three other playoff teams (the Dodgers, Cubs and Giants).

The Mets’ regular catchers posted OBPs of .307 (d’Arnaud), .298 (Plawecki), and .291 (Rivera) in 2016, yet they combined to produce 3.7 WARP due to their ability to steal strikes, block wild pitches, and control the running game. OBP is life. Life is OBP. Except when discussing good defensive catchers. Contrary to appearances, the Mets have three backstops who deserve their spot on the roster.

If, on top of their defensive skill, d’Arnaud or Plawecki can reproduce a little of their minor-league hitting prowess at the big-league level, the Mets will consider it gravy. And Mets fans must stop complaining about the purported hole at catcher. Recency bias notwithstanding, we’ve been spoiled for thirty years. We should acknowledge and appreciate receiving gifts.

Photo Credit: Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

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