It’s Christmas Day. I hope you are having a fabulous holiday with your families. It’s most appropriate to start with a Christmas story and it just so happens I have a Mariners story go with the season.
I’ve been married for 36 years, and for almost all of them buying something for Christmas for the missus has been something of a crapshoot. Whether through procrastination or lack of effort, I’m simply pleased to emerge with all digits intact. Sometimes its just a matter of being a little less tone deaf and connecting the dots that can make a Christmas gift special.
During the Mariners glory years, my wife was as big a fan as I was. We went to the Kingdome, were present for the opening day game at Safeco, watched the games on television and jeered Bobby Ayala together. All the important stuff.
My wife’s favorite player is, to this day, catcher Dan Wilson. Lorri is a believer that Dan the Man should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame and was the best ballplayer ever. Not Ruth or Williams, not Mays or Griffey, Dan Wilson. Oddly, she’s not alone, I’ve spoken to many men with wives of a certain age who believe the same.
About the time of Dan’s retirement it was announced he would be autographing Christmas ornaments for a charity donation at University Village–a mere 50 miles from my home. Knowing an opportunity when I saw one, I didn’t hesitate, drove to the U.District and waited in line for my turn. I shook hands with the charming Mr. Wilson and met his lovely daughter, who must have been about twelve. Let’s just say that the gift was well received and is hanging on our tree today.
But Dan Wilson‘s greatest gift was that he is without question the best catcher in Mariners history. Wilson never got as much attention as Ivan Rodriguez or Jorge Posada. He was a decent hitter-in 4616 plate appearances he had a slash of .262/.309/.382 slash in an offense-dominant era. He never had I-Rod’s cannon arm, but he did throw out would be base-stealers at a higher rate than league average-32%>30%.
But Wilson’s real genius was the relationship he had with pitchers, coaxing trust and great seasons out of guys as idiosyncratic and polar opposite in their stuff as Randy Johnson and Jamie Moyer. That and blocking balls at the plate. The former Golden Gopher hockey goalie allowed only 42 passed balls in 1,270 career games as a catcher. Just as a basis for comparison, Rodriguez, who will likely go into the Hall of Fame, caught twice as many games as Wilson, but still surrendered 127 passed balls. Wilson allowed passed balls at a lower rate than Mike Piazza, Gary Carter and Johnny Bench.
When Dan Wilson retired in 2005, the Mariners opened a revolving door in search of a replacement for this man of solid if unspectacular catching ability. They are still lookin’, but let’s recap the past ten years, because that’s always fun and very humbling.
2002-2004 Ben Davis. Recognizing Wilson was in decline, General Manager Pat Gillick traded the woefully underachieving Jeff Cirillo to San Diego for catcher Ben Davis. Davis was a physical specimen. But he was never able to fully assume Wilson’s role. His offense wasn’t good enough to match the fact that he couldn’t work effectively with pitchers. Others have been much less complimentary in their evaluation. Davis was traded with Freddy Garcia and brought back our next catching candidate.
2004-2005 Miguel Olivo v.1.0. The 25 year old Olivo joined Wilson as a catching team. He played 50 games in 2004 and 54 in 2005 before being traded to San Diego. He was known for a lousy work ethic and was an offensive black hole. He was replaced by a combination of the 41-year old Pat Borders and 42 fairly promising games by Yorvit Torrealba, who fled to the Rockies through free agency.
A Jeff Clement Interlude: In 2005 Bill Bavasi used his considerable scouting acumen to draft Jeff Clement out USC with the third pick in the first round. Clement was a left-handed hitting catcher and considered the best bat in the draft. Clement was to be the catcher-of-the-future, but mostly turned into a big fat nothing. Derailed by ineffectiveness and injury in the minors, Clement played exactly 36 of his 152 big league game career as a catcher. Clement was gone from the majors in 2012, arthritic and not good at major league baseball.
2006-2009 Kenji Johjima was signed from Japan to catch for the Mariners. Johjima brought a modicum of stability to the position. His 2006 slash line of .291/.332/.451 was so impressive that at age 30 he was fourth in Rookie of the Year balloting. His 2006 season he was a 2.8 WAR season, and 2.3 in 2007. The wheels came off in 2008, with 0 WAR, but Bill Bavasi extended him for one more season. By the time he left for Japan after the 2009 season, Johjima was no longer popular with the fans or Mariners pitchers who seemed to have difficulty working with the former Japan League star.
2009-2010 Rob Johnson came up through the Mariners system and was very good in Tacoma. When the M’s brought him up to share time with Johjima, the M’s thought they’d be preparing their catcher-of-the-future. Pay attention to this term, you’ll be hearing it a lot. Johnson was never able to hit major league pitching with the Mariners (or anybody else.) Not only that, in 141 games with Seattle, he was a passed-ball machine, allowing 18.
2010 This was the year Adam Moore, another Mariner catching phenom and catcher-of-the-future joined Johnson to become the dueling passed ball duo. Moore added his seven to go with Johnson’s seven to equal more than a third of all those allowed in Dan Wislon’s 14 year career. Moore couldn’t hit a lick. The less said, the better.
2011-2012 Miguel Olivo was a 0.1 WAR catcher between his full time duties in 2011 and 2012 when he split his season with rookie Jesus Montero. The version 2.0 Olivo was definitely an improvement over 2005. He actually led the team in home runs in 2011 with 20, which ain’t saying much about that team.
In 2012 Jesus Montero was obtained in a heralded trade that sent Michael Pineda to the Yanks for Montero, widely considered the best right-handed hitting prospect in baseball. Montero was a lousy catcher, though his rookie season he showed he was a decent hitter. His career came off the rails after the season ended. Much more in a future blog post.
2013-2015 These years ushered in the Mike Zunino era, the latest edition of the Mariners-catcher-of-the-future. Zunino, a 2012 first round draft pick was rushed to the majors in 2013 after fewer than 300 minor league at bats. Due to circumstances beyond his control, the Montero PED suspension and Kelly Shoppach’s untimely release, Zunino was forced to be “the guy.” Zunino demonstrated good defense, considerable pitch framing skills and the ability to work effectively with pitchers, but was an offensive black hole. As a rookie he showed tremendous power, but his 32.1 % K rate is appalling. The M’s hope to get something back when Zunino figures things out at AAA. He will only be 25 when the season starts. While Chris Ianetta and Steve Clevenger will cover for Zunino while he hopefully charts a path back to the big club, they are strictly placeholders.
Since Dan Wilson retired in 2005, the M’s have had a multitude of “talents” most of whom couldn’t carry his glove. After all the the glory years of guys the fans could count on-Wilson, Griffey, Edgar, Buhner, even pitchers like Randy Johnson and Jamie Moyer, the Mariners have boasted little stability at any position-perhaps Felix and Ichiro are the exceptions-catcher is simply among the most egregious