The Mariners have signed catcher Kelly Shoppach to a MLB deal worth 1.5 million dollars with an extra 500,000 to be gained in incentives.
Shoppach started 2012 with the Red Sox, splitting time with Jarrod Saltalamachia, before he was traded to the Mets. He had a solid offensive year, with a 97 OPS + (Jesus Montero had a 95 OPS +), right around his career average (96 OPS +).
Offensively, Kelly Shoppach is known for his gigantic platoon splits, as he is good against lefties but very bad against righties. For his career, the 32 year old has a .510 SLG against lefties, but .368 SLG against righties. He strikes out nearly 35% of the time against righties, which is shocking. Against lefties, he isn’t much better at making contact, striking out nearly 31 % of the time. The difference is walks, as Shoppach walks 9.7% of the time against lefties and just 7.5 % against righties. Unfortunately, these are the same platoon splits that Jesus Montero showed in 2012. As evidenced by the platoon splits, Shoppach is known to hit for not much average, but with some pop and walks. Since coming into the league in 2005, his .192 ISO ranks 7th out of all qualified catchers, better than Miguel Olivo, MVP Buster Posey, and Salty. The strikeouts are really unprecedented though, as he has a higher strikeout rate than not only all of the qualified catchers since 2005 (Salty is 2nd), but all of the qualified hitters as well (even worse than Mark Reynolds and former Mariners Russell Branyan and Jack Cust). He used to be more of a ground-ball hitter, but over the last two seasons he has been hitting more fly-balls, which seems like a pretty good idea, considering his career OPS on fly-balls is over 1.200 (when league average is a little over .800). This also suggests that he has pretty real power and strength. Even on the wrong side of 30, Shoppach’s power doesn’t seem to be going away, as his ISO was at career averages in 2012.
However, Shoppach had two really bad seasons in a row in 2010 and 2011. Even though his peripherals were a little bit bet than they were in 2012, he had an OPS of less than .650 and didn’t hit for the same power he was accustomed to. As usual, I looked at batted ball distance to see if we could see a trend. From 2007 to 2009, when he had a 112 OPS + with Cleveland, his average batted ball went 275.8 feet, which is very good. In his two years with Tampa, 2010-2011, Shoppach’s average batted ball went about 266 feet, which isn’t bad, but obviously a big drop (considering he had 440 plate appearances with the Rays, it was about 3960 feet lost, or about 10 homers worth of feet). In 2012, Shoppach was actually worse despite the improved numbers, with about 261 feet per batted ball. So why did the numbers change so much?
My first suspicion is park. The Tampa Bay Rays park plays pitcher friendly, rated at about a 92, with 100 being average, in park factors. However, home/road splits don’t seem to be very helpful, considering he was better at home one year with the Rays, and better on the road the other year. In 2012, with the Mets and Red Sox, he was about equal (slightly better at home) on the road or at home. Since he played a lot of the year with the Red Sox, AL East pitching doesn’t seem to be a very good explanation. BABIP seems to be big reason for the difference, as his 2012 was an unsustainable .352 (career average .314) and while in 2010 his BABIP was about his career average, his 2011 BABIP was .100 points lower. His ground-ball rate and infield fly-ball rates were either career highs or very close to career highs in 2010, but this wasn’t his low BABIP year. So perhaps what Shoppach actually is as a hitter is somewhere in between, that is, somewhere in between a 71 OPS + player and a 96 OPS + hitter. That is a pretty big range, but he is a below average hitter (which can be okay for a catcher), that seems to be regressing power wise, both according to batted ball data and according to HR/FB %. Even with the new Safeco fences, I don’t think he will hit for a whole lot of power for the Mariners. However, he should run into a few balls and fits into the overall theme of the Mariners off-season as an older bad body player with some pop.
On the bases, he is considered one of the slowest players in the league and has sometimes made a fool of himself trying to run. However, his 2.3 speed score is better than Ronny Paulino’s and Montero has been trying to “learn how to run”, so it is hard to complain about this aspect of his game (especially since speed is pretty irrelevant when evaluating catchers).
Kelly Shoppach is considered a good defensive catcher by many, but as Marc of USS Mariner pointed out, catcher defense is extremely hard to quantify and both philosophy and data is constantly evolving. Personally, in just watching him over the years, I haven’t thought that Shoppach is a particularly strong defensive catcher. In 2012, he was a borderline starter, as he was about 33rd in plate appearances caught in the Majors. According to Matt Klaassen’s defensive catcher rankings, Shoppach was worth -1.6 runs in 2012, which would place him at about the level of Russell Martin and Mike Nickeas at about 90th place of about 116 catchers. Obviously that run value is bad, but Russell Martin didn’t hit much at all in 2012 and still get a 2 year deal worth much more than Shoppach this off-season. Either the Pirates are expecting a bounce back with the bat, are terrible at evaluating catchers, or there is reason to believe he Martin is a good defensive catcher or at least provides some value. I’ll let the reader decide when it comes to the Russell Martin contract. Nickeas on the other hand, is not even a replacement player and is not considered a good catcher. Shoppach was really below average in all 4 categories Klaassen outlines.
According to Subjectively Speaking, Kelly Shoppach is roughly average at “pitch framing” according to Pitch F/X data. This was one of the reasons the Tampa Bay Rays let Shoppach walk after the 2012 season and traded John Jaso. The Rays signed Jose Molina to replace them since data showed that Jaso was a poor pitch framer, costing the team runs, Shoppach was about average, and Jose Molina was the best in baseball. For the Mariners, shoppach is an improvement over both Jaso and Montero, but hasn’t been as good as Ronny Paulino over his career. Paulino has strangely gotten worse (one would expect skills like pitch blocking to regress a little, and maybe even the arm to fade a little, but you would expect his ability to influence balls or strikes to regress) and has been well below average the last two seasons.
Even if he isn’t particularly good, Shoppach obviously fits a need. The Mariners evidently plan on using Shoppach as a defensive replacement late in games with occasional starts. Coming in as a sub is rather routine for Shoppach, as he has done it in 101 games, roughly a 5th of his career, and he hasn’t been much worse offensively when doing so. They still seem intent and insistent on using Jesus Montero as the full time catcher. While I argued adamantly after the trade that the Mariners need to give Montero a serious shot at catcher since there is such a big difference in value between catcher and DH (and even first base), he showed last year that he is clearly costing the team back there. The numbers, the eye test, and the scouting reports all show that Montero is just not a very good defensive catcher. Perhaps there is some hope that he will get better, but I can’t think of a lot bad fielding catchers coming to the Majors and improving dramatically defensively (there may be some anecdotal evidence to the contrary, but they usually just get worse as they age or move off to the position completely). Also, the Mariners current roster construction doesn’t really allow them to use Montero as a DH and moving him to first, even if he was okay there defensively, won’t really help the team considering the 1st basemen they already have. Since it is a big league deal, once finalized, the Mariners will need to boot someone off the 40 man roster. Obviously all along I have been saying that the Mariners should DFA Carlos Peguero. It also becomes increasingly unclear where Jason Bay fits on this roster. Mike Carp is very unlikely to be DFA’d (I think they should trade him, They won’t get much, but he is out of options and there is no room for him on the roster. They might as well get some low ceiling high level prospect or medium ceiling very low level prospect for him), but probably won’t break camp with the team. For me, the Shoppach deal means Paulino starts the year in Tacoma (probably backing up Zunino) as they don’t really have room for 3 catchers (although with Montero on the roster, it isn’t a bad idea) and Shoppach may not be much better, he does have the MLB deal, which gives him the obvious advantage of making the team. This could all work itself out in several different ways. One possible way is Montero struggling mightily behind the plate and Zunino not being quite ready for the Majors most of the season (say he continues to struggle blocking balls), making Shoppach the main catcher for a lot of the season. Another way is Zunino being ready quickly and the team is way out of first place, meaning Shoppach gets shopped out.