A Meeting with the Main Man

added 8/26/2006 by Scott Barzilla

I promised this column two weeks ago, but things have gotten in the way. Primarily, I have begun my first season as a varsity volleyball coach. In a short two week period I have enjoyed the thrills of victory and the agony of defeat. More importantly, I have begun to see things from the other side of the equation. That can only help in the overview of our next subject.

This is the second year our SABR chapter has met with Tim Purpura and both times we have come away impressed. The man knows baseball and he has a real sense of the pulse of his franchise (not to mention the community at large). Of course, this year we got to hear the fact that Preston Wilson had been DFAed before the general public. Getting a scoop like that is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Needless to say, Purpura stayed away from more sensitive subjects (like Roy Oswalt) as much as he could and the size of the crowd limited the scope of the questions.

Purpura spent much of his time talking about player development. It is apparent that he spends much of his time on this and that he has a handle on it. Some fans think he sits around and eats Whataburgers all day. However, the knowledge had of a lot of the players in the minors indicates that he simply believes in building an organization from the ground up.

In particular, much of the discussion centered on Hunter Pence and Jason Hirsh. Keep in mind that this meeting occurred before Hirsh's debut. Purpura likes both prospects, but he is deathly afraid of them failing because he does not know how their psyche will handle it. In particular, Hirsh was brought along slowly because he played Division III college ball, so the level of competition was weak. For Pence, his slump in May and June was crucial because it gave him a dose of failure. Purpura has been impressed with how he has bounced back.

The best news anyone heard was the fact that he acknowledged that the club has a lot of money to play with this off-season. Observers at the meeting have gotten the impression that Purpura has been limited by the Clemens/Bagwell/Biggio logjam. Two of those go away this off-season. Purpura told the group that replacing Brad Ausmus in 2008 will determine his legacy as general manager. Since the debate of Ausmus has dominated the message boards recently, I thought I would throw out some numbers.

                    OPS    EQA    EQR   WARP1
Brad Ausmus         590    208     28    1.5
Brian McCann        940    312     61    5.3
Brian Schneider     630    221     29    1.8
Paul Loduca         776    268     53    3.0*
Yadiar Molina       605    206     27    2.4
Michael Barrett     926    300     59    3.5
Mike Piazza         834    283     49    1.9*
Johnny Estrada      793    262     44    3.2*
Eliezer Alfonzo     800    261     27    2.6
David Ross         1030    318     38    3.6
Yorvit Torrealba    767    248     23    2.4*
Miguel Olivo        787    264     44    3.6*
Russell Martin      794    269     43    3.8
Damian Miller       721    249     35    2.4
Mike Lieberthal     694    234     18    1.7
Ronny Paulino       763    262     43    3.3

First of all, it is important to define our terms. OPS is easy, but the other three are Baseball Prospectus statistic. The first is equivalent average. It produces a batting average like metric which converts average based on home ballparks, competition, era and other like considerations. The second is equivalent runs created based on the same kind of formula. The last one is wins above replacement player which essentially tells you how many wins the player is worth to his team. Notice that Ausmus finishes last in OPS, 15th in equivalent average, 12th in equivalent runs (because he is very durable), but dead last in wins above replacement player. WARP1 includes defense.

If we go only by the numbers then we can see that Ausmus won't be hard to replace at all. In fact, as a hitter almost any AAA catcher would do the trick. However, we are only seeing the tangible. As we know, Ausmus has many intangibles that will be nearly impossible to replace. So, the task of replacing Ausmus is both easy and difficult at the same time. The club tried with Mitch Meluskey and it failed miserably. Meluskey couldn't catch a lick and the club's pitching staff suffered from the lack of experience behind the dish. The Meluskey fiasco is paralyzing this team. You notice that several players have stars by their name. All of those players were either signed as free agents or traded this off-season. All of them could have augmented Ausmus (instead of replacing him) and supplanted him when his contract is up (with the exception of Piazza).

When it comes to replacing Ausmus, stud offense is not a necessity. Often, the talk on the boards appears to be an all or nothing proposition. Everyone recognizes that having a Mika Piazza would cause as many problems on the other end of the spectrum. It is very likely that all but three of the NL's regular catchers will finish with OPSs of 700 or higher. That is really all that is needed to be a decent bottom of the order threat.

As someone rebuilding a program, I recognize the value in having players who work hard and know what to do in crucial situations. Ausmus brings pitchers through tough situations with his knowledge and experience. So, to discount what Ausmus brings to the table would be a mistake. When looking for the next catcher, you have to include that kind of intangible analysis in with the study of player's offensive and tangible defensive contributions. Otherwise, it could be Mitch Meluskey all over again.