Chasing Mitch

added 12/11/2007 by Scott Barzilla

Back in 2000, the Astros tried to move into a new direction behind the dish. Tony Eusebio served as stopgap in 1999, but 2000 was supposed to the beginning of the Mitch Meluskey era. Although he would sport an .888 OPS that season, his tenure was nothing short of a disaster. I'm sure some in the Astros organization couldn't help but think of that this winter.

J.R. Towles is the new kid in town. He has all the right skills they say. Defense is so hard to judge for catchers, but he was a part of the Futures Game and the numbers are hard to ignore. Yet, that fear is still in the back of some people's minds. That is the main reason why Brad Ausmus is returning another season. They hope he can impart as much knowledge as he can. It would also help if Towles is more receptive than Meluskey was. It's hard to imagine how he couldn't be.

It's hard to rate catcher's defensively. John Dewan did not rate them in his +/- system for obvious reasons and you get such a wide range of opinions. We will look at the basic numbers for Ausmus among regulars with the knowledge that they are likely inadequate. This will hopefully become easier as we move to the other positions on the diamond.

                 Ausmus     Rank
Passed Balls        2        1T
Caught Stealing%   .16       24
CERA               4.29      14

Here we see a mixed bag. Ausmus is terrific at blocking the plate, terrible at throwing out runners, and average according to catcher ERA. Of course, catchers are only as good as their pitchers. Eric Munson's CERA was 5.85 and Humberto Quintero was 5.10. Towles rang in a 4.26 CERA in limited duty. Maybe that is some cause for optimism. No matter what, it is clear that Ausmus is moving on because he can't hit.

In the last column I introduced a new metric I call adjusted OPS. It is crude, but it includes baserunning. No metric is perfect, but including Bill James baserunning rating system makes OPS a little more accurate. We will look at Brad Ausmus' numbers in more detail and how he ranks among the other regular catchers in baseball.

               OBP    AB    TB    BR   ATB   ASLG   AOPS
Brad Ausmus   .318   349   113    -6   107   .307   .625

Ironically, Ausmus numbers are not that bad in comparison with his NL comrades. Fellow lumanaries like Michael Barrett, Jason Kendall, and Brian Schneider rank below him. Yet, Gerald Laird is the only catcher in the AL that ranked anywhere near that. Ausmus ranks last in the NL in total bases and only Kendall and Schneider rank below him in adjusted slugging percentage.

Towles has a much better track record in the minors and he looked great in September. However, as Bum Phillips once said, "potential means they ain't done nothin' yet." Towles has potential, but in this case it is hard to imagine him being less effective than Ausmus at the plate.

                PA     AB      BB    SO     TB     OBP    SLG
J.R. Towles    1050    902     88    155    427   .397   .473

I'd hold the phone before calling in the Hall of Fame vote here. The numbers indicate he is more than capable offensively, but Meluskey put up these same numbers at the big league level for one season. He is out of baseball as far as we know. Towles will have to prove his worth behind the dish, but 13 regular catchers failed to produce a .700 adjusted OPS last season. If Towles can do that then the Astros will at least be in the middle of the pack at a position where they were near the bottom last season.