Victor Martinez is one of the prize pieces of the Indians puzzle. Most teams would love to have a switch-hitting, multi-time All-Star catcher that can bat in the heart of the order and produce numbers that have garnered MVP consideration several time during his career. Sure, he may not have the best arm in the league, but Victor calls a great game. His teammates love his intensity and leadership, and the fans love what he brings to the field every day.
I could go on and on about what Victor means to this team, and what other teams would give for a catcher that can hit like he can. But while Martinez has been out for months with an injured elbow, a few other catchers have vaulted ahead in terms of numbers. Atlanta’s Brian McCann has 21 home runs on the season, while hitting near .300. Chicago’s Geovanny Soto has arrived on the scene by clubbing 20 long balls of his own.
And then third in line is a guy who has 17 home runs on the year with an OPS of .855, in roughly 60 percent of the at-bats of the abovementioned national leaguers. His name is Kelly Shoppach.
Shoppach, the career reserve catcher that is a former second round selection of the amateur draft, was ultimately a throw-in within the Coco Crisp/Andy Marte deal.
In fact, coming into 2007, here’s what Baseball Prospectus had to say:
At this point, Shoppach is officially on the backup catcher career path. He`s a pretty good defender, has decent power, doesn`t hit for average, and strikes out a lot. He`ll get a couple of everyday assignments during his career due to positional scarcity, but in the end he`ll have played thirteen years for eight different teams.
So, we thought that we were receiving a top-notch prospect at the third base slot. Needless to say, that has not exactly panned out as once hoped. But while no one was looking, we also received a player who has stepped up when called upon to not only provide offense and a solid arm behind the plate, but one who has shown that he may in fact be one of the better catchers in the league if not for being behind a guy who is also on that list. Little did we know, an injury to said “guy” has allowed us to test out the waters, and has allowed Shoppach to show what he could do with consistent plate appearances.
Since the All-Star break, Shoppach has clubbed an OPS of .992; good enough for top 20 in all of baseball. Top twenty. Ahead of huge-money guys like Miguel Cabrera, Jim Thome and Vladamir Guerrero, but with fewer plate appearances and while playing a position that is incredibly rare in terms of such production. For comparison purposes, in the top 100 in terms of post-break OPS, Soto is next in the catcher line behind Shoppach at #76 with .835.
Not bad for a guy on a career path as a back-up catcher, eh? Au contraire…
Martinez is close to returning, and will ultimately get his position back once healthy. And until Major Leauge Baseball adds some crazy rules, the Indians will only be allowed to start one catcher. Currently, Shoppach’s VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) is 21.6, third on the team behind Grady Sizemore (58.9) and Jhonny Peralta (36.8). Martinez, on the other hand, has seen his VORP around Sizemorian levels over the past three seasons: 52.9, 47.8, 55.0 respectively.
For a frame of reference, this puts Shoppach not too far behind Los Angeles’ Russell Martin (28.9) who is a multi-time All-Star and actually leads the Dodgers in the VORP category. And have I mentioned that he’s our back-up? So where does this take us?
This could ultimately go one of two ways. When Martinez comes back, Shoppach goes back to his role of the reserve catcher. He will suit up during games where Victor plays first – typically day-games that follow an evening contest. He also has been the catcher for Cliff Lee more often than not, even when Victor was healthy. So we could use him there as well.
However, the better move – at least in my mind – is to keep Shoppach’s bat in the lineup as much as possible. Sure, he has had a few strikeouts here and there, and is only batting .263. But when you consider that he’s only six points behind Grady Sizemore in that category, things are not as bad. On games when VMart dons the gear, Shoppach is an easy candidate for the designated hitter’s role. No more David Dellucci. Case closed.
On the days when Martinez plays first, Shoppach is behind the plate and Ryan Garko either takes the DH role, or is given the day off. For those wondering, Garko’s VORP is 2.3. In 421 fewer at-bats, Sal Fasano has a 2.4, so take that for what it’s worth.
With players like Chris Giminez and Carlos Santana in the minors, there is no doubting that the Tribe loves them some catching prospects. If we hadn’t acquired Kenny Lofton last season, we would also be the owners of Max Ramirez – now with Texas. A stud in the isolated power area, and only 28-years of age, you have to wonder what the Indians have for Shoppach in terms of shelf life. Is it worth having a back-up catcher with his skill set given the holes that we have elsewhere? Is it worth keeping him around, as he heads into his 30s, and having him shield the prospects from getting time in the bigs?
Baseball Prospectus has Shoppach’s seven-year forecast showing a regression to single-digit home runs by 2010. But this report is also assuming that his plate appearances stay in the mid-200s. Considering that Shoppach has 281 at-bats so far this season, these numbers can obviously be adjusted upwards if he was to become a full-time catcher – wherever the location may be.
I hate to reference moves that other teams made, especially those that are ahead of us in the standings, but the White Sox traded for Carlos Quentin. A guy who was stuck behind three outfielders on the Diamondbacks, and apparently only needed a shot at regular playing time to produce. Could Shoppach be in a similar position, albeit a few years later in his career?
So, while only the team knows what the future may hold for one Kelly Shoppach, take pride in the fact that our back-up catcher is better than the majority of his colleagues across the league. And if by chance that anyone with decision-making power is reading this, please do whatever it takes to keep Shoppach’s bat in the line-up. Regardless of how much David Dellucci is making.