Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Charlie O'Brien Thanksgiving

In 1990, the Mets and Pirates were duking it out for supremacy in the National League East when New York acquired Charlie O'Brien from the Milwaukee Brewers to be the backup catcher to the incumbent Mackey Sasser.

Sasser was what we call a good-hit, no-throw catcher.  That meant he was a solid contact hitter (.307 batting average in 100 games in 1990) who had a little bit of a problem throwing the ball back to the pitcher.  Okay, it was a big problem, as opposing base runners would occasionally take advantage of Sasser's tap-tap-toss back to the pitcher by stealing a base.

Charlie O'Brien was an excellent defensive catcher who called a good game and had an outstanding arm behind the plate.  O'Brien would go on to throw out a whopping 30 would-be base stealers in 1990 and would erase a total of 95 men who attempted to steal during his four seasons in New York.

But O'Brien as a hitter?  That was another story.

This photo is almost as small as Charlie O'Brien's batting average.  Almost.

In four seasons with the Mets, spanning 659 plate appearances, the Bob Uecker look-alike was also a Bob Uecker hit-alike.  O'Brien had a .212 career batting average with the Mets to go with a .289 on-base percentage and .309 slugging percentage.  How bad was O'Brien as a hitter?  Over the same time period (1990-1993), his sometimes battery-mate, Dwight Gooden, hit .221 and slugged .336 in 318 plate appearances.  (At least O'Brien was a tad more patient than Doc, as Gooden "only" reached base at a .234 clip.)

Despite never being the team's top catcher (Rick Cerone caught most of the games in 1991 and Todd Hundley took over in 1992 and 1993), O'Brien remained a Met for those four seasons, even if his pitchers had a better chance to drive in a run than he did.

Fast forward two decades to the current Mets.  Josh Thole has been with the team for four seasons, although he didn't receive the bulk of the playing time until the second half of the 2010 season.  In 916 career at-bats with the Mets, Thole is a .261 hitter with a .331 on-base percentage.  He is not much of a power threat, as evidenced by his .333 slugging percentage, but then again, he was never counted on to be one.

Yet despite his decent batting average on on-base percentage, especially when compared to what O'Brien did 20 years earlier, the Mets are trying to replace Thole behind the plate.  To this I ask ... why?

Don't get Josh Thole angry.  You wouldn't want to see him angry.

Since becoming a Met in 2009, the team's ERA has been lower with Thole behind the plate than with any other catching option.  The following is Thole's "catcher's ERA" compared to the team's cumulative ERA for each season.

  • 2009: Josh Thole (4.10 ERA), Team (4.45 ERA)
  • 2010: Josh Thole (3.58 ERA), Team (3.70 ERA)
  • 2011: Josh Thole (4.25 ERA), Team (4.19 ERA)
  • 2012: Josh Thole (3.77 ERA), Team (4.09 ERA)
  • Total: Josh Thole (3.92 ERA), Team (4.10 ERA)

Simply stated, Thole makes his pitchers better when he's catching them.  And lest we forget, it was Josh Thole calling pitches for Johan Santana on the night of his historic no-hitter.

But no.  That's not good enough.  Thole is a decent hitter and a fine handler of pitchers.  But in this era, if a catcher can't hit 20 homers, then it's time to look for his replacement, as the Mets are seeking to do this off-season.

Just imagine what would have happened to Charlie O'Brien if he was catching in this era instead of the 1990s.  Four years with the Mets?  He'd have been lucky to just get four months on the team.

Charlie O'Brien toiled for 15 seasons behind the plate in the major leagues (1985, 1987-2000), hitting a measly .221.  Josh Thole, even if he slumps badly, will always be a better hitter than O'Brien was.  But do you really think Thole will be in the majors for 15 seasons if he continues to be primarily a singles hitter?

A certain Mets catcher from two decades past should be thankful he caught when he did.  He'd have no chance to stick around in Flushing in this era.

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