The Toronto Blue Jays look to be heading into the 2018 season with Luke Maile as their backup catcher, which isn’t as scary as you might think
The Toronto Blue Jays have spent a great deal of time this winter addressing their areas of need. Yet, they didn’t do anything about the backup catcher situation. Whether that is for lack of decent options presented, or a lack of effort, only the front office knows for sure. What we do know is that, as of right now, Luke Maile is the backup catcher heading into this coming season.
The thought of that might scare a lot of people. After all, we’re talking about the guy who put up a wRC+ mark of 0. That’s right, Z-E-R-O in 2017. Think about that. We’re not talking about a well below average score like Ryan Goins‘ (69 wRC+) or Darwin Barney (58). We’re talking zero. In order to achieve such a dubious mark, a player would have to get a hit in roughly 14% of their at bats. They’d have to strike out about a quarter of the time and walk just 2.2% of the time. They’d also have to hit for very little power. It is almost amazing how bad Maile was at the plate.
So, why is it OK that he’s the Blue Jays’ backup catcher? Well, you have to think about what is required from a backup catcher. If you look at catchers with the “backup” workload, or ~100-200 at bats, Maile’s .146 average is low, but not astronomically so in comparison. The Nationals’ Jose Lobaton (another former Rays catcher) hit .170, the Padres’ Luis Torrens hit .163 and the Pirates’ Chris Stewart hit .183. Simply, backup catchers aren’t there for their offensive capabilities. Unless, of course, you have a backup who really could play everyday elsewhere, like Toronto had with Dioner Navarro and Russell Martin.
Even if we were to spend a lot of time lamenting the lack of offense Maile provides, he is aware of just how bad his 2017 season was and is working to improve. He told the Toronto Star that he is looking to bring some pop back into his game. Maile says: “I’m realistic, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask for me to be an offensive threat. I mean I’m six-three and 225 pounds. I should be able to drive the ball fairly consistently. I’ve done it in the past.” He’s right, he is plenty big and strong. And, he’s not wrong about his ability to drive the ball. However, he made the highest amount of soft contact of his career last year: 22.9% and his hard contact rate (21.9%) is his lowest.
As for driving the ball, his Brls/PA rank 314th in MLB at 2.9. There are several pitchers who hit the ball harder in 2017. His average exit velocity was a Mark Buehrle fastball-esque 83.3 mph. He hit the ball 95+ mph just 20.8% of the time. So, yeah. There’s work to do. But, he is aware of it. Time will tell if he can turn things around. Remember, the bar isn’t high for a backup.
Where the bar is higher is behind the dish. A backup needs to be good with the glove. The old saying of ‘not hurting your team on defense’ holds true, here. Anything the backup catcher provides offensively is a bonus, which is why we can live with the meager offense, to an extent. I mean, the club can’t live with a 0 wRC+ forever…can they? That aside, the defense is really the primary focus. For his part, this is where Maile helps out.
In checking StatCorner, we can find out how good Maile was at getting calls for his pitchers. If we use oStr% (the rate at which pitches caught outside the zone were called strikes), he was actually ranked nicely at 7.4. For what it’s worth, Russell Martin was lower at 6.6. Combine that with a CS rate of 34.6% and you have a pretty decent backstop.
For the 46 games he played last season, it isn’t that bad an option. Let’s be honest, the 2017 Blue Jays weren’t terrible because of Luke Maile. If everything else had gone right, we’d probably not bat an eye at his season. Here’s the problem: 2017 also saw at bats go to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Miguel Montero and Raffy Lopez. Now, it is just Martin and Maile on the docket. With Martin being another year older, that could mean more playing time for Maile. That thought might scare some people. Then, you add in the very real possibility that Martin could get hurt and miss an extended period of time. Then, panic may set in.
It shouldn’t. In that case, you can bet the Blue Jays will turn to Danny Jansen to make his big league debut and take some regular playing time. The club will want Jansen getting as much regular playing time as he can, so he isn’t the option to backup Martin instead of Maile. With Jansen striking out less than 10% of the time, walking at a double digit rate and putting up a 172 wRC+ in AAA, he would likely be the one to take over in a full time roll, which puts Maile still in the backup role. Now, if Jansen falters to start 2017, then Toronto’s hopes rest on Reese McGuire, which is a tall ask. So, let’s all hope Jansen continues his success.
To put a ribbon on this discussion, the Toronto Blue Jays upgraded in several positions around the diamond. They left the backup catching situation alone, knowing full well what realistic expectations are for that position. Basically, Luke Maile is exactly what you would expect. Well, he would be with a little offensive improvements. With Russell Martin (who is still one of the best catchers in the game…don’t @ me) on the team and Jansen in Buffalo, we don’t need to worry about the full time catcher job. Instead, we need to accept that Luke Maile is the backup catcher, and that is OK
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