Wednesday, March 13, 2013

37 Jays - Henry Blanco: The Last Squat of a Catch and Throw Guy

Who: Henry Ramon Blanco. Forty-one years young. Five-foot-eleven, 220 pounds. Catcher. Bats right-handed.

Provenance: Caracas, Venezuela. Signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers as an amateur free agent in 1989. Made his major-league debut with the Dodgers in July, 1997.
Contract Status: Joined the Blue Jays on a one-year, non-guaranteed deal worth $750,000 in January, 2013.
Back of the Baseball Card: Fifteen MLB seasons with the Dodgers, Rockies, Brewers, Braves, Twins, Cubs, Padres, Mets and Diamondbacks. Posted a .291 OBP and .367 slugging in 921 games played (2937 plate appearances). Hit 69 homers. Posted an 8.0 career WAR (as per Fangraphs) and 3.4 WARP (Baseball Prospectus). Strike out rate of 17.4 %, walk rate of 8.2 %.

2012 Stats: Played in 21 games for the D-Backs with a slash line of .224 OBP/.281 SLG in 67 plate appearances.  Strike out rate of 26.9%. Hit eight homers in 112 plate appearances in 2011 with Arizona.

Injury History: Had season-ending surgery last year year on his left thumb. Six DL stints in his career. A recurring problem with a herniated disc in his neck has kept sidelined him in 2007 and again in 2010.

Looking Back: The last time that Henry Blanco had something resembling an everyday job in the Majors was in 2004 with the Minnesota Twins. Which also coincides with the season in which Johan Santana won his first Cy Young Award. Just dropping that notion in there.

Since then, he's averaged 48 games and 148 games per season as a well-travelled backup. Along the way, he served as a personal catcher for Greg Maddux in his autumn years with the Cubs, and caught new Jay R.A. Dickey seven times in 2010 with the Mets.

Blanco's calling card is his catcher's mitt, but it can be difficult to evaluate it. We're in the nascent stages of the development of metrics to evaluate catchers' defensive value, but let's play along and look at Stolen Base Runs Saved (rSB). Since 2010, Blanco has caught 795.2 innings, and in that time, he's posted six runs saved by throwing out potential base stealers.

Not a bad number for a part-time player, considering Matt Wieters has posted 16 runs saved and Yadier Molina 14 over the same time period, but in more than six times as many innings. Meanwhile, J.P. Arencibia has posted a -8 in 1922.2 innings while Josh Thole has a -5 in 2059.0 innings caught.

Another defensive stat for catchers is RPP, which expresses how good a catcher is at blocking pitches though a runs above average measurement. In this stat, Blanco posts a 0.6 (29th among catchers with more than 700 innings caught since 2010), while Thole has a 1.4 (24th) and Arencibia has a -4.1 (52nd).

Looking Ahead: There's a notion that the relationship Blanco developed with Dickey in their brief time together  motivated the Jays to give the veteran a deal heading into camp. Dickey has told reporters that Blanco was the best catcher that he's worked with when it comes to catching the knuckleball, but following the knuckleballer's subsequent comments on the subject is a bit like...well, catching a knuckleball.

Just a week ago, Jays manager John Gibbons told reporters that immediately following the World Baseball Classic, the team would pick a personal catcher for their uncommon staff ace. But today, Dickey is quoted by the National Post's John Lott as saying that he's not particularly fussed by the question.
"It’s a non-issue, really … I’m comfortable with all of them, so it gives Gibby a lot of latitude to be able to put in there who he thinks is the best fit for that day," he said. (NatPost)
It's possible - if not likely - that Dickey is remaining somewhat cagey on this issue so as not to upset the apple cart with the long line of other catchers who might end up kneeling before him over the course of the season. With J.P. Arencibia, Josh Thole and even Mike Nickeas as other potential options before the year is out, one might suspect that Dickey would like to avoid publicly naming favourites this early in the year.

In the longer term, it's hard to imagine a scenario where Blanco continues to catch Dickey through this season and into the next one and through to the end of his deal. At some point, either Thole or Arencibia will be taking a regular turn behind the plate.

But in this "all-in" year, it's not a bad option to see if Blanco and Dickey can recapture the magic they made together in that handful of starts three seasons ago.

Pessimistically: Is a negative at the bottom of the batting order and does not do enough to help Dickey along to justify his presence. Is not a reliable option to give J.P. Arencibia regular rest. 

Optimistically: Makes beautiful music with Dickey. Becomes an invaluable tool for the pitching staff in the preparation before series. Holds his own at the plate. Hits a couple of taters.

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