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June 5, 2012 at 11:00 AM

Fun facts about Miguel Olivo and the Mariners’ catching situation

Missed my Talkin’ Baseball segment on Sports Radio KJR today? Well, fret no more. Here is is right above.
Miguel Olivo was brutal at the plate the first three weeks of the season. He’ll be the first to admit it. The Mariners knew it. But as they said back then, the reason Olivo was playing every day — despite a .310 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (yes, we told you he was brutal) — was because the team needed him to get his bat going. The M’s were not confident in the abilities of Jesus Montero or John Jaso to catch every day and knew they could not afford a .310 OPS black hole in their lineup.
So, either Olivo got his bat going, or they were in trouble.
Three weeks into the season, Olivo got his bat going. On April 22, he embarked on an eight-game hitting streak, clubbing three home runs and batting well over .300. The kind of streak Justin Smoak found himself on the past week or so, leading to pronouncements that he is hopefully “cured” of his slow start.
Well, Olivo went on a tear for those eight games. Not an exact Smoak-like tear, but good enough for a catcher. Then, he got hurt. Injured his groin and was out for a month. He looked shaky his initial few games back, but has since picked up the hitting part again and he’s back over .300 in average for the past week.
Looking back to where Olivo finally ended that early-season slump, he’s managed a .799 OPS since. His on-base-percentage since April 22 is still a tad below the .300-mark, which is low and what frustrates a lot of fans. But he’s slugged .508 since, which more than makes up for that — especially from an every day catcher.
Which is why, these continued rants I hear and disparaging comments I read about the team’s catching situation continue to mystify me. For a group of baseball fans who pride themselves on the quality of their knowledge and analytical skills, the inability of M’s fans on-a-whole to properly analyze what’s gone on with the catching situation is baffling to say the least.
For the record, I love what the team is doing with the catching situation.
Right now, Olivo is getting the bulk of time behind the plate, but not the overwhelming amount of use he’d had before. Once again, the team was afraid of pulling him out of the lineup those first few weeks because the way to ignite a cold veteran bat is not by sitting that bat down. Unlike younger players, exposed to the daily pressures of fighting through their first slumps or mistakes, veterans have been through all that before. And most managers know, if you want to get a veteran guy going early, you keep playing him.
Until you can’t justify it anymore.
That’s what happened with Chone Figgins, who got a month, did not respond and lost his every day job.
Olivo got three weeks, finally responded and has kept on hitting.
In fact, since those initial three weeks, Olivo has outhit both John Jaso and Jesus Montero in terms of OPS.
And no, those numbers aren’t cherry-picked. To say so constitutes poor baseball analysis. There was a valid baseball reason stated in advance for why the Mariners were using Olivo so much in April. He finally responded the way they’d hoped, kept on hitting and thus, is still getting the bulk of playing time.
That’s all the analysis required. It doesn’t take an advanced physics degree.

Some will argue that Jaso’s hitting justifies making him the every day catcher. Which would be true if he was hitting like Mike Piazza, I suppose. Jaso is indeed hitting very well and at times, some of his hits tend to be in “clutch” situations. The problem with that last sentence is, many of those now arguing in favor of playing Jaso more are the same folks who insist there is no proof that “clutch” hitting exists, so we won’t open that can of worms.
But yes, Jaso is hitting very well.
Still, the team does not view him as an every day catcher. The Tampa Bay Rays very clearly did not view him that way, either. If they did, it would have taken a lot more than the bullpen arm — Josh Lueke — the Mariners traded to get him. Teams don’t just give every day catchers with bat potential away like that for relief pitchers. Not the way the catching market is these days.
The M’s believe — and I tend to agree, based on what I’ve seen — that Jaso is just fine in the role he’s in. Who can argue? He’s produced an OPS of .812 in the roles he’s been performing in. That’s an excellent use of his talents. The professional catching appraisers the Mariners have on staff (and they have a ton of them) agree that Olivo is the better day-to-day catcher. They agree that Montero is not even in the same ballpark as those two yet because of his lack of experience.
And so, Olivo is getting the most playing time.
There are many in the blogosphere who like to chirp on and on about “analysis this” and “analysis that” in regards to comments and decisions they don’t like. But the bottom line is, when it comes to understanding the Olivo situation, many of these posters and commenters are flawed from the start in their own analytical thinking.
They are jaded because they decided a while ago that Olivo was no good and that no explanation anyone tried to give would matter. So, they continue to go about their weeks offering up poor analysis based on issues and circumstances they either do not grasp or do not want to grasp.
Again, to put it kindly, baseball is not a lab experiment. Teams don’t have the luxury of a full one-year “sample size” to mix chemicals around in their beakers and hope the whole thing turns out peachy keen without exploding.
The “process” is a living, breathing thing that can change week-by-week and month-by-month and is not pre-determined in advance by past numerical equations.
When a team decides to go with a player in any given season, it cannot afford to offer up poor quality analysis and hold that player’s previous seasons — or two seasons — against him. When this team went with Olivo at catcher, it was the team’s job to get the most out of him this year — not to go into 2012 with the attitude of: “He stank in the past, so he automatically will stink this year.”
The plan with Olivo has always been to get his bat going as early as possible and then to nurture that bat along as the season moved on and the days began to take their toll on catchers everywhere. They got the bat going and now, through increased use of Jaso and Montero behind the plate, they are nurturing it along to the point where he won’t have to catch 130 games a season.
Olivo’s overall numbers still don’t look good. But anybody who knows how to analyze baseball realizes that those numbers from the first three weeks were so brutal that they will take months to overcome. So, the Mariners, with real money and jobs at stake, are not going to harm the team by continuing to hold the first three weeks of the season against Olivo forever.
That would not be smart analysis.
Now, if Olivo goes into another three-week slide, then we’ll talk. Then, the team might have to shift its thinking and course.
But if you’ve got a team where the best every day catcher has a .799 OPS since the third week of the season and the second-best catcher is at .812 overall — while giving your rookie third catcher a chance to get his feet wet without drowning while catching too many days in a row — what is the problem?
Answer: there is none.
But I’m sure we’ll continue to see snide comments made all over the internet by people under the assumption they’ve figured out how to statistically chart catcher defense (they haven’t) or that Olivo has been an awful hitter outside those first three weeks of the season (he’s been the best hitter of the three catchers OPS-wise since then). Or that baseball teams with millions at stake can afford to play their worst catcher the most often unless he hits like Piazza or Joe Mauer in his healthy prime (they can’t and don’t).
Enough already. There are far more interesting things to be arguing about when it comes to this highly-entertaining, surging Mariners lineup.
Like the leadoff hitter with the .292 OBP the Mariners deliberately inserted in the top spot two months into the season.
Might not be as popular to discuss, or fun to bash. But quality analysis isn’t only about cheering the players you love and bashing the ones you hate based on the only numbers you can find to measure something. That’s for fans and they do it in every fan base. But a fan base that wants to consider itself more “intelligent” than other markets has to bring something more to the table. It requires listening to the reasoning behind certain decisions, understanding what a squad is attempting to accomplish and moving on from there. It requires figuring out why one catcher keeps getting big bucks to play for a variety of MLB teams while the other gets traded for a guy like Lueke despite being young and cost-containable. Requires a little common sense applied to the analysis. Especially when the decision works out.
This Olivo stuff? Got old a long time ago. I get on this team for a lot of stuff, but its handling of the catching trio has been brilliant thus far. Worry about it when Olivo starts failing. He hasn’t done that since the third week in April and we’re almost in the second week of June.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins, Jesus Montero


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