Alternate Title: Why the Cardinals re-signed Jason LaRue
Bryan Anderson is going to be 23 in two weeks. (Happy Birthyday Bryan!) Let that sink in for a second. If he had been drafted as a college catcher, he’d basically have played AAA in his first season of pro ball. Now, obviously this isn’t his first season but it’s a good illustration of how young he is playing at an advanced level. Prior to 2009, his lowest batting average at any stop was .281. In 2008 at Memphis, he posted a .367 OBP. Remember that the offensive threshold for a catcher is set very low. Their positional adjustment is 12.5 runs. If a catcher in the majors posts a .330 wOBA and plays a full season, they’re an instant 3 win player.
Based on his 2009 numbers (.245/.293/.399), there’s not a chance that Anderson would have done that. MinorLeagueSplits MLE converter shows his 2009 season at Memphis compiling a .215/.253/.335 in St. Louis. Baseball Prospectus, once again seemingly optimistic, project a .232/.276/.390 season in St. Louis. (I’m calling crap on any translation that shows his ISO getting BETTER in the majors.) The former translation nets a .256 wOBA and the latter a .290 wOBA.
Take that back a year and use his 2008 line translated to the majors and the MinorLeagueSplits (i.e. the pessimisstic one) gets as sunny as BP 2009. His Memphis line of .281/.367/.379 translates to a .242/.312/.319 line in the majors good for a .292 wOBA. Think Jason Kendall post-2004. Over the course of a full season, that wOBA is equivalent to about -23 runs. So Bryan Anderson circa 2008 performed in Memphis like a 1 WAR catcher in the majors assuming average defense.
In 2008 a lot of things went right for Anderson. To assume that he’s actually a .290 wOBA player in the majors at that point seems optimistic. 2009 shows the perils of making that assumption. Jason LaRue has a much more reliable track record (lower variance for projections) so there’s a risk averse model of assembling your team that would make a strong advocacy for retaining his services. LaRue has posted a .286 and .279 wOBA over the last two seasons so even a strong translation for Anderson doesn’t show much in the way of offensive gains. The Cardinals aren’t really paying LaRue to be a good catcher. They’re paying him to suck less than any in house alternatives. The marginal gains here aren’t more wins so much as they are fewer losses.
At this point, even as an ardent supporter of Anderson, I’d be skeptical of him posting anything higher than a .300 wOBA in 2010 at the majors — and that would be something like my 90% projection. All I can really hope for is that the Cardinals dispose of whatever ill-conceived notion they have regarding Matt Pagnozzi. In 2009, Pagnozzi had a .221/.299/.308 line in Memphis over almost 300PAs. He’s never posted an wOBA over .300 in the minors over a full season. Anderson at his worst offensively, is still better than Pagnozzi at his best offensively. I struggle to believe that the differences in defense (which I think is way overblown in the negative for Anderson and in the positive for Pagnozzi) overcome that offensive disparity.
Jason LaRue makes a lot of sense for St. Louis in 2010. There is no viable in house alternative that we can trust to be replacement level. Bryan Anderson makes a lot of sense for Memphis and getting a full season of PAs after rehabbing from his shoulder injury. Matt Pagnozzi just doesn’t make much sense anywhere.