Drew Butera vs. Jose Morales

July 22, 2010: Drew Butera for the Minnesota Twins in action during a game against the hometown Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland. The Twins beat the Orioles 5 - 0.

I can’t sleep, so here’s a 600-word entry on the Twins’ backup catching situation. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Drew Butera hits like a National League pitcher. He has no power whatsoever, he rarely ever gets on base, he’s drawn all of one walk in 81 plate appearances, while striking out 15 times. Ordinarily, one might look at his .213 batting average on balls in play and assume Butera is suffering from some bad luck or small sample size issues, but given his .214/.296/.313 in five minor-league seasons, this doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, his 31 OPS+ is probably indicative of his true talent level.

Butera does have his uses, however, and throwing out baserunners is one of them. He’s thrown out seven of fifteen potential base stealers, for a 47% caught-stealing rate. Obviously, 24 starts is a very small sample size, but Butera did gun down an average of 45% of potential base stealers in the minors, so he’s probably above-average defensively. Joe Mauer, by comparison, has thrown out just 27% of base stealers, though he’s been suffering from a bout of shoulder tendinitis (this is probably why the notoriously-slow-to-the-plate Carl Pavano prefers having Butera catch). Of course, there’s a lot more to catcher defense than just throwing out base runners, but Butera seems to call a good game (opponents are slugging .406 against the pitching staff with Butera behind the plate, compared to .423 when Mauer starts) and the pitching staff doesn’t balk at working with him. That’s about all you can ask of a backup catcher. Fangraphs pegs him at +2.0 fielding runs above average, and (thanks to his awful hitting) worth about -0.1 wins above replacement.

Jose Morales can hit, though probably not as well as his .320 batting average makes it seem. Like Butera, Morales has little power (just a .056 ISO), though unlike Butera, Morales can actually make pretty solid contact. He walks more, strikes out less, and his career 103 OPS+ is at least league-average. However, he is coming off of wrist surgery and hasn’t been hitting all that well in AAA, batting just .280/.373/.391. Morales isn’t a particularly good defensive catcher, either. His major-league 31% CS rate is above average, but he wasn’t that effective at controlling the running game in the minors, throwing out just 25% of potential base stealers. Fangraphs has him at -2.0 fielding runs above average, for a career 0.5 WAR, which is probably about right.

Whether Butera or Morales should serve as Mauer’s main caddy depends a lot on how much the backup catcher is expected to contribute. Not counting his rookie season (in which he made only 32 starts), Mauer has averaged 109 starts behind the plate in six major league seasons, which means the backup catcher has started nearly a third of the games each season. That’s about 300 plate appearances, so all things being equal, the player who can hit should be penciled into the lineup. However, this Twins team is in a position where they can afford to sacrifice a little defense for offense at a premium defensive position. Here’s the average OPS+ for every position in the batting order:

1) 100

2) 91

3) 110

4) 144

5) 99

6) 126

7) 135

8) 120

9) 101 (and that’s including Butera’s 67 plate appearances)

Twins’ hitters are about average in every spot in the order, and above average in five of the nine spots. Of course, the lineup is considerably weaker with Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Orlando Hudson all out nursing injuries. Morales should probably be starting while Mauer is out, but since neither player is significantly better than replacement-level, it probably won’t make much of a difference if Butera gets the job instead.

Erin is a contributing writer for Twinkie Talk. If you want to, you can always email her at erinm725 [at] gmail [dot] com or follow her on Twitter.

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Tags: Drew Butera Joe Mauer Jose Morales

  • jimbo92107

    A major part of pitching is controlling your emotions during the ups and downs of a game. For that reason a good defensive catcher with no bat is better than a poor defensive catcher that can hit. You don’t want your pitchers wondering if their next curve in the dirt is going to skip past Morales’s glove, then groove a ball over the middle of the plate at a very bad time. Keeping the pitcher on an even keel is more valuable than adding a couple hits per game.

    • http://twinkietalk.com/ Erin

      Yeah, I agree. Morales is just half a win above replacement better than Butera, which isn’t enough to make a difference over the course of the season, so I’d much rather have the better defender in there. Incidentally, I noticed that the 1987 Twins got an OPS+ of 65 out of their starting catcher, Tim Laudner. Somehow I think this squad will be just fine with Butera as the backup.