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A.J. Pierzynski is less effective against pitches in the dirt with each passing year, and it's the only part of his game that's consistent with an aging catcher.
Over at Getting Blanked, Matt Klaassen posted his final catcher defense ratings for 2012. He has done this for a few years now, and there's always one constant: You have to scroll to the bottom to find A.J. Pierzynski.
Here's where Pierzynski's defense has ranked among catchers over the past three years:
The silver lining? Pierzynski did improve upon his 2011 performance in total, because the Sox worked on slowing down the running game. In 2011, he was 7.3 runs below average when it came to throwing out baserunners. In 2012, he nearly pulled it back up to average (-0.7).
However, if you look at how Pierzynski scored from "passed pitches" (wild pitches and passed ball), he's only going in one direction:
According to the numbers, only Jason Castro (-4.6),
Yorvit Torrealba (-5.8) and Willin Rosario (-12.2!) are worse than Pierzynski. (Torrealba was worse in his late-season stint with the Brewers, but -1.1 overall).
For the first time since these numbers were tracked, the Sox actually have a clearly superior defensive alternative. Despite limited playing time, Tyler Flowers finished 16th out of 116 catchers in runs saved, thanks in large part to his fine performance throwing out runners (he would be even higher if he hadn't dropped that pop-up against Oakland).
But he's also a marked upgrade over Pierzynski when it comes to blocking pitches. He ranked 0.8 runs above average, which isn't bad for somebody who caught 360 innings. And when you look at the number of passed pitches, you can see the difference. Flowers only allowed one passed ball and 12 wild pitches on the year, but we'll have to extrapolate Flowers' passed pitch totals to match Pierzynski's 1,071 innings caught to get a real idea of the difference:
- Pierzynski: Eight passed balls, 54 wild pitches
- Flowers: Three passed balls, 36 wild pitches
The total number of passed pitches is important. If a pitch touches the dirt, it's rarely called a passed ball -- even if that's where the catcher asked for it. Pay attention to only one column, and it could skew your view. This is especially true with the White Sox, who allowed the second-most wild pitches (66), but the third-fewest passed balls (nine).
That's why people who study catcher defense factor in both. And in recent years, they've been able to weigh those passed pitches by how hard it would be to block them, resulting in a pitch-blocking algorithm that ... still judges Pierzynski's blocking abilities harshly, and Flowers' favorably.
This is all merely confirming what our eyes tell us. At this point, only Hawk Harrelson considers Pierzynski an adequate pitch-blocker, which is mostly because Harrelson often sees Pierzynski as a 17-year-old at Dr. Phillips High School. Late in the year, Harrelson credited Pierzynski for shaving something like 15 or 20 wild pitches off Jose Quintana's wild-pitch total. What's funny is that Quintana still led the staff in wild pitches with 10, and Pierzynski allowed all of them.
Fortunately, Pierzynski's bat more than made up for his lackluster blocking. He set career highs in home runs (27), walks (28), slugging (.501), OPS (.827), OPS+ (118), and tied his best in RBI (77). If he were 26 instead of 36 next year, just about everybody would happily sign up for more of what Pierzynski brings to (and takes off) the table.
Alas, Pierzynski is closer to 40 than 30 ... but even that has to be qualified. He's a unique player, so it's unwise to dismiss his improvement at the plate as a mere fluke. He's been doing the Dorian Gray thing for years, except his defense is in the picture. And this time, he made a visible change in his approach by swinging with conviction, rather than slapping to put the ball in play. The positives (more homers, fewer double plays) outweigh the negatives (more swings and misses, lower batting average).
Of course, when a hitter starts selling out for power in his later years, it can turn on him in a hurry. He certainly started chasing more pitches during an ugly September (.237/.290/.366). Maybe pitchers figured him out, or maybe the strain of an 11th consecutive season with 1,000 innings behind the plate ate at his discipline.
His mobility and/or effort level behind the plate is the only thing consistent with his age, so it might be the best place to start assessing his future value, even if it's not nearly as crucial to his contract as other areas. No matter what, any team interested in signing Pierzynski has plenty to consider. And for non-Sox clubs, that's before figuring out whether new teammates would forget how much they've hated him.