In one of the quieter moves of the offseason, backup catcher John Baker was traded from the Miami Marlins to the San Diego Padres for starting pitcher Wade LeBlanc. Both of these players were acquired to add depth to their new clubs, and the Marlins were in the hunt for another pitcher who could contest for a spot in the rotation. LeBlanc is a replacement-level pitcher who will fight for the number five spot, but I doubt he gets a spot in the rotation. President Larry Beinfest said that the team is still interested in acquiring starters, and this comes as no surprise when looking at the team’s aggressive approach this offseason. LeBlanc isn’t exactly a budding ace either, but he is a classic example of a number six starter.
The Marlins decided that they didn’t need John Baker‘s presence anymore, as John Buck is firmly entrenched as the team’s starting catcher with Brett Hayes sliding into the backup spot. Baker is also coming off of Tommy John surgery, but that’s not really that much of a concern for a catcher- or any position player for that matter.
The only two years in which Baker received at least 200 plate appearances were 2008 and 2009. He was worth 1.6 and 1.5 WAR respectively, because he had a walk rate of 12.9% in 2008. Baker is one of the more patient catchers in the game, and his .392 OBP in ’08 was driven by that high walk rate. However, it is best to focus on his career numbers, especially considering how small of a sample-size 233 plate appearances is.
John Baker has displayed very little power throughout his career, and his .130 ISO is a testament to this. That’s not his game, as Baker’s main asset is his ability to walk. His career walk rate of 10.8% is quite good, and it has led to a high OBP of .356. The ability to get on base at that rate is difficult for a catcher, but his mediocre career 99 wRC+ is largely due to his inability to drive the ball.
BABIP can be a misleading statistic if not used in context, because each player’s different offensive approach leads to a different BABIP that is “normal” for that player. Baker’s career BABIP is a hefty .334, and this is due to a solid line drive rate (21.2%) and a high groundball rate (50.2%). The latter statistic explains almost everything about the reasons for Baker’s production at the plate. A high groundball rate leads to a higher BABIP, because there are more chances for a grounder to “sneak” into the outfield than a fly ball evading a fielder. However, this also means that there is less of a chance for a ball to leave the park, and this explains Baker’s 14 home runs in 760 career plate appearances.
To further illustrate John Baker’s proficient patience at the plate, his career O-Swing% is just 24.1%; yeah, he’s got a good batting eye. However, he isn’t exactly the best defensive catcher around. He is very poor at throwing out runners, and his DRS is consistently well below-average each season. Baker obviously doesn’t offer much on the bases, and his Bill James Speed Score is 1.9 (no career stolen bases).
If we scale Baker’s career totals into 500 PAs, he would be a 1.9 WAR player during those trips to the dish. This accurately represents his standing in the Majors as a solid backup catcher who would end up being a medicore to subpar starter in the Bigs. His already awful power wouldn’t look any better in PETCO, but he won’t be a starter anyway. Baker is a cheap backup who provides marginal value and is about an average offensive player.That’s actually not bad, and he can take a walk when you need one.
Wade LeBlanc is going from one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in baseball to a ballpark that figures to be better for pitchers; but it definitely won’t be as extreme as PETCO. Think of it as more of a slight advantage for the pitcher, and this really doesn’t bode well for LeBlanc.
LeBlanc was worth about 0.5 WAR last season, and his raw stuff is really unimpressive. His fastball gets faster every year, but a fastball that averages 87 miles per hour doesn’t exactly intimidate hitters. He lacks an adequate strikeout pitch, and that can be easily seen in his paltry career K/9 of 6.29 (5.76 in 2011). His career BB/9 of 3.47 doesn’t make his strikeout rate look any better, and LeBlanc was walking 3.16 batters per nine last season as well.
To make matters even worse, LeBlanc career groundball rate of 34.7% over his career is quite anemic, but he might just be “playing to the park” in a sense. Because he relies on off-speed pitches, LeBlanc is prone to getting hammered as his 11.4 HR/FB ratio will attest. That number looks even worse when you look at just how many fly balls he allows (42.5 FB%).
Although his 32.8 LD% in 2011 was definitely an anomaly, it’s still horrible and the Marlins need to hope that it never happens again. LeBlanc doesn’t get hitters to chase, and the opposition doesn’t have a difficult time making contact with his pitches as a result. There are people who think that LeBlanc is an average starter at the Major League level, but that’s far from the truth. He’s posting these subpar numbers in PETCO, and things get worse when we look at the Home/Away splits.
His career home FIP is 4.13, but it sits at an unsightly 5.59 in away games. That’s awful, and he looks like a guy who is going to crash with his new team. There is the chance that Wade LeBlanc induces more grounders to better suit the new park, but that’s simply not the case when looking at his career numbers. He has the exact same groundball rate in home games during his career as he does in away games. He doesn’t play to the strengths and weaknesses of the park, and LeBlanc really does look like the definition of a replacement pitcher.
This deal looks like a ho-hum one at first, but things always get interesting when all the facts are broken down. This is actually a steal for the Padres in a watered- down, low-risk sense, because they were able to bolster their nearly non-existent offense with a solid bat off the bench who can spot start when needed. While John Baker isn’t anything special, he is only a slightly below average starter who possess arguably the most important skill; the ability to get on base. Wade LeBlanc is just an emergency starter who looks poised to implode. If both players played over a full season, Baker would have about a 2 WAR advantage over LeBlanc. A seemingly mundane, everyday MLB trade is a sneaky and shrewd small victory for the Padres.