In his column yesterday, John Lowe of the Free Press gave us a glowing review of Andy Oliver‘s progress this spring. In discussing Oliver’s stellar outing on Saturday, Lowe noted that Victor Martinez stayed in the game an inning longer than scheduled in order to finish Oliver’s outing, rather than switching catchers in the middle of Oliver’s two innings. In doing so, Lowe raises an intriguing question: Could Martinez become Oliver’s personal catcher when the left hander lands with the big club?
The Tigers have remained steadfast that Alex Avila will catch the bulk of the games this season. That stance was made public when Dave Dombrowski spoke with the media on the final weekend of the 2010 season. It was reiterated when the Tigers signed Martinez as a free agent over the winter, and it’s been restated several times since. there are many in the national media that have never really bought into the line of thinking and assumed that shortly after the start of the season, Martinez would supplant Avila as the primary catcher, allowing a better hitter (than Avila) to take up at bats at DH.
I, for one, have never assumed that Martinez would catch more frequently because of the offensive struggles of Avila, though the thought is certainly feasible. I would never have even considered that Martinez would see more innings behind the plate thanks to his defense, but as Lowe points out, that could actually happen.
Well, not defense in general terms, but game-calling.
Lowe compares the success of Oliver on Saturday with the success of Boston right hander Clay Buchholz. Buchholz has an ERA of 2.83 when Martinez has caught him, versus an ERA of over 5.00 when he was paired with any other battery-mate. It certainly could be coincidence that Martinez arrived in Boston just as Buchholz was maturing into a full-time big league starter. After all, Boston’s other catcher, Jason Varitek, has a tremendous reputation for working with pitchers and calling a game.
But there certainly could be something to the idea that Martinez, a veteran of nine major league seasons, would be better at game-calling than Avila, who is entering just his second year in the big leagues. It would be natural for a player who has spent nine seasons in the American League to be more familiar with the hitters than Avila is at this point.
Avila’s development has had to be two-fold. He has needed to learn the defensive aspects of catching; learn the art of game-calling, learn the hitters, their strengths and weaknesses, and learn his pitchers the same way. He has also had to learn how to make adjustments as a hitter and improve his offensive game. That’s a steep learning curve for a young catcher, more so probably than any other position. For every Buster Posey, there are a dozen guys like Avila who need time to grow into the job as a young player. With a full season under his belt, there’s no reason to think that Avila won’t improve on both sides of the game.
Lowe’s story about Buchholz is a nice one, and certainly not without merit, but when you factor in the right hander’s age, experience, and the fact that Martinez has caught almost twice as many of his innings as all other catchers combined; it just doesn’t hold water. Last season, Buchholz improved on his 2009 numbers with Martinez catching him. He also improved upon his numbers when Varitek caught him. Perhaps his improvement has more to do with the pitcher than the catcher.
My guess is that Oliver’s maturity as a pitcher won’t be predicated on whether or not Martinez is his catcher, either. There certainly needs to be a level of comfort between a pitcher and his backstop, but very rarely is that relationship so out of whack that it prevents the pitcher from having success. That Oliver is showing improvements this spring has probably much more to do with Oliver than it does Martinez.