Fixing the 2011 Seattle Mariners: Ramon Hernandez

Yesterday we checked out Ted Lilly as a potential No. 2 or 3 starter. Today, we’ll build the battery with another Venezuelan named Hernandez. Ramon, not Felix.

The catcher position has been a particularly polarizing position among fans in the past two seasons. Kenji Johjima was sent out of town, and after he left fans heard murmurs of discord in the clubhouse with the Japanese backstop. At one point, apparently, he and Felix Hernandez had a miscommunication because of a language barrier.

Last year I analyzed Felix’s performance with Johjima behind the plate, and every other catcher he’d thrown to. To that point in his career he had 113 starts, Johjima had caught in 72 of those starts, while six other catchers of varying ability had accounted for the rest (42 with one presumed pinch-hitting or defensive replacement along the way).

Uniformly, the slash line for batters facing Felix was higher in all three categories with Johjima behind the plate than any other catcher.

I’d since become a supporter of Rob Johnson. Felix liked Johnson, and he pitched well with Johnson behind the plate. But Johnson’s completely absent offensive prowess was magnified on a team that struggled at the plate. That made watching him allowing passed balls a lot more difficult to swallow, and ultimately, while hitting below the Mendoza line, Johnson was sent back down to AAA.

Adam Moore hasn’t been any better, and Josh Bard is hardly an offensive juggernaut. While each is at least playable on defense, they aren’t such elite defenders that they don’t need to contribute on offense to be successful.

Ramon Hernandez could be that guy.

Reviews of Hernandez defense are a mixed bag. He throws out runners at a career 30 percent clip, about league average, which equals Johnson’s rate and beats both Bard and Moore. In the past Hernandez has been criticized for lazy play and passed balls. According to Fangraphs, Hernandez has only allowed two passed balls and five wild pithches in his more-than-1000 innings catching for the Reds in the past two seasons.

But where Hernandez really shines isn’t behind the plate, but in the batters’ box. Hernandez  has a career slash line of .265/.329/.418. That has been fueled by lower-than-average strikeout rates, close-to-average walk rates, and occasional power. That’s led to a wRC+ of 99 (100 is a league average hitter, wRC+ isn’t weighted based on position). Being a league average hitter is hardly a sexy title, but consider that Rob Johnson, Adam Moore, and Josh Bard have wRC+’s of 60, 41, and 93 respectively. Being a league average hitter at the catcher position has quite a bit of value, and while Bard has been close to league average, his strikeout rates have increased in each of the past three seasons, and hits right-handed pitchers pretty poorly.

Unlike many players who succeed in the National League, Hernandez has experienced moderate success in the American League also, playing in Oakland and Baltimore, and also has been successful in San Diego. Oakland and San Diego both play in pitcher-friendly parks, while Camden Yards in Baltimore is pretty neutral, despite its “bandbox” reputation. Hernandez has 176 plate appearances in Safeco also, good for a .213/.269/.425. His .212 ISO is likely unsustainable, as it greatly outperformed his career ISO of .153, but his low batting average is fueled by a .207 BABIP, which also will regress to the mean. Hernandez has a career BABIP of .278.

Also, Hernandez has limited experience at first base. He’s has a career wRC+ of 111 against left-handed pitchers, and he may be able to spell Justin Smoak, or DH on days when there is a tough left-handed pitcher on the hill.

And while Felix Hernandez seems to be very proficient in English, he may gain comfort in having a fellow Venezuelan behind the plate.

So what is Ramon worth? In the offseason leading up to 2006, a season that would see Hernandez turn 30, he signed a four-year, $27.5 million contract. He was coming off of his fifth consecutive 2+ WAR season, including a two consecutive 3.5 WAR seasons in 2003-04. He wouldn’t disappoint in his first season under the deal, posting a career-high 4.4 WAR, worth $16.3 million according to Fangraphs. In order to equal his compensation, Hernandez didn’t need to do much, and he didn’t.  After posting 10.6 WAR from 2004-2006, he posted only 3.1 WAR from 2007-2009.

Hernandez is back to his old ways this year, in only 283 plate appearances, Hernandez has posted 2.3 WAR this season. Much of that is fueled by a .341 BABIP, sure to regress.

Last season the Reds declined Hernandez’ $8.5 million option. Despite being jettisoned, Hernandez chose to return to Cincinnati, but under only a one-year, $3 million contract with a vesting option. Hernandez option vests if he reaches 120 games played, and sitting at 77 right now, it would be impossible for Hernandez to reach that number. It may however, be hard for the Mariners to pry him from Cincinnati, where Hernandez chose to return despite his option being declined.

The Mariners should keep an eye on how the market shapes for Hernandez. He’s entering his age 35 season, and figures to see limited suitors. However, catchers have been hot commodities in recent offseasons, and while nobody will probably sign Hernandez to a multi-year contract, he figures to command a decent salary as the top catcher available, likely a raise over his $3 million salary from 2010, though some may shy away after a few injury-plagued seasons.

The Mariners don’t have to give up on Adam Moore to justify having Hernandez on the roster, but they’d have to give up on one of their poor-hitting catchers to get him plate appearances.