Faced with the the classic dilemma of playing the seasoned veteran or the young up-and-comer, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle has done a great job at finding a healthy balance of offensive production and defensive reliability from catchers Rod Barajas and Michael McKenry at a position the team has struggled to find production from in the past.
While there is the criticism that Barajas is not hitting enough to warrant continued regular action behind the plate (he's only hitting .200), he is far too important to the psyche of the collective Pirates pitching staff to significantly downgrade his playing time.
With a staff ERA of 3.70, the Pirates rank fifth in the National League thanks in part to Barajas' game-calling experience.
Being able to manage a game is one of the most underrated attributes of a catcher, and a key ingredient in championship-caliber baseball teams; just ask Tony La Russa and Terry Francona. Both of them had defensive-minded catchers in each of their multiple World Series runs over the last decade, in Yadier Molina and Jason Varitek.
I dare not compare the Pirates catchers' offensive prowess to Molina or Varitek, but they certainly have similar mindsets.
Having a large enough sample to draw from, Pirates management knew what they were getting when they signed Barajas: a guy who is never going to hit for a high average, but one who will run into a pitch every once in a while and hit it over the fence. And by all accounts, Barajas is having a typical to slightly down year, but what he contributes to the team's success has been invaluable.
On the other hand, Michael McKenry has finally shown that he can swing the bat a little bit, which has begged the question of whether or not the 27-year-old should get the bulk of the playing time.
In his last 20 games, McKenry is hitting at a .346 clip with six home runs and 17 runs batted in. It is not that McKenry isn't a good catcher, it is just that Barajas has the "seasoning" that longevity in the league brings. McKenry should still get his starts, and maybe some more, but for now, this team needs the combination of both until Hurdle, and most importantly, the pitching staff feels comfortable having McKenry as their full-time receiver.
Food For Thought
In 2011, catchers from National League playoff squads compiled an average line of a .270 batting average, 16 home runs and 72 runs batted in.
On top of that, those teams that made the playoffs had a composite ERA of 3.54—a number which is so low because the Phillies put together a mind-boggling 3.02 team ERA in '11.
To date, Barajas and McKenry have posted just a .227 batting average, but the power numbers have exceeded Bucco Nation's expectations, the two hitting a total of 19 home runs and driving in 50. If current trends continue, the Pirates might find themselves playing in October.
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