Today, Felix Hernandez toed the rubber at Safeco Field with some of the best stuff we’ve seen from him since his 17 shutout innings that began the 2007 season. Felix’s stat line may not reflect it completely, giving up seven hits and four runs (though only one was earned).
Hernandez’ two-seamer was running hard to the third-base side, and looked like it had a weight tied to the bottom of it. His change-up, with essentially the same action, had perhaps the best command I’ve seen him have with that pitch, and his breaking ball was adequate.
That stated, this may be an unfair day to approach this topic, however Kenji Johjima should be benched or traded immediately.
At no fault of his own, Johjima’s contract is dead weight, and his trade value may be negative. He makes a lot of money, even when compared to the contracts of comparable catchers when he signed his contract in a good economy.
The only potential destination that may make sense is Boston, where the team attempted to acquire catching depth in the offseason. A trade for Johjima would reunite he and former teammate Daisuke Matsuzaka. However, the Red Sox weren't keen on paying Jason Varitek a lot of money this offseason, and the Mariners would likely have to eat all or most of Johjima's contract.
Also, it’s difficult to wrap one’s mind around the idea of Mariners ownership trading away one if its Japanese stars.
But stats don’t lie, and Johjima is a detriment to the Mariners pitching staff.
Last week, when Hernandez started and got crushed, it seemed like he and Johjima were having some communication issues. Whether the issue was a language barrier, philosophical difference on the mound, or anything else, it is really irrelevant. Felix is a better pitcher when anybody but Johjima is behind the plate.
Going into Sunday, Hernandez had started 113 games, and pitched to seven different catchers. Obviously, Johjima has caught the majority those games, 72 total. After that, Yorvit Torrealba, Rene Rivera, and Jamie Burke have each caught 10 games. Today’s starter, Rob Johnson, had caught five going into today, same for Jeff Clement. Wiki Gonzalez also caught two of Hernandez' starts.
It wouldn’t be fair to compare Johjima’s 72 games to such a small sample from any individual catcher, but statistically, in games caught by each of the other catchers who aren’t named Johjima, Hernandez has been superior.
Almost across the board, Hernandez is better statistically with somebody else behind the plate. Perhaps notable, both Torrealba and Gonzalez caught Felix for very low BAA, and both come from Venezuela, Hernandez’s native country, where spanish is the native tongue.
Clement, maybe the best offensive catcher of anyone who has caught a Felix start, has a far better stat line than Johjima when catching Hernandez.
It isn’t out of the realm of normalcy to carry a catcher to handle a team’s ace. Greg Maddux toted Henry Blanco, Paul Bako and Eddie Perez onto the field with him at different points during his career, despite having catchers who were better offensive players typically starting for those teams.
That would make a weak argument for benching Johjima though, as roster spots are at a premium, and this team doesn’t seem nearly as playoff-destined as any of the Braves or Cubs teams that Maddux played on.
Here’s a look at what the entire Mariners pitching staff did in 2007, the last season they were competitive, with the team’s various catchers crouching behind home plate.
The Mariners pitching staff as a whole performed far better with Johjima on the bench. This team isn’t one filled with established All-Stars, but young pitchers who need guidance on location and pitch selection, excellent scouting, and adequate location to succeed.
To a casual baseball fan, it may seem like pampering to only pair pitchers with specific catchers, or that the guy with the glove even makes a difference in the process.
I can attest, however, that a level of comfort is absolutely fundamental to the process of pitching.
While I’m no Bill Krueger, I played baseball for 13 years, and have only one catcher I ever felt comfortable with. Proof positive that the position doesn’t have to be filled by a Joe-Mauer-like player, the catcher I’m referring to is Jake Davison from the band Aiden. Seriously.
After my sophomore year, his freshman year, he left the baseball team to pursue music full time, and I regressed as a pitcher as a result. My own selfishness aside, he made the right choice, he’s going on global tours, and I’m sitting in my bedroom attempting to piece together a sports-writing career.
When I pitched though, I let Jake call my pitches. He chose the pitch, the location, the speed, etc. I can count on one hand how many times I shook him off.
In last week’s start, I’d need two hands to count how many times Hernandez shook Johjima off.
Johjima’s time is coming to a close, and it’s high time that the Mariners weren’t hamstrung by the loyalties that their owner has to Japanese players that he worked to acquire.