Despite A.J. Pierzynski’s poor start, reputation as an unpopular teammate and potential replacements in the minors, the Boston Red Sox should not yet turn away from their veteran backstop.
That’s sure to be an unpopular opinion in the season’s early days, and it’s easy to focus our collective frustration at Pierzynski as the Red Sox find themselves just 10-12 after Wednesday night’s victory against the Yankees. Pierzynski’s own batting line of .241/297/.310 through 64 plate appearances isn’t helping his case, nor are his defensive struggles, which have been difficult to watch to this point.
Yet when you consider the alternatives in Boston’s organizations, plus Pierzynski’s recent history of performance, it should become evident that April 24 is too early to hit the panic button. That might not be what Sox fans want to hear, and Pierzynski will never be a fan favorite in Boston, but it’s the truth, nonetheless.
Let’s start with the obvious: Pierzynski isn’t as bad as he’s looked in the early days of the 2014 season. He is a flawed player, to be sure, but he’s generated 6.1 fWAR over the past three seasons, according to FanGraphs, and is just two season removed from a 3.3 fWAR campaign. He hit .272/.297/.425 with 17 home runs in 2013, and while his walk rate was abysmal, he also struck out in just 14.4 percent of his plate appearances.
Pierzynski possesses the unique ability to frustrate both casual fans and diehards alike with his combination of short at-bats, poor pitch-framing—which Ryan Hannable of Metro outlines here—and attitude toward the media. Yet, in his own way, and in a way that’s foreign to Red Sox fans who laud on-base percentage and high-character catchers in the Jason Varitek mold, Pierzynski has carved out what’s been a very successful MLB career.
He’s 37 years old and clearly on the downside of his career, but the odds of Pierzynski completely falling apart over the course of one offseason are slim. And even if you believe that’s the case, a 64-plate-appearance sample size is too small to cement that conclusion.
Secondly, April 24 is too early to declare a player a sunk cost or a bargain, regardless of how good or bad that player has looked. The Red Sox are paying Pierzynski $8.25 million on a one-year contract, and that money is Pierzynski’s regardless of how the Red Sox use him for the rest of the year. There is no money to be saved by cutting Pierzynski, and he cannot be sent to the minors.
Plus, the entire purpose of signing Pierzynski was to find an effective one-year stopgap before the likes of Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart are ready to see MLB action. The Red Sox are not paying Pierzynski to produce like a star—they’re simply paying him to produce as an average starter. He hasn’t lived up to that modest benchmark yet, but we’re barely one-tenth of the way through the season. There’s still plenty of time.
Perhaps you wish the Red Sox had been more aggressive in their bid to re-sign Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who had a career year in 2013 but has otherwise been a 1.5-2.0 fWAR player, just like Pierzynski. Maybe you wanted Boston to outbid the Yankees for Brian McCann, who’s likely to be a significant asset for at least the next three seasons. Maybe you were even pulling for the Sox to sign Carlos Ruiz, Dioner Navarro or Geovany Soto this offseason.
Regardless of who your preference of free-agent catcher was when the 2013-14 offseason began, Pierzynski is whom the Red Sox acquired, and Pierzynski is a player Boston needs to be productive for at least the majority of the season. The money is his and the job is his, and there is nothing the Red Sox can do about the former.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Red Sox should not replace Pierzynski because there is little to suggest their in-house candidates would be demonstratively better. Yes, the Red Sox have a trio of interesting names in Vazquez, Swihart and even Dan Butler in the minors. But none of those players is a lock to be a productive major leaguer right now, and we need to be cognizant of the developmental hurdles that accompany learning to be a complete catcher in the minor leagues.
Swihart is not a consideration now for obvious reasons: he’s seen just 53 plate appearances above the High-A level. He may be an option near the end of 2015, but given Boston's cautious approach with prospect promotions (Xander Bogaerts aside), 2016 might be a more realistic ETA.
Butler was a popular name among Red Sox fans this offseason, but from a scouting perspective, he profiles as nothing more than a backup with a modicum of pop. Yes, his 2013 stats were good, but Butler is already 27 years old, and he does not project to hit MLB pitching with regularity.
And finally, Vazquez represents the most appealing immediate option, but has just 63 plate appearances at the Triple-A level. A plus-plus defender according to Baseball Prospectus’ Jason Parks (subscription required), there’s no question that Vazquez would be an immediate upgrade over Pierzynski in terms of pitch-framing and controlling the running game.
But there’s also a very real chance that Vazquez would be absolutely lost at the plate right now, and MLB pitchers with advanced sequencing or premium velocity would likely have their way with Vazquez quite frequently. He may be ready at some point in 2014, but he’s not ready now.
Those calling for David Ross to become the primary catcher have a more reasonable case, as Ross is certainly the superior defender and has enough power to make him a modest threat at the plate. But Ross has not registered more than 200 plate appearances since 2007, and the 37-year-old can't withstand the rigors of catching on a daily basis. He's best served as Pierzynski's caddy against left-handed pitchers.
If Pierzynski has yet to acclimate to this pitching staff and still looks lost at the plate in July, it would be reasonable for the Red Sox to consider making a move. By then, we’ll have a more meaningful sample of plate appearances and innings caught to evaluate whether Pierzynski has truly ceased to be a quality major league player.
But the Red Sox cannot afford to cut Pierzynski simply because he is unpopular with fans and off to a slow start. The “free Christian Vazquez” movement may very well have its time to shine at some point this season, but right now, in the final week of April, is not that time. Patience is a virtue: even if it’s one that’s hard to practice when you’re under .500.