In 2009, 26-year-old Kansas City Royals ace, Zack Greinke, enjoyed a breakout season, going 16-8 with an American League leading 2.16 ERA and winning the American League Cy Young Award. Greinke got off to a blazing start, throwing three complete games in his first six starts and allowing only two earned runs.
Greinke’s success came in spite of pitching for a Kansas City Royals staff that finished with the third worst team ERA in the American League.
In 2010, 26-year-old Colorado Rockies ace, Ubaldo Jimenez, has gotten off to a blazing start. He is currently 7-1 with a 1.12 ERA. He is allowing less than six hits per nine innings, and has only allowed one homerun in 56.1 innings pitched. Jimenez has always had velocity, but his control is peaking this season; he has a career high 2.57 K/BB ratio and his WHIP is under 1.000.
Oh, and Jimenez also has a no-hitter this season.
So what is it that Zack Greinke version 2009, and Ubaldo Jimenez version 2010, have in common?
Other than peaking at the age of 26-years-old, Greinke and Jimenez share a certain 6'0" tall Dominican catcher by the name of Miguel Olivo.
Olivo’s career has been a curious one. Signed by the Oakland Athletics in 1996 as an amateur free agent, it took him six full years to break into the majors permanently despite having several successful minor league seasons. Since first breaking onto the scene in 2003, Olivo has played for six teams in nine years, making stops with the White Sox, Mariners, Padres, Marlins, Royals, and now Rockies.
All he has done during that period is catch two no-hitters — Anibal Sanchez in 2006 and Jimenez this season — and shepherd at least one Cy Young Award winner through his best season.
So what gives?
For one thing, Olivo has always been a terrible hitter; even when he's been good he's been bad. He has never finished a season — in full or in part — with an on-base percentage higher than .292 (though he is off to a good start in 2010). As a hitter his strikeout-to-walk ratios have been some of the worst of all time — he has had seasons of 80/8, 103/9, 123/14, 82/7, and 126/19.
Frankly, there hasn’t always been good evidence to support the proposition that Olivo is a good defensive catcher. For his career, he throws out about 35 percent of base runners, which is fine, but the pitching staffs for which Olivo has been the primary catcher have occasionally suffered. The most prominent example of this was the 2007 Florida Marlins team which gave up the most runs in the National League.
On the other hand . . .
In 2003, Esteban Loaiza enjoyed the only successful season of his career for the White Sox. He went 21-9 with a 2.90 ERA and led the league in strikeouts with 207. This is a guy with a 126-114 career record and a 4.65 career ERA.
His catcher for all but three games of 2003 was Miguel Olivo.
In 2004, the White Sox had Olivo for the first half of the season and then traded him to the Seattle Mariners. The White Sox team ERA for the first half of the season was 4.59, almost three quarters of a run lower than their 5.26 team ERA in the second half of the season.
In 2006, the Marlins had three brilliant rookie pitchers. Josh Johnson finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting with a 12-7 record and a 3.10 ERA. Miguel Olivo was his catcher. Anibal Sanchez went 10-3 with a 2.83 ERA and a no-hitter. Olivo was his catcher. Scott Olsen went 12-10 with a 4.04 ERA, but had a 4.23 ERA with his primary catcher, Matt Treanor, and a 3.61 ERA in 57.1 innings throwing to Olivo.
The troubles in 2007, really, were due to a horrendous defense that gave up hits like a sieve. Olivo was a part-timer with the Royals in 2008, backing up John Buck, which pretty much brings us to 2009.
Zack Greinke’s 2009 season is only part of the Miguel Olivo 2009 story. Somehow, Olivo became a bit of an offensive powerhouse last season, hitting 23 homeruns with 65 RBI and 51 runs scored in only 114 games.
Now, at this point you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Yeah, but he also had 126 strikeouts, an OBP under .300, and a .781 OPS. You call that powerhouse?”
In a word, yes.
Remember, this wasn’t the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, or Philadelphia Phillies. This was the Kansas City Royals. Last year, Miguel Olivo and Billy Butler became the first Royals to hit 20 or more homeruns since 2005, when Mike Sweeney hit 21.
The last Royal to hit 25 homeruns was Carlos Beltran, with 26 in 2003. The last Royal to hit 30 homeruns was Jermaine Dye, with 33 in 2000. The last Royal with 35 homeruns was Gary Gaetti in 1995, with exactly 35. The only Royal ever to hit more than 35 was Steve Balboni, with 36 in 1985! Miguel Olivo hitting 23 homeruns in 114 games makes him the Babe Ruth of Kansas City Royals history.
Or at least the Rob Deer.
Nevertheless, on the heels of a legendary (by Kansas City standards) offensive season, and one of the sparkling pitching performances in recent American League history, the Royals decided to let Olivo go. And get this: he signed with the Colorado Rockies for two million dollars!
For two million dollars, the Royals could have kept Zack Greinke’s catcher and the recent power posterboy of the franchise. Instead, they brought in veteran Jason Kendall, who for the last two years has been the catcher for an underachieving Milwaukee Brewers pitching staff.
So, one year later, Zack Greinke is 1-4 and, while still pitching well, has watched all of his numbers decline over last season. The Royals have the worst team ERA+ in the American League.
Meanwhile, Olivo is in Colorado helping Ubaldo Jimenez to a Cy Young Award of his own and — get this — leading the Rockies in homeruns and RBI while ranking second in batting average and OPS, and third in total bases. And oh by the way, the Rockies have a 117 ERA+, good for fourth in the National League.
Let this be a lesson to all you kiddies out there — you would never let a Cy Young Award winning pitcher get away via free agency.
Maybe you should not let Cy Young Award winning catchers get away either.
Asher B. Chancey lives in Philadelphia and is the co-founder of BaseballEvolution.com.