The Rays acquired Jose Molina this offseason- not exactly a high profile offensive catcher. Molina will start most of the games for the Rays, but not by too much. That makes the Rays very important. Jose Lobaton is that guy, at least to begin the year, and although he was never a highly-touted prospect, the Rays are hoping for some decent production from him.
Jose Lobaton looks everything likes a backup catcher. 27 years old, Lobaton has never played 100 games in a single year in 9 minor league seasons. Offensively, Lobaton has a pedestrian .259/.348/.410 line, and defensively he has an average arm (29% CS%) and is good but not great overall. Lobaton made his big league debut in 2011, he was overmatched, going just 4 for 34 (.118) after going 3 for 17 (.176) with the Padres in 2009. He also missed a couple of months with a knee injury. Is there any reason to expect- or at least have hope- for anything more from Lobaton?
In 2011, Jose Lobaton had easily his best offensive season in the minor leagues. He posted a .307/.417/.505 line with 14 doubles, 8 homers, and 33 RBI in just 60 games because of his knee injury and big league time. He struck out 55 times, but walked 39 times, a great 16.2% of his plate appearances. It was a relatively small sample, but he was great. There were a few problems though. First off, just 54 of Lobaton’s games came at Triple-A Durham. 6 were at High-A Charlotte, where Lobaton absolutely raked, posting a .444/.500/.667 line with 4 doubles. At Durham his line was a little more pedestrian at .293/.410/.489. But his plate discipline was incredible. Lobaton’s 16.7% walk rate at Durham was the second highest in the International League minimum 200 plate appearances,and per Minor League Central, Lobaton swung at just 7.5% of pitches outside the zone, well below the 11.8% league average. But plate discipline can be deceiving in the minor leagues- if you’re not a great hitter, when you get to the minor leagues, pitchers will consistently throw you strikes. What about Lobaton’s power?
It’s noticeable that even counting purely his Triple-A stats, Jose Lobaton still had a nice .193 ISO. The things that stood out for Lobaton was that 21.6% of his batted balls were line drives (according to MLC) compared to the league average of 19.5%, and also just 14.5% of his flyballs were popups compared to the 19.8% league average. In addition, 19.5% of Lobaton’s flyballs to the outfield went for home runs compared to the 11.3%, a mark likely too high to be a fluke (if you do a 1 proportion z-test, the p-value is .048). What’s very crazy though is how these tendencies manifested themselves during Lobaton’s time in the big leagues. In his 39 major league plate appearances, Lobaton actually had a 23.1% line drive rate and just 8% of flyballs were infield flies. Lobaton was not nearly as bad as he looked during his brief MLB stint. He was just unlucky (although anything can happen in 39 plate appearances). Lobaton is not a big-time power hitter by any stretch. Even though he hit a nice proportion of his flyballs to the outfield, his overall flyball rate at Triple-A was actually below the league average. Lobaton is a player who has hit 10 homers and 20 doubles just one time each during his pro career, 2007 and 2008 respectively. He is not a power hitter. But he has realized what he is: a gap-to-gap hitter who works counts and hits for a good average. But what about the high HR/OFB mark we saw above? Changing HR/OFB to XBH/OFB, Lobaton’s mark was 43.9% compared to the 37.6% league average. The p-value for that is a much more reasonable at .202.
Lobaton may have figured out how to hit for a bit more power, but he clearly changed his approach at the plate in 2011. From 2007-2010, Lobaton struck out in 21.2% of his plate appearances while walking 10.9% of the time. In 2011, he may have struck out a bit more, 22.8% of his PA’s, but his walk rate skyrocketed to 16.2%. But wait a second- he also hit more extra-base hits, with 9.1% of his BA’s ended with an XBH compared to 7.7% in the previous stretch! However, his percentage of hits for extra-bases was just about the same, coming in at 35.4% compared to 34.5% from 2007-2010. Lobaton’s increased power in 2011 was a result of the fact that he was making better contact. Even though he was putting the ball into play less (56.8% of his PA’s compared to his 62.7% career mark), Lobaton was more selective and hit the ball harder. Instead of forcing contact, he was more patient at the plate and waited for his pitch, which led to more line drives, more power, and more walks.
When Lobaton arrived in the big leagues in 2011, he instantaneously reverted to his approach at the plate prior to 2011. He ended 67% of his plate appearances with a ball in play, striking out 20.5% of the time and walking 10.3% of the time (not far off at all from his 21.2% and 10.9% marks from 2007-2010 in the minors). Lobaton had to do that because major league pitchers were throwing him so many more strikes and pitches right around the zone. And add in the fact that he was nervous being in the big leagues for the first time in two years and for the first time as a Tampa Bay Ray.
So what can Lobaton do? I would project a .250/.320/.400 line from Lobaton in 2012 with 11 doubles, 1 triple, and 5 home runs in 250 plate appearances. He’ll play solid if not great defense behind the plate and he’ll hit a little bit, and we can’t underestimate what he’ll give us. Jose Lobaton definitely made strides offensively in 2011, and he’ll prove himself to be a solid offensive catcher in 2012.