The Interesting Case of Rays Catcher Josh Paul
By Robbie Knopf
In the history of their franchise, the Rays have gone to an arbitration hearing six times, winning each time. Several of the players the Rays went up against were quite notable: B.J. Upton in 2010 and Jeff Niemann last year specifically stick out. But one player on the list is a player who is almost unrecognizable for most Rays fans: former backup catcher Josh Paul, who they actually beat twice, in 2006 and in 2007. Paul has become simply a name to list for Rays writers to put down every year when the arbitration deadline comes around and almost no one remembers who is actually was (except for in a negative connotation that we’ll discuss below). You can’t blame them, but enough is enough and Paul deserves to have his story told. Before he became the only player thus far to lose to the Rays twice in arbitration, he had himself an interesting professional baseball career, spending parts of nine seasons in the major leagues.
Josh Paul was the Chicago White Sox’ 2nd round pick in the 1996 MLB Draft out of Vanderbilt University, one pick after the Philadelphia Phillies selected a high school shortstop named Jimmy Rollins, and he immediately began to impress after signing. Paul was an outfielder and third baseman for Vandy, but with an athletic 6’1″, 185 frame and an excellent throwing arm, the White Sox quickly converted him to catcher. Even while Paul adjusted to the catcher position, his approach at the plate was so advanced that the White Sox moved him up to Low-A Hickory after just one plate appearance at Rookie ball and he was incredible, managing a .327/.386/.504 line with 16 doubles, 8 homers, 37 RBI, 13 of 17 stolen bases, and a 53-21 strikeout to walk ratio in 59 games and 252 plate appearances. He could do it all, featuring great bat speed, average power, slightly above-average speed that was off-the-charts for a catcher, and the tools to be a strong defensive catcher as he spent more time behind the plate. He quickly became one of White Sox’ top prospects and had a chance to get on the fast-track to the major leagues if he adjusted quickly to the catcher position. But the following season, everything began to come apart. The White Sox were impressed enough with Paul to start him at their Double-A Birmingham affiliate, but he was held to just 39 games after breaking the hamate bone in his right wrist, and he was never the same hitter after that.
After the injury, the White Sox decided to slow Paul down, sending him to High-A Winston Salem for 1998. He had a solid season, managing a .255/.319/.405 line with 20 doubles, 7 triples, 11 homers, 63 RBI, 20 of 28 stolen bases, and a 91-38 strikeout to walk ratio in 123 games and 496 plate appearances, and defensively he threw out 36% of attempted basestealers while improving his receiving. He really was not that bad offensively- the wrist injury threw off his approach, but he still hit for solid power- but unfortunately it was the only season of 100 games or 400 plate appearances he would play his entire career. In 1999 finally back at Birmingham, he actually improved his OPS a little bit, going up to a .279/.345/.395 line, but he stopped hitting for power or stealing bases, managing just 19 doubles, 3 triples, 4 homers, 42 RBI, 6 of 12 stolen bases, and a 68-29 strikeout to walk ratio in 93 games and 360 plate appearances. He did get into a few big league games in September as well, going 4 for 18 (.222). His prospects of being a starting catcher were gone, but the White Sox still thought highly enough of him to project him as a backup.
In 2000, with the White Sox group of catchers especially weak, Paul skipped over Triple-A to brake camp as the White Sox’ backup catcher behind second-year player and former first rounder Mark Johnson, and he hit decently over the first two months of the season while appearing nearly half of the White Sox’ games, managing a .258/.324/.403 line (86 OPS+) including one game where he had a homer, a triple, and 3 RBI, and another game where he went 3 for 4 with a triple. However, the White Sox had seen enough after Paul hit just .120 in 30 May plate appearances and sent him back down to Triple-A Charlotte in favor of the veteran Brook Fordyce. Clearly distraught, Paul managed just a .238/.299/.351 line in 51 Triple-A games. But Paul did return to the major leagues in September, working primarily as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement, but he went 2 for 4 with a double and 2 RBI and the White Sox decided to name him to their playoff roster over Mark Johnson as the backup catcher behind Charles Johnson, who had been acquired from the Baltimore Orioles at the trade deadline. He would appear in just one game defensively as the White Sox lost in the ALDS, but it still was a nice vote of confidence for him that he got to be on the playoff roster at all.
(Fun fact: Fordyce and Charles Johnson would, like Paul, would end their MLB careers playing for the Devil Rays.)
In 2001, Paul began the season as the White Sox’ backup catcher once again, this time behind the veteran Sandy Alomar, but this time he did not hit nearly as well to begin the year even as he lasted until late June, managing just a .207/.247/.264 line, just a 63 OPS+, in 93 plate appearances. But Paul hit well back at Triple-A, managing a .280/.337/.493 line in 84 plate appearances (there must have been an injury involved as he played suspiciously little) before returning to the majors in mid-August and hitting out of his mind. In the 61 plate appearances he had after returning to the major leagues, Paul managed a .365/.450/.654 line with 6 doubles, 3 homers, 15 RBI, 4 of 4 stolen bases, and a 7-8 strikeout to walk ratio in 23 games, 17 starts. But even after such a strong finish, Paul could not crack the White Sox’ roster to begin 2002 as they began the year with a platoon of Alomar and Mark Johnson. Paul finally returned to the majors in June and came began on fire, starting 10 for his first 20, but he faded completely after that and wound up with just a .240/.302/.279 line (56 OPS+) in 33 games and 118 plate appearances. Paul hit .353 in extremely limited big league playing time (20 plate appearances) for the White Sox in 2003, but with rookie Miguel Olivo and Alomar apparently doing a serviceable job, the White Sox released Paul in late June.
Paul had joined a new organization, but it was in the same city and he experienced the same results. Paul was unimpressive at the Cubs’ Triple-A Iowa affiliate in 2003, managing just a .253/.297/.322 line in 156 plate appearances and then going 0 for 6 with a sac bunt in 3 September games with the Cubs. The Cubs non-tendered him following the season. But after signing with the then-Anaheim Angels, Paul finally was able to get a measure of stability. Paul made the Angels’ Opening Day roster and for the first time in his career, he spent the entire season on a major league roster. Paul had a solid year backing up Bengie Molina, managing a .243/.308/.371 line (79 OPS+) with 3 doubles, 2 homers, and 10 RBI in 46 games and 81 plate appearances. Defensively, he threw out 24% of attempted basestealers while allowing just 2 passed balls, and he also got into 4 games in the outfield. Following the season, he avoided arbitration with the Angels, agreeing to a 1-year, $450,000 dollar contract for the 2005 season. 2005, though, was not the same for Paul as he missed time with a sprained thumb and got into just 34 games, managing a .189/.231/.378 line (60 OPS+) with 2 home runs in just 40 plate appearances all season. But it was in the playoffs that he was involved with one of the most controversial plays in baseball history.
It’s sad that this is the major thing that Josh Paul is remembered for. By the way, it sure looks like he caught the ball. (Credit: Chicago Tribune)
The Angels won the opening game of the 2005 ALCS over the White Sox, Paul’s former team, by a 3-2 score and then the score was 1-1 in Game 2 when Paul entered as a defensive replacement after Jose Molina (that’s not a typo- his brother Bengie was DHing) had been pinch-run for. Kelvin Escobar and Paul struck out the side in the 8th inning working around a Jermaine Dye single, and then the 9th began in similar fashion as Escobar forced a groundout before striking out Aaron Roward. Then the count was 3-2 on A.J. Pierzynski when Escobar got Pierzynski to chase on a nasty breaking ball to strike him out and apparently send the game into extra-innings. But Pierzynski ran down to first, and once he got there, the umpire controversially ruled him safe, saying that Paul had not caught the pitch clearly and did not tag Pierzynski or throw the ball to first base. Paul clearly thought that he caught the ball- otherwise I’m sure he would have tagged Pierzynski out- but the game continued over his arguments and the results were disastrous. Pablo Ozuna pinch-ran for Pierzynski and stole second base ahead of Paul’s throw before Joe Crede delivered a walk-off RBI double to knot the series at a game apiece. The White Sox would then win the next 3 games to beat the Angels in 5 games before sweeping the Houston Astros in the World Series. Paul was remembered as a goat- how could things have been different if he had been extra cautious and tagged Pierzynski out even if he thought he could the ball cleanly?- and that would be the last game he ever appeared in for the Angels as they designated him for assignment in December before dealing him to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for right-hander Travis Schlichting.
Once Paul arrived in Tampa, the first issue to deal with was Paul’s second go-around through arbitration. His case was pretty bizarre. After making $450,000 in 2005, not very far above the $316,000 minimum salary, Paul and agent Dick Moss looked to more than double Paul’s salary up to $750,000. The Rays’ counter-offer was just $475,000, only a slight raise from his 2005 salary, and with such a large difference between sides (in relative terms if not absolutes), the two sides went to a hearing. Paul’s argument was that even though he was a little-used backup catcher, he still made the Angels’ postseason roster (kind of ironic considering the ignominy the “dropped” third strike make Paul go through). It didn’t work as the Rays won the hearing, arguing that despite Paul’s inclusion on the Angels’ playoff roster, he hit just .189 that season, and paid him the $475,000 for the year. What a way to start Paul’s D-Rays career! But Paul’s 2006 season wound up being the most successful of his career behind only 2001 as he had a nice year backing up Toby Hall, and then after Hall was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Dioner Navarro, managing a .260/.327/.342 line (75 OPS+) with 9 doubles, 1 homer, and 8 RBI in 58 games and 165 plate appearances, both career-highs. Following the season, Paul and the D-Rays went to arbitration again, and once again, it was contentious. Paul and his agent Moss asked for $940,000, once again double his salary the previous season, building their case off of Paul’s .260 batting average and 4.61 catcher’s ERA, the best of any of D-Rays’ regular three catchers (the D-Rays had a 4.97 team ERA that year). Andrew Friedman and the D-Rays countered with a $625,000 offer, quoting Paul’s well below-average overall production and caught stealing percentage that was just 22% compared to the 30% league average. Once again, the D-Rays emerged victorious when the case went to hearing.
2007 was the end of the line for Paul as he experienced a disastrous season. An elbow sprain signed him from late May to late June, and although his caught stealing percentage was 41% in 35 games at catcher, he didn’t hit in the slightest, managing just a .190/.234/.248 line (29 OPS+) in 115 plate appearances. The renamed Rays would re-sign him to a minor league contract at the end of the season only to release him at the end of spring training, and Paul’s playing career ended after he hit just .121 in 28 games in the Astros organization. Following his retirement, Paul continued to stay around the game in coaching capacities. He managed the Yankees’ Short Season-A affiliate, the Staten Island Yankees, in 2009 and 2010, leading the team to a 47-29 record and an NY-Penn League championship in his first season as 34 year old rookie manager with a team headlined by future big league right-handers Arodys Vizcaino and Adam Warren, who combined to put up a 1.73 ERA and a 102-25 strikeout to walk ratio in 99 innings. Paul’s SI Yanks slipped to just 20-30 the next season, although the Yankees thought highly enough of Paul to use him as their interim bullpen coach when Dave Eiland (a former Devil Ray) had to leave the team for personal reasons. It’s unknown what Paul has done since then, although presumably he continues to work in some capacity for the Yankees. In parts of nine major league seasons, Paul managed a .244/.303/.341 line with 35 doubles, 10 homers, 73 RBI, and 13 stolen bases, and only time will tell what the future holds for Paul as he continues to stay around the game.
Josh Paul’s major league baseball career was unfortunately characterized by high hopes but missed opportunities. His career got off to an incredible start and it looked like he had a chance to be an above-average starting catcher in the major leagues, but a broken hammate bone in his wrist derailed. He got off to hot starts in some years only to fade and finished other years on positives notes only to be held back in the minor leagues the next year. And unfortunately, the main reason that people will think of Josh Paul was when he had an opportunity to play on baseball’s biggest stage in the postseason but made an error that changed baseball history as what could have been a 2-0 series lead for the Angels in the 2005 ALCS turned into a total momentum shift that led to the White Sox winning the 2005 World Series. Paul’s career was encapsulated perfectly but his two lost arbitration cases- he aimed too high and wound up receiving far less that he thought he deserved. But for his efforts, Paul received a 9-year major league career that the vast majority of us could only dream about and we may not have seen the last of him as he continues his career as a coach. Although he certainly had his ups and downs, Paul was far from the consistent loser that Rays fans think of him as whenever they see that the Rays beat him twice in arbitration, and at the end of the day, he certainly came out ahead.