Four years–that’s the last time the Rays had one true starting catcher for an entire season. Dioner Navarro had an All-Star season in 2008, but 2009 was his last season as a starting catcher in the big leagues. In 2010, John Jaso come up and played well, providing hope that he could be the Rays’ catcher of the future, but he struggled through an up-and-down 2011 before getting traded. Since then, the Rays have gone to Jose Molina for the larger part of a catching tandem believing that they had no true starting catcher in their organization. Has that changed? This season, there is finally hope given how well Jose Lobaton had played. For the rest of this season and beyond, should Lobaton become the Rays’ first real starter at the catcher position in far too long?
Especially in comparison to the decrepit standards set by catchers in the Rays’ short history, what Jose Lobaton has done this season for the Rays is awfully impressive. In 269 plate appearances, Lobaton has a .263/.333/.413 line (108 OPS+) with 14 doubles, 6 homers, and 28 RBI, striking out 51 times while walking 26 times. His 108 OPS+ makes him just the second Rays catcher to manage an OPS+ over 100 in 200 or more plate appearances (Jaso in 2010 was the first), and his .413 slugging percentage is the most for any Rays catcher since John Flaherty in 1999 (.415). Lobaton has been unbelievably clutch, managing a .795 OPS with 2 outs and runners in scoring position that ranks fifth on the team, and has seemingly been the only player the Rays could trust in big spots for much of the season. But there’s a major difference between a decent offensive catcher who can hit in the clutch and a starting catcher. The first big thing to look at is Lobaton’s platoon splits. This year, the switch-hitting Lobaton has a .274/.358/.438 line in 166 plate appearances against right-handed pitching. Against lefties, however, he drops to just .230/.284/.356 in 96 PA’s. In 2012, Lobaton actually had the opposite issue, managing a .751 OPS against lefties and just a .591 versus righties, but his career strikeout to walk ratios tell the real story: even as his output against righties and lefties has been nearly identical (.671 OPS versus righties, .649 against lefties), his strikeout to walk is a great 75-42 (1.79-to-1) against righties but just 34-12 (2.83-to-1) against lefties. It seems to be that Lobaton sees the ball against right-handed pitching, and unless he’s able to hit lefties more proficiently, he won’t ever be a starting catcher. But that still leaves a question unanswered: even if Lobaton doesn’t hit lefties well, why isn’t he playing more against righties? How is it that Jose Molina, who has just a 75 OPS+ on the season, still has logged 5 more plate appearances?
The issue was Lobaton is not just his ability to hit lefties but his defense as well. On the season, Lobaton has thrown out just 9 of 63 attempted basestealers (14%) after throwing out just 8 of 50 last year (16%). He doesn’t allow many passed balls (2 this year), but his pitch framing lags far behind a player like Jose Molina and he doesn’t have a good enough arm to make up for it. Lobaton does seem to work well with certain Rays pitchers (Matt Moore, for instance) but overall, he’s a below-average defensive catcher who looks especially bad going up against Jose Molina. With this in mind, where does Jose Lobaton stand in the Rays organization? Will he ever be more than just a tandem catcher?
After just how well Lobaton has played this year, we have to expect that Joe Maddon and the Rays will start playing him more and more, especially against right-handed pitching. Even if Lobaton’s defense isn’t Molina-esque, it certainly can’t be that bad and his hitting should make up the difference. But between his lack of hitting against lefties and his defense, Jose Lobaton is unlikely to become anything more than a tandem catcher making around 300 plate appearances a year. Nevertheless, given the Rays’ lack of catching, Lobaton will be a valuable cog in the organization the next few years.
Jose Lobaton, as he stands right now, is not starting catcher material. However, that is assuming that Lobaton never gets better than this. There’s a chance that assumption will turn out to be wrong. Lobaton was a little-known prospect who couldn’t get past Triple-A before breaking out, arriving in the big leagues, and making an impression with the Rays. Could Lobaton improve against left-handed pitching and continue to refine his defense in the coming years to become a starting catching option? We can’t be certain of that, but there is a chance. And even if it doesn’t that fall into place, that will perfectly fine as well. No matter what happens, the Rays have to feel fortunate knowing that in Lobaton they have a good part-time catcher and possibly more.