Rene Rivera‘s defense has helped the Tampa Bay Rays win several games this year. His offense has been another story. He has hit three home runs, but he’s batting just .162 with a .202 on-base percentage. Rivera had a career year last year for San Diego, but he has fallen right back to earth this season. The good news is that if we believe Rivera is not really a .169 hitter, he is poised to hit better over the next 90 games. But what if he doesn’t? The Rays have managed to cling to their lead in the AL East, but can they really hope to win the pennant with a regular catcher who hits under .200?
Several teams in baseball history have won pennants and World Series with catchers who hit under .200. Wes Westrum caught for the 1954 Giants, who won the National League pennant and defeated the Cleveland Indians in the World Series, despite the fact that Cleveland had won 111 games. Westrum hit just .187 that year, though he did walk enough to achieve a .315 on base average and drilled 8 home runs. The best player on the Giants that year was MVP Willie Mays, who hit .345 with 41 homers and 110 RBI.
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Runs and batting average are down in baseball the last few seasons, so it might be instructive to look at some teams during the 1960’s, another low hitting era. In 1961, he Cincinnati Reds brought future All-Star Johnny Edwards to the majors for their stretch drive. Edwards played regularly during the last part of the season and hit .186. He played because he was a much better defensive catcher than the regular at the start of the year, Jerry Zimmerman. Zimmerman hit .206 in 76 games, so it wasn’t much of a drop-off when Edwards took his place. The Reds’ best player was league MVP,Frank Robinson, who hit .323 with 44 homers and 121 RBI.
The 1967 Boston Red Sox surprised the world by capturing the pennant behind the great hitting and all-around play of triple crown winner Carl Yastrzemski. The catchers on that famous team were Mike Ryan, who hit .199, and Elston Howard. Howard had been the AL MVP in 1963 with the New York Yankees, but he was through by 1967, hitting just .147. The Sox’ third catcher, Bob Tillman, was right in the middle with .188.
Clearly it’s possible to win an pennant, or even a World Series, with a catcher batting below the Mendoza line. Other players need to step up their offensive contribution, and it sure helps to have someone on the team like Willie Mays having an MVP year. Of course, I was looking for extreme cases. There are dozens of examples of teams making the playoffs, winning division titles, and even pennants with catchers that hit in the low .200’s. Just two years ago, the Rays made the playoffs even with Jose Molina hitting .233 with no power or on-base skills to speak of.
The Rays don’t have that MVP-caliber player offensively this season–although they would love if Evan Longoria could recapture his previous form–but they do have one on the mound. Chris Archer was recently floated as not just a potential Cy Young Award winner, but a possibility for the MVP award, and even if the Rays’ offense never surges, the pitching staff may be enough to overcome that. In addition, while Rivera plays only one part in the Rays’ troubles scoring runs, he has been a pivotal piece of the Rays’ surprising dominance on the mound despite so many injuries.
The Tampa Bay Rays can win the AL East, and even the World Series, even if Rivera hits under .200. However, he will only help their chances if he can raise his average to .220 or .230 by the end of the season. Rivera has been so great for the Rays defensively, and if he can get back to being a halfway-decent hitter, that would be a huge boon to their offense.