Chris Stewart: Only sort of mediocre

The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports

The veteran reserve heads from the Yankees to the Pirates on non-tender day, an opportunity to establish himself as the worst-hitting catcher to wear pinstripes over the last half-a-century plus having gone by the boards.

On Monday, the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired catcher Chris Stewart from the Yankees. The veteran backstop was almost certain to be non-tendered in the aftermath of the signing of free agent Brian McCann, so the deal for a player be named later or cash represents the Yankees getting a bit of a return for a fungible part and the Pirates taking a more direct route to getting a quality defensive backup for Russell Martin than free agency roulette might allow.

Rest assured, Martin's value is purely in the defensive end of things, and in a specialized area at that, pitch-framing, the art of turning balls into strikes in the eyes of the umpire. In 2013, Stewart was the second-best catcher in the majors at stealing strikes, saving the Yankees about two wins' worth of runs over the average catcher over the course of the season. If you want to credit Stewart with those two wins, then combined with his offense he was worth... about two wins. The average catcher was a much better hitter than Stewart, even in a rough year for the trade, so the Yankees broke even at best.

Getting by far the most playing time of his career in 2013, the 31-year-old Stewart hit .211/.293/.272, which is still special even in a year in which the average catcher hit only .245/.310/.388. Still, if you think historically you can understand why the glove-first approach would have appeal to the Pirates. Catcher has always been a position at which it has been difficult to find offense, and few teams have had two catchers who could hit. Bill Bergen, who had possibly the worst bat of any non-pitcher in history (.170/.194/.201 from 1901-1911), still managed to have a career of nearly a thousand games because he was a catcher. In our own time, we have the 570-games-and-counting career of Jeff Mathis, who has hit .195/.255/.310 and when with the Angels was given preferential treatment over Mike Napoli. Truly, being a catcher means never having to say I'm sorry.

Jeff Mathis does the Donkey Kong (Jeff Mathis)

Most years, the catchers fight it out with the shortstops and the second baseman for the honor of being the least-productive group of (non-pitcher) hitters in the major leagues. Every once in awhile the shortstops even beat them -- as measured with the blunt tool that is OPS, catchers have been the game's weakest hitters 10 times in 68 seasons since the end of World War II, most recently for much of the first decade of this century. This year they eked out a win over the shortstops (they hit .255/.308/.373), but chance are, no one is bragging at the annual Henry Blanco testimonial dinner.

If you're like me, you don't dig mediocrity on its own -- you need to know that what you just saw was the worst possible season you could have seen. In that sense, being really bad is almost like being really good -- you've so excelled at misery that you actually broke through the quality barrier and were good again. Courtesy of the sortable stats doohickey at Baseball-Reference, here's how Stewart ranked among postwar Yankees catchers in park- and league-adjusted OPS, 250 plate appearances and up department:

Rk

Player

OPS+

PA

Year

G

R

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

BB

BA

OBP

SLG

1

Jose Molina

51

297

2008

100

32

58

17

0

3

18

12

.216

.263

.313

The pitch-framing poster-boy, Molina has a career OPS+ of 68. Reportedly already re-signed with the Rays. With 867 career games, he's two years from becoming only the 40th non-pitcher all-time (and 26th since World War II) to play in 1000 or more games with an OPS+ of less than 70. The king of that department? Utility infielder Rafael Belliard, who played 1154 games with an OPS+ of 46.

2

Rick Cerone

52

266

1983

80

18

54

7

0

2

22

15

.220

.267

.272

Cerone had a big first half in 1980 and got to play another 12 years on the theory that he was just a few games away from getting back there, when really he was a good catch-and-throw guy who had just lucked into some flukey power. A pile of injuries also sapped him at that point, so he never did get to stay in the lineup long enough to consolidate whatever it was he was doing right.

3

Chris Stewart

57

340

2013

109

28

62

6

0

4

25

30

.211

.293

.272

4

Rick Cerone

61

329

1982

89

29

68

10

0

5

28

19

.227

.271

.310

A lot of these off years led directly to better catchers for the Yankees. This was the year they traded for Butch Wynegar.

5

Bob Geren

63

303

1990

110

21

59

7

0

8

31

13

.213

.259

.325

In 1989, Geren had actually had one of those fluke seasons that part-time catchers sometimes luck into, hitting .288/.329/.454. The Yankees were quick to realize there would be no encore, trading for Matt Nokes in June of 1990.

6

Joe Girardi

69

433

1997

112

38

105

23

1

1

50

26

.264

.311

.334

Meanwhile, Jorge Posada, already 25, was sitting on the bench.

7

Joel Skinner

69

272

1988

88

23

57

15

0

4

23

14

.227

.267

.335

He had a pretty good career for a 37th-round draft pick who never did conquer the strike zone. Skinner was part of the big 1986 deadline deal which sent about half the White Sox to New York for Ron Hassey and a fluke .300 season by Carlos Martinez.

8

Jake Gibbs

70

460

1968

123

31

90

12

3

3

29

27

.213

.270

.277

Before opting for baseball, Gibbs was a big-time quarterback prospect at Ole Miss. Given career rates of .233/.389/.321 (better than they look given the years involved but still far from good) he probably opted for the wrong career.

9

Rick Cerone

75

327

1987

113

28

69

12

1

4

23

30

.243

.320

.335

Bringing Cerone back as a free agent cost the Yankees their second-round draft pick in a year in which they had already forfeited their first-rounder to the Rangers for signing Gary Ward.

10

Jake Gibbs

76

411

1967

116

33

87

7

1

4

25

28

.233

.291

.289

As Cerone gave way to Wynegar and Girardi to Posada, so Gibbs lost his spot to Thurman Munson.

So Stewart's hitting was just plain ol' mediocre, not special mediocre. Indeed, if you look not just at the Yankees but the worst offensive seasons by a catcher in the postwar period overall, Stewart doesn't come close to cracking the team picture:

Rk

Player

OPS+

PA

Year

Tm

G

R

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

BB

BA

OBP

SLG

1

Drew Butera

24

254

2011

MIN

93

19

39

9

1

2

23

11

.167

.210

.239

2

Jerry Zimmerman

26

267

1967

MIN

104

13

39

3

0

1

12

22

.167

.243

.192

3

Ned Yost

28

251

1984

TEX

80

15

44

4

0

6

25

6

.182

.201

.273

4

Mike Ryan

31

314

1968

PHI

96

12

53

6

1

1

15

15

.179

.218

.216

5

Tony Pena

32

347

1993

BOS

126

20

55

11

0

4

19

25

.181

.246

.257

6

Mike Guerra

32

270

1951

TOT

82

21

48

2

1

1

22

22

.195

.261

.224

7

Eli Marrero

33

343

1999

STL

114

32

61

13

1

6

34

18

.192

.236

.297

8

Matt Walbeck

37

359

1994

MIN

97

31

69

12

0

5

35

17

.204

.246

.284

9

Jeff Mathis

38

281

2011

LAA

93

18

43

12

0

3

22

15

.174

.225

.259

10

Kirt Manwaring

38

375

1997

COL

104

22

76

6

4

1

27

30

.226

.291

.276

Who knew that Drew Butera was the greatest ever at something? Something for Chris Stewart to aspire to, should he ever get 250 plate appearances again.

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