Analysis

Kratz Shaky Behind the Plate in Early Going

Erik Kratz must improve behind the plate. (Photo via AP)

Erik Kratz must improve defensively. (Photo via AP)

If their recent offensive surge is a sign of things to come for the Phillies, the team won’t need Carlos Ruiz to duplicate the other-worldly .934 OPS he posted in 2012 when he returns to the lineup.

That is the good news.

The bad news is that Ruiz’s absence has exposed the defensive shortcomings of catcher Erik Kratz.  Despite undeniable pop at the plate, Kratz was essentially a minor league lifer until netting 141 at bats as Chooch’s 31-year-old backup last year.  It took him a decade to reach the big leagues for a reason.  Through his first seven starts, we may just be seeing it.

Easiest to identify are the communication difficulties between Kratz and Roy Halladay that landed him on the bench for Doc’s second start in favor of Humberto Quintero.  All parties involved, except Kratz himself, downplayed the catcher’s role in the early-season struggles of the pitching staff.  But if reading between the lines, Halladay’s words were hard to ignore.  Here is what Kratz had to say on Monday, courtesy of Matt Gelb at the Inquirer:

“There’s one thing that’s consistent back there, and that’s me.  So I have to look at myself and look at how we’re doing back there. If I can’t help the team improve, they put [Quintero] in there. I have to do a better job, for sure.”

Kratz’s deficiencies have extended well beyond basic game calling thus far.  Back in the lineup on Tuesday and Wednesday, the 32-year-old continued to have difficulty catching, blocking and framing pitches that are routine for the majority of major league catchers.  He has dropped pitches he should catch.  He has received pitches in a manner that turn strikes into balls when a catcher’s objective is obviously to do just the opposite.

On Tuesday, a Kratz passed ball allowed Jordany Valdespin to scamper home from third in the fifth inning.  Luckily the game was already well in hand.

And then Wednesday night, again in the fifth, Kratz let a sinking Kyle Kendrick offering skip under his glove with runners on first and second in a 5-2 game.  Egregiously, Kratz made no attempt to drop down into a blocking position and both runners advanced.  Largely due to a Mets base running blunder, Kendrick was able to get out of the inning unscathed and the Phillies extended their lead in the next frame to seal the win.

This good fortune is not likely to continue for Kratz.  At some point it is going to happen in a big spot.  To his credit, he has gunned down two of five would be base stealers and has only been officially charged with one passed ball.  But to the naked eye, those passed ball statistics sure seem to be generous (Wednesday’s gaffe was somehow ruled a wild pitch).

This is a painful reality to point out.  Now at 32 years old, many hoped that Kratz and his Godshall’s Quality Meats commercial would be the feel-good second coming of fan favorite Chris Coste.  The parallels between the two players are undeniable, but Coste never seemed to be this much of a liability defensively.

Like Coste, Kratz clearly has some thunder in his bat.  He has 10 home runs in 210 major league at bats (including 9 last year) and eclipsed double digits homers five different seasons in the minor leagues.  That type of power is an attractive attribute for a backup catcher, but he has to improve behind the plate.  Fortunately for him, there are 16 games on the schedule before Ruiz can return.  Come April 28, the Phillies have a decision to make – whether to stick with Kratz or Quintero – that will tell us if they think Kratz’s play behind the plate in 2013 has been indicative of his overall skill set or just an ugly stretch of poor play.  As the incumbent, Kratz is surely the favorite.

It is important to note that we are undoubtedly all spoiled by Ruiz’s defensive brilliance.  While the return of his bat will be a welcomed sight for the lineup, make no mistake about it, his potent presence behind the dish will have the biggest impact.

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. CS

    April 11, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    There is no way Kratz doesn’t stay as the backup catcher when Ruiz returns.

    • Alex Lee

      April 11, 2013 at 3:55 pm

      I agree… that wasn’t really the point I was shooting for. More that he has been horrific so far back there and needs to clean it up.

  2. George

    April 11, 2013 at 4:39 pm

    Kratz will be okay as a backup. I don’t think he’s going to be so bad defensively that the team will lose consistently because he’s behind the plate. Also, saying that he needs to improve is the right thinking, and he will probably be trying hard to do so. I’d give him more than the few games he’s been in this season before I threw him under the bus; he was certainly okay in his time last year.

  3. Lefty

    April 11, 2013 at 4:54 pm

    You are right Alex, we are spoiled I think, at least I am. Kratz puts his glove down and not his whole body to block balls in the dirt, otherwise he’s okay. Not every catcher gives up his body like Chooch.

    It could be worse, – Dane Sardhina, with Brian Schnieder on the DL.

  4. Jack

    April 11, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    Kratz has thrown out 45% of baserunners the last 2 years. Not many mlb catchers can say that. Give him a break!

    • schmenkman

      April 11, 2013 at 5:34 pm

      He has been very good at throwing out runners, and in fact he had the 3rd highest CS rate in the majors last year.

      The one thing that makes me wonder about that is that he only threw out 32% of runners in his many years in the minors, and only 27% since 2009.

      • Alex Lee

        April 11, 2013 at 5:56 pm

        You’re right, and that is why I mentioned it. But handling the staff and technique behind the plate far outweigh throwing guys out IMHO… And I agree it wasn’t an issue last year but it has been thus far. Maybe it’s due to the fatigue caused by playing every day… We will see over the next 16 games…

  5. JP

    April 11, 2013 at 5:29 pm

    I’m not giving him a break. It has been glaring, minus the games he had caught for Lee, that everything described above has been happening. If it was just roy, ok, but hamels and KK are feeling it too. 16 more games and chooch will be back. Hopefully, the braves and nats haven’t pulled too far away.

    • Jack

      April 11, 2013 at 5:42 pm

      What will be the excuse for Roy when Chooch comes back and he still struggles?

      • George

        April 12, 2013 at 12:03 am

        I totally agree with you, Jack. Kratz is in no way responsible for Halladay’s altered mechanics nor his faillure to command his pitches.

        I also haven’t heard anything about Hamels or Kendrick blaming Kratz for their less than stellar starts. Kratz is the only person who really has voiced any public opinion on his performance; that’s good, because it means he wants to improve.

        You can place blame wherever you want, but I place it mostly on pitchers who haven’t found their rhythms yet, not on a catcher who caught them all successfully for a number of games in 2012.

  6. Jeff of Nova

    April 12, 2013 at 8:51 am

    Take a look at the pitches Hamels has been throwing, he has been way off his normal setup, calling the game has a lot to do with that.

    So right now i definitely can throw a lot of this on Ruiz. Kratz is at best a backup catcher, so to say that he is not to blame for game calling this staff is insane

    • George

      April 12, 2013 at 2:11 pm

      If he’s calling bad games, it’s the pitchers who are to blame for not reviewing strategies before they play and for not shaking Kratz off when he makes what they consider a bad choice.

      If Hamels is “way off his normal setup,” it might just be that he’s been having mental lapses or mechanical issues. There’s more to the crappy pitching performances than just the catcher, and it’s way off base to place ALL the blame there.

  7. Caleb

    April 12, 2013 at 4:18 pm

    interesting article I will say, but I think you need to take a look at Erik’s career in the minor leagues. Most of the time the only part of his game that was keeping him from the MLB was his hitting, NOT his defense. Defense has by far been his strongest point in his career. Yes, Ill admit he has made a couple mistakes and rough plays in the early going so far, but think as time goes on, defense will begin to be his strong part of his game. How else do you explain the fact that he throw out nearly 50 percent of base runner trying to steal last years in the big leagues with over 30 attempts. Also last year pitcher’s era’s were significantly better when Erik caught opposed to Ruiz (not saying ruiz was bad by any means, but i dont think the argument that Kratz cant call a good game is valid here). I think the chipper Jones play last year, his throwing runners out stealing, and catching several complete games by the staff last year is a better indicator of the defensive catcher Kratz is.

  8. Joe a

    April 12, 2013 at 10:48 pm

    Would like to hear everyones opinion on whether Raj will our should resign Chooch.

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