The Pittsburgh Pirates have an interesting situation behind the plate. Michael McKenry has had a surprise season this year, hitting for a .273/.344/.568 line in 132 at-bats, along with ten homers. It’s a small sample size, but those numbers put McKenry in great company. Out of the 40 catchers with 140+ plate appearances this year, McKenry ranks third in OPS (behind Carlos Ruiz and Jonathan Lucroy), second in slugging (behind Lucroy), and his 13.2 AB/HR ratio this year ranks first, one spot ahead of Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who has 20 homers in 271 at-bats.
So at what point do the Pirates start to take notice of their 27-year-old catcher? Last year he hit for a .222/.276/.322 line with two homers in 180 at-bats. In the minors he was hitting for a .274/.369/.421 line with three homers in 95 at-bats. Those numbers are nowhere near his numbers now. However, he did put up good power numbers in the lower levels, with 22 homers in 408 at-bats in low-A, and 18 in 400 at-bats in high-A.
His career history points to this being a fluke. It’s doubtful that McKenry suddenly became the next Mike Napoli. But can he be a good enough catcher to start in the majors? He’s got the defense, and works well with the pitching staff. Offensively, the bar isn’t set very high for catchers. In his time with the Pirates, McKenry has a .721 OPS in 307 at-bats (347 plate appearances). Last year there were 26 catchers with 300+ plate appearances. 16 of those catchers had an OPS above .721. In 2010 it was 29 catchers with 300+ plate appearances, and 16 with an OPS greater than .721.
McKenry won’t keep up this year’s pace, based on his career history, but that .721 OPS wouldn’t be out of the question. That puts him around average offensive production, with good defensive skills. Basically, it makes him Rod Barajas in his prime.
I was working on the annual post-trade deadline look at next year’s payroll (which will go up tomorrow morning), and noticed that the Pirates are currently projected to be over $60 M next year, without any additions via free agency (and with a few projected subtractions). Rod Barajas has a $3.5 M option with no buyout. If the Pirates felt McKenry was legit, they could decline the option from Barajas, go with McKenry as the primary catcher, and turn to a cheap backup, or start to ease Tony Sanchez in to the majors. That would save a few million dollars, keep the same production behind the plate, and ultimately allow the Pirates to focus some resources elsewhere.
The Pirates would be smart to give McKenry more time this year, in order to see how legit he is. He’s started 10 of the last 24 games, which is a good start, although it would be nice to see a 50/50 split. It’s not like his numbers this year would hurt the team, and Rod Barajas has struggled since the middle of June, with a .133/.229/.265 line in 83 at-bats since his OPS was at a season high .721 (hey, there’s that number again) on June 9th.
McKenry hit for a .325/.378/.725 line with four homers in 40 at-bats in July. And he just started the month of August well, going 2-for-5 with a homer. He’s definitely the hot bat right now. Playing him more often would not only give the Pirates more of an opportunity to see if he’s legit, but it would be the smart move, starting their best catcher at the moment in a playoff race.
Links and Notes
**The Pirates beat the Cubs 8-4.
**Pirates Notebook: McKenry Taking Advantage of Opportunities.
**Prospect Watch: Irwin, Holmes Continue Impressive Pitching; Three Hits for Hanson.