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Test Your Might

If Grady Little could play Russell Martin eight days a week, he would. Last season, Martin caught 139 games between AAA and the Dodgers, more than any other catcher in baseball aside from Jason Kendall and Kenji Johjima. When I see that kind of usage out of a rookie catcher, my baseball instincts tell me two things: a situation like that doesn't happen all that often, and it can't be good for the catcher's development. I decided to see if my instincts were correct.

Since games played data for minor leaguers doesn't go back very far, I had to use a slightly different method to choose a sample of players to look at. I consider a rookie catcher to be used "significantly" if he came to the plate 450 or more times during a season. While this doesn't account for minor league playing time, it counts all catchers who caught around 125 games or more in their rookie season.

After compiling this list, I can confirm that my first instinct was correct, it is a very rare thing for a rookie catcher to be used as heavily as Martin was in 2006. Since 1959, 23 rookie catchers reached the 450 plate appearance threshold. Amazingly, three of those catchers played in 2006, Martin, Kenji Johjima, and Ronny Paulino.

As for my second instinct, it wasn't correct at all. Of those 23, four catchers haven't been playing long enough to get any long range projections on their careers, 12 had long productive careers, one moved out of the catchers spot, and six were out of baseball by the time they were 30.

Those six were Geronimo Gill, Barry Foote, Earl Williams, Andy Etchebarren, Mike Brumley, and Buck Rodgers. Of these players, three of them had no business being a starting catcher to begin with, leaving us with three catchers,  Barry Foote, Earl Williams, and Buck Rodgers, who had successful rookie years and went downhill after that.

I have very little knowledge of minor players who played before I was born, and minor League stats are sketchy from this time, so it's hard to do any retroactive analysis of prospect status.  From what I can see, Foote was pretty much a non prospect who put up better numbers in his rookie year than he did during most of his stops in the minors. I have no minor league data on Rodgers, so that just leaves Earl Williams as the only guy who flamed out after being used frequently in his rookie year. Williams slugged .660 at age 21 in A. The next year, he slugged around .550 between AA, AAA and the majors at age 22. After his successful rookie campaign, Williams' performance declined every year until he was released by the A's at age 29.

Does this prove anything? Not really. You can't look at just 23 players and then draw conclusions about this. However, by looking at the players we have, you can't really say that frequently using a rookie catcher is detrimental to his development. For the most part, catchers that were used that often that early in their careers were already outstanding players to begin with, simply having them play that often isn't enough to erode their skills. This just means that Russell Martin's frequent trips to the plate in 2006 weren't a death sentence, and that's all I can hope for.

If you're curious, here's the 23 players on the list.

Russell Martin
Ronny Paulino
Kenji Johjima.
Joe Mauer
Geronimo Gil
Bengie Molina
Jason Kendall
Mike Piazza
Todd Zeile
Sandy Alomar Jr.
Benito Santiago
Butch Wynegar
Barry Foote
Bob Boone
Carlton Fisk
Earl Williams
Thurman Munson
Manny Sanguillen
Johnny Bench
Randy Hundley
Andy Etchebarren
Mike Brumley
Buck Rodgers