The Mets' newly acquired veteran catcher is likely to be the team's Opening Day starter. So what's his deal?
Call him the forgotten man of the blockbuster R.A. Dickey trade. Catcher John Buck, who has been in the big leagues since 2004, is virtually guaranteed a spot in the Mets' starting lineup on Opening Day. That's easy to overlook, of course, because the Mets also acquired catcher-of-the-future Travis d'Arnaud as one of the two big pieces of the deal that sent Dickey north of the border.
Buck is 32 years old, and he hits and throws from the right side. His career slash-line of .235/.303/.405 leaves quite a bit to be desired, particularly in the on-base department. In 2011, he posted a .316 OBP, and in 2012, he dipped to .297, his lowest single-season mark since 2005. And throughout his career, he's struck out a ton — 23.8 percent of the time overall and 25.9 percent of the time in 2012. Those numbers look ugly, but there may be some hope for improvement.
Over the past two years, Buck's walk rate improved rather significantly. His 10.2 percent rate in 2011 set a career high, and his 12.3 percent rate in 2012 eclipsed that mark and ranked ninth out of the thirty-five catchers who made at least 250 plate appearances. Add to that the fact that Buck's batting average on balls in play (BABIP) — .268 in 2011, .235 in 2012 — was considerably lower than league average and his own career mark of .280, and there's a chance that his slash line could look a whole lot better in 2013.
(USA Today Sports Images)
Whether or not Buck's on-base percentage sees an improvement, his main asset as a hitter has always been power, something the Mets lacked last season. He hit a career-high 20 home runs playing for Toronto — whose home ballpark is very friendly to hitters — in 2010, but even after joining the Marlins as a free agent, he hit 16 in 2011 and 12 in 2012. His power is all-or-nothing, however, as he hit just 15 doubles in each of the past two seasons. His career splits are marginally better against left-handed pitching than right-handed pitching, for what it's worth.
As a defender, Buck looks pretty good on paper. His blocking ability behind the plate has typically been very good, according to Matt Klaassen of The Score, and the numbers at Fangraphs agree. The fielding component of fWAR consists of two metrics: rSB — the number of runs a catcher contributes by controlling the opposing team's running game — and RPP — the number of runs a catcher contributes with his pitch-blocking ability. Among the thirty catchers who played at least 600 innings at catcher in 2012, Buck ranked fourth with 2.8 RPP. His arm was in the middle of the pack at negative-1, but it certainly wasn't dreadful.
Add it all up, and Buck had seasons of 1.9 and 1.2 fWAR over the past two years, respectively, despite his atrocious on-base percentage. Even if he continues to make outs at the alarming rate that he did in 2012, Buck's ability to hit the occasional home run and play solid defense will have some value. He'll likely be displaced by d'Arnaud as early as May, but he'd still see playing time, as all backup catchers do.
The worst-case scenario here is that Buck continues to hit like he did last season and gives the Mets a serviceable partner for Travis d'Arnaud. But the best-case scenario is that Buck's batting average and on-base percentage improve enough to make him an attractive trade chip come July.