On October 28, 2011, the Astros announced that they had received Craig Tatum from the Baltimore Orioles on a waiver claim. Tatum is a 28 year old catcher who for the previous two seasons has split time between the major leagues, where he served as backup to Matt Wieters, and the Orioles minor league system. His Wikipedia page proves that he is a real person, in case there was any doubt, and provides information about his history for the curious.
But how does Tatum fit in with the Astros? In Triple-A and the majors, the Astros already retain the rights to Jason Castro, Humberto Quintero, and Carlos Corporan, among others. The announcement of acquiring Tatum has come with little fanfare and no notable quotables, so perhaps examining his body of work will provide some insight.
Craig Tatum at the Plate
At the plate, Tatum hits like a typical backup catcher. That is to say, he would have trouble finding a job if he played other positions. Though his minor league stats (.249 Batting Average and .693 OPS) are nothing to get excited about, he hasn't embarrassed himself in the majors compared to his peers. In 2010, Tatum hit a respectable .281, though that was inflated by a luck-driven .344 BABIP. In contrast, he hit .219 in 2011, with a bad-luck-driven .254 BABIP. All the typical caveats about small sample sizes apply, because he has only held a stick in front of an opposing major league pitcher 299 times. But looking at his previous two seasons, it's not unreasonable to expect that Tatum could hit .240 to .250 in the major leagues. Just don't expect any power--he's hit 8 doubles and 1 home run during that time.
Pitch F/X data, Microsoft Excel, and a little bit of magic powder resulted in the following two charts. These charts show what types of pitches Tatum is swinging at against left-handed and right-handed pitchers.
Like many hitters who hit in the low-.200's, Tatum often swings at breaking balls that drop away from the plate on the far side of the zone. Expect to see opposing pitchers throw him a high percentage of breaking balls either low, outside, or both. The next chart shows pitches that resulted in either a called strike or a swinging strike.
Matching this chart to the previous two shows that Tatum is baffled by breaking balls, particularly sliders. The good news is that he appears to have a decent eye for pitches (except for sliders) on the inside of and above the zone and is able to lay off of those. This and his decent contract rate of about 80% should keep him in the majors a while if he can provide value on defense.
Craig Tatum Behind the Plate
On defense, Tatum appears to be a mixed bag. Unfortunately, no major league pitchers were available to answer questions about their perception of his handling of a pitching staff by the time this article went to press. But again, through the use of internet miracles, available data might be able to tell us something that is more or less inconclusive.
The Orioles in 2011 had a bad pitching staff. Collectively, the team ERA was 4.93. ERAs of those pitchers ballooned to 5.93 with Tatum behind the plate. Sounds bad? But wait! A few caveats apply here too. First of all, the backup catcher only typically catches the guys in the back of the rotation, as managers prefer the primary catcher to call games for their best pitchers to maximize their chances of winning games. This means that Tatum was often brought into games to catch the late-inning mop-up relievers who typically have higher ERAs than the rest of the staff, and to start games pitched by the fourth or fifth starter. By default, ERAs while he is behind the plate are bound to be higher because of the quality of the pitchers on the mound.
Also, Tatum's pitchers' ERA's for 2009 and 2010 are almost identical to the team ERA for that year, implying that prior to 2011, he was able to coax the best out of the worst pitchers on his teams, to the point of bringing their performance up to team average. Hopefully 2011 was a bad year, and the trend shown in previous seasons is repeatable.
Even more interestingly, the strikeout rate per plate appearance by Tatum's pitchers is slightly higher than the 2011 Orioles' team average. A catcher can affect strikeouts by framing pitches, calling good pitch sequences, and making buddies with the umpire. If this is a repeatable skill, it will help Tatum's value as a defensive catcher. What is known for sure is that Tatum did not build his reputation by catching would-be base stealers. He's only caught 21% of sack thieves in the majors, compared to 35% in the minors.
Advanced catcher defensive metrics are even more confusing than regular defensive stats, but if you're into that type of thing, check out the article on catcher defensive rankings that timmy_ posted on Sunday for another reason to be upbeat about the acquisition of Tatum. Beware: These rankings depend heavily on the pitcher's contribution and the official scorer's assignment of errors.
Where Does Tatum Fit In?
Jason Castro should return in 2012, and should rightfully be the starting catcher based on talent, cost, and expectations of performance. Humberto Quintero is again eligible for arbitration, with a projected salary of about $1.2 million. Before Tatum's acquisition, Carlos Corporan had the strongest argument to be the best of the Astros other bad options.
Tatum should hit for a better average than J.R. Towles or Coproran did in the majors, and maybe even a little better than Quintero. Quintero is a good defender, but with his projected salary increase, one wonders if the Astros won't either decline arbitration, or try to trade him to a team in need of a good backup catcher and try to improve their farm system depth thereby.
It would not be surprising to see Tatum either backing up Castro in the majors, or serving as the primary catcher in Triple-A as the Astros wait for Chris Wallace and other minor league catchers to grow. (Here's a hint, Ed Wade: turn them towards the sunlight and water regularly.) In Triple-A, Tatum's apparent defensive chops compared to Towles and others might improve the skills and habits of the Astros' sudden influx of talented young pitching arms.
Regardless of where Tatum winds up, with what the Astros already know about their backup catching situation, Tatum is a small investment that could help the organization in a few different ways.
On a Personal Note...
Thanks to David and Tim and everybody else who invited me to participate in The Crawfish Boxes on a more formal level. And I figured, what better debut than to write an exciting article about a backup catcher?