Already a fan favorite since he is the replacement for the much-maligned Jeff Mathis, Chris Iannetta is prepping for what could be a make or break season. Will he be the answer to the Angels' prayers at catcher or just another backstop that Mike Scioscia will chew up and spit out?
2011 Stats: 345 AB, .238 AVG, .370 OBP, .414 SLG, 51 R, 14 HR, 55 RBI, 6 SB, 3 CS, 89 K
2012 ZiPS Projections: 310 AB, .223 AVG, .348 OBP, .390 SLG, 38 R, 12 HR, 47 RBI, 3 SB, 2 CS, 90 K
2012 Bill James Projections: 386 AB, .249 AVG, .371 OBP, .456 SLG, 56 R, 18 HR, 64 RBI, 4 SB, 2 CS, 89 K
2012 CAIRO Projections: 317 AB, .216 AVG, .333 OBP, .368 SLG, 44 R, 11 HR, 50 RBI, 3 SB, 2 CS, 81 K
2012 PECOTA Projections: 456 PA, .223 AVG, .339 OBP, .391 SLG, 54 R, 15 HR, 46 RBI, 3 SB, 1 CS, 104 K
2012 MWaH Projections*: 350 AB, .212 AVG, .329 OBP, .384 SLG, 47 R, 13 HR, 50 RBI, 3 SB, 2 CS, 95 K
*The MWaH projections are simply my best guess based off my own personal opinion and research
2011 in Review: Having obviously not spent a great deal of time watching Chris Iannetta play while he was with the Rockies, we can only offer so much insight into his season. The first thing anyone notices about Iannetta is his home/road splits. At Coors Field, his slash line was .301/.419/.557, which are MVP-caliber numbers if he were able to sustain them over the course of an entire season. Alas, his road slash line was .172/.321/.266, which is almost eerily Mathisian. That difference in home-road performance is not an unfamiliar site for Colorado, but the exaggerated margin of performance is a bit much even by their standards.
As concerning as those splits are, the season has to be viewed as a success by Iannetta since he was coming off a 2010 campaign in which he performed so poorly that he was demoted to the minors for a month early in the season to try and fix his swing. He still finished that season with a .197 batting average though, so seeing him pump up his OPS by 84 points was cause for relief.
Maybe it was the performance or maybe it was the salary or maybe it is just that they have a prospect on the horizon, but the Rockies entered the off-season dead set on divesting themselves of Iannetta. In a lot of ways, it was a preordained trade for Iannetta not unlike that of the Angels trading Mike Napoli. Like Naps, Iannetta's tenure with the team that raised him was often an embattled one. Iannetta offers a tantalizing mix of power and patience, but his inconsistency at the plate and behind it led to a lot of frustration and inconsistent playing time. Iannetta doesn't have Napoli's upside, but there is some hope that escaping a tough situation in Denver could free up Iannetta to finally realize his full potential. That is, assuming that become a pupil of the great and might Scioscia isn't the catcher's version of going out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Three Lingering Questions for 2012:
- Can Iannetta hit away from Coors Field? There is no hiding it, Iannetta's home-road splits are kind of scary, but will it change him as a hitter to always be playing free of the Coors Field Effect? Can he adapt to playing without the helpful effects of the altitude or will it spell his ruin?
- Will Chris be a good enough defensive catcher to appearse Scioscia? Nobody knows the answer to this question but Scioscia. We've seen Sosh make life difficult on Napoli and Conger in recent years, will Iannetta be next? Is it possible that this could be the first player that Scioscia and Dipoto butt heads over?
- Is he a short-term stopgap at catcher or long-term solution? Dipoto already talked to Iannetta about a long-term deal, so there is at least some interest. But first, Iannetta might need to prove that he can survive outside of Denver and that he can stay out of Scioscia's doghouse.
What to Expect in 2012: Probably the biggest reason that Jerry Dipoto targeted Iannetta this off-season is because he is a guy that can work the count. Iannetta's batting average is often poor, but it is more than offset by his on-base percentage. In that awful 2010 season, Iannetta still managed a .319 OBP which unto itself would make him a major offensive upgrade over Jeff Mathis. Over his career, Iannetta boasts a .357 OBP and draws a walk in 13.9% of his plate appearances. The reason the OBP stat is so crucial for Iannetta is that plate discipline isn't really affected by what stadium a player is at. For his career, his walk rate is nearly identical between home and road, with the road rate actually coming in a tick higher. For all the bluster over whether or not he can hit outside of Coors, we should at least take some solace in the fact that he should still be able to get on base no matter what.
As for the rest of his game, that is another matter. One of Iannetta's most attractive tools is that he can hit for power, or at least we hope so. His .266 slugging percentage on the road in 2011 is a Loek Van Mil-sized red flag. He does have a career ISO of .161 in away games though, which inspires some hope but also highlights his wild inconsistencies. The Halos don't necessarily need Iannetta to hit for a ton of power, but just how potent his bat can be will most certainly have an impact on how much he plays.
Ah yes, playing time, that is another very interesting consideration for Iannetta. As of today, the Angels intend for him to be their full-time starter, but this is a guy who has only twice played in over 100 games in his five-year career, including the career-high 112 games played last year. He just may not have the durability to start 130 games like some of the more established lead catchers in the league. It is also possible that playing him that much would over-expose him. One area where Iannetta has been pretty consistent in his career is in his platoon splits. He carries a pedestrian .744 OPS against righties, but destroys southpaws to the tune of a .911 OPS. In a worst case scenario, Iannetta is an ideal platoon mate for switch-hitting Hank Conger (Conger's inclusion is a different debate for a different time). That would be less than that Angels would have hoped for from Iannetta, but it is an option.
Of course, all of this discussion of his offensive potenial is merely academic if he doesn't hold up his end of the bargain on defense. This is where I believe his real problems will emerge. Chris has always been a quality thrower, so there shouldn't be too much concern over him controlling the running game. After that, things start to fall apart. When it comes to blocking balls, Iannetta is sub-standard, posting negative RPPs (the new runs saved on blocking balls metric) three out of the last four years. He also ranked rather poorly in Mike Fast's study on pitch framing, an area that you know Scioscia is going to hound him on. On the flip side though, Iannetta did rate as the 11th best defensive catcher according to the aggregate ratings Beyond the Box Score does, so there is at least some positive indicators emerging from this tangled mess of still emerging statistical study.
Where I grow concerned is that Iannetta is going to have to spend a great deal of time worrying about his defense. If I am interpreting his comments from all his interviews since being acquired, I think that is already happening. The problem is that Iannetta has a lot to worry about at the plate too. His fluctuating offensive numbers strongly suggest that he is a high maintenance batter and he just isn't going to have enough time focus on his bat this year because he is going to be so busy fretting over his receiving skills. My prediction is that this will lead to Iannetta being just good enough defensively to get 115 starts for the Halos, but that his offense will be poor enough that he and the Angels part ways at the end of the year. Keep in mind that he does have a mutal option for 2013, an option that he seems likely to decline simply to get a long-term deal from some team and that the Angels are likely to decline because they would want an upgrade at catcher if my prediction comes true (possibly to current Diamondback catcher and impending free agent Miguel Montero).
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