John Jaso is an unusual player. He has a particular set of strengths and weaknesses that somehow make him indispensable to the Oakland Athletics roster but, at the same time, virtually impossible to fit onto it. The question at hand is how the A's should utilize him next season in order to derive the most value out of him while also keeping him healthy.
Let's begin with two statements about Jaso. He is a fantastic hitter, and he should no longer be a catcher.
John Jaso is a fantastic hitter
For some of you this statement will seem obvious, and for others it will come as a shock and require further explanation. Jaso has been an Athletic for two seasons, and he's put up a .765 OPS in 593 plate appearances. That may not sound impressive to you because you probably lived through the offensive boom of the steroid era, when .900 OPS's grew on trees and backup infielders routinely bopped double-digit homers. Let's compare Jaso's batting lines to the AL averages for the last three seasons (including his 2012 campaign in Seattle).
|Year||League (BA/OBP/SLG)||Jaso (BA/OBP/SLG)||Jaso OPS+|
Note that these aren't platoon splits or otherwise cherry-picked numbers. With the exception of a power outage in 2013, Jaso has consistently hit, gotten on base, and slugged better than average. Within those overall numbers, he also walks more and strikes out less than the league average -- even with his somewhat worrisome drop in plate discipline in 2014, when his walk rate was almost cut in half.*
Alright, so Jaso is above-average. But what exactly does that mean? For this, we will look at OPS+, which adjusts one's OPS for league and ballpark and compares to the average -- the higher the number, the further above average the hitter is. If you combine the last two years, Jaso's 116 mark ranks 75th (out of 310) among all hitters with at least 500 PAs, and 26th (out of 111) among all lefties -- that's better than Jacoby Ellsbury and Alex Gordon and Josh Hamilton, and within spitting distance of Chase Utley, Yadier Molina and Adam Jones. Granted, those other guys play every day and hit against pitchers of both hand, and most of them also contribute a lot on defense, but the point is that when Jaso is in the lineup he hits like a star. Add in his strong 2012 to look at the three-year totals (126 OPS+) and increase the cutoff to 800 PAs, and he jumps up to 36th overall and 12th among lefties. In other words, he's not a good hitter for a catcher; he's just a good hitter, period.
But can he hit when it counts, or is he the dreaded numbers compiler who never shows up at the crucial times? Your answer:
Jaso, career: .259/.359/.399 (.758)
Jaso, men on: .287/.388/.451 (.839)
Jaso, RISP: .276/.385/.442 (.827)
Jaso, on 3rd, less 2 outs: .405/.468/.633 (1.101), 78 RBI in 111 PAs
Jaso, high leverage: .302/.393/.473 (.866)
Jaso, extra innings: .276/.417/.379 (.796)
Jaso, vs. Angels: .287/.386/.462 (.847)
Jaso, pinch-hitter: .227/.366/.387 (.752), 3 HR
I mean, pick your measure. He hits better with men on, he hits better with men in scoring position, and he's an ace at driving home the runner from third with fewer than two outs -- note that the gap between his average and OBP drops from 100 points to 60 points in that last split, suggesting that he knows when it's appropriate to swing the bat rather than looking for a walk (let's call that the Reverse Barton Effect). He hits well against most of Oakland's division rivals (.900 OPS vs. Rangers, .929 vs. Astros, .705 vs. Felix), he gets on base like crazy in extra innings, and he can even stand up off the bench and pinch-hit without losing a step.
He hits for a decent average, he gets on base, he has a bit of power, and he gets even better in the biggest situations. As long as you hide him against lefties, John Jaso is a fantastic hitter, no matter how you slice it.
John Jaso should no longer be a catcher
Jaso's 2013 season ended on July 26 because of a concussion he sustained due to catching. Jaso's 2014 season ended on August 24 because of a concussion he sustained due to catching. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
A lot of us were surprised when the A's chose to keep Jaso behind the plate last year. His absence was almost certainly a difference-maker in the 2013 ALDS, and we worried that he could be susceptible to the same problem again. And whaddya know -- although he made it a month longer than he had the previous year, he still missed all of September (and would have likely missed the playoffs) because of a completely predictable injury. He's now missed 94 games over the last two years just due to his head.
The decision to let Jaso continue catching was made all the more curious by the fact that he isn't good at it. The eyeball test has never suggested that he's particularly sharp back there, and he's one of the worst pitch-framers in the league. Among catchers with at least 350 innings last year, Jaso ranked 47th out of 49 in overall defensive value on Fangraphs, one of only three backstops with a negative value. His rank jumps to a tie for 38th in Defensive Runs Saved (minus-5), but everyone below him on the list had 2-3 times more innings than he did in which to accrue their negative totals. Finally, his arm is a nonfactor -- 68 runners attempted to steal against him in 2013-14, and he caught only eight of them (11.8 percent). On the bright side, he's unlikely to throw the ball into center field because I'm not entirely sure he has the arm strength to get it there. All told, it's difficult to find anything he's good at defensively.
So, what are we left with? Jaso is a strict platoon player who hits well enough against righties to justify being in the lineup for his bat alone. He's always played catcher, but he's terrible at it. Futhermore, his body can no longer physically handle the position for a full season without getting seriously injured.
Look, the ability to use Jaso as a catcher was awesome. He's effective enough behind the plate to be passable in exchange for his offensive production. But he doesn't need to be back there to be worthwhile, and his lackluster defensive skills don't add extra value to the team. And now, keeping him there too much has consistently resulted in losing his bat from the lineup, and his bat is the whole reason you'd want to shoehorn him in as a catcher in the first place. Furthermore, remember that concussions add up over a lifetime; suffering too many puts your entire career in jeopardy (not to mention your long-term health, as the NFL has learned).
Moving Jaso out from behind the plate seemed wise last year, but the team has a lot more information than we do and they decided he was okay. But now, it's hard to imagine what data the A's could have to suggest that keeping him there is anything but foolish and dangerous. And, as a bonus, players often hit better when they move away from the rigors of catching, with Josh Donaldson serving as an extreme example. Jaso should be taking reps at first base this winter, auditioning there in the spring, and serving as a platoon DH if he can't cut it. One of these days, I'd really like to see him hit in September, much less October, and a position switch seems like the only way to make that happen.
* One side note about Jaso's 2014 season to help explain that relatively low .337 OBP. He tends to be a streaky hitter, as illustrated by his month-by-month OPS marks last year:
When Jaso's season ended prematurely, he was in the middle of one of his cold stretches. There is no guarantee that those alternating months would have continued with a strong September, but I don't think it's unrealistic to give him the benefit of the doubt that he would have balanced things out just like he did in May and July. My point is, the 50-point drop in OBP doesn't concern me as much as it would have without a convenient explanation for it.