Oakland Athletics

20 years of catching mediocrity in Oakland

Ever since Terry Steinbach, World Series winner and All-Star Game MVP, last played for the A’s in 1996, the team has gone through a vast wasteland of catchers. This isn’t so much an exclusive indictment on Oakland, because as with quality NFL quarterbacks, there are only a handful of quality MLB catchers on the planet. Yet the frustration of this fan just continues to grow every year, as the A’s search for a good overall backstop falls well short. If you had to categorize the lot of them since Steiny, I believe only two of them could remotely be called “good.” Those two gentlemen are Ramon Hernandez and Jason Kendall, yet neither of them are in the Buster Posey or Yadier Molina echelon.

Hernandez was the everyday catcher for over five seasons, hitting 60 home runs in that time and providing decent defense. A career .263 hitter, Hernandez was able to fashion a long big league career, playing in San Diego, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Colorado and Los Angeles after his Coliseum days. Most A’s fans will remember him for his walk-off bunt against the Red Sox in the playoffs and for his 2003 All-Star season.

Kendall was as gritty and tough as anyone who ever played the game. He was a three-time All-Star in Pittsburgh when the A’s acquired him in 2005, but he was turning 31 and his offensive abilities took a nosedive in the American League. He hit .319 for Pirates in 2004 but his batting average fell nearly 50 points to .271 for Oakland. That’s still not bad for a catcher, but he wasn’t the same hitter when he switched from black to green. He improved the next season but was batting only .226 in 2007 when Billy Beane traded him to the Cubs for Jerry Blevins and Rob Bowen. He managed to hit just three home runs in 373 games for the A’s. I will always remember Kendall for three distinct moments: charging the mound to confront a sassy John Lackey, tagging out Michael Young’s face at the plate, and scoring from third base when K-Rod dropped the return throw from his catcher. But other than those two men, we’ve only had flashes of greatness.

— Kurt Suzuki got us excited with his .279 average at the age of 24, but the next four seasons the average went down. Not blessed with a great arm or physical stature, Zuk always had proper fundamentals when it came to blocking pitches in the dirt.

— Damian Miller, a strike player, had a decent season in 2004 but only lasted a year with Oakland. And because of his history as a scab, he was never allowed into the players’ union, and his name is left off of all Diamondback merchandise commemorating their 2001 championship, of which he was a member.

— I was thrilled when the A’s drafted A.J. Hinch out of Stanford, as he seemed a fantastic college prospect. He quickly proved he simply could not hit major league pitching, although he’s now the Astros new manager for some bizarre reason. He was awful as Arizona’s skipper after they fired former NL Manager of the Year Bob Melvin.

— I was also thrilled about Landon Powell, a star at South Carolina and now a member of the College World Series Hall of Fame. But after three years as backup and a .207 average, his career was over. He tried to catch on elsewhere to no avail. I personally liked him very much, as he was very friendly to me and the media. But he wasn’t MLB caliber, unfortunately.

— Then there is the group who could hit a little but were not great defensively, like John Jaso, Brent Mayne, and Adam Melhuse. Derek Norris, who earned an All-Star appearance based on his bat in the first half of last season, was one of the most frustrating players I’ve ever had to watch. No matter how much coaching he received, he still would not turn his mitt palm-up for balls in the dirt. Instead, he would try to backhand everything, leading to innumerable wild pitches which in reality were passed balls. And he couldn’t throw out anybody. In my mind, getting Jesse Hahn and more for Norris was a steal for Beane, and I’m the guy who usually complains about every trade.

— There was one catcher who was excellent defensively but played only 14 games for the A’s, and that’s Geovany Soto. The last time Oakland played a real game, he was their starting catcher. He’s now property of the White Sox.

— Then there are just “guys”. They were all major league players for a little while, and no one can take that away from them – it’s a remarkable achievement. But while they might have had a nice game now and then, the names Recker, Mercedes, Kottaras, Castillo, Montz, Fasano, Brown, Fox, Williams, Anderson, Wilson, Munson, Bowen, Myers and McKay probably do not fill your head with amazing memories.

So as Stephen Vogt, a nice hitter but not a fantastic catcher, looks to get plenty of at-bats at positions other than the one behind the dish this season, Bob Melvin must turn to young Josh Phegley as his Rock of Gibraltar. I met him at FanFest and he certainly has the build for it. After being part of the return from the Jeff Samardzija trade to the south side of Chicago, Phegley will get plenty of playing time if he can play adequate defense at catcher. I really don’t care if he hits .216, which is what his average was in 11 games with the White Sox last year. The A’s need someone to stop the other team from running wild, as Kansas City did in the Wildcard Game last September. It’s been a long, dry spell these last two decades. At this point, I just want a catcher who can catch.

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