WTNYDecember 23, 2003
The Newest O
By Bryan Smith

In the last ten years, one big name free agent has come to the Baltimore Orioles. Albert Belle. Unfortunately for Peter Angelos and Orioles' fans, that contract didn't go so well; Belle has made more money from Angelos since his retirement than he made in uniform. The Baltimore front office saw 2003 as their chance to try again, and have been quick on the attack thus far.

Last week, Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan inked 2002 AL MVP Miguel Tejada to a six-year contract. Given Tejada's age, defensive skills, and fantastic road numbers last year, it's hard to foresee Orioles' brass regretting that move. But yesterday the team went out on the limb more, risking $23M on a 33-year-old catcher. Laughable, right? Well, not exactly. See, this catcher set the record last year for home runs in a season at the catching position. Yes, at age 32, Javy Lopez gave his career a complete turnaround, throwing sabermatricians everywhere for a surprise.

During the course of his career, Javy Lopez has hit .287/.337/.502, giving the catcher an impressive 114 career OPS+. Compared to his league, Lopez ranks 11th of all catchers in slugging percentage. Lopez is far and away the 3rd best catcher in the last 20 years, and probably top 20 all-time. But given his age, new team, and new style of hitting, what can we expect next season?

First, let's take a look at the gaudy, insane splits Lopez had last season:

Overall: .328/.378/.687
Home: .376/.418/.834
Road: .290/.345/.567
Pre-ASB: .307/.352/.636
Post-ASB: .357/.411/.755

Lopez showed a huge preference to Turner Field, which played out to favor hitters slightly last season. In contrast, Camden Yards was a pitcher's park last year, very similar to National League fields Miller Park and Shea Stadium. Interestingly enough, Lopez hit only two extra-base hits in those stadiums a year ago, although 27 at-bats is a very small sample size. Turner Field will not see Javy at all in 2004, so expect him to be much more like the road version of himself next season.

To put Javy's 2003 into perspective, the slugger hit more home runs (by 6), and had a better slugging percentage (by .101) than any other catcher over 31 all-time. After tossing out Mike Piazza, these are the numbers for most home runs by a catcher after 31 years of age:

1. Lopez ('03)- 43
2. Carlton Fisk ('85)- 37
3. Terry Steinbach ('96)- 35
3. Walker Cooper ('47)- 35
5. Roy Campanella ('55)- 32

And those, besides Piazza's 2001 and 2002, are the only times a catcher after 31 has hit thirty home runs. Now here is the list using slugging percentage:

1. Lopez ('03)- .687
2. Walker Cooper ('47)- .586
3. Roy Campanella ('55)- .583
4. Mike Piazza ('01)- .573

Only four times in the history of Major League Baseball has a catcher above thirty-one years of age has slugged better than .550, and Lopez is the only one to slug .600. Here is a look at the five seasons mentioned above not including Piazza, whom I deem as a bad comp to any catcher...

Fisk '85: .238/.320/.488 115OPS+
Steinbach '96: .272/.342/.529 120OPS+
Cooper '47: .305/.339/.586 141OPS+
Campanella '55: .318/.395/.583 153OPS+

Lopez '03: .328/.378/.687 174OPS+

While Javy blows everyone out of the waters with his 2003, it's interestring that Campanella and Cooper came up as the two closest examples. Walker Cooper began his Major League career with 19AB in 1940, although he didn't reach 400AB with the St. Louis Browns until the 1942 season, when he was twenty-seven. Cooper was oft-injured during his career, but did have 1284AB during the 1942-1944 seasons, compiling an impressive .305/.341/.466 hitting line. He only had 298AB the next two seasons, and in 1947 exploded with 35 home runs, nearly 3 times his previous high of 13.

Campanella was similar to Cooper, not reaching 400AB until he was 27 years of age. In that 1949 season, Campanella hit .287/.385/.498 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and then improved his slugging percentage in each of the next two seasons. Campanella's best season actually came as a 31-year-old, when he hit 41HR and hit .312/.395/.611 with the Dodgers. After an off year in 1954, Roy had his fateful 1955 season.

In contrast, Lopez started playing often in 1995 with the Braves, when he was only 25 years old. In that season, Lopez hit .315/.344/.498 with the Braves, similar to Campanella's first real season with Brooklyn. He was always very close to Cooper in terms of OBP, but closer to Campanella in SLG. As a 27-year-old in 1998, Lopez broke out, hitting .295/.328/.540 with 34 home runs, although his OPS had dropped from the year before (when he hit only 23HR). Javy was then hurt during the 1999 sason, only catching in 65 games. Coming back from injury was a disaster, as Javy got worse in AVE, OBP, and SLG in from 2000 to 2001, and 2001 to 2002. He looked finished in 2002 after hitting .233/.299/.372, but obviously bounced back with one of the greatest catching offensive seasons of all-time.

So how did Campanella and Cooper finish after these big seasons? Campanella struggled mightily the next two seasons, putting up .219/.333/.394 and .242/.316/.388 lines. He did manage to hit 33HR in those two seasons, which spanned 718AB, although only 15 doubles. While that doesn't bode well for Lopez, remember that Campanella's 1955 was his 33-year season, while Lopez was 32 last year. Cooper's career went until 1957, actually closing out the same year as Roy. But during those ten seasons after 1947, Cooper only amassed 300AB once, in 1949, when he hit .258/.308/.436. In the ten years after his fantastic 1947 season, Walker Cooper had 2386 at-bats, and hit a paltry .275/.327/.425.

Finally, let's consider the competition Javy will be facing next season. Moving to the AL East, this is a list of the pitcher's Javy will face in-division next year, ranked by their 2003 ERA:

1. Pedro Martinez -2.22
2. Kevin Brown- 2.35
3. Curt Schilling- 2.95
4. Javier Vazquez- 3.24
5. Roy Halladay- 3.25
6. Jose Contreras- 3.30
7. Mike Mussina- 3.40

Yes, there are seven pitchers in the AL East that had ERAs below 3.50 last year, and they rank as some of the best pitchers in baseball. This list also didn't include Derek Lowe, David Wells, Tim Wakefield, Miguel Batista, Pat Hentgen, and Jeremi Gonzalez. Lopez didn't face the best competition in the NL East last season, in which Kevin Millwood seemed to be his worst enemy.

When considering the change in ballparks, change in division, and change in age, it's unquestionable that Javy Lopez won't nearly match his 2003 statistics. My guess is .275/.330/.475, likely going from the most valuable fantasy catcher, to one that finds himself below the likes of Mike Lieberthal. But Baltimore fans can't complain. At least he's not Albert Belle.

(This article couldn't have been possible without the help of Rich Lederer, and his trusted Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia. So do yourself a favor and head over to Rich's Weekend Baseball BEAT, then go buy an Encyclopedia from Lee Sinins)