(Before you make any assumptions, this post has nothing to do with Johjima's early season struggles.)
Kenji Johjima is a very good offensive catcher and is also among the best in the league at throwing out wannabe basestealers. Other than those two things, what is the benefit of having him around? Does he even deserve to be Seattle's starting catcher?
Seattle signed Joh-K prior to the 2006 season in order to bring some much needed offensive stability to the position. He has done a very good job in that regard, and is one of the top offensive catchers in the American League behind guys like Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez, Jorge Posada and Ivan Rodriguez. While he is succeeding in the job he was brought in to do, it's something he's not doing that should make him a candidate to lose his job. Simply put, Johjima isn't the best signal caller on the team.
Opponents hit .272 against Felix Hernandez when caught by Johjima, but only .243 when backup Jaime Burke is behind the plate or .209 when Yorvit Torrealba was catching him.
Need more proof?
Jarrod Washburn: .278 with Johjima, .240 with Burke.
Miguel Batista: .283 with Johjima, .240 with Burke.
Brandon Morrow: .270 with Johjima, .161 with Burke.
Even the dreaded Horacio Ramirez was looking good when Johjima wasn't the catcher. Opponents hit a whopping .350 off of him with Johjima behind the plate, but only .233 when Burke was catching.
This same trend extends throughout the entire Seattle Mariners pitching staff with very few exceptions. It's obvious that he's not helping Seattle's pitchers maximize their abilities. What's worse is that there has been some debate about this ever since Johjima was signed, it's just never gotten much attention. There could be a million reasons why hitters are doing so much better against Seattle pitchers with Johjima behind the plate, but two things come to mind for me:
- Some have said that Johjima may be tipping pitches to the hitters by setting up too early. He tends to move inside or outside very early or even before the pitchers windup, giving the hitter a longer opportunity to figure out where the pitch location may be, either by himself or with assistance from a baserunner. Seattle starter Miguel Batista became aware of this on April 11th against the Rays. It appeared that he suspected the runner on second, Akinori Iwamura, of giving signals to the hitter. At that time he called a quick conference and Johjima began setting up much later.
- I have noticed that Johjima doesn't frame pitches as aggressively as most catchers. This popped out to me during that same Rays series, this time on April 8th with Erik Bedard on the mound. It appears to me that unless a pitch is right where Johjima's target is, he doesn't bother trying to make it look good. While Bedard was pitching to the Rays it seemed that there were many borderline pitches that went for balls that could have realistically been called strikes if Johjima made any attempt to make it look good. There is an art to it, and if I recall correctly the Atlanta Braves catchers of the '90s were quite good at this. The pitch isn't always going to be perfect, but that doesn't mean the catcher can't at least make it a tough call for the umpire.
Johjima shouldn't be catching for the Mariners. That may be a lot harder to say if he was hitting fifth, sixth or even seventh in the lineup and was an important offensive factor, but the truth is he's not. This year he's hitting eighth, possibly the most undesirable spot in the lineup. Since he is not being relied upon to be an offensive force, I think the starting job should go to current backup Jaime Burke and/or top prospect Jeff Clement.
With Burke you get an experienced signal caller that brings the best out of the pitchers. He's not a great hitter, but he makes good contact and seems to come through when called upon. It's unlikely that he could hit .300 as a starter, but I believe that he could put up decent enough numbers from the 8-hole in the lineup. Clement has more offensive upside than Johjima, but may be a work in progress with some of his catching fundamentals. While he may not be the best at blocking the pitch in the dirt or throwing runners out, I've heard that he possesses great leadership skills and calls a decent ballgame. I believe either of these guys would help the team out more than Johjima can, either alone or in a platoon situation. Runs saved are just as good as runs scored.
So what would the team do with Johjima if he were removed from his starting role? $5M is a lot to pay your backup, so it would make the most sense to try and trade him, especially since this is the final year of his contract. As a "rent-a-player," Johjima would be difficult to trade until later in the season, when another team may decide they need a veteran catcher for the stretch run.
What to do with Johjima isn't the point. The point is that he shouldn't be catching on a regular basis. I think the Seattle Mariners organization may be on to this already, because it seems like Jaime Burke starts whenever a pitcher needs to get back on track, rather than on the standard "day game after a night game." Maybe Burke will catch the struggling Miguel Batista when Kansas City rolls into town next week.
UPDATE 3:36 pm PST: Baseball Musings came across this post but is not convinced Johjima should be benched or traded, however they do mention that the Mariners have a higher winning percentage when Burke starts over Johjima (.583 compared to .526).
UPDATE 4/14 at 2:36 pm PST: Here's a John Hickey blog post from 2006 in which writes, "Seattle pitchers were complaining, mostly privately, about the pitch calling tendencies of catcher Kenji Johjima."