The Boston Red Sox started the season quite deep at catcher, but now are looking rather thin because of injuries and ineffectiveness. While a veteran presence behind the plate has helped knuckleballer Steven Wright come into his own, it may be time to move on. Brandon Magee looks at Ryan Hanigan’s trouble with the knuckle compared to other catchers who have had to deal with the troublesome pitch.
Catching a knuckleball is a hard thing to do. Look at the league leader in passed balls each season, and you are likely looking at a catcher that is doing his best to secure the unpredictable pitch. However, Ryan Hanigan is not just struggling to corral Steven Wright’s fluttering deliveries, he is having a historically bad time. With Hanigan going on the disabled list with neck issues after his last game catching Wright, is it possible we have seen the last of Ryan in a Red Sox uniform?
The Woes of the Backstops
The knuckleball is an unpredictable pitch that defies catchers to quickly adjust to the movement of the ball as it comes towards them. It is an impossible task for even the best knuckleball catchers to corral them all. It is not shocking, then, that one can go down the list of passed ball leaders and note which teams have a knuckleballer on the staff. Russell Martin last season and J.P. Arencebia in 2013 had to deal with R.A. Dickey in Toronto. Josh Thole led the National League in passed balls in 2011 (and was second in 2012) trying to catch Dickey with the New York Mets, and has picked up 11 already this season in Toronto. Charlie Hough was rough on the backstops during his stay in Texas in the 80s, with Jim Sundberg, Donnie Scott, Chad Kreuter, and poor ‘ol Geno Petralli – who picked up a modern era record 35 passed balls in 1987 – all leading the league. Perhaps it is no surprise that Benito Santiago and Ron Tingley also led the National League in passed balls in 1993 and 1994 for Florida, the two seasons Hough played for the Marlins.
Joe Niekro’s stay in Houston drove Cliff Johnson, Joe Ferguson, Alan Ashby, Luis Pujols (cousin of Albert), and Mark Bailey to the top of the passed ball charts. Brother Phil placed Atlanta catchers Bob Didier, Earl Williams, Johnny Oates, and Joe Nolan at the top of the list, and for good measure helped Ron Hassey to top the AL list in 1985 during his stay with the Yankees. Ed Hermann topped the American League charts four times for the Chicago White Sox while catching Wilbur Wood. Tom Candiotti’s stay with the Los Angeles Dodgers saw both Mike Scioscia and Mike Piazza lead the league in passed balls.
Unsurprisingly, Red Sox catchers were atop the American League over the past two decades during the tenure of Tim Wakefield. From 1995 through 2011, Boston backstops topped the charts nine times, with Mike McFarlane (1995); Mike Stanley (1996); Bill Haselman and Scott Hatteberg (with 17 passed balls each in 1997); Jason Varitek (1999 and 2000); Doug Mirabelli (2003 and 2004); Kevin Cash (2008); and Jarrod Saltalamacchia (2011) all garnering the dubious distinction. However, the fact that each topped the list does not make them all similar. McFarlane (26), Saltalamacchia (26) and Varitek (25 in ‘99) were simply unable to handle the floater. Mirabelli (topping out at 15 in 2004) and Cash (14) were more adaptable to the idiosyncratic pitch.
The 35-year-old Hanigan, as the current backup backstop of the Boston Red Sox, has been charged with the unenviable job of corralling the nasty knuckleball of Steven Wright. Thus far in 2016, he has been historically abysmal. In his ten attempts at catching Wright, Hanigan has come away with a clean sheet only four times. In the other six games, he has had a single passed ball twice, three passed balls twice, and four passed balls another two instances. With 16 passed balls just catching Wright (17 total this season), his total so far, when catching Wright for a third of a season, would have led the American League in 11 of the past 13 years. Projecting his season from this point forward, Hanigan would obliterate Petralli’s mark of 35 with an unbelievable 51, a total unseen in the major leagues since Chief Zimmer, Jack O’Connor, and Sy Sutcliffe each led their respective leagues with over 50 in 1890. It should be noted that in 1890, catcher’s gloves were still mostly hand protection rather than a truly useful mitt to catch balls with.
While Hanigan’s defense has yet to put a major dent in the season of Wright, who has a 2.20 ERA and a 1.125 WHIP through 11 games, Hanigan has also been lost at the plate this season. Hitting just .186/.250/.229 in 22 games, Hanigan is well below both his career average .683 OPS and last year’s .664 OPS. While Hanigan’s placement on the disabled list gives him a chance to work on his deficiencies, it also gives another player a chance to unseat him.
The Return of Sandy Leon
Sandy Leon, 27, returned to the Red Sox on Sunday after Hanigan’s placement on the DL. Leon, who put up a miserable batting line of .184/.238/.202 in 31 games with Boston last season – and has a career .494 OPS in five major league seasons – was batting .243/.315/.339 in 36 games for AAA Pawtucket this year. However, given Hanigan’s equally useless offense this season, the question of backup utility will rest on the defensive side of the equation. Most importantly, whether Leon can better handle Steven Wright’s masterpitch.
Unfortunately, we have very little data on whether Leon can reliably catch a knuckleball. Despite his presence in Boston and Pawtucket last season, Leon caught Wright only once. On June 7, Leon caught 3 1/3 innings of Wright, who relieved Clay Buchholz in a game against the Oakland A’s. The knuckleballer gave up a single and a walk in his scoreless appearance and Leon was not charged with any defensive miscues. Wright last season was mostly caught by either Blake Swihart (in both Boston and Pawtucket) – who went on the disabled list the same day as Hanigan – or Matt Spring (in Pawtucket), who is no longer on an active affiliated roster.
The Red Sox have not been afraid to replace a catcher who could not gel with the knuckleball. In 2006, Josh Bard had five starts with Tim Wakefield and was charged with ten passed balls. In those five starts, Wake went 1-4 with a 3.90 ERA. Doug Mirabelli was quickly re-acquired from San Diego in a swap of catchers. Did the move truly help? Wakefield went 6-7 the rest of the way (18 starts) with an increased ERA to 4.85. However, Mirabelli was a better stopper of the knuckleball, committing only 12 passed balls in the 18 starts.
Will Leon be able to show enough defensive skill in catching Wright to keep Hanigan from returning to backstop the Red Sox? Will he even get a chance to catch Steven Wright during Hanigan’s time away? If Sandy is able to do so, our last memory of Hanigan will be running up the first base line, attempting to retrieve a passed ball that bounced off his shin guard as two Blue Jays scored on what should have been an inning-ending strikeout. If not, Hanigan is likely to place his name amongst the catchers of the 19th century with his passed ball follies.
Brandon Magee is our minor league expert; he has written about minor league travel, ranking prospects, a first round draft pick, and the MLB First-Year Player Draft.
Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.