On May 28, Kansas City Royals manager Buddy Bell officially announced that he will begin to have catcher John Buck start on days when Gil Meche, Jorge de la Rosa, and Odalis Perez are pitching. On days when Brian Bannister and Scott Elarton are pitching, Jason LaRue will start behind the plate. With the way Buck is hitting, I have a hard time justifying this move, even if Bannister and Elarton like throwing to LaRue better. Elarton is quite possibly the worst pitcher in the league, and Bannister is far from a good pitcher. I doubt having LaRue catching them regularly will make them any better.
So how good is Buck? His most noticeable skill, so far, is his power. He had 8 Home Runs coming into today, when he hit 2 off Jamie Shields. HitTracker only has data on 7 of these HRs, so that’s what we’ll concentrate on. Of those 7 HRs, 6 were measured to have True Distances of 398 or higher. His furthest HR went a True Distance of 432. With the distance he’s been blasting these HRs, logic dictates he should also be hitting some HRs that don’t go as far. He hasn’t hit many of these yet. Actually, he’s only hit 1 (383 true feet). That should change as Buck pads his HR totals.
Buck’s power isn’t without precedent. Last year, Buck hit 6 of his 11 Home Runs past 400 true feet and 4 past 430 true feet. One of these HRs went 441 feet, and another went 451 feet. While last year his fly ball rate was 34.7%, this year it has jumped to 47.4%, further validating his power. I definitely expect Buck to continue hitting Home Runs, and possibly at a quicker pace.
Buck is also showing decent contact skills. He currently has a .281 Batting Average, .035 higher than his career average. Is this increase for real? While his Contact rate is 76%, similar to its 2005 and 2006 level, his Walk rate has shot up to 13.0% this year; it was 6.5% in 2006. Buck certainly seems to be more selective, and this could explain the rise from a .290 BABIP to a .310 BABIP, and thus the increase batting average. With such a huge increase in his Walk rate, we would expect to see at least a steady Line Drive rate, if not an improved one. 19.8% in 2006, it has dropped all the way down to 12.6% this year. The most likely explanation (aside from the possibility that it is a fluke and will improve shortly) is his increased Fly Ball rate. Going up nearly a dozen percentage points, his other two rates were bound to suffer a little. His Ground Ball rate has dropped about 5 percentage points, to 40%, although a larger drop was, and still is, a possibility. I don’t see Buck getting back to a 20% Line Drive rate, but I don’t think 17% is out of the question. His increase from a 33.7 AB/HR to 12.5% AB/HR will also help the Batting Average. A BA around .275 seems about right for Buck.
So how much playing time should Buck expect to get? Well, thanks to Buddy Bell, we have a good idea about this number. Catching for 3 of 5 pitchers, Buck will be playing in at least 60% of the team’s games. There are 162 games in a season, to be divided (roughly) evenly among five starting pitching slots. I know that it is not exactly equal, how a fifth starter isn’t used until the middle of April, and so on, but this means each slot should start approximately 32.4 games per season. Right now, Buck is scheduled to catch for three of these five pitching slots, and the three pitchers occupying these slots all have decent job security. Since Buck won’t be needing sporadic days off like normal catchers (these off-days are built into his schedule), it is reasonable to expect Buck to start in a bare minimum of 97 games. Now, let’s say Sweeney takes even one trip to the Disabled List and stays the minimum 15 days. During this time — on days when Elarton and Bannister are pitching — Buck should be the Designated Hitter, considering his team-leading OPS. That would put him at 103 starts. While this is still lower than full-time catchers, it gives Buck plenty of value.
Buck should be owned in all two-catcher leagues, and should be considered in 12-team, single catcher mixed leagues. He should be owned in 14-team, single catcher mixed leagues and in all single catcher AL-only leagues. Bank on Buck for plenty of power and a decent Batting Average.