The official 2012 Miami Marlins Season Review player series begins today as promised in our season review overview and schedule. The format of this series will be to include each starting player or player who received the most playing time at a given position and review their season alone, followed by reviewing the seasons of the remaining players at those positions. If multiple players received significant playing time, they may get their own separate looks, as you will see on Monday with the first base column.
Today, we start with the catcher position, and this is one spot about which fans already felt poorly heading into the 2012 season. John Buck had not instilled great confidence with his down year in 2011, but there were at least passable signs that Buck could return to something a little better than the 2011 season and still be worth a decent amount. The projection systems, on the other hand, thought a repeat of 2011 was in order, but even at 2011 numbers, Buck would still at least be a one-win or a bit better catcher.
Unfortunately, Buck defied even those projections and put up the worst season of his career.
Only twice had Buck ever hit a wOBA less than .300 before 2012, but he took it a step further this season. Traditionally in baseball, the Mendoza Line of a .200 batting average is the benchmark for futility in a campaign, and Buck struggled to crack it for much of the season. He broke a .201 batting average by the end of September 5, and it marked the first time he had reached the Mendoza Line since May 15 of this season, which shows just what kind of futility into which Buck had buried himself.
Since 1961, only 66 player-seasons have come around, including Buck's, that have ended in more than 350 PA and a batting average at or below the Mendoza Line. At the very least, Buck's stands on a relative pedestal, as his season is tied for the 14th most Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement (rWAR) among those 66 seasons, alongside Carlos Pena's equally miserable 2012 among others. When you look at OPS+, Buck's year is the 18th best, and that came while playing the catcher position. In terms of his standing in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR), wOBA, and wRC+, his standing is similar. So at least when compared to the worst hitting seasons in baseball history, Buck was among the better ones.
But that is not consolation to Marlins fans, who had to put up with such a horrific season for much of the year with little to no recourse. With the team bereft of catching depth, Buck was tossed out there more often than not and continued to struggle mightily. Earlier in the year, at least Buck was propping up his terrible batting average with a career-high walk rate that kept his OBP in acceptable ranges; despite a .179 batting average by the end of June, Buck still had a .306 OBP thanks to a 15.6 percent walk rate. From that time on, his walk rate fell to an 8.3 percent rate, as he began swinging more often as he did with the Toronto Blue Jays. It is safe to assume that he felt the patient approach was not working, but it is not as if the other approach helped, as from July to the end of the year, Buck still only hit .208/.287/.377.
If there is a positive to take out of all of this, outside of the fact that much of what Buck did this year was similar to his career outside of his BABIP, is that at least he had a positive impact on defense. While he will never be confused with Yadier Molina in throwing out runners, he threw out a far more passable 27 percent of would-be basestealers, which was right around the league average. In addition, Buck did a very good job this year of preventing passed balls and wild pitches, as Matt Klaassen of Getting Blanked had him preventing four runs more than the average catcher in that department. Buck's 16 wild pitches are 16 less than what the average catcher would have allowed in the same number of innings. While this effect was not as apparent while Buck was the primary catcher, it did become more obvious when Rob Brantly came in later in the season and struggled to block wild pitches in the final month-plus of the year.
The good news presumably heading into 2013 is that it could not get any worse for Buck in the final year of his three-year, $18 million contract. He will not be the starter at the beginning of the season, but he will get a chance to face primarily lefties, and it is hard to imagine him having a worse season than this. Then again, players who have struggled like this often have not climbed back from the dark depths, so it is possible Buck's 2012 failure could be a herald to the end of his major league career.