Before the defensive excellence of Russell Martin, and after the tenure of Ryan Doumit, the Pittsburgh Pirates had a stopgap catcher that’s become partly forgotten in Rod Barajas
After a 2011 collapse, the Pittsburgh Pirates were again trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 1992, and also reach the .500 mark. Before the 2012 season, the Pirates had used Ryan Doumit as their primary catcher. In terms of offense, he was really good for a backstop, having a.791 OPS and 111 OPS+/109 wRC+ between 2007 to 2011, but he brought absolutely no value defensively. Defense is absolutely key for a backstop.
After 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates let Doumit sign with the Minnesota Twins in free agency leaving a hole behind the plate. But before they went and signed the highly talented Russell Martin to receive pitches, the Pirates had another catcher between 2011 and 2013. That was veteran Rod Barajas.
Barajas was 36-years-old entering the 2012 season. The veteran had played with six other teams before arriving in Pittsburgh. He also showed some pop in his bat before signing with the Pirates. From 2004 to 2011, Barajas had hit .243/.289/.429 with an 84 wRC+ and .187 isolated slugging percentage. He also averaged 20-24 home runs across 162 games, which just goes to show he did have some power.
Now for any other position, that kind of offensive production would lead to a DFA. But Barajas could help with the glove as well. He wasn’t any sort of Gold Glove finalist, but he had 5.2 defensive WAR across these eight seasons, only had -1 DRS, and consistently caught runners trying to steal on him at or above the league average level.
So why not bring in a veteran who could provide some power and some defense? Well, unfortunately for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Barajas was easily one of the least valuable players in baseball during the 2012 season.
Through 361 plate appearances, Barajas batted just .206/.283/.343. His isolated slugging percentage was just .134, and his wRC+ fell well below 80 at 70. His wOBA also fell far from the .300 mark at .272. Barajas slammed 11 home runs, not a bad total for a catcher with just 361 plate appearances, but that might be the only non-negative to Barjas’s 2012 season.
Sometimes, you can get away with poor batting performance from your catcher, if they can provide a lot of defensive value. I mean, just look at 2017 Martin Maldonado who won the Gold Glove Award that year with similar batting numbers to Barajas.
Barajas wasn’t going to come close to qualifying for any defensive awards. Quite the opposite. As the Pirate catcher, he cost them 21 runs with his defense alone. Barajas caught just six of the 99 runners that tried to take an extra base on him.
Since 1956 when the total number of runners caught stealing by catchers was recorded, Rod’s 6 remains as the lowest total across a single season where a player has caught at least 800 innings, and even then, in two of his ‘caught stealings’, Barajas wasn’t even involved in. Only 2018 Robinson Chirinos ties with him.
But baseball is a game of inches, and it wasn’t all Barajas’s fault. Many times, Barajas was given poor pitches to throw runners out on, and many of the Pirates’ pitchers had slow wind-ups out of the stretch, giving base runners an extra split second to take off. If you want to learn just how important those extra few seconds were to Barajas’ ability to throw out a runner, just watch this video.
This was also around the time framing started to become a measurable skill. By FanGraphs metric, his framing costed the Bucs -18.9 runs, and by Baseball Savant’s metric, -13.5 runs. With -2.4 fWAR, he had the lowest fWAR mark in baseball that year, and the second lowest single season mark by any Pirates catcher to have at least 300 plate appearances.
However, despite his overall lackluster on field contributions, Barajas was a great veteran clubhouse leader. He had a large impact on team morale, and started Zoltan, one of the Pirate signature handsigns in the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
After 2012, Barajas signed a minor league deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks, the team that he broke into the league with, but was released at the end of Spring Training 2013. Barajas leadership skills have has since translated into coaching. He started out his coaching career in 2014 with the San Diego Padres rookie ball affiliate, taking over as their manager. In 2018, he was promoted to the Padres major league team as the bench coach, and was even the interim manager at one point in 2019 when Andy Green was fired. He only coached 8 games and went 1-7, but he still remains the Padres bench coach today.