2004 BA/ OBP / SLG: .314/ .378 / .450
Johnny Estrada and Kevin Millwood; a pitcher and catcher who will be forever linked without ever playing together. Just after the 2002 season, John Schuerholz did the unthinkable. He traded away a 27 year-old fireballing right hander, who had just posted a 3.24 ERA, for an underachieving Quadruple-A catcher. What was he thinking? While Estrada’s performance in 2004 makes it clear that this was a good trade, I first want to analyze the trade at the time the decision was made. Even assuming Estrada turned into mediocre catcher, I think this was a good deal for the Braves.
After the 2002 season, Millwood was heading to arbitration that would yield him a $10 million salary for 2003. That was a hefty price to pay for a player whom I believe to be overrated. In his five seasons with the Braves, Millwood had three league average seasons and two above average seasons. There was no doubt that he was a Major League caliber pitcher, but was he really worth $10 million? Schuerholz had just signed Paul Byrd to 2-year, $10 million deal. Though Byrd ended up spending much of his time with the Braves on the DL, his 2001-2002 stats were comparable to Millwood’s. The bottom line was that Millwood’s contract was an albatross. On top of this, the Braves appeared to need a new catcher. Javy Lopez looked finished, a defensive liability who was now hitting like a catcher. The Braves really didn’t have a near-term replacement in the minors, and a free agent catcher could be pricey. At his worst, Estrada had demonstrated in the minors that he could put up Javy Lopez numbers (circa 2001-2002) at the league minimum salary. And that’s how the deal was made.
Putting all of this aside, Estrada had a fantastic first full season with the Braves, continuing the great work he did in Richmond in 2003. Johnny got a lot of publicity early on for his clutch hitting “ability;” however, by the end of the year his batting average with runners in scoring position (.338) was about the same as his overall batting average (.314). You should like Estrada because he’s a good hitter, not because he is “clutch.” While I wish Johnny walked a little more, he gets on base at 40 points above the NL average. Now, everyone knows that Johnny can hit for average, but he also likes to get hit by pitches. He was hit 11 times in 2004, which puts him in the top-20 in the NL. This is not a fluke, either. In 2003, he was hit 12 times in Richmond and 3 times in only 39 PAs in Atlanta. I like a man who’s willing to take one for the team. His power is respectable, but he’s not a home run hitter. On defense, I think Johnny has gotten a bum rap. Judging catcher defense is hard. He had 8 passed balls in 1042 innings or .0077 per inning. That’s it. The league average was .0066. In terms of gauging his prevention of stolen bases, it’s hard to tell. Caught stealing percentage tells me very little, because 1) pitchers are partly responsible for stolen bases and 2) if a catcher is good base stealers will only go in golden opportunity situations. So it’s possible for a good-armed catcher to not have a very good CS%, which Johnny does not. What does this mean? Well, it is at least clear to me that Estrada’s offense makes up for what minor deficiencies he may have on defense. I don’t hear the pitchers complaining, and he is just a flat out likable player to watch.
What do I expect from Estrada next year? More of the same. While this season may seem fluky compared to his only other season in Philadelphia, his performance in Richmond seems to indicate improvement. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he put up some better numbers next year. While he is old for a player just entering the league, he will be just 29 next year. Plenty of players have peak seasons after they turn 28.