Even Hoiles says O's need catcher

August 28, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

CHICAGO -- Chris Hoiles wouldn't be insulted if the Orioles acquired another catcher this off-season.

He'd be relieved.

Put him at first base, use him as a DH; Hoiles wouldn't care. He's physically worn down from catching, frustrated by his inability to throw out opposing base stealers. For his sake and for the team's, it's time for the Orioles to find a catcher with a better arm.

"It gets old after a while," Hoiles said of his throwing difficulties. "It's part of the job I've got to do. The last couple of years I haven't done it. Being a DH, just putting a bat in my hand, I feel I could probably do this team more good."

Entering last night, Hoiles had thrown out only 16.8 percent of opposing base stealers this season, the lowest ratio in the majors. Lenny Webster had thrown out only 21.1 percent, the third lowest ratio in the American League, and fifth lowest overall.

The pitchers deserve some of the blame for failing to hold runners, but the Orioles' 18.8 percent success was so far below the league average of 27.5 percent, the catchers must be held accountable, too.

"We've got to get better at holding runners, and we've got to get better at throwing the ball, that's for sure," manager Ray Miller said Wednesday. "The last 15 days, it seems like every stolen base is a run."

This isn't to indict Hoiles and Webster, two of the Orioles' class acts. They play hurt, block pitches, call solid games. And they've combined for 22 homers and 86 RBIs, production that virtually mirrors Mike Piazza's.

Still, Tampa Bay stole three bases in the final two innings off Webster and relievers Arthur Rhodes and Pete Smith on Aug. 20, leading to the go-ahead and insurance runs in perhaps the Orioles' most crushing defeat of the season.

Bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks said Orioles pitchers sometimes make mistakes when they try to overcompensate for their catchers' lack of arm strength. Frankly, it's surprising that teams haven't run on the Orioles more.

Webster is defensive on the subject -- he threw out 33 percent of his opposing stealers for Montreal in 1996, 26 percent for the Orioles last year. An elbow problem limited him earlier this season, and his shoulder bothers him occasionally. But he described the criticism of the catchers yesterday as "unfair."

"You watch the game. You know baseball. You figure it out," he said. "You can put all the blame you want on a catcher. But you know when we have an opportunity to throw guys out. There are times we do. A lot of times we don't."

Hendricks, who works with both catchers, said that Mike Mussina is the only Orioles' starter who is quick to the plate. But he also believes that the team needs to find a catcher who can better shut down opposing running games.

"You have to upgrade at catcher," Hendricks said. "We do not have the best of arms. You can't ask Moose to do better than 1.1 or 1.2 [seconds] to home plate. Of course, there are some guys who are slower. By and large, it's a combination of both. But you do need to upgrade, find someone who can throw."

The question is how.

Piazza is a free agent, but defense isn't his strong point -- he entered yesterday having thrown out only 24.4 percent of opposing base stealers, eighth among 11 NL qualifiers. Joe Girardi could become a free agent if the New York Yankees decline to pick up his $3.4 million option, but the Yankees could re-sign him for less money.

A trade for Charles Johnson might be the most appealing option, even if his defense has become an issue in Los Angeles. The Dodgers might not want a .211-hitting, arbitration-eligible player who is earning $3.3 million this season. But he's making $300,000 less than Hoiles, who has one year left on his contract.

The Orioles are developing a long-term solution at catcher -- Single-A Delmarva's Jayson Werth, who could be a future All-Star. But Werth, the club's No. 1 draft pick in 1997, is probably two years away. The Orioles need a stopgap until he is ready.

Hoiles has had enough.

After his a typically sub-par first half, he now boasts the second-best RBI ratio on the team, behind only Rafael Palmeiro. But he has started two fewer games than Webster and projects to finish the season with a career-low 272 at-bats.

xTC Thus, Hoiles said he would welcome playing time at first base "with open arms" if Palmeiro left as a free agent. He also would embrace at-bats as a DH, but Eric Davis likely would be the first right-handed option at that position if he remains with the Orioles.

The truth is, Hoiles might not be able to catch much longer -- he's suffering from chronic lower back and hip pain that makes it difficult for him to squat. He threw better at one point earlier this season, but now Hendricks shakes his head and says, "the poor kid is hurting so bad."

A 33-year-old body grows weary of the grind, but Hoiles arrived early at Comiskey Park on Wednesday to work on his throwing. "If he was a lazy son-of-a-gun, you'd say to [heck] with him," Hendricks said. But Hoiles isn't a lazy son-of-a-gun, and neither is Webster. They just don't throw well enough, that's all.

The Orioles have avoided the issue for too long.

They need a new catcher, for Hoiles' sake and their own.

Armed, unarmed

The top five and bottom five AL catchers at throwing out runners attempting to steal (through Wednesday's games):

Top five

Player, team ..... Stats ...... Rate

Rodriguez, Tex .. 34-for-65 ... 52.3%

DiFelice, TB .... 26-for-65 ... 40.0

Posada, NY ...... 23-for-60 ... 38.3

Flaherty, TB .... 21-for-59 ... 35.6

Steinbach, Min .. 24-for-69 ... 34.8

Bottom five

Hoiles, O's ..... 17-for-101 .. 16.8

Wilson, Sea ..... 15-for-82 ... 18.2

Webster, O's .... 19-for-90 ... 21.1

Walbeck, Ana .... 27-for-116 .. 23.2

Hinch, Oak ...... 16-for-68 ... 23.5

Source: STATS Inc.

Pub Date: 8/28/98

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