Learning About John Jaso

a "perfect" embrace (lol)

Whenever I get to writing about John Jaso, I feel like I don't have a choice but to begin by mentioning the trade last November. How could I not talk about the trade? Writing about John Jaso without mentioning the trade that brought him to Seattle would be like writing about Paricutin without mentioning its origin. Okay, so John Jaso is just another quality baseball player. Okay, so Paricutin is just another Central American volcano. Paricutin emerged out of nothing in a farmer's cornfield. There's more to the Jaso story, too. The trade part.

You get an idea of how the Rays thought of John Jaso from the fact that they traded him for Josh Lueke. You get an idea of how the Mariners thought of John Jaso from the fact that they traded Josh Lueke for him. The Mariners might've thought a little more of Jaso than the Rays, but not by a lot. And that Jaso was available for a Lueke return implies that other teams weren't beating down the Rays' door with trade offers. Last November, John Jaso got traded for an unproven almost-27-year-old reliever with a repellent criminal history.

Jaso was interesting, on account of his walks and his strikeouts and his primary position, but our expectations were modest. Among the Mariners' coaching staff, he seemed like an afterthought. John Jaso wasn't a priority. He was a guy on the team, but he wasn't athletic, he wasn't a catcher, he wasn't a leader, he wasn't whatever Eric Wedge would've wanted him to be. Maybe that doesn't paint the right picture but through March and April, Jaso was hardly given a chance to do anything.

It's the middle of August now, and I know that because it's a hundred degrees outside in Portland and I'm thinking again about getting an air conditioner for the three days a year it's ever like this. I also know that because it says "8/17/2012" in the lower right-hand corner of my monitor. In baseball, 218 position players have batted at least 200 times against right-handed pitchers. By my preferred FanGraphs metric, Jaso's been the sixth-best of the bunch. By that metric he ranks between Miguel Cabrera and Shin-Soo Choo. He ranks ahead of Josh Hamilton, Prince Fielder, Andrew McCutchen, and Jason Heyward. People wanted the Mariners to sign Prince Fielder as a free agent. Good news!ish.

John Jaso is presumably not baseball's sixth-best hitter against right-handed pitchers. Over time, those numbers would come down. But it's a question of by how much, and it would appear that this season Jaso has tapped into some power potential he never really showed on a consistent basis before. He's altered his swing setup and mechanics and he's already two past his career-high for dingers. Against righties, he's got more walks than strikeouts. Jaso has the tools to be sustainably excellent at the plate.

So one thing we've learned about John Jaso is that he can punish righties now. Let's move away from his hitting. There was some concern that, when Jaso was behind the plate, other teams' baserunners would run wild, knowing that Jaso doesn't have Yadier Molina's arm or Yadier Molina's reaction time or Yadier Molina's throwing mechanics. Here are the Mariners' catchers in attempted steals against per nine innings:

Jaso: 0.7
Montero: 1.1
Olivo: 1.1

The league average is about 0.9. This doesn't prove anything, since Jaso's caught in just 30 games, and Jaso's arm doesn't measure up to Olivo's arm, but if teams are going to run wild against John Jaso, they haven't started yet. His career caught-steal percentage is mediocre, but he's not such a liability that this is a real problem, and the win-expectancy impact of a stolen base is usually pretty low. You don't want to just give away extra bases all willy-nilly, and of course you'd prefer a strong-armed catcher over a weak-armed catcher, but the Mariners aren't going to win or lose a World Series because of their catcher's arm, probably. I guess you could win or lose a World Series because of almost anything.

So we've learned that about John Jaso, too. And now we look at Wednesday. Jesus Montero caught the Mariners' combined no-hitter. John Jaso caught Felix Hernandez's perfect game, against his old team. Jaso and Felix might've benefited from some knowledge Jaso brought over, but when the game was finished, Felix on several occasions credited Jaso with calling an outstanding nine innings. The catcher never gets a ton of credit for a perfect game but the catcher is deserving of some fraction, and Felix was very openly thankful. That's the kind of experience that sticks. Felix is never going to shy away from having John Jaso catch him again; John Jaso called and caught Felix's perfect game.

If there have been any concerns about Jaso's game-calling, I haven't heard them. As much as I should know better, opposing hitters have the lowest OPS when Jaso's been behind the plate. Also the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio, from their perspective. All three guys have caught Felix, and Felix has had the most success with Jaso. Jaso seems to be able to handle a pitching staff, or at least he doesn't seem unable. Jaso seems like he has a decent clue what he's doing.

So we've learned that about John Jaso. When the Mariners got Jaso, we didn't know if he'd hit, and we didn't know if he could catch. It seems like he's neither a good nor bad catcher, which makes him an acceptable catcher, and he's obviously hit. What he hasn't hit are lefties, and people think of Jaso as a platoon guy, but then for his career he's batted against lefties just 134 times so how meaningful is that sample, really?

Between double-A and triple-A, Jaso batted 975 times against righties, posting an .820 OPS. He batted 378 times against lefties, posting a .794 OPS. Jaso might be okay against lefties after all. We don't know that, and we can't assume that, but Jaso has already exceeded enough of our other expectations. What if it turns out he can hit lefties, too?

We don't know if Jaso can hold his own in the box against southpaws. We don't know if Jaso can hold up to the rigors of being a regular, since even in 2010 he started just 80 games as a catcher. They say there are some players who can play every day and some players who are best suited for being semi-regulars, and Jaso might belong to the latter group. He's not being used every day now. But Jaso is 28, good, left-handed, and under team control for another three seasons after this one. The Rays wound up with an unexpected miracle when they acquired Fernando Rodney. The Mariners wound up with an unexpected miracle when they acquired John Jaso. In Jaso, the Mariners have a guy who can hit some and catch some. There aren't really a lot of those guys.

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