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40 in 40: Chris Iannetta

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Introduce yourself to Chris Iannetta. You've already met.

don't try this at home, kids
don't try this at home, kids
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

One of the things they don’t tell you about growing up is how easy it is to become a caricature. When you’re young, you’re constantly listening to new bands, meeting new people, watching full-length films in a single sitting. You’re falling in love with people who don’t deserve it (and ignoring the ones that do), then going home and writing terrible poetry about it. You’re developing a baseline jumper, cracking eggs without spilling shell in the pan, reading Austen. Then you get old, and you don’t have time for these things, because you are always, at any given moment of your adult life, in a Target. You’re building endless routines so your kids don’t feel betrayed when it’s time for them to do anything they’re not doing. You’re falling asleep with the light on and your book on your chest, before you could even figure out which paragraph you left off on the night before. Your identity is out of the kiln.

The effect is magnified for writers. You think of some take or idea on the spur of the moment, write it down, ultimately say it kind of poorly, throw in a couple good images or jokes if you’re lucky, then hit publish. Then you go on with your life, writing other things, reading and talking to people and stumbling toward some pretense at wisdom, but the words you wrote are permanent. You become known for them. And more and more you grow into them, because they’re easy and people expect them from you, until eventually they become so heavy that you can’t lift them up anymore. You find yourself playing a role you created for yourself, just like all the other identities you forged.

And even once you see the trap, it doesn’t matter. Those words are there, indelible, damning. You can’t unwrite yourself. Because the whole time you were creating strengths, learning things, improving at things, building bullet points for resumes and relationships. And all the while, it wasn’t your strengths that defined you. It was your weaknesses.

Here, then, are Chris Iannetta’s weaknesses, spelled out through various player comments in the BP Annual.

2008: "Yell all you want, but if a player doesn't hit .200, he can't keep his job, no matter what else he's doing."

It’s the first thing you notice about Chris Iannetta. It’s the first thing everyone notices. Last year, he hit .188. As in, fourteen points better than Mike Zunino .188. You’ll hear it on sports radio if you dare turn it on, you’ll see it in the newspapers after he goes 2 for 20 over a week. Chris Iannetta will never hit for average, because his BABIP is generally terrible. His BABIP is generally terrible because he hits every ball at a fifty-degree angle. A graph:

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People blamed Colorado, because they always blamed Colorado. They claimed that he hit 18 homers in 2008 and learned to like it too much, the only sin of selfishness you can really make stick. But he was already golfing in 2007, and that 2006 is a mere 91 plate appearances. This is the type of hitter Iannetta is: the kind that will make you crane your neck in the stands, study the outfielder for his sense of concern. He’s not built for the cold climate, and his 90 wRC+ in April is the worst of his career, and the divide is even more noticeable after he left Coors.

2012: "His window of opportunity to develop into a cult hero is closing. Part of the problem is that he can't hit on the road."

The three years after that comment was written, Iannetta hit significantly better on the road than at home, posting wRC+ differentials of 30, 2, and 18. Those three years also came post-Coors, the hangover effect of which is well-publicized. The underlying issue is his streakiness, which spreads across splits. He doesn’t start off well. He doesn’t hit righties well, and there tend to be lots of righties. But this is true of plenty of players, many with lesser pedigrees. Most of them get at least one full season. Iannetta has never batted more than 426 times in a season, and it’s not because of injury. Managers seem to look for a reason to give him a night or thirty off.

One reason is that Iannetta commits the cardinal sin: he strikes out.

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Iannetta is no Olivo; he actually has an excellent batting eye. His 12.9% walk rate in 2015 was fourteenth in the majors (min 300 PA), while Seth Smith paced the M’s at 10.4%. The trouble isn’t so much that he swings at bad pitches, it’s that he can’t hit good or bad pitches. His O-Swing%, the rate at which he chases pitches outside the strike zone, was fifth-lowest in baseball at 21.0%. Unfortunately, his contact rate on those pitches was 46.7%, fourth-worst. On these leaderboards he sits among names like Sano, Stanton, Chris Carter, hitters who are liable to send one of those rare bad pitches 450 feet. Iannetta, with his moderate power, has no such luxury. He is efficient because he has to be. It leads to a whiff-per swing heat map that looks like this:

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Few hitters in baseball would benefit more from MLB’s proposed adjustment of the strike zone. From the bottom of the knee to the top seems like such a tiny adjustment, but for Iannetta, who is helpless against the called low strike whether he swings or not, the effect could be career-altering.

2006: "Since it’s an inviolable law of the universe that a catcher cannot be praised simultaneously for both his defense and offense, his surprising bat has led to increased talk that he`s only an average defensive backstop."

2013: "Iannetta actually does the basics capably, but Scioscia’s concern for his backstops has always gone beyond mere pitch-blocking and throwing. Iannetta’s inability to work effectively with his pitchers led to at least two sit-downs, one of which involved GM Dipoto."

The critics were right on this one. For nine years, Iannetta was a bad-to-awful defensive catcher. We just didn’t realize why at the time.

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The new world order of catcher framing has taught us that no catcher defense really matters except catcher framing: the arm, the blocking, those are nice but they’re drops in the bucket compared to the frequency and importance of drawing that occasional strike. Jeff Sullivan and Eno Sarris of FanGraphs documented a change in Iannetta’s defensive posturing, encouraged by backup Hank Conger, that essentially swing him from a -2 win defensive catcher to a +1 in the span of two years.

Will it stick? Pitch framing is large sample size stuff, but there’s also a reason to think that all catch framing, bad and good, will regress to the mean as the secret spreads and more coaching is brought to bear on good defensive fundamentals. Even so, he’s no longer a liability. The whispers of bad play calling and sequencing are more troubling, and less quantifiable, but they’re also rumors that dogged Yasmani Grandal before his emigration from San Diego last winter and his subsequent ascension to Greatest Defensive Catcher of 2015. Besides, in an environment of Scioscia and Dipoto, all baseball is politics.

2009: "Blame the Rockies if you want, but they let him hit his way into the starting job in 2008, and he hit his way out of it in 2009."

A short story:

2007: Yorvit Torrealba (113 games, 77 wRC+)
2008: Yorvit Torrealba (70 games, 72 wRC+)
2009: Yorvit Torrealba (64 games, 85 wRC+)
2010: Miguel Olvio (112 games, 92 wRC+)
2012: Bobby Wilson (75 games, 61 wRC+)
2013: Hank Conger (92 games, 101 wRC+)
2014: Hank Conger (80 games, 79 wRC+)
2015: Hank Conger (86 games, 82 wRC+)

All of these players were decent defenders. (Even Olivo: somehow, 2010 was his only decent year, according to FRAA.) All but one hit worse than Iannetta’s bad platoon side. Iannetta has been Jeff Mathised for eight of his nine professional seasons.

Imagine if your life had a baseball-reference page. Imagine if every mistake you made were transcribed and quantified, every reality TV show watched, or the six months you poured into World of Warcraft back in 2004. Imagine records kept of all the languages you didn’t learn. Imagine strangers combing over that data, looking for patterns, tracing your gradual decline, making predictions. Knowing that you left the front door unlocked yesterday when you left for work, knowing how much more likely it makes you doing it tomorrow. Knowing what it makes you.

Chris Iannetta is a part-time player, always has been. It was determined when he was young, like a role tattooed on a boy in a dystopian young adult novel. No matter what he did, something always reinforced the original narrative. This year, at age 33, there is no safety net, no meddling manager, no helpful backup catcher rolling over forgettable grounders to second. Mike Zunino is banished. Jesus Sucre is fractured. Steve Clevenger is Steve Clevenger. For one year, for one moment at least, Iannetta will be allowed to define himself.

Pray for a balmy April.