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A Model of Efficiency
Daniel G. Habib
April 05, 2004
Cost-effective and statistically solid, the face of the information age is...Frank Catalanotto?
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April 05, 2004

A Model Of Efficiency

Cost-effective and statistically solid, the face of the information age is...Frank Catalanotto?

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The secret of Frank Catalanotto's success is a ratty black binder, seven years old. Its hundred-odd loose-leaf pages, alphabetized by pitchers' last names, contain a handwritten record of Catalanotto's 2,201 big league plate appearances and the 8,179 pitches he has seen since he came up with the Tigers seven seasons ago. After every game—yes, the binder makes road trips, which helps explain its disrepair—the Blue Jays' 29-year-old leftfielder logs the type and location of every pitch he saw and how he handled them. Later, he'll turn to the page of the starter he'll face in the next game and review past encounters, mentally replaying those at bats to note tendencies and pitch sequences.

"For example," Catalanotto says, "let's say in the first at bat against a guy, I see a 2-and-0 changeup outside and I get a base hit to leftfield. Then the next time he tries to bust me inside. [Before the next game against him] I'll say, O.K., if I get a hit on something soft and away, the next at bat he likes to come in hard. I can see how a guy pitched to me when I had success against him and what the guy did when he got me out. It's homework. I don't have all the talent in the world, so I make up for it by trying to be a smart player."

Though his data storage method is primitive, Catalanotto's approach to the game makes him a prototypical player for the information age. He's not an offensive star by traditional reckoning; last season he hit .299 with 13 home runs and 59 RBIs. Nor will he win a Gold Glove; he's a slightly above-average corner outfielder with an adequate arm. But in Toronto—where so-called counting stats such as RBIs don't count (on-base percentage is the preferred measure of a hitter's value) and defense is always secondary—Catalanotto is a perfect fit. He's aware of his limitations and understands what he can do to make himself a more attractive player, which is why he tracks his contributions so meticulously.

"He's not only an intelligent hitter," says Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi, "but also smart enough to realize that if he does something good—sees pitches, takes walks—it will be valued here."

Catalanotto had been undervalued in Detroit and then Texas, but that was primarily a failure of the imagination. Though he has reached base at least 33% of the time each season (lifetime OBP: .359) and offset his lack of home run power with doubles and triples, Catalanotto has had 500 plate appearances in a season only once before last year, when he hit .330 with the Rangers in 2001. Also, because of his defensive versatility—he has played first base, second and third, leftfield and right—he was pigeonholed as a utility player, too valuable as a movable part to become a starter. Catalanotto played only 68 games in '02 because of a groin injury and a broken bone in his right hand, and the Rangers, who felt they were set with an outfield of Carl Everett, Doug Glanville and Juan Gonzalez, regarded Catalanotto as a utilityman who was not worth the $4 million he could win in arbitration. Thus Texas didn't offer him a contract for last season, preferring to spend that money on pitching. "That was a very difficult decision for us," Rangers G.M. John Hart said at the time, "but this is more a product of the current economic system."

Ricciardi saw an opportunity to get a player who was undervalued by the market. "There were not enough at bats for him in Texas," Ricciardi says. "He wasn't going to get the 500 a guy like him needs to show what he can do. We could get him those at bats, and we thought he fit. And I'd be lying if I said he wasn't cost-effective." Promised the starting rightfield job, Catalanotto signed for one year at $2.2 million and fulfilled expectations. He had a .351 on-base percentage, a .472 slugging percentage and 53 extra-base hits, numbers that compare favorably with those of players who earn several times his salary (chart, below). In July, after Toronto traded free-agent-to-be Shannon Stewart to Minnesota for rightfielder Bobby Kielty, Catalanotto shifted to left, where he'll return this season with another one-year deal and a $100,000 raise.

The lefthanded-hitting Catalanotto does not have home run power, but he capitalizes on the spacious gaps and speedy turf at SkyDome. He hit only .236 against lefthanders over the last three seasons, so he's exceedingly patient against them (a .323 OBP). Above all, he approaches hitting analytically, digging for any sort of advantage. Besides consulting his logbook, he arrives at the ballpark two or three hours before each game to watch videotape of the opposing pitcher. He studies alone mostly, looking for pitch patterns or gestures that might tip pitches; sometimes he'll call in one of the team's best hitters, centerfielder Vernon Wells or first baseman Carlos Delgado, to watch alongside him, sharing information or asking for their input. "I can be better, drawing more walks, getting on base a little more," he says. "I think I have the potential to be an ideal Moneyball guy. It's a unique time for that type of player."

At Smithtown (N.Y.) High on Long Island, 50 miles from Manhattan, Catalanotto was a defensive standout, a 5'10", 165-pound second baseman. Scouts came to see three of his teammates. "Those guys were big, strong kids at 18," he says. "They were specimens, high school players who were head and shoulders above everyone else." The Tigers, though, liked Catalanotto's attitude and hustle, and took him in the 10th round of the 1992 draft. In scout's parlance they valued his makeup and projectability, and felt he could become an every-day player.

The Blue Jays, of course, dismiss such subjective criteria and avoid high school players. The Frank Catalanotto of Smith-town High is precisely the sort of player that an information age team such as Toronto would never draft. But the Catalanotto who developed in other organizations into a player who gets on base, works counts and is worth twice his salary is the sort of player those teams can't live without.

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