Mirabelli Leaves Big Shoes To Fill

Much has been made of the pressure facing Kevin Cash as he attempts to succeed Doug Mirabelli, who was a sounding board and confidant whose experience and friendship provided security to a pitcher, Tim Wakefield, whose confidence is as unpredictable as the pitch he throws.

But Cash has to replace more than just a personal catcher. He also has to replace one of the most productive backup catchers in baseball history.

Mirabelli has hit at least five homers in eight straight years despite never collecting more than 230 at-bats in a single season. No other catcher has ever enjoyed eight seasons in which he hit at least five homers in fewer than 230 at-bats, never mind consecutively.

In addition, Mirabelli is the only catcher to hit at least six homers in seven straight seasons despite never collecting more than 230 at-bats in a year. That streak was snapped last season.

Only three other catchers have hit at least five homers in fewer than 230 at-bats in five straight seasons: Carl Sawatski (seven straight seasons from 1957-1963), Tom Lampkin (six straight seasons from 1996-2001) and Bill Schroeder (six straight seasons from 1984-1989).

Whether Mirabelli is the most potent backup catcher ever is debatable: Sawatski (55 homers) and Schroeder (54 homers) averaged more homers per season over their runs than Mirabelli, who has 56 homers in the last eight seasons and went deep 51 times during his seven-year streak of six or more homers. And Twins reserve Mike Redmond, who has never reached 300 at-bats in a season, has hit .300 or better six times in 10 seasons and is a .293 lifetime hitter in 1,937 career at-bats.

But Mirabelli's ability to provide steady power in a role defined by sporadic at-bats—and one often occupied by players who are all but automatic outs—made him a valuable player for most of his Sox tenure. Check out some of the backup catchers who collected more than 100 at-bats last season:

  • Jason LaRue, Royals: .166 with 66 strikeouts in 169 at-bats
  • Paul Bako, Orioles: .205 with five extra-base hits and 50 strikeouts in 156 at-bats
  • Jason Phillips, Blue Jays: .208 with eight extra-base hits in 144 at-bats
  • Toby Hall, White Sox: .207 with four extra-base hits and three RBI in 116 at-bats
  • Josh Paul, Devil Rays: .190 with four extra-base hits and 30 strikeouts in 105 at-bats

    Cash has seven homers in 359 big league at-bats, which suggest he can approximate Mirabelli's power production. But he also enters this season with a .167 lifetime average and has hit just .176 in his last 443 at-bats in the majors and at Triple-A dating back to 2006.

    Unfortunately for Mirabelli, the rest of his game was slipping to Cash-like levels. Since 2004—when he set career highs with a .281 average and 32 RBI and tied a career best with 21 extra-base hits in 160 at-bats—he has hit just .206 with 148 strikeouts in 433 at-bats. At 37 years old, the odds of Mirabelli reversing the slide were slim.

    Unlike poor Josh Bard, Cash has some experience catching knuckleballers: He caught Charlie Zink and John Barnes at Pawtucket last year before Wakefield threw 14 straight scoreless innings to Cash while Mirabelli was on the disabled list last summer.

    And with Wakefield 41 years old and coming off two injury-plagued seasons, it does make sense for the Sox to see what Cash, 30, can do this year to see if he can contribute in 2009 and beyond rather than stick with Mirabelli.

    Still, that doesn't change the fact Cash has big shoes to fill at the plate as well as behind it.

    As for Mirabelli, his track record may not be of much help on the open market. Interest in him has been minimal, a poignant reminder that baseball is a lot like the real world these days in that employers are more likely to save a few bucks by going young instead of spending on a proven commodity.

    But if he's done, he's left a resume few, if any, backup catchers have ever matched.

    Diehard managing editor Jerry Beach can be reached at diehardmag@yahoo.com. To receive a free issue of Diehard, call 888-501-5752.

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