Name: Henry Blanco
Age on Opening Day: 39
2011 stats: 37 games, 112 PAs, .250/.330/.540, 8 HR, 12 RBI
2010 stats: 50 games, 144 PAs, .215/.271/.300, 2 HR, 8 RBI
"One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn't belong..." Ted Williams, Richie Sexson, Mark McGwire... And Henry Blanco? But they do have one thing in common. What that is, can be found at the end of this piece.
2011 Expectations. The Diamondbacks were in the market for a back-up to Miguel Montero, almost as soon as the trade of Chris Snyder went through. John Hester, who filled in the rest of the year, was never given serious consideration, and it was no surprise when the team inked Blanco to a one-year deal with a mutual option in mid-December. In Blanco, the team got someone who knew his role was as a back-up, having averaged only 49 games per year from 2007-10, and was comfortable doing it. Blanco said, "In the beginning, it was kind of tough to take it. But over the years, I've been able to understand it more and more."
At the time Nick Piecoro wrote that Blanco was "known for being a strong defensive catcher...and for being a coach-on-the-field type player who can be a mentor to young teammates.:" That would be Montero, like Henry a native of Caracas, Vanezuela, and a player whose offensive development had generally been perceived as exceeding the other aspects of his game. This was also a role Blanco had filled previously on several teams, helping to bring on Geovany Soto (Cubs), Nick Hundley (Padres, also under Kevin Towers - at the time, Paul DePodesta reported Blanco as having an 87.2 Mentor Rating!) and Josh Thole, last year with the Mets.
Offense. Blanco's playing time was always going to be limited by his role, and the truth is, the less he played, the better for Arizona, as that would indicate Montero being the everyday catcher anticipated. That wasn't certain - due to injury Montero only appeared in 85 games last year, and had only once passed that number in his career [as a yardstick, the average front-line catcher in 2010 played 110 games]. However, Miggy hit the ground running, and never really let up thereafter. As a result, Blanco appeared only five times in April for Arizona, mustering just 11 plate-appearances in our first 27 games, without a hit.
That changed in May - there weren't many more games, but Blanco became known as "Homerin' Henry", after four of his first six hits left the park. That included a two-homer game against the Padres on May 16th, the fourth multi-homer game of Blanco's career, and the first since April 2009. That matched his total for all of 2010, though his performance that day was overshadowed by a D-backs defeat, and Armando Galarraga's post-game media meltdown. "I just got pitches to hit, but every time you lose, I don't think anything counts," said Blanco afterward.
Blanco's biggest contribution to a game came on August 14th, when he added 17.6% to our win probability, as the D-backs defeated the Mets However, Blanco's performance was again overshadowed, as that was the games where Jason Marquis broke his leg, endiing his season. Even Blanco hitting his first triple since 2006, as he did September 24th against the Giants, didn't even merit a mention in the official recap, due to the Chase Field power outage which also took place. Jarrod Parker empathizes, I'm sure. We at the 'Pit, however, would like to give due credit to only the second triple hit by a catcher in his forties during the past 20 years.
Something I didn't realize about Blanco was that he wasn't originally a catcher. He was signed as a third-baseman originally, and though he made his debut in 1990, didn't work significantly behind the plate until 1996. During his major-league debut the following season, he played only first and third, and started at first-base as recently in his career as 2007. But he has a very solid defensive reputation, and it's one he has earned. In 2,458 innings with a mask on since the start of the 2005 season, Blanco had made just seven errors, and had one with Arizona this campaign.
Overall, the team ERA with Blanco catching was more than a run higher than with Montero, at 4.63. However, that's probably as much to do with who Henry was catching as anything. Only 6 of his 37 appearances saw him act as a battery-mate with Daniel Hudson or Ian Kennedy, the two staff aces. Blanco's reputation is for calling a good game, and I didn't see much this year, albeit in limited time, to damage that.
However, it's his gunning down of base-stealers which has made him legendary. As a yardstick, the NL average thrown-out rate this year was 28%. Blanco has nailed over 43% of attempted thieves in his career. and a 2007 study ranked Henry's career number at that point, among the top twenty all-time. For the D-backs, he nailed 11 of 24 altogether, including three of four trying to take third-base. Witness this delicious throw from June 8th, as Blanco nails Jose Tabata after he attempts just that: Pretty much all the defender had to do, was drop his arm a few inches, and wait for the runner to arrive.
There's little doubt about the positive effect Blanco had on Montero, who started off the season on a woeful streak of errors - mostly involving the ball sailing into the outfield - but ended the year among the best in the majors at nailing base-stealers. Bullpen coach Glenn Sherlock was full of praise for Blanco: "I think it’s a perfect situation. I think Henry’s like a big brother to him, somebody that has the experience and has done what Henry has done in the game, and he can share those things with Miggy."
Kirk Gibson agreed, saying in spring training, that Montero has "a guy in Henry this year who can really help him out. When we sent 'Schmitty' (catcher Konrad Schmidt) down, he couldn't say enough about how much Henry taught him." You only need to see how Miguel improved over the course of the season: though his 11 errors tied for second in the majors, his last was on June 23, giving him an ongoing 74-game errorless streak at the end of the season. In August, Montero said, "I've been working a lot with Sherlock and Henry, and both have been helping me a lot. I think that's the biggest difference this year."
Montero and Blanco will probably be teaming-up again next year, as the Diamondbacks confirmed that the mutual option with Blanco for 2012 is likely to be exercised. While it'd be nice if Blanco could repeat his 2011 power-surge - Jason Varitek was the only other back-iup catcher in the majors with as many home-runs - it's not something I'd rely upon, given Henry has averaged one home-run every 13.2 games in his career. But he wasn't signed for his bat, and as long as he continues to be a good Montero mentoro [as it were!], and gives Miggy a day off once a week or so, that will be perfectly fine with the Diamondbacks.
Blanco was likely the only 'veteran presence' position player who truly worked out for Kevin Towers this season, overperforming expectations. While the others ranged from awful (Melvin Mora) to meh (Willie Bloomquist), or were hampered by injury (Geoff Blum, Xavier Nady), Blanco did exactly what was desired, and has to be credited for a palpable improvement in our front-line catcher's defense. Henry even produced more than we thought at the plate, though due to his limited number of appearances, the actual value created there was relatively slight. However, I've no complaints at all about Blanco in 2011, nor any qualms about his presence on the 2012 roster.
Overall grade: B+
Dan Strittmatter: B.
Fun fact 1: Blanco played in 37 games, yet posted more fWAR than Miguel Olivo, who played in 130 games for the Mariners and finished the first year of a two-year, $7MM contract. Fun Fact 2: Blanco played in fewer games this year than all but two seasons of his career - his first cup of coffee in which he played in three games and 2007 with the Cubs, when he played in 22 games. However, Blanco's eight home runs this year was the second-highest total of his career, trailing his 2004 total of 10 with the Twins, when he layed in 114 games.
Considering the super low expectation I had of Blanco when the season started, I'm pretty damn happy with what he did. He was ready to go when Gibby called his name and he helped morph Montero into one of the league's better defensive catchers. Not only that, but I can't really think of a single moment during the season that I was disappointed or unhappy with the way he was playing. He was utilized perfectly by the team.
I like the home runs, but I think it's unsustainable. It's hard for me to grade his impact on Miggy because I can't look into the clubhouse and see the evidence. Montero got better with defense as the season went on, but is that really directly caused by Blanco? So he was about average as a backup catcher, to me. He didn't throw away games, but he didn't seem to be a gamechanger.
As a backup catcher, you don't really need a whole lot out of Blanco to make me happy. He put up some solid numbers, didn't take away too much time from Miguel Montero, and contributed when we needed him. A guy who has 100 at-bats on the season isn't going to make a massive impact, but 8 home runs is a pretty nice return. Will he keep that up? No, probably not. It certainly seems like he helped Miggy improve, but of course it's hard to prove causation there. But Blanco fit in pretty well with what made this team successful- he may not have been a flashy name, he may not have drawn attention to himself, but he showed up, did his job, and helped the team when they needed him.
Next up: Thursday sees Dan Strittmatter discuss Willie Bloomquist. That should be interesting...
[Oh, yeah: what does Blanco have in common with Ted Williams, Mark McGwire and Richie Sexson? They're four of seven players in major-league history to have 100 ABs or less in a season and still hit 8+ homers.]