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

April 04, 2004

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 Smithtown
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. --Daniel G. Habib

COLOR PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER LITTLE BIG MAN Catalanotto knows his game. FOUR COLOR PHOTOS: COURTESY OF MLB PHOTOS

VALUE JUDGMENT

A comparison of 2004 salaries and 2003 production for these AL
leftfielders reveals Frank Catalanotto's bang for the buck.

HIDEKI MATSUI
YANKEES
CONTRACT: 3 years, $21 million (2nd year)
G: 163; BA: .287
OBP: .353; SLG: .435
HR: 16; XBH: 59; BB: 63
K: 86; SB/Att.: 2/4

SHANNON STEWART
TWINS
CONTRACT: 3 years, $18 million (1st year)
G: 136; BA: .307
OBP: .364; SLG: .459
HR: 13; XBH: 59; BB: 52
K: 66; SB/Att.: 4/10

RAUL IBANEZ
MARINERS
CONTRACT: 3 years, $13.25 million (1st year)
G: 157; BA: .294
OBP: .345; SLG: .454
HR: 18; XBH: 56; BB: 49
K: 81; SB/Att.: 8/12

FRANK CATALANOTTO
BLUE JAYS
CONTRACT: 1 year, $2.3 million
G: 133; BA: .299
OBP: .351; SLG: .472
HR: 13; XBH: 53; BB: 35
K: 62; SB/Att.: 2/4

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)