Around the Horn: Catchers

Lo Duca provides fire, fun and sense of family

The following is the first in a series of weekly stories on examining each Major League team, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we will preview a different position. Today: Catchers.

NEW YORK -- Paul Lo Duca hadn't yet completed the first eight innings of his Mets tenure when he already made his share of positive first impressions: a run-scoring single in the third inning, a double in the fifth and some magic in the top of the eighth. With a slight of hand that Doug Henning would have applauded, Lo Duca turned a potential error into an out that preserved the Mets' lead.

"Hey, what else do you do, man?" Cliff Floyd asked him afterward, putting his compliment in the form of a rhetorical question.

Lo Duca offered his response in the form of a thoroughly professional season, one that put Mike Piazza in the Mets' past tense and helped put the team in the postseason.

Lo Duca had tagged Alfonso Soriano for the first out of the eighth inning on that Opening Day play, then dropped the ball. With the view of umpire Tim Tschida obscured, the Mets' catcher immediately reached down to retrieve the ball and then held it aloft, concealing his faux pas in momentary celebration. He sold it well.

In less than a month, the Mets, too, were sold on Lo Duca. He fit their needs both as a catcher and as a No. 2 hitter. And in every other way, he fit.

"After five days of Spring Training," David Wright said last May, "it seemed like we'd been teammates for five years."

Lo Duca played his part quite differently from how his predecessor had played it, hitting merely as many home runs, five, as Piazza might have in a good homestand and emerging as an engaging member of the roster. Lo Duca's bat and ability to take pitches to right field served the Mets well enough, and his presence in the clubhouse and the dugout provided elements of fire, fun and family that made the 2006 team what it was.

He achieved an out when none existed in his first game, and in the Mets' first postseason game in six years, achieved two outs on one throw. In between and after that double play against the Dodgers, he played his position competently, if not spectacularly. His throwing was nothing special -- he threw out 24 percent of the would-be base stealers -- but it never was an issue for a team that won 97 games.

Lo Duca's presence is one of the other reasons the Mets are approaching the 2007 season with a sense of confidence. His contributions often were obscured last year. How else can a catcher, batting .318 and handling a pitching staff with the third-lowest ERA in the league, be omitted from each of 32 ballots cast for the 2006 National League Most Valuable Player Award?

New York Mets
Catchers: Lo Duca takes ownership
Corner IF: Plenty of pop at corners
Middle IF: Youthful and poised
Outfielders: Alou provides boost
Starters: Rotation a battleground
Bullpen: Relievers to be leaned on
DH/Bench: Chavez the first choice

Four Mets received votes; no other team had as many. And three of those four placed among the 10 leading candidates; again, no other team had as many. No one could quarrel with the inclusion of so many players -- Carlos Beltran, fourth; Jose Reyes, seventh; Wright, ninth; and Carlos Delgado, 13th -- from the team that ruled the league.

But Lo Duca and, for the second straight year, every other National League catcher were excluded from the MVP results. Imagine that.

Whatever the recognition not afforded him, the club was generally pleased with him and with his catching in general. Lo Duca started 117 games and his understudy, Ramon Castro, started 32. Castro's total would have been higher and Lo Duca's slightly lower if not for the knee injuries that limited Castro to eight at-bats after July 26.

None of the second-half fatigue that was expected to undermine Lo Duca appeared, even though he entered the so-called "danger zone" for catchers -- he played most of the season at age 34. Or perhaps he's a better hitter when he's tired and injured. The .338 batting average he produced after the All-Star break was the highest in the National League, and he played the entire second half with torn ligaments in his left thumb.

"He put up with a lot of discomfort and played because we needed him," Wright said. "What he did for us was very much appreciated in here."

Lo Duca finished his season with 80 runs and 39 doubles (the most of any catcher in the league), 49 RBIs and a .314 batting average with runners in scoring position. He was lacking in some areas, though. He was the Mets' No. 2 hitter in 118 games, and the No. 2 spot in the Mets' order had the 11th-lowest slugging percentage in the league, .399, 28 points lower than the league norm for that slot. The on-base average for the Mets' No. 2 spot, .338, also was low -- 12th in league, and seven points lower than the league norm.

But there weren't any complaints.

Castro, who turns 31 in March, batted .228 with four home runs and 12 RBIs in 126 at-bats, but there was no legitimate way to assess his offensive value because of his second-half absence. He did throw effectively, thwarting 35 percent of the stolen bases attempted against him.

Marty Noble is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.