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Catch-22: The Pirates’ Must Improve Behind The Plate

Yasmani Grandal would solve issues at catcher, both with bat and framing
Photo by Richard Mackson/USA Today Sports

On August 22nd, the Pirates granted Francisco Cervelli, who’d been with the team since 2015, his unconditional release. The move hardly came as a surprise. In spite of the fact that Cervelli had been a positive for the entirety of his tenure with the Pirates (11.6 fWAR in four-and-some-odd seasons), he hadn’t seen the field since late May, prompting some “speculation,” shall we say, that he would retire.

Instead, Cervelli moved on to Atlanta, leaving the Pirates where they’d been for the last three months: with Jacob Stallings and Elias Diaz sharing time behind the plate.

On Monday, however, The Athletic’s Rob Biertempfel reported that the team would look to address catcher in the offseason. Per GM Neal Huntington, the Pirates will “take a look at what's available in a trade and the free agent markets this offseason.”

To anyone who follows the Pirates, that’s undoubtedly good news. The current tandem of Stallings and Diaz has been sub-replacement level. And with little help on the horizon, the only way to improve the position is outside the organization.

Offensive Offense

Per Fangraphs, Pirates catchers rank 27th in the majors in fWAR (-0.7) and wRC+ (64). Only the Blue Jays (pair of 24-year-olds), the Tigers (historically bad team), and the Rangers (employing Jeff Mathis) have gotten less from their catchers at the plate in terms of weighted runs created.

Stallings has been the best of the three Pirates regulars, but even he rates as an average hitter at best with an xwOBA of .313 per Baseball Savant. Even when compared to his fellow catchers, Stallings sits middle of the pack in terms of wRC+.

As for Diaz, 2019 has been nothing short of a disaster. Per Baseball Savant, he currently ranks in the bottom 3% in terms of xSLG, xWOBA, and xBA.

Neither is particularly young, either, at least in baseball age. Stallings will turn 30 this year; Diaz will turn 29. There’s little reason to expect much in terms of internal improvement.

As Biertempfel notes in his piece, there’s no cavalry when it comes to the catching position, either. The Pirates minor league system is currently barren at catching talent, particularly at the top end. Indianapolis’ roster holds Steven Baron and Christian Kelley, who sport a cumulative wRC+ of 76.

Needless to say, that won’t solve the Pirates’ offensive shortcomings at catcher by a long shot.

Defense and Framing

As for the defense, both Diaz and Stallings grade out as positives in terms of Pop Time, Savant’s metric which measures the time need to throw down to second. Stallings averages 1.98 seconds per throw, just below the MLB average of 2.01. Diaz averages 1.92 seconds, fourth-best among catchers with at least 5 throws.

Diaz’s advantage ends there. When it comes to pitch framing, Stallings is clearly the better option. In fact, he’s been nearly a full win better than Diaz with less than half the opportunity. Stallings is barely above average, but Diaz has been a disaster.

Courtesy of Baseball Savant.

In fact, Diaz ranks dead last among catchers in Baseball Prospectus’ adjusted Fielding Runs Above Average. Stallings ranks a respectable 16th.

When it comes to pitch framing, however, it’s worth wondering if just average is good enough for the Pirates. In theory, the strength of this team was supposed to be its pitching, both the starting rotation and the bullpen. That sounds great in theory, but building around your pitching doesn’t mean simply building a good staff. To maximize that staff, you have to surround it with competent fielders and catchers.

The Pirates did neither of those. Instead, they’ve forced their pitchers to record more outs through a combination of poor pitch framing and borderline incompetent fielding. In the grand scheme of things, Stallings has been far from a disaster, but when you’re building around pitching, having average-at-best pitch framers behind the plate isn’t just sub-optimal; it’s malpractice.

(Worth noting: Cervelli has been worth -2 runs this season; last year, he was worth -11 runs, per Savant.)

Outside Options

Fortunately for the Pirates, the catching market for next season is robust in terms of the number of free agents. Excluding Cervelli, there’s 17 catchers due to hit the market, per MLB Trade Rumors, though that number could shrink to 12 if all options are exercised.

First, let’s look at the players with options (age next season in parenthesis):

  • Welington Castillo (33) ' $8MM club option with a $500K buyout
  • Tyler Flowers (34) ' $6MM club option with a $2MM buyout
  • Yan Gomes (32) ' $9MM club option with a $1MM buyout
  • Yasmani Grandal (31) ' $16MM mutual option with a $2.25MM buyout
  • Chris Iannetta (37) ' $4.25MM club option with a $750K buyout

Based on this season’s fWAR numbers, we’ll assume that Grandal opts out and becomes a free agent. Castillo, Gomes, and Iannetta likely have their options declined. Flowers ends up back in Atlanta for another year.

Given those assumptions, here’s the list of free agents available, as well as how they’ve done in terms of pitch framing runs over the past three seasons. Each player’s age next season is in parentheses.

Name Runs Extra Strikes
Yasmani Grandal (31) 29
Martin Maldonado (33) 23
Yan Gomes (32) 13
Russell Martin (37) 10
Austin Romine (31) 8
Chris Iannetta (37) 6
Travis d’Arnaud (31) 5
Stephen Vogt (35) 5
Alex Avila (33) 3
Jason Castro (33) 3
Brian McCann (36) 2
Nick Hundley (36) -10
Welington Castillo (33) -15
Jonathan Lucroy (34) -20
Robinson Chirinos (36) -22
Matt Wieters (34) -24

Unsurprisingly, Grandal ranks at the top of the list with 29 runs above average. He’s also tied with former Pirate Russell Martin as the most consistent among available free agents.

Behind Grandal come Maldonado and Gomes, but both their numbers are down significantly this season. Gomes has been average in terms of pitch framing this year, and Maldonado, who’s bounced between three teams, is at -1 runs. In fact, 20 of Maldonado’s cumulative runs above average came back in 2017.

Based on the trends, let’s remove some of the options. First, let’s get rid of the abysmal framers, as well as those who are on a sharply negative trend, a la Maldonado. We’ll assume the Pirates aren’t interested in a Martin reunion, particularly given his age and the Pirates current timeline. That assumption also eliminates Iannetta and McCann from the mix.

Here’s the shortened list, with the addition of wRC+. For reference, Stallings currently sports a wRC+ of 81.

Name Runs Extra Strikes wRC+
Yasmani Grandal (31) 29 118
Yan Gomes (32) 13 74
Austin Romine (31) 8 79
Travis d’Arnaud (31) 5 98
Stephen Vogt (35) 5 118
Alex Avila (33) 3 116
Jason Castro (33) 3 107

Again, Grandal is head and shoulders above the rest, but there’s a couple of other options that might be available in the Pirates’ price range, albeit with their own questions. Castro is having his first season above 100 wRC+ since 2013, and Avila’s inability to play a full season is worrisome.

But unless the Pirates finally show a willingness to do what many (myself included) had hoped they would do last offseason and sign Grandal, those are the sort of players we should expect the Pirates to add, offering some improvement at a reasonable price.

A sports fan with a background in finance, Brandon spends most of his time crunching numbers in Excel. He's an avid listener of Wharton Moneyball, and enjoys advanced analytics, sports handicapping, and podcasts. When he's not working, he can usually be found reading. He can be reached on Twitter @SteeliconValley

6 Comments on Catch-22: The Pirates’ Must Improve Behind The Plate

  1. Great, thorough article!

    Castro is my ‘realistic’ selection if there is no real change in FO or philosophy. I would also look at the trade market: Heim in Oakland, Haase in Cleveland, or Stubbs in Houston. None of these guys get the blood pumping, but.. that’s why I think they could be available.

  2. Kellen Nebelski // August 28, 2019 at 8:50 AM // Reply

    I am a lifelong Bucco fan that has been living in the Cleveland area for 10 years or so. While he has had a down year with the bat, Yan Gomes would be a FANTASTIC pick-up. For starters, he’s not going to cost much at all. Maybe 2y/$10m? That’s probably about the ceiling for him. Secondly, he’s an incredibly likeable player. Tribe fans adored him. Thirdly, his defense is well above average. Looking at the numbers for this year, he’s capable of more. He’s a solid player who can play every day who fans will love who can be had for cheap.

    No doubt I’d prefer Grandal. I would be elated through May if that happened. However, how realistic? Cross our fingers, I suppose.

    I would not be too excited about a Romine signing, however, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by Yankee castoff catchers before…

    Castro is a good, solid player that I would be happy with.

    d’Arnaud finally looks the part of a top catching prospect, but always seems hurt (prior to this year, of course). I’d be happy with him, though.

    Vogt and Avila are both awesome players, but again, every day? If they could play at least 60%, I’d be OK with Stallings filling in.

    I agree with you that no one that you weeded out of the options would excite me. Chirinos, Lucroy, and Castillo are just sucky catchers. No other skills can make up for those shortcomings.

  3. Kurt Streams // August 28, 2019 at 12:07 PM // Reply

    Reese McGuire, age 24, was supposed to be the Pirates catcher now. The Pirates #1 pick (14th overall) in the 2013 draft is meant to be a starting catcher. Setting aside the Pirates traded him, McGuire on the Blue Jays is a career .269/.296/.822 hitter who has thrown out 19% of base stealers. That’s a wasted pick by a GM who cannot afford misses on cheap controllable talent. Imagine going through a season like this and getting nothing from the 1st pick in the 2020 draft.

  4. Phillip C-137 // August 28, 2019 at 5:46 PM // Reply

    Spot on article. Unfortunately as a Pirates fan you know the overriding deciding factor is going to be MONEY. So here’s the 2 highest salaries for the last 5 years.

    2015 – Liriano $11.7 mil, McCutchen $10.2.
    2016 – Liriano $13.7. Cutch $13.2.
    2017 – Cutch $14.2, Cervelli $9.
    2018 – Cervelli $10.5, Harrison $10.25.
    2019 – Cervelli $11.5, Marte $10.3.

    So as much as we may yearn for Grandal, I just don’t see any way the Pirates step up and fork out $18-20 mil for him. However if we want to wait 5-6 years when his production drops and he spends 1/3 of his time on the IL his price should drop right into the team’s preferred price range.

    So having culled Grandal, any of the rest on the Shortened List should be, albeit minor, an upgrade.

    PS I wish you would have placed Diaz and Stallings on the lists to give me an easier comparison of where we are vs what’s available.

  5. Norm Cubellis // August 28, 2019 at 5:51 PM // Reply

    It is amazing that the Pirates have nobody in the pipeline who is worth much. I still believe the team will trade Vazquez in the off season and it will likely be with the Dodgers. They have a catcher (Ruiz) who is supposed to be very good and only 21 yrs old. He was recently promoted to AAA so he is probably a half year away from the majors. Since Huntington likes to trade his better players for major league ready guys, perhaps there is a catcher available somewhere else.

  6. Given the number of spots where the Bucs could use an upgrade, I assume this will be a recurring series?

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