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Let’s Find A Backup Catcher For The Pirates — Here’s Chris Iannetta


Chris Iannetta could greatly help to stabilize the catching position for the Pirates.
Photo by Carlos Herrera/Icon Sportswire

For the second straight year, Francisco Cervelli suffered through an injury-plagued season for the Pirates, with four separate trips to the DL. And for the second straight year, the position suffered greatly for it. The Pirates did not have a viable answer at backup catcher with the bat, save for a few games by Elias Diaz early on that got everyone hyped to ship Cervelli out of town. But Diaz, predictably, came back to Earth in a hurry. His final line of .223/.265/.314 (52 wRC+) is about what I would expect from him, but it was positively Mike Trout-ian compared to Chris Stewart this year. Stewart was very good defensively, but his anemic batting line of .183/.241/.221 (22 wRC+) would make even Jeff Mathis blush.

Francisco Cervelli is the starter heading into 2018, both on his past merits and his 3 year/$31M contract in his back pocket, for which he’ll get $10.5M next year. However, the Pirates really need to address finding him a more reliable backup than either Stewart or Diaz. Many people think Elias Diaz is the catcher of the future, but I’m sad to inform them that he is not. Diaz is not a young up-and-comer at this point. He’s 27, so the mortar is fairly well set on him. It’s clear to me that the Pirates don’t have a great deal of faith in him, either, as his lack of playing time during key stretches this year speaks volumes.

Juan Nicasio was ostensibly moved to the Phillies to give younger players more experience in key situations in September, to paraphrase GM Neal Huntington. OK, that b.s., but let’s roll with that for a minute. If that’s the case, why was Chris Stewart getting the lion’s share of starts in August when the season was clearly lost ? Earlier in the year, when Cervelli was dealing with his concussion and hand injury, Stewart again got the majority of the time over Diaz. The Pirates have said indirectly that they don’t like the way Elias Diaz calls a game. His pitch framing numbers, as per Statcorner, are atrocious at -12.1 runs below average.

So if the Pirates part ways with Chris Stewart (he’d get a $200K buyout instead of his $1.5M team option) and decide that Elias Diaz isn’t in their future plans, there’s an option out there that may be a good fit. Chris Iannetta has always been an underrated catcher, in my opinion. He’s never been a top-tier star in the Buster Posey class, but for the majority of his career he’s had an above-average bat and solid defensively. After two sub-standard years in 2015 and 2016 with the Angels and Mariners, respectively, Iannetta rebounded strongly in 2017 with the Diamondbacks. His line of .254/.354/.511 (120 wRC+) with 17 homers was robust and he provided neutral numbers on his pitch framing at 0.0 runs.

The Diamondbacks, as per this Arizona Republic article, are going to be in a payroll crunch this offseason, thanks to $60M of existing commitments (hey, Zack Greinke and his $34M salary) and a potential $50M of arbitration salaries. Their 2014 payroll of $112M is their franchise high and the Diamondbacks have some historical financial issues that they’re still dealing with, so it’s very unlikely that they’ll be able to retain all of their free agents like Iannetta. Iannetta will be 35 in April and was playing on just a 1 year/$1.7M deal last season, so he’ll be looking to get one more multi-year deal in his career. Considering that heading into 2017, then-34 year old Nick Hundley signed a 1 year/$2M deal coming off a season with relatively similar numbers, I’d say that offering a guaranteed 2nd year to Iannetta on a 2 year/$4M deal could seal it.

Chris Iannetta has been remarkably consistent in his walk and strikeout rates, in good years and bad, as he has never walked less than 11.2% of his plate appearances. His strikeout rate will be above 25%, but I could live with that if his power remains good for a catcher with around 15 home runs. Iannetta isn’t looking to be a full-time starter at this stage of his career, but he could handle a large workload if called upon in the case of another Francisco Cervelli injury. Ideally, Iannetta would catch around 60-70 games next year to give Cervelli adequate rest, but if he had to catch half the season it wouldn’t be the end of world.

By giving Iannetta a two year deal, it would sync up with the two years remaining on Cervelli’s deal and provide him with a reliable partner to don the tools of ignorance. It would also give the Pirates two years to try and find a more long-term solution behind the dish.

Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.

60 Comments on Let’s Find A Backup Catcher For The Pirates — Here’s Chris Iannetta

  1. Very interesting article Kevin. This shows me why my constant reliance upon the eye test isn’t good enough. I would never have known Diaz had a -12.1 below average pitch framing number. The test shows that Diaz has a strong arm, has a good glove and moves well. The game is more than that.

    What were Stewart’s pitch framing numbers? His offense was so bad I’m assuming those numbers were at least average.

    • Bob Smizik // October 17, 2017 at 7:54 AM //

      Attempting to evaluate a catcher’s defensive skills by watching his play on television is a fruitless task.

      • Patrick Byers // October 17, 2017 at 9:46 AM //

        I don’t know entirely about that Bob. Sure, there are certain things you can’t really spot, such as what his communication with the pitchers is like, how well he can call a game, how well he knows the batter tendencies and the like. But otherwise, raw defensive skills like their ability to field bunts or pop ups, or to hold runners on the basepaths, a lot of that can be evaluated fairly well I think.

        There is certainly more nuance to the position than many others around the diamond, but I don’t think it’s completely fruitless.

        Well…. maybe your right, that it’s fruitless on television, which is why I get myself to the park as many times as I can so I can evaluate properly

      • No one is evaluated someone this way. I’ve seen Diaz catch all throughout his minor league career. The eye test, in person, was good enough to know he could handle the running game, blocking pitches in the dirt, field bunts, and make the plays at the plate. I failed miserably at evaluating his pitch framing. I was spot on at everything else.

    • Kevin Creagh // October 17, 2017 at 10:14 AM //

      Stewart was a +3.9 — good, not spectacular and definitely not worth the black hole on offense. The link provided has all catchers and you can sort by teams in the headings.

      • Thanks Kevin. Stewart was beyond awful offensively last year. I think any catcher would be an overall improvement over him as a back up next year. I would prefer Stallings over Stewart, but I do like the idea of Iannetta.

    • Sounds like Nutting hiring another no name at no cost to me.. how come when the Nutting brings in somebody no one ever heard of them. Money!

  2. Henry Kassab // October 17, 2017 at 7:38 AM //

    The love/hate relationship with the Pirates backup catcher position is fascinating, but probably no more than any other Team(s). Shoot, from what I read, after the Nationals untimely exit from the post season, the Pirates could have gotten Mark Wieters for a bag of rocks.

    Granted, I do agree that an upgrade to the position is warranted, but he to will be 35 at the start of next season and, prior to his 2017 campaign, he to was trending down.

    • Patrick Byers // October 17, 2017 at 9:48 AM //

      I would say that if Cervelli hadn’t missed more than 80 starts the past two seasons there would be less fascination. But with as brittle as the starting catcher seems to be, the team needs to take a strong interest in who’s backing him up.

  3. Bob Smizik // October 17, 2017 at 7:52 AM //

    Excellent, Kevin. The fact the Pirates gave Cervelli a long-term deal when Diaz was 26 should have told anyone who was watching closely that the team did not have big plans for Diaz. His brief flurry of offensive success actually had some people suggesting he should be playing ahead of Cervelli. For the record, from June 13 to the end of the season this was Diaz’s line: .187/.217/.253. That is Stewartesque and indicates — along with your pitch-framing stat and his lack of starts in August — he is not even an ideal backup. I actually think the Pirates gave him so much time in September to get an idea of whether he is even backup material.

    Iannetta sounds like the ideal backup, which probably means he won’t sign with the Pirates. But you are absolutely correct they need a strong backup behind Cervelli, who has a history of missing too many games.

    • Don Orris // October 17, 2017 at 9:35 AM //

      One factor that might work in favor of Ianetta becoming a Pirate is the fact that he played for Hurdle for the better part of four seasons in Denver.

      Also had his best year offensively for him in 2008.

  4. Mark Gaudiano // October 17, 2017 at 8:56 AM //

    Very Good Article Kevin. The thing i like about Iannetta is that has a career 347 OBP, which isn’t bad and in 2017 he hit 17 homers in 272 at bats, which is a homer every 16ab’s. He would be a very good addition. If Iannetta can’t be signed, i would look at trying to acquire Andrew Susac. Susac is a backup only, but he would be dependable at 27. In 333 minor league games his line is 256/354/424.

  5. Charles Vine // October 17, 2017 at 9:04 AM //

    Decent backup catchers are difficult to come by. Ianneta would appear to be alright if they could snag him at an acceptable price…to the Pirates. At 35 years of age, however, he’s probably about ready to break down so I wouldn’t over pay at all.

    • Don Orris // October 17, 2017 at 9:30 AM //

      But is he worthy of catching Tyler Glasnoideawhereitsgoing?

      • Patrick Byers // October 17, 2017 at 10:55 AM //

        I bet that’s all that’s been holding ole’ T-Glass back, lack of a catcher who understands how to harness his gifts.

      • Charles Vine // October 17, 2017 at 11:44 AM //

        Well,Glass had to “suffer” with Diaz and Stallings down in AAA and it didn’t seem to hold him back much. Glass just needs to get his mind right.

  6. Patrick Byers // October 17, 2017 at 9:32 AM //

    Terrific article Kevin. Iannetta certainly seems like someone who could fill a role as Stewart’s tenure should absolutely be coming to an end. The team absolutely has to find better all-around performance from the backup position.

    Pitch framing numbers are ridiculous in my opinion, not because i find them meaningless, rather just the idea that such a stat still exists irritates me because it indicates how much I hate the fluid strike zone that still exists in MLB. But I digress…
    I’d also add that I would take the calculated runs above average stat, especially being due to just pitch framing, with a huge grain of salt, and remember that that stat is also trying to quantify a season’s worth of performance. So if we go by Mr. Carruth’s calculations the drop off from Cervelli to Diaz, based just on pitch framing, is less than one-tenth of a run per game. Almost nothing.

    Diaz, certainly by the numbers you provide for pitch framing seems to be a poor fit, but the rest of his defensive metrics measure up well enough and pitch framing, being what it is, is something that can be improved with additional MLB experience, typically.
    I’m not saying Diaz is the answer, I still think he’d be a better option than Stewart this year, but rather agreeing that relying on either is folly for a team looking to compete.

    If the Pirates can sign someone who has a history of working well with young pitchers (Stewart – good, Diaz – bad), can evidence above average defense …and I suppose pitch framing (Stewart and Diaz both good), and also provide some offense which both our current options are lacking, that would be great. And you proposed a very good option. Let’s hope Huntington can land him, or some other candidate like him.

  7. Good article. Never knew Diaz’ defensive numbers were that bad. Iannetta sounds like he can be a decent backup and he’s the type of player the Pirates can sign.

    He turns 35 at the start of next season so he is a short-term fix. His hitting made a sudden improvement last season with an OPS of .865 compared to .631 and .628 the two prior seasons. Makes one wonder.

  8. Lee Young // October 17, 2017 at 9:58 AM //

    ‘out there’ prediction: Chris will not be a Pittsburgh Pirate in 2018.

  9. Bob Smizik // October 17, 2017 at 10:09 AM //

    If Iannetta cannot be had, the Pirates might wish to dip into the into their recent past for a reserve catcher, beloved by all, who had a .910 OPS (192 PAs) as recently as 2014.

    Yes, The Fort, will be available.

  10. mark delsignore // October 17, 2017 at 10:45 AM //

    Very good article on a very relevant issue.

    I dont know Ianetti form anybody however the Pirates better get a backup catcher because Cervelli WILL miss games — that’s just how he is.

    He is certainly better than Diaz or Stallings
    There are not other internal choices.

    Maybe playing as a backup — his age wont be a consideration?

    The Pirates, amongst 27 other things, need a better backup catcher for 2018.

  11. If indeed Diaz is destined for the scrapheap of failed Pirates catching prospects, the question should be posed as to why this organization can’t get it right at such a critical position.

    They’ve wasted two first round picks on catchers who have, to date, been unmitigated disasters.

  12. Dennis Black // October 17, 2017 at 12:06 PM //

    Good article-enjoyable and informative

  13. Fish Monger // October 17, 2017 at 12:20 PM //

    Diaz will be the backup next year for one reason. His $500k salary.

    With all the players due contract and arbitration raises and the plummeting attendance, wondering if they’ll pay a couple million for a backup catcher is not the question.

    I’m just hoping they keep Cutch, Cole and JHay.

  14. Navin R. Johnson // October 17, 2017 at 1:41 PM //

    Speaking of a decline in attendance, does it matter? The big market teams pay a luxury tax to the small market teams. Correct? So if Pirate revenues decline, does that mean that the welfare check they receive from the Yankees increases?

    I’m inclined to think that BN funds payroll based on “operating revenues” (gate receipts and TV contract). The rest he probably pockets. I honestly don’t know how the luxury tax is allocated so maybe someone can set me straight….

    • Don Orris // October 17, 2017 at 1:55 PM //

      Luxury tax money is used to fund player benefits and MLB’s Industry Growth Fund. Part of the money is used to fund player Individual Retirement Accounts and part will be given to teams not over the tax threshold.

      So, only a small piece goes to the teams and that amount is divided among around 25 clubs.

    • mark delsignore // October 17, 2017 at 1:59 PM //

      DOn’t think so

      The big teams pay a luxury tax on a payroll amount above some number — not on how much small market teams “loss” in revenues.

      SO it is more about the big market teams payroll than it is about small market losses

    • Bob Smizik // October 17, 2017 at 2:02 PM //

      You are confusing luxury tax with revenue sharing. There is a difference.

      And what you so disparagingly call a `welfare check’ is not much different, if different at all, from what, say, the Steelers receive from the NFL when all teams share the revenue of their TV contracts.

      This story, several years old, has a former Pirates stockholder maintaining that Nutting take none of the profits.

  15. It appears to me that some of the Diaz pitch framing problem stems from the fact that he tends to catch borderline pitches to right handed batters using a backhand approach.I believe that umpires view the pitch as outside the zone as they see the way he receives the ball. He also tends to reach for balls in the dirt rather than moving to block the ball. If true perhaps those could be corrected, however he has never been a strong hitter.

  16. Bob Stover // October 17, 2017 at 3:40 PM //

    While I like Ianetta as a potential back-up, I wonder if the Pirates other needs will push consideration of a back-up catcher to late in the Winter. I just don’t think its a priority for the Pirates braintrust.

  17. Howard Weiss // October 17, 2017 at 6:18 PM //

    It just occurred to me that if the ALCS goes seven games, might Charlie Morton start that deciding game for the Astros ? Just think of that.

    • Fish Monger // October 17, 2017 at 6:44 PM //

      Or McCullers on short rest. Would be interesting to see what they would do.

      If Houston wins today, I think the chances of them beating both Keuchel and Verlander are very very slim, but if they win today, we may get to see your scenario.

      BTW, love this 0-0 playoff game. Absolute love it,

      • Howard Weiss // October 17, 2017 at 7:23 PM //

        Yes, it ?s an excellent game.

        How about those Yankees? Not a one looks as if he could be a Civil War reenactor.

    • Jim Barbe // October 17, 2017 at 7:31 PM //

      If that’s the case and the Yanks or Astros don’t win in 6, the Yanks win in 7 for sure. I just doubt the Morton scenario has any chance of happening. If Morton pitches again it will be a mop up role with the Astros way behind. He continues to live up to his name of Big Inning Morton.

  18. Howard Weiss // October 17, 2017 at 7:37 PM //


    • Jim Barbe // October 17, 2017 at 7:52 PM //

      It’s kind of his history Howard….throws well and then all of a sudden….one inning does him in….as it did yesterday only it was 2 innings yesterday.

  19. Howard Weiss // October 18, 2017 at 8:27 AM //

    Set your DVDs.

    Parts Known: Anthony Bourdain captures Pittsburgh as it is now


    • Kevin Creagh // October 18, 2017 at 8:24 PM //

      Every single MLB team has a valuation of $1B, minimum

      • Bob Stover // October 19, 2017 at 11:22 AM //

        According to the study I just posted a link for, there are several teams less than $1 billion, but not by much. However, as a good gauge of whether or not the Statista values are accurate, it values the Marlins at $940 million, but the sale just completed was for $1.2 billion. It may be that the Pirates are worth $1.5 billion. After all, a product’s value is really only known after someone actually buys it.

    • Fish Monger // October 18, 2017 at 8:24 PM //

      If only, but we can dream, eh?

    • Bob Stover // October 19, 2017 at 11:17 AM //

      If Tull has a billion dollars to blow on a sports franchise, he will certainly have money to blow on payroll. The Pirates franchise, last I looked, was valued at approximately $1.2 billion, which ranks them 17 out of 30 in market value according to Statista, a British website that is updating to present value, the price put on each team by Forbes in 2010. I don’t know if I buy the updated values, but I guess $1 billion is not a crazy amount to pay for the Pirates.

  20. Howard Weiss // October 19, 2017 at 8:52 AM //

    Kevin – How about a column on the dental student?

    By day Britt Baker is a dental student; some nights, though, she’s pro wrestler Brittsburgh

  21. Howard Weiss // October 19, 2017 at 5:13 PM //

    Wikipedia: Sutherland graduated from the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Dentistry, where he also held a professorship in the instruction of bridge and crown.

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