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That’s Amore, Through Sickness and Health

Francisco Cervelli seems like a passionate individual. So passionate, in fact, that the Pittsburgh Pirates gave him his own in-game dating advice segment called ?That ?s Amore ?. While his dating advice has become a part of Pirate games, his above-average ability to be a major league catcher is the real reason he became a fixture at Pirate games.

After the Pirates lost Russell Martin to free agency, the Pirates picked up their third consecutive Yankees catcher to lead the team. Cervelli wasn ?t an unknown. He had played in the majors for parts of seven years prior to joining the Pirates, but his past was filled with missed playing time. Before becoming a Pirate, he had been plagued by injuries and had even been suspended during the Biogenesis scandal. He had suffered a broken wrist, strained quad, concussions, a sore hamstring & migraines (which were unrelated to his concussions, apparently).

While Cervelli cost the Pirates just Justin Wilson, he still had some mighty shoes to fill. During his two year stretch here, Russell Martin had accrued 9.0 fWAR. The Pirates likely wouldn ?t get the same production from Cervelli as they did with Martin, but it doesn’t take much cost-benefit analysis to see that Cervelli was the superior option for the price paid.

The main attraction with Cervelli, at least at the time, was his defense. He had been an above to well-above-average pitch framer throughout his career, something the Pirates had coveted previously in Chris Stewart and Russell Martin. Attacking the bottom of the zone had become a major part of the pitching philosophy, and with Cervelli ?s ability to steal strikes, acquiring Cervelli seemed like a recipe for success.

In 2016, the Pirates apparently liked what they saw out of Cervelli. They extended him to be the team’s catcher for the following three seasons at an AAV of $10.3 million. Following a 3.7 WAR season, it seemed like a steal for the Pirates. But for a catcher with really only one full season of catching at 30 years old, it was definitely a deal that both sides could enjoy.

Following his extension, Cervelli posted his first sub 100 wRC+ season. But, he was still one of the top pitch framers in the league. He had plenty of value as a defense-first catcher, so he really only needed an average bat for the Pirates to be happy. He did miss time in 2016 with a broken left hand, so that could have played a role in his bat being slightly below average. Getting 94 starts out of the newly signed Cervelli certainly wasn’t ideal, especially with Chris Stewart as the backup.

Then it was a new year. Cervelli was fresh and ready to go for the 2017 season. Well, that lasted only two months, as he was placed on the disabled list with a concussion in June. He had come off the disabled list rather quickly, thanks to the new 7-day disabled list, but was promptly put back on it after having concussion-like symptoms. He had blamed the symptoms on a sinus infection that bothered him earlier in the season, so maybe it wasn’t from a concussion. But it seems likely that his worsening headaches were at least somewhat related to his concussion.

Now in the 2018 season, Cervelli is back and appears to be better than ever. He has the highest wRC+ of his career (min 200 PA), and has thrown out 33.3% of attempted base stealers. But there is one big issue. Err, well, 8 big issues.

While Cervelli has hit the ball quite well this year, he has still had issues staying on the field. He is on pace to appear in less than 100 games yet again. He hasn ?t had any issues this season with his foot, hand, or wrist that have bothered him in the past. But he has registered concussion #7 and concussion #8 in his career.

His pitch framing has also declined. Drastically., a website that publishes catcher rankings based on pitch framing data, has ranked Cervelli in the bottom half of the league over the last 2 seasons. Baseball Prospectus also publishes catcher pitch framing data and has Cervelli ranked as below average.

While it is reasonable to expect regression from an aging catcher, it is alarming to observe the rate at which his regression is taking place. Even though framing does dip quite a bit as you enter your age 32 season, the drop is much less drastic than the one observed in Cervelli ?s graph.


Cervelli regressing as a pitch framer in and of itself is disappointing, but not that worrisome. But when you remember that Cervelli has logged four concussions over the last two seasons, now totaling eight (at least 8 confirmed concussions) throughout his career, you have to wonder whether or not it is appropriate for Cervelli to get any more time behind the dish.

CTE, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, has been talked about quite a bit over the last few years, at least during the NFL season. While football is much different than baseball, CTE is still possible. Ryan Freel, who committed suicide in 2012, was the first confirmed case of CTE in baseball. Though Freel was the first to be confirmed, it is thought that CTE played a part in Lou Gehrig’s life. John Jaso was forced out of the catcher position because of concussions. Justin Morneau’s career appeared to have been altered by concussions. Concussions may not be as frequent, they are a problem.

When Josh Bell was out with an oblique injury, Cervelli got some reps at 1st base. He has held his own, but I don ?t think Cervelli is going to take Bell ?s job any time soon. Elias Diaz has had a breakout year behind the dish, owning a 108 wRC+ over 214 PA. While that is good to see, it ?s important to note he has a 78 wRC+ over 420 PA throughout his entire big league career. He might not be the hitter he was in 2017, but he likely isn’t the one we are seeing in 2018, either.

Whether or not Diaz is ready to take over as the starting catcher is irrelevant, though. This goes much farther than making the Pittsburgh Baseball Club the best it can be. Francisco Cervelli is passionate and he will do anything to help this team win. His passion is evident in the post-game interview below.

Francisco Cervelli has given Pittsburgh fans advice on how to love during his ?That ?s Amore ? segment, now it seems like it ?s time for the Pirates to know when it is time to let a good thing end. With Cervelli’s growing concussion history, it might be time to see if an American League team needs a designated hitter. But if nobody would want to pay Cervelli $11,500,000 to be a designated hitter, then maybe the Pirates should explore some more creative options. Cervelli has looked good at first, albeit in a tiny sample. However, 1st base doesn ?t seem like a realistic option. With a replacement level player at 3rd, maybe Cervelli could be an option there. Either way, this should be about preserving Cervelli ?s long-term health. Not about the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Jake is a Pirates contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. He is currently attending Saint Vincent College and is pursuing a degree in Finance. You might know him as @CannonballCrner on Twitter. Jake used to write for his own site, but now does all his writing at the Point of Pittsburgh. He is a big fan of the slider and wishes Chad Kuhl a speedy recovery.

7 Comments on That’s Amore, Through Sickness and Health

  1. Bob Stover // August 9, 2018 at 2:35 PM //

    I think you’re spot on with your analysis of Cervelli’s future at somewhere not called catcher. I think that his drop off in pitch framing is a byproduct of injury more so than age. Hamstring injuries makes it harder for Cervelli to get as low in his crouch as he used to. Concussions and headaches make it harder to concentrate mentally on the little things that elite pitch framers learn and do repetitively. Since his decline in this area was so rapid, injury makes more sense than age as a cause. He will soon be a full time first baseman or 1B/DH somewhere.

  2. Wow this kid can write. He is spot on. Way to go Jake.

  3. Sorry he has had the concussions and I agree is health should be number one issue. However, he is getting his salary because he is a catcher. He would be overpaid at any other position. I don’t know that any team would want him as a primary first baseman/dh or even third baseman (unless his glove turns out to be a plus). In his favor is that he has hit for power this season. In my view if he is with the Pirates in 2019 they need him to catch at least 50 games and then play 50 elsewhere and pinch hit a few other times. For the Pirates his salary is a lot to take on for a part time role.

  4. Very well written stuff. I agree that his value would be greater to an AL team with the option to DH. For the Pirates–or any team– to let Cervelli go back behind the plate is the baseball equivalent of malpractice. His future looks to be, at best, as an upper-case John Jaso–that’s not without value, but not at $11 mil per year.

  5. I remain VERY concerned about CTE in re Cervelli, and feel the Pirates owe it to him to move him off catching permanently ( 8 concussions is a HUGE number). I applaud you pointing it out.

    There is plenty known about CTE and its risks without including a spurious debate in your article. There is NO evidence Gehrig had CTE. ALS is a devastating illness that largely remains clinically diagnosed. There is no blood test, or MRI that shows it. EMG may help. r. ehrig’s symptoms are classical for ALS and incongruent with the symptoms of CTE. To raise this in article about CTE takes away the strength of your very good article

  6. Bob Stover // August 15, 2018 at 12:23 PM //

    I most vehemently disagree with the sentiments expressed by Ron L. A player and a team enter into a good faith agreement on a contract. The player gets injured and the team gets to bail on its obligation? I don’t think so. Cervelli’s injuries were incurred in service of his employer. There is no worker’s compensation statute for professional athletes, but it is understood in the contract process that part of the compensation to be paid is an acceptance of the risk of injury by both sides. Teams often insure their contract obligations to protect them from the possibility that a player will never perform due to a career-ending injury, but cases like Cervelli, and that of many catchers in MLB just don’t fit that construct. Everybody is cheering for Ryan Shazier to overcome his devastating injury, but when it comes to a baseball player who is risking permanent brain injury by playing through multiple concussions, it seems like the fans just want to cast them on the scrap heap. It’s both cynical and hypocritical at the same time.

  7. Bob Stover // August 15, 2018 at 12:25 PM //

    Amen Doc.

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