Evaluating Catcher Targets

If you’ve recently taken a gander at the Rays roster you might notice a few changes. In December, alone, the Rays have traded Sean Rodriguez, Matt Joyce, Wil Myers, and Ryan Hanigan from the Major League roster and lost Oscar Hernandez (temporarily, fingers crossed) in the Rule V draft. Jose Molina was DFA’d in November and while Bobby Wilson may be a pinup for some he hardly brings much to be excited about.

Luckily, the trades have brought in some future talent with two guys looking like they’re going to break camp with the team or soon thereafter. Rene Rivera and Steven Souza look like guys that should start the season with the team, if not immediately after, and I bet that Eugenio Velez is a really nice guy. The names aren’t super important quite yet, but let’s take a look at the 13 positional players that would be on the 25-man:

C Rene Rivera

1B James Loney

2B Ben Zobrist

3B Evan Longoria

SS Yunel Escobar

LF Steven Souza

CF Desmond Jennings

RF Kevin Kiermaier

DH David DeJesus

IF/OF Nick Franklin

IF Logan Forsythe

OF Brandon Guyer

C2 Curt Casali

 

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Rays look to have a pretty sizable hole in their lineup. (Wise lass in the other room asks me, “Just one?”)

RDR^2

Shh, let’s just focus on the second catcher spot. Casali might turn into a nice backup catcher someday, but with Rene Rivera having little track record of being able to play everyday I’d rather figure that out later.  There is certainly demand there for the Rays, but what about supply? With free agency looking thin at the position and starving salesmen claiming to have the cure for what ails us on the trade market, where does the savvy shopper turn at this time? The easiest way to answer that is to find a way to objectively evaluate all of the talent. Knowledge, even in this Year of the Lord 2014, is still power.

The current consensus today on what makes for a good Catcher includes the following:

– Hit good

– Catch good

-Play everyday

More directly, we want a guy that can hit well. We can use the Steamer Projections to get a reasonable estimate of the player’s median projection for next year. For instance, Rene Rivera is projected to put up a park and league adjusted wRC+ of 90 in 2015, which means he is expected to hit around 10% worse than the average big leaguer. Additionally, I can take it a step farther and have a reasonable idea of what a player will do versus the average righty or lefty using the Matchup Tool created by myself and Ian Malinowski that regresses platoon splits. Turns out that Rivera has shown a fairly wide split (17.5%), so far, but with his relatively few 671 PA he regresses pretty far back toward the mean ending up around 7.3%. Take all of this stuff together and I see him putting up a wRC+ of 88.1 against righties, which increases to 94.7 against lefties.

Is that good? Probably not for a Right Fielder, but of the 100 players that I looked at on the incredibly useful depth charts at Fangraphs I found a weighted average wRC+ of 93.2 overall, 92.6 against righties and 94.3 against lefties. As you can guess most catchers hit right-handed.  All of a sudden that looks a little better for Rivera. He would be slightly above average against lefties (for a catcher) and a few notches below average against righties. Ok so we know he isn’t a big stick player, but he might not kill you if you can manage his time well. How about the glove?

Intelligent baseball revelers have come to the agreement that no longer is Nichols Law of Catcher Defense satisfactory for evaluating the talent displayed by a fine gentleman in the field of play. There is such a thing as bad defenders that can’t hit a lick, either. While many folks agree that a propensity to save strikes from being ruled a ball is of importance, this ability should not come at the expense of blocking balls in the dirt or throwing out would be base thieves. Luckily, the catcher section atBaseball-Prospectus proves well advanced at evaluating how a catcher performed at blocking and framing. Meanwhile, Baseball-Reference does a great job showing caught stealing numbers. Rivera is excellent at throwing out runners, he is very good at stealing strikes, and he is pretty close to average at blocking balls in the dirt.

The ideal catcher is good, or even better, great at all of these things. Plus the hitting. Plus they play a lot! As you can imagine, not only is this player few and far between, but the closest the Rays can get to this sort of talent is to get his fat brother. Well perhaps they found a good one. We saw above that Rivera was close to average in some things, and what looked like well above in others, but how do you know the difference? Z-scores help us achieve that by giving an idea how far from average a player is in either direction. Rivera’s below-average wRC+ of 90 doesn’t look great, and in fact it is around .2 standard deviations worse than his peers with all of that coming from his work against same-handers (-0.28) while being ever-so-slightly better than other catchers against lefties.

Is that a lot? Point-Two-Zero doesn’t sound like much, and when you compare it to his caught stealing rate being over one full standard deviation above the norm it doesn’t seem like it’s a big issue. Then you get to his Framing Runs (FRr) and see he’s 1.18 SDs better than his peers and cash registers start ringing in your head. Then we come to his Blocking Runs (BLr) and realize he’s not some immortal, but when comparing each of these things to his competition you get the impression that Matt “Don’t Call Me Andrew” Silverman has a pretty good staff backing him. Rivera looks like a nice get, but now that you’ve gotten a crash course in what we’re looking at here’s the table:

The top of the list has most of the names you’ve come to expect. Know that Games Started (GS) is over entire career. The hitting stuff is projected for 2015 and the fielding stuff is for career with the framing and blocking runs being within the context of being per 7,000 pitches.

I’ve also included Service Time, because that’s fun, and it would be useful to know of any player that we would like to acquire. You’ll notice that the raw scores are on the left and the calculated Z-scores are on the right. Additionally, I have summed the scores for all categories except for wRC+ because we’re getting it versus both lefties and righties. This is a crude way to weight playing time to two times hitting to three times fielding. You run into issues ranking players using any combination, as you’ll see, but I think this does a nice job of ranking the players. Rivera checks in at 13th, which is cool, but he’s surrounded by A.J. Pierzynski (garbage) and Erik Kratz (looks like a steal) so you’re better off just comparing players to see who’s weaknesses are where, rather than using the sum total as an authority.

You can go through and see how guys rank, but let’s narrow this down to a handful of candidates that look like solid targets with a reasonable chance of being acquired:

The aforementioned Kratz is projected to be a slightly worse hitter than Rivera with smaller platoon splits. He makes up for it with the glove as he’s above average throwing guys out and he’s well above average in both framing and blocking. Salvador Perez doesn’t take many days off so maybe they feel Kratz is redundant or that the third option, Francisco Pena is ready for more than 34 days this year. Either way this could be an opportunity for some arbitrage.

Geo Soto is a guy that I’ve been trumpeting for a while because he’s probably the best option left in free agency, which isn’t saying much. The upside is that he would notrequire prospects. The downside is that he’s not especially good. The bat is similar to Kratz and Rivera, but the arm isn’t as good, and the framing is more good than great. On the right deal (read: cheeeeeap) I think he makes a ton of sense. If he’d go for something like Hanigan’s 2/8ish deal then maybe you get a guy that won’t kill you because it’s only money.

Dioner Navarro would represent the best overall bat in this group. He profiles above his peers against both types of pitchers with quite a bit of success against lefties. The issues come on the other side of the plate. He’s league average at gunning runners, but well below in the other aspects, especially framing. If you’re willing to roll the dice that Rivera can play 100+ games then maybe you live with it and let him DH against lefties for DeJesus, but that doesn’t really seem like the Rays Way (TM) of doing things.

I’m going to lump Chris Stewart, Tony Sanchez, Martin Maldonado, Welington Castillo, and Brayan Pena together. They’re all NL Central guys that play behind very good catchers (Maldonado, Castillo, Pena) or look like a third wheel (Stewart or Sanchez). Castillo is the only one that you would say can hit at an average rate for the position, though Sanchez has some sneaky upside there. Pena might make the most sense in a platoon as he hits righties better than lefties. They’re all above average at throwing out runners, except Sanchez who hasn’t done much in 31 starts, which means he has the most service time remaining. Castillo is an awful framer, but the rest are pretty good. Pros and cons in this group. If you don’t care about the bat, at all, then you can find some pretty decent options here.

Romine, Murphy, and Joseph are guys already within the division which would make it difficult to extract fair value in a trade. Murphy brings more control with a better bat and arm, which means he’s more likely to have a premium on his talents. If you can get him for practically nothing then roll the dice on Romine, but if you’re serious about adding a piece I like JR Murphy better. Joseph profiles pretty closely to Murphy, but the bat looks a tick worse. I’d put the odds lowest on him being moved until they’re sure that Weiters can catch and throw.

Andrew Susac is one of the best prospects in the game and unlike the other rookies found at the bottom of the table above he actually has some sample of performance. Steamer and the Matchup Tool really like him at the plate and in hiss very brief exposure he looked like a good arm, good framer, with some trouble on balls in the dirt. If he’s ready to play now the Giants might see it as a chance to rest Posey at another position some more or maybe there’s a chance they look to acquire a guy like Ben Zobrist for the rookie that’s mostly blocked. If I’m the Rays I take that in a heartbeat, which means it’s probably not a square deal.

Jason Castro and Sandy Leon are on opposite sides of the control curve, and that’s not the only place they differ. These two are practically polar opposites as Castro looks like a pretty good hitter that struggles to control the running game and doesn’t block well. Leon isn’t going to bring the stick, but profiles as a very good arm that can also steal strikes at a solid rate. Two guys to think about who are currently in kind of a three-guys, two-spots scenario that could see their team looking to recoup value. I think I’d rather have Leon, but Castro would make an ideal platoon partner for Rene Rivera.

Lastly, I wanted to touch on a couple of free agents, J.P. Arencibia and Wil Nieves. Neither profiles as all that exciting, but sometimes the murky bottom of the barrel can hide a nice shiny coin. I don’t really see it with either, which is probably more of a testament to the level of filth that is the waiver wire.

This list gives us a few guys that are probably pretty under-rated or similarly available, the trick is merely identifying what you want. There are bats with flaws in the field, and plenty more ok to good gloves that can’t hit. There’s a hotshot rookie that may or may not be available in an organization that generally doesn’t play a young guy until his baby fat is gone. We’ve got some young guys with lots of control and older guys on fixed incomes. Something for everyone down at the Catcher shop. Step right up and pick yourself a winner.

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About Jason Hanselman

Rays fan.
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