Fast, For A Catcher: Analyzing a Quickly Moving Backstop Market

Have you ever had a baseball game on in the background in the dead of summer as you quietly go about your day, and then catch an absolute gem from a broadcaster that stops and makes you laugh? “He got down the line in a hurry…he’s pretty fast, for a catcher.”

It’s possibly the game’s greatest backhanded compliment; an ode of sorts to the frequently lumbering yeoman who not only endure the dog days of August but who do so, willingly, wearing additional gear and sitting in an awkward squat for hours. A single sentence about their baserunning abilities — or lack thereof — conveys perhaps a modestly complete understanding of what baseball is, when you stop to think about it. And it’s a delight.

This offseason has seen a different kind of speed from catchers: the one at which they’re changing teams. Maybe it’s coincidence that some of the more offensive-minded ones have reached the market together, and they’re some of the names moving between teams. While backstops make it difficult to capture their entire value in a single stat because of all they do, we can and do quantify offense. That makes it easier, if you’re a front office, to jump on a guy you know can beat the .232/.304/.372 average triple-slash line catchers produced in 2018 and see it as a win.

But the offense-oriented catchers aren’t the only ones moving between teams, and it becomes harder to separate them from each other when considering defense, or the total package. Much harder than separating, say, Mike Trout and Charlie Blackmon. And that’s what makes the catcher carousel this offseason a unique ride.

In each instance of a catcher acquisition this offseason, the buying team seems to know what they’re getting. The selling team, in the instance of a trade, hasn’t seemed to care about what they’re giving up. Overall, the position seems to be quantified well enough by teams privately to get a deal they can easily appreciate, with the luxury of not having to prioritize such knowledge.

It’s possible that catcher compensation hasn’t quite matched the way front offices quantify the position’s value yet, even given the suppression of the current market, because the public sphere hasn’t quite broken open catcher analysis the way that we have with other positions. Public sabermetric work has fed front offices — the list is as impressive as it is long, hitting teams all over the league and including World Series rings.

The range of catchers on the move this winter, and the rate at which they’re changing uniforms, means that at least a few of them are bound to impact the standings somehow this summer. Just take a look for yourself:

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That’s nine catchers who carry some sort of relative, positive significance through the Majors. Seven have joined their new teams as free agents, with the sole exclusion being Yan Gomes, for whom the Nationals traded. The only position player groups that have signed more free agent deals this winter are shortstops (eight) and outfielders (11). Only two of those shortstops play their position exclusively, and the outfield group combines all three possible positions.

Simply put, catchers have been in demand, despite the general free agent market malaise affecting most of their colleagues. And part of that may be because of the value teams know they provide compared to what the public does, providing a lower cost.

Given that, let’s consider catchers in one of four ways.

The Total Package

Of the nine catchers who have changed teams this winter, only two of them stand out as clearly above average by both offensive and defensive standards: Yasmani Grandal and Yan Gomes.

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The two numbers in the chart above represent the crux of production for catchers when they’re at the plate (wRC+) and when they’re behind it (FRAA_ADJ, or Adjusted Framing Runs Above Average).

Grandal’s offensive output last year was topped only by JT Realmuto of the Marlins, and Wilson Ramos of the Rays and Phillies. No one framed better than Grandal. And yet, his contract guarantees him only $18.25 million on a one-year deal. While that accounts for nearly a quarter of all catcher money guaranteed this offseason on the open market, it’s also less than 30% of what MLBTR projected him to earn on the open market. Depending on your preferred metrics, Grandal was worth at least 1.3 wins more than what all Milwaukee catchers produced last year. Adding him to a World Series roster for a year is a boon.

Gomes, meanwhile, was still 17% better with the stick than the average MLB catcher in 2018, and saved nearly nine runs more than average behind the plate. Adding him could boost offensive production from the position for Washington by nearly 30% while also providing a top pitch framer. That should help maintain the breaking balls of newly acquired ace Patrick Corbin, as well as the rest of the team’s dynamic staff. The benefits may be bountiful.

What would the market pay for a position player who’s at least 17% better than league average at creating runs, and has plus defense? We don’t really know. Many of those players — Mookie Betts, Didi Gregorius, Andrelton Simmons — haven’t yet reached free agency, or guaranteed themselves what was a decent payday for security’s sake before they got through the attrition of arbitration. The closest examples we might have are Jean Segura, who signed a five-year, $70 million deal with Seattle before reaching the open market and was seen as team-friendly; and Lorenzo Cain, who signed a five-year deal worth $80 million in free agency last winter as he was going into his age-32 season.

Depressed market or not, this is perhaps where those teams who went fishing in the deep end of the catching talent pool lucked out. While Grandal reportedly turned down a four-year offer worth between $50 and $55 million from the Mets, we can’t guarantee that. And either way, the average annual value of such a deal would’ve been worth less than even Segura’s pact. Gomes may not have been a free agent acquisition, but he was effectively pared by Cleveland for two lottery tickets in 25-year-old, lower pedigree starter Jefry Ramirez and 23-year-old Daniel Johnson, who projects as a platoon player. He’ll make only $7 million in 2019 as part of a six-year deal he signed in 2014, in a contract designed like Simmons’s — to give a good, young, player an amount of money that provided them with security that was hardly certain before.

Beyond Grandal and Gomes, teams have had to decide whether they’d value offense or defense more from their catchers. That moves us onto the next look the catching market has gotten.

The Offense-first Catchers

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The three players above account for $34.5 million, or nearly 46%, of catcher guarantees so far this offseason. Ramos is so good with the bat that if he were even a few runs better behind the plate, he’d be in that esteemed grouping with Grandal and Gomes. But he isn’t, and he signed a deal with the Mets that carries an AAV of $9.5 million over two years. His offense last year was better than what Mets catchers produced by more than 50%. His receiving skills behind the plate probably won’t offend anyone moving forward. The team is likely perfectly content, if not ecstatic, to pay less than half of what they reportedly offered to Grandal and get more than half the production.

Suzuki will represent the other half of a platoon with Yan Gomes in Washington, where the team clearly wanted to upgrade their average offense after putting up a 64 wRC+ from the position last year. Their catchers are now a serious threat in their lineup, relatively speaking.

Houston’s signing of Robinson Chirinos comes with the curiosity of how his power will perform with the short porch in left field at home in Minute Maid Park. They’re not losing any veteran leadership compared to the erstwhile Brian McCann — Chirinos is 34 — and they’re gaining a roughly 20% increase in runs created from the position.

The best free agent comp for any of this trio may be JD Martinez last winter. His offense is unquestionable, as he sports a wRC+ of 154 since 2014. His defense may be equally bad. After waiting around like sixth-graders at a school dance, he and the Red Sox agreed to a five-year, $110 million deal last winter with three player opt-outs, stipulations that generally benefit the player and not the team. Though a superior hitter relative to his own positional peers compared to these three catchers and theirs, Martinez’s overall value doesn’t appear to be miles ahead of them. That said, he’s still taking home a far larger guarantee.

The Defense-first Catchers

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Jeff Mathis is a fascinating baseball player. He ranks 577th in wRC+ among the 585 qualified catchers in all of baseball history. He’s historically lousy at the plate. But he’s really, really good behind it; good enough to have kept him in the Majors for more than a decade. Google “Jeff Mathis framing” and you’ll be enamored by the words that have been poured out expounding his talents for calling a game. He’ll earn $6.25 million over two years.

The Rangers are rebuilding. They’ll be taking a chance on a lot of guys, both young and previously established. Three-fifths of their current projected rotation — Edinson Volquez, Drew Smyly, and Shelby Miller — are coming off Tommy John surgery. They don’t need the offense. Mathis is a certain relief for the bevy of arms who will work through the Texas roster in the two years he’s contracted. A good comp for him among other position players may be Miguel Rojas, a glove-first shortstop who will earn $3.15 million in 2019. Even then, though, that’s through arbitration, and not on the free market.

Martin, like Gomes, was acquired via trade. He’s in the final year of a five-year, $82 million, backloaded contract he signed as a free agent. He’ll earn $20 million in 2019 (though the Dodgers will pay only $3.6 million) and play this coming season at age-36. Martin hasn’t played more than 91 games in the last two years and is clearly in the twilight of his career, and will be more of another steady piece to cycle in for the Dodgers than a singular solution. There was a time when he was one of the best all-around catchers in the game, much like Grandal and Gomes currently are, which helped him land his current contract.

That deal could be considered as both a warning for teams thinking about signing a catcher to a long-term contract who’s already 30, and as what the market is currently willing to pay for a player with such skills on a one-year deal. But given the dearth of other examples, and Martin having already accrued nearly 12 WARP over the life of the contract, it’s fairly easy to justify the money he’s received. His peers aren’t getting that kind of deal at this point though, suggesting a possible over-correction in valuation on the position as the game cares less about defense.

The Leftovers

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These two are like Martin in that they’re far from what they once were. McCann has gone back to Atlanta, where the team likely hopes he’ll provide stability for a young core in a similar way to how he did for Houston when they won the World Series in 2017. It also doesn’t hurt that they’ve got a prospect like William Contreras, who currently grades out as a regular, working through the minors. A one-year stop-gap in McCann makes plenty of sense.

Lucroy’s descent has been more drastic than McCann’s. The Angels will pay him nearly as much as the Dodgers will pay Russell Martin, and for roughly three-fourths of the productivity. The team has made a habit of short-term bets like this in the last few years. Just this offseason, they’ve added Matt Harvey, Justin Bour, and Cody Allen on similar contracts. They won’t lose much if Lucroy doesn’t pay off.

The clubs handing out contracts to these players are getting exactly what they want: a palatable package with name value and veteran presence, for nearly the absolute minimum commitment. It’s interesting, though, that Lucroy will make more on his one-year deal than Mathis will per year in Texas, while seemingly not offering a high level skill anymore.

The Reality of the Catcher Market

Baseball is in an odd place. We’ve got multiple years left in a CBA that’s already wringing the earnings of players at what are largely unprecedented levels. Nearly no one is getting signed, as evidenced by the 100+ remaining free agents of massively varying talent.

And here are catchers, moving at a rate that suggests clubs have a very specific intent for and mindset about them, while still not paying them like they’re a priority. They almost appear fungible. But when all is said and done in 2019, the win column may well say otherwise.

Framing data and WARP from Baseball Prospectus. Contract data from Spotrac. All other data from FanGraphs. Feature photo USATSI. 

Jonathan Lucroy Might Not Be Done

Let’s start off with a guessing game. Below are two players. Try to tell who they are.

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So, who are they?

Maybe the title of this post helped you figure it out. They’re both Jonathan Lucroy. Player A is Lucroy in 2016, when he was worth more than four wins. Player B is him in 2017, when he was barely worth one win. But these two lines represent the same player in name only. In 2016 Lucroy was the most valuable catcher in the game. And then last year, he was the fourth-worst.

Moving down the chart above, one could reasonably tell Lucroy’s story. Maybe the difference on balls in play is what drove him from about 40% above league average at the plate to about 10% below league average. But that wasn’t just bad luck; his contact numbers probably justify the drop. Driving the ball with less authority means hitting more playable dinkers. That creates lower BABIP and wOBA. It’s also not going to help if you hit an additional 16% grounders from one year to the next, which Lucroy did, because those playable dinkers are the worst playable dinkers a hitter could generate.

In some sense catchers aren’t supposed to be as good as Lucroy has been in the past. Expecting him to stay that good forever would be silly. But so would expecting him to fall off the edge of a flat earth into the same relative nothingness as Martin Maldonado. Jeff Sullivan broke down Lucroy when he was traded to the Rockies last season and found that in addition to his offensive stats cratering, so had his previously excellent framing numbers. He went from being one of the game’s very best at stealing strikes to being one of its very worst. So maybe Father Time had simply claimed eminent domain instead of moving next door. 

The numbers bear out Lucroy’s fall as much as numbers can. But the same thing that makes them so endearing — their blindness — sometimes means they still aren’t telling the whole story. Below are two gifs. On top is Lucroy as a Brewer in 2016, driving a JC Ramirez fastball up the middle. Below is Lucroy as a Rockie in 2017, pulling off of a Ross Stripling slider.

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Above, the Angels defense was presumably playing at double play depths, making a play up the middle more accessible, if still difficult. Thought it was a grounder from Lucroy, it was a screamer, coming off the bat at 100.7 mph (he averaged 87.6 in 2016). Below, Lucroy forced Corey Seager to make a bit of a play, but Seager was able to because the ball only came off Lucroy’s bat at 88.4 mph (he only averaged 85.1 last season). Both pitches were in the middle third of the plate. The swings are similar enough. But check out the stills below as the ball arrives at the plate.

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In this picture, from when he was still a Brewer, Lucroy is very much in control. He’s square, and his body is getting ready to move together. All the MSPaint lines are moving in the same direction, showing that his kinetic chain is tuned up. That basically means his big muscles were ready to transfer power to his little muscles. The next frame shows it stayed that way. The swing is coming from his center of mass. Sure, he grounded out, but he was together. Groundouts happen.

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But look at this still, from when Lucroy was a Rockie last year, and good grief. His body is moving in so many directions it looks like it’s in a traffic jam. His hands are going down and away, his hips are pulling in the other direction, and his legs are digging directly ahead. The kinetic chain is nowhere to be found, and Lucroy’s one body is effectively acting in three independent manners. Doing that on a regular basis would would go a long way toward explaining his sudden inability to drive the ball, and how he lost 2.5 mph of exit velocity on average per batted ball. 

Lucroy’s legs being hurt, but not enough to sideline him to ensure they’re healed, could explain an inability to rely on his core to support his kinetic chain. However, per Statcast, his sprint times were nearly identical between 2016 and 2017. In fact, he was actually .2 seconds faster last year than the year before. But that’s only his legs. Maybe he had an issue with his core — a set of big muscles —  that kept his swing from staying in sync and glove from reacting as well when framing.

Baseball Savant only has so much video to examine. Lucroy’s broken kinetic chain in 2017 appears to be pretty consistent, though. And sure, these were different pitches, from different pitchers, with presumably different camera angles. I can’t tell you the ball was at the exact same distance from Lucroy in each instance. But a nagging injury influencing a mechanical flaw isn’t entirely implausible, even if speculative.

If Lucroy can smooth out his mechanics and is even half of what he used to be, that’s still twice as much as he was last year. Or maybe he did just fall off a cliff. But at one year and 6.5 million, it’s easy to understand why the A’s would want to find out. 

Mystery player data from FanGraphs. Gifs made with Giphy; videos from Statcast. Feature image: Getty Images/NBC Sports