The NL East Is Doing Something Brazen: Actively Trying To Get Better Than Their Competition

By now, you’ve likely heard of what’s going on in the NL East. At the very least, you’ve probably heard that Bryce Harper has chosen to play for the Phillies. Harper is the latest, boldest addition yet by an NL East team this offseason. With the likes of Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel still on the market, he might not be the last. In the words of Hall of Fame WWE broadcaster Jim Ross, the division is shaping up to be a real slobberknocker.

The NL East is one of only two divisions in all of baseball that is currently projected to have four teams winning at least 80 games. Everyone but the Marlins will be playing competitive baseball.

Three of the four remaining teams have acquired an upgrade at catcher via the fungible backstop market. The Mets and Phillies have each added a hitter who just last year created runs at a rate that was at least 30% better than the league average in Robinson Cano and Harper. The Braves have added one in Josh Donaldson, who, once healthy, was 17% better than average. The Nationals will have a full season from Juan Soto, who stunningly projects to be anywhere from 41-54% better than average. The Mets and Phillies have also added big time relievers in Edwin Diaz and David Robertson, and the Nationals and Braves have both been connected to Craig Kimbrel.

It’s one thing to look at the NL East in a vacuum and see it setting up as a battle royale. But in the scope of baseball, it’s something else altogether.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies-Workouts

One of these things is not like the other. Okay — two of these things are not like the others, but the AL Central is still expected to be a cakewalk for Cleveland and those win totals are mostly buoyed by the White Sox and Royals not imploding again like last year. So that leaves the NL East as the only division where, based largely on the winter’s moves to date, the win total is expected to jump double digits from last year. We’ve already run through the big additions each team has made or could be looking to make. But how do these moves really set the teams up for 2019?

Let’s start with the biggest shakers: The Phillies. They’ve completely remade their depth. They rated as a bottom-five team by production from rightfielders, registering just .3 fWAR. Adding Harper adds another four and a half wins, according to pretty much every projection system. The team rated just as poorly at shortstop, where Jean Segura projects to be at least two wins better than the team was as a whole last year. Andrew McCutchen manning left field allows Rhys Hoskins to go back to first base, adding about another win and a half. JT Realmuto gives them perhaps the best catcher in baseball whose numbers could burst from playing half his games literally anywhere other than Marlins Park, which suppressed his performance by nearly 50% compared to on the road.

That’s a lot of star power to add in one offseason, and with the way the pieces fit and their relative youth — only McCutchen is older than 28 — it’s easy to glean the upside. All told, the Phillies’ three- and four-hole hitters last year, Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera, probably slot in at the seven- and eight-holes now.  That is wild.

New GM Brodie Van Wagenen seems to have had a distinct plan for the Mets since coming aboard: Do everything possible to help the team avoid being ravaged by injuries again. His pursuit of solid contributors and star power alike has seemed odd at times because the additions don’t make as clean an impact as, say, Bryce Harper over a struggling Nick Williams.

Instead, they’ve got three guys now whose primary position is second base in Jeff McNeil, Jed Lowrie, and Robinson Cano. The team had the sixth-best performance from the position in the Majors last year. And now Cano appears to be pushing McNeil to a super utility role and Lowrie primarily to third base, where the Mets ranked second-to-last in overall production last year. Wilson Ramos will be a considerable upgrade behind the plate, and Edwin Diaz will be an anchor in the bullpen. Pete Alonso will magically improve his defense after a few games in the minors and arrive in Flushing to solidify first base. Combined, these moves will net about an additional win to a win and a half from four positions while also allowing the team to absorb injuries far better than they have the last two years.

The Nationals may be easy to perceive as hard-up here, given that they’re the ones who lost Harper, and now have to worry about him in their own division for the rest of eternity. But they’re really not. Wunderkind Juan Soto will be up all season and presumably be doing Juan Soto Things the entire time, adding a win’s worth of production compared to last year. Potential Other Wunderkind Victor Robles is also expected to be with the team for the majority of the season, adding another couple of wins. Brian Dozier should up their second base production to the middle of the pack from the bottom of it. Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki should turn what’s been a black hole of positional production into well above average. And, oh yeah, they’re going to be catching newly-signed unicorn ace Patrick Corbin.

Washington took the money they could’ve given to Harper and spread it on modest or better acquisitions all over the diamond. Like the Mets, they have better depth than last year. Their boldest move may be counting on Adam Eaton staying healthy. But overall, they’ve still worked to take a step forward after a disappointing 2018.

Meanwhile, Atlanta’s offseason has been the most curious in the entire division. After winning it last year after the early but pronounced arrival of a slew of star-caliber youngsters headlined by Ronald Acuña, they’ve mostly sat on their hands. The big get has been Josh Donaldson, who signed way back on November 26. Donaldson will push Johan Camargo into a utility role. Once healthy last year, Donaldson proved he could still rake, but that took so long that he only played in 52 games. The team remains on the periphery for Craig Kimbrel but appears insistent on a short-term commitment, which would follow suit with Donaldson’s one-year, $23 million deal. Either side blinking could have a huge impact on the end of the team’s games this year.

What, exactly, they’re saving the money for is unclear. In today’s game and market, less term makes sense for the likes of a 33-year-old position player looking to build up his value again or even a 31-year-old lockdown reliever looking to validate his own past value. But if they were looking to spend on a younger, more dynamic star, you certainly wouldn’t know based on their disinterest in Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. The team’s actions seem to say they’re content to rely on the continued play of young, cost-controlled players at their peak instead of going for the gullet like their division mates appear to have been doing.

A flurry of star power and excitement has come down on the NL East this offseason. It’s the only division in all of baseball where nearly everyone is trying to get better at the same time, and the fight for the playoffs is going to be worth tuning into all year. Any break for one team will be inherently against the others, and every out will matter that much more. The weirdness of baseball means we can’t bank on much outside of Mike Trout. The NL East is making a case for convincing us of otherwise in 2019.

All individual player data from FanGraphs. Projected wins from FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus. Feature photo Kim Klement/USA Today Sports

 

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.

catchers 2

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.