While hunting for 15-20 more wins from a season ago, it’s clear that a healthy Gerrit Cole is one step to success in 2017, and a rebound season from Andrew McCutchen is the second key in turing the record around. To be blunt, those are two things that need to happen for the Pirates to battle their way back into the postseason. They’re also obvious. But what else can improve this team from 2016? One area that isn’t as obvious, but necessary for a turn around from a 78-84 season is the catching position.
Last week while listening to the visiting team’s broadcast during a Grapefruit League game, the announcer was talking about Francisco Cervelli‘s injury last year and said this…
The Pirates used six different catchers last year…where do you find six Major League catchers at?
Cervelli missed more than a month midseason after having surgery to repair a broken bone in his left hand. The injury limited him to just 393 plate appearances in 2016. Meanwhile, backup catcher Stewart had knee problems all season and missed nearly three months, appearing in just 34 games. Diaz, who was slated to be the third catcher and first man up from Triple-A Indy, never made it out of camp due to elbow issues and hit the DL. His return to the diamond was brief as this time a leg injury ended his season in September after only playing barely a month. The slew of injuries forced the Pirates to rely on minor leaguer Jacob Stallings, but also to sign Erik Kratz and Eric Fryer to deals. Kratz and Fryer combined to start 38 games for the Bucs and besides Kratz’s lone home run off Madison Bumgarner, these two didn’t offer much at the dish with a combined .172 average. Add in Stallings three starts and this trio accounted for 25% of the Pirates games.
The pitching staff suffered as well with the musical catchers game going on behind the plate as the team’s ERA rose to 4.22 from 3.21 in 2015. Of course, you can’t blame the catchers on all of that. The rotation had their own problems—Francisco Liriano blew up and had a 5.46 ERA when he was dealt, Jon Niese had an ERA near five and Jeff Locke, well…yeah. But it’s foolish not to think having Stallings, Fryer and Kratz calling games for a couple months didn’t have an impact on a young staff. In fact, Jameson Taillon threw to five different catchers in the first seven starts of his career last June/July. That’s unheard of. Catchers play a huge role in aspects that aren’t as mainstream as hitting. There’s pitch framing, calling the game, handling young pitchers and defense.
A positive this spring has been the health and performance of Cervelli, Stewart and Diaz. It will do the Pirates wonders to have Cervelli back for a full season again. And when discussing records and how to get back into the 90-win range from 78 in 2016, take a look at the following picture to see how vital catchers can be for the team.
This picture shows the Pirates team fWAR from its catchers, their rank in the NL in WAR and then wRC+. From 2013-15, the Pirates catchers had fWARs of 3.6, 6.0 and 4.5, ranking 5th, 2nd and 2nd, respectively. After viewing those numbers, it should be no surprise that the Pirates made the playoffs those three seasons, cultivating to a 98-win season in ’15. Last season, on the other hand, was a disaster as the injuries and Kratz/Fryer led to a a 1.2 fWAR season, their worst catcher totals since 2012. The 1.2 fWAR ranked 11-out-of-15 in the NL. Not only did Cole’s injury-filled season and Cutch’s down year hurt for the Bucs, but the jumbled use of six catchers was equally responsible for the team’s demise.
Heading into this season, however, I believe there is reason for optimism. The Pirates have a stable of healthy, experienced catchers to rely on.
Ready to put in a full season, Cervelli stayed fresh in the World Baseball Classic where he went 4-for-16 with two doubles for Italy. Cervelli isn’t going to hit for power, but over his last 300 games in the Majors, he’s recorded a .373 OBP. His game at the plate is to get on base, and his high OBP mark is the reason why I’d love to see him lead off for the Pirates in 2017. Also, you can’t discredit what he brings from behind the plate as one of the most skilled pitch framers in the game. According to Baseball Prospectus, Cervelli ranked second in MLB in pitch framing runs with +17.3 runs. Last season despite missing time, Cervelli was still ranked 7th, worth +10.6 runs to his team.
While yinzers most likely will roll their eyes when Stewart is mentioned because of his light bat, Stewart is a steady backup that the team is comfortable going to when needed. Not known for his pitch framing, Stewart can provide solid defense and throw out about 25% of potential base stealers. Stewart can handle the job just fine in limited time. He even blasted a home run in 2016 and here’s hoping he hits at least one dinger this season.
Ranked as the Pirates No. 11 prospect heading into this year, Diaz looks to continue his development after basically a lost year with all the injuries he suffered in ’16, limiting him to 35 games total. He’s healthy and hitting this spring (8-for-24), which is a good sign for a player who has worked hard to improve his hitting. Widely considered one of the best defensive catchers in the minor leagues, Diaz will start the season at Triple-A and will be ready to be called upon if needed.
The Pirates 7th round pick in the 2012 draft was thrown into action last season, making his ML debut, going 6-for-15 in five games with the Bucs after just two months at Triple-A Indy. Along with Diaz this spring, Stallings is enjoying a nice performance in Bradenton (6-for-19) with one home run. Hopefully the Pirates won’t need Stallings in Pittsburgh this season and let him continue his development on the farm. But if needed, his initial wide-eyed debut has passed and should be able to hold his own.
With these four catchers in the organization along with Cervelli being in the first year of his 3-year/$31M extension, it alleviates any sting from losing prospect Reese McGuire to the Blue Jays in the Liriano/Drew Hutchison deal last July. With Diaz’s superior defensive skills close to the Majors and McGuire’s bat not developing as hoped (.667 OPS in ’16), he wasn’t needed in Pittsburgh.
Overall, let’s hope the injury bug has passed Cervelli and the Pirates catchers, so they can catch some wins back to the 4-6 win group. This group is talented enough to do it, and they can play a major role in turning this team around in 2017.