A Strategy For Deploying Baseball’s Best Backup Catcher

It wasn’t that long ago that the Pittsburgh Pirates were a laughingstock. They experienced two decades of losing seasons from 1993 to 2012, but getting that proverbial monkey off their backs in 2013 didn’t exactly free them from the pain baseball can inflict.

In fact, the Pirates found a way to be simultaneously great and depressing. They’ve hosted three consecutive wild-card games, winning the first one and losing the last two. Not only have they failed to advance past the Division Series despite averaging over 93 wins a year, they have had to endure the madness of the coin-flip game three times in a row. Needless to say, the Pirates and their fans desperately crave a longer October stay in 2016.

To do that, they’ll either have to be better than the powerhouse Cubs or they will have to secure a wild-card spot and win a one-game playoff. The Pirates are perhaps the team at the steepest spot on the win curve because the best team in baseball is in their division, they’re projected to be competing among a tightly bunched group of contenders, and the indignity of another wild-card defeat might be too much to handle. 

However you wish to imagine it, the Pirates are a good team in a tough division and they don’t seem to have the financial muscle needed to spend their way to the top. In order to be successful, the need to find ways to squeeze every last drop of value out of their roster to push them from back-to-back one-and-dones to a team that challenges for a title.

One thing the Pirates have a lot of — aside from talented outfielders — is catcher defense. The Pirates have so much catcher defense it’s spilling out of their sandwiches like french fries. 

Good-fielding catchers have been something of a special interest of the Pirates over recent years, starting with Russell Martin, then moving to Francisco Cervelli, and finally Chris Stewart. Essentially, if you’re a Yankees catcher with a good glove, you might want to look into real estate in western Pennsylvania before too long.

The club currently features Cervelli and Stewart, the former being a breakout star and the latter being a glove first backup. There’s no question that Cervelli is the better player, but there is also no question that Stewart is a premier defensive catcher. His framing numbers at Baseball Prospectus are outstanding and his arm is among the best in the league. Since 2011, he’s averaged about +25 framing runs per 7,000 chances using the BP model, including +19 per 7,000 chances in 2015. Statcast tracked 1,784 throws to second in 2015 and Stewart’s 1.876 average pop time trailed only J.T. Realmuto (1.867). Cervelli, to his credit, is no slouch either. His 1.968 average pop time was above average and only Yasmani Grandal saved more total runs through framing than Cervelli in 2015.

pirates catchers

One downside to having two great defensive catchers is that you can only utilize one of them at a time. Granted, a good backup will catch 40 games, but it’s not comparable for a team to having a second great starter or a third elite hitter. Cervelli and Stewart  have an elite ability that they can’t stack. The club will always have a good framer behind the plate, but it does seem like they aren’t getting the most out of Stewart when he’s only catching 400 innings a year.

Given the Pirates desire to get over that last little obstacle, it makes sense that they should try anything and everything to pad their win total, and I have an idea for how that can leverage their unique asset toward that aim.

It goes like this. Cervelli starts most games like you would expect. Let’s say the split will be 122/40, obviously acknowledging injuries could derail us all. During those 122 starts, however, Chris Stewart serves as a late-inning defensive replacement. After John Jaso, the presumed first baseman, bats for the third or fourth time (depending on the inning), Cervelli moves to first and Stewart slides in to catch. You can include Mike Morse interchangeably if you like, but I’ll stick with Jaso for simplicity.

This does a number of things. First, it maintains or improves the quality of catcher defense. Both players are elite framers and Stewart seems to be a better thrower given the data we have available to us. Second, this plan keeps Jaso fresher by leaning on him less. He’s never had a full season of reps and has a long enough injury history that you want to be extra careful. Third, the Stewart Swap saves some wear and tear on the valuable Cervelli without losing Cervelli’s bat, and without taking a catcher off the field and risking every manager’s nightmare — a catcher injury with no backup.

The downside is the drop off from Jaso to Stewart with the bat. This might seem significant given Jaso’s superior history and projection, but consider that the swap would be timed to occur so that few PA are affected. Remember also that Jaso is a hitter vulnerable to a late-inning LOOGY. In his career, Jaso has a 127 wRC+ versus righties and a 64 wRC+ versus lefties.

I don’t mean to argue that Stewart would project comparably, just that the difference between the two late in games is lower than it is overall because Jaso is someone who seems to have an extreme platoon split which teams are liable to attack with relief specialists. On top of that, this system still allows the Pirates to pinch hit for Stewart if he comes up in a big spot after the swap because Cervelli remains in the game and can move back behind the plate if it comes to that. If you need a catcher, you have one.

I don’t mean to suggest there is no offensive cost, but it does seem to be a small one. You’re risking a small amount of offensive value over a small number of PA, but the ability to pull him back out of the game mitigates that a bit.

The benefits seems meaningful, if not easily estimated. The plan would presumably save Jaso’s body, which would presumably increase his productivity and decrease the odds of time missed with injury. The same is true for Cervelli. Even if he isn’t getting a full break, less catching seems to provide some benefit to player health. This is why the Giants use Buster Posey at first base. His bat is excellent but catching too much would have consequences so they shift him to first for some degree of rest. The same principle applies here.

The fun part about this is that we have no idea if Cervelli can play first base. He has just 40 innings there in his career so it’s a complete unknown. But, the savvy reader knows we are equally as unsure about Jaso at first base given his five career innings at the position. We know the catcher defense would be stable under this plan, but we have to assume that Cervelli is roughly as good or better than Jaso for it to work. I think it’s a fair enough assumption to try such an experiment.

There are reasons why it might not work. Maybe catching fatigue is more about starts than innings and this won’t actually save Cervelli very much. Or perhaps Cervelli can’t play first well enough. Maybe frequently having no catchers in reserve will wear on Clint Hurdle’s nerves to the point that he loses the ability to make wise decisions.

But it also seems like an idea worth considering because it allows the club to get roughly the same set of skills on the field while potentially improving the durability of two players. I recognize it’s an unusual and elaborate plan designed to get more playing time for Chris Stewart, but the Pirates are known for their willingness to try things other teams haven’t. They were early adopters both of framing and shifting, so they are likely susceptible to other innovations as well.

The problem with great catchers is that the more you ask them to catch, the more likely it is that they will stop being great catchers. The Pirates have a big incentive to keep Cervelli healthy, and if they utilize the Stewart Swap in the late innings, they will be able to do that more effectively without sacrificing catcher defense, a key component of the club’s winning formula.

Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

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King Flops
8 years ago

I read this whole thing thinking it was about baseball’s best back-up catcher, but when I got the end Caleb Joseph wasn’t even mentioned.

8 years ago
Reply to  King Flops

Josh Phegley and his 1.8 WAR beg to differ. This article should be called, “A Strategy for Deploying one of the Top-5 Backup Catchers and Probably the Best Backup Cather at Pitch Framing”