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2020 Positional Power Rankings: Catcher

After Dan Szymborski and Craig Edwards surveyed the state of second and third base yesterday, our positional power rankings continue with a look at catcher.

Catcher is a hard position to project even at the best of times — though we are getting better at it — and that difficulty is compounded this year by a short season and the availability of ever-more roster spots at which to stash a backup or two. Taking those complications together, I’d encourage you to take these rankings with a dollop of salt. There’s value in taking a close look at the particular mix of players each team is bringing into this campaign, but it’s probably best understood as an effort to document the catching situation league-wide, bucket teams into tiers, and sketch out the rough outlines of teams’ depth at this position. As such, try not to dwell overly long on the ordinal rankings or the team WAR figures that fuel them; the differences are quite small in some cases.

So what is the league-wide situation at catcher? Given the continued presence of true standouts like Yasmani Grandal and J.T. Realmuto it isn’t all bad, but I think it’s fair to characterize the overall situation as a bit of an ebb tide. As recently as a few years ago, we were treated to career seasons from the likes of Yan Gomes, Rene Rivera, Russell Martin, Buster Posey, and Jonathan Lucroy, with Salvador Perez and Yadier Molina not far off their peaks as well. Now, Martin is unsigned, Posey has opted out, and the rest of the players who were so recently putting up five-win seasons are shadows of their former selves. Catchers as a group generated just 54.3 WAR last year, which, while a five-win improvement over 2018’s figure, was lower than any other season in the last 12. Read the rest of this entry »

Will Smith Leads L.A.’s Bargain Catching Crew

In 2020, we estimate that the Dodgers will pay out $236 million in salary. That’s 10% more than any other team in baseball except the Yankees, and over $40 million more than their closest National League competitor, the Cubs. The Dodgers have been big spenders for some time now, and one of the ways they’ve chosen to use their money is to ensure that every position on their roster is stocked with two capable big league players at the very least, and sometimes more than that. It’s not spoiling our upcoming Positional Power Rankings series to note that Los Angeles falls into the top half of every single position on our depth charts, and in the top five of six. Most of those positions are filled with well-paid veterans. The purpose of this piece is to investigate the one position on their roster that isn’t: catcher.

In fact, not a single likely Dodgers’ starter at catcher will be paid more than $1.1 million in 2020. Last year’s starting duo of Russell Martin ($20 million, $16.4 million of which was paid by the Blue Jays) and Austin Barnes ($575,000 in 2019, and $1.1 million this year) morphed, over the course of the 2019 season, into Will Smith and Friends. Although Martin and Barnes caught more games overall last year (61 and 52, respectively), 38 of Smith’s 45 starts came in the Dodgers’ last 57 games of the season, and he enters 2020 — whenever that begins — as the favorite to start the lion’s share of games this year. At 25, with less than a year’s service time under his belt, he’ll make $555,000 in 2020. Read the rest of this entry »

Matthew Boyd Might Have A New Curveball

Matthew Boyd, 29, has increasingly become a bright spot for a Tigers team that has lost an astonishing 310 games over the last three major league seasons. Last year, after posting a 24.8% K-BB% and 2.87 FIP over 72 2/3 innings pitched through May 30, he emerged as a popular trade candidate for a rebuilding Detroit squad. Those rumors cooled over the next two months, as Boyd allowed 10 home runs in June and five more in July to drive his ERA up to 3.94; his FIP rose to 3.46 by the end of that month.

Boyd ended the season with a 4.32 FIP, a 23.8% K-BB%, and 3.3 WAR — all career highs — but that progress was somewhat obscured both by the Tigers’ poor performance and by a second half so markedly worse than his first, particularly in terms of home runs allowed. That’s a shame, because 2019 was in fact the third consecutive year of material improvement for a pitcher who, despite his obvious talents and relative youth, hasn’t yet put together a full season in which he looks the way he did in the early part of 2019:

Boyd Getting Better
Year IP K% BB% Contact% O-Contact% xFIP-
2017 135.0 18.2% 8.8% 79.3% 70.9% 114
2018 170.1 22.4% 7.2% 77.9% 66.3% 111
2019 185.1 30.2% 6.3% 71.7% 56.2% 85

The challenge Boyd faced in 2019, as Craig noted in July, was that his heavy reliance on his fastball and slider — he threw those two pitches a combined 90% of the time — made his approach at times too predictable for big league hitters, resulting in an awful lot of home runs allowed. Boyd used to throw a curveball, too (18% of the time as recently as 2017), but a redesign of his then-weak slider after the 2017 season left his two breaking pitches looking a little too similar to one another, and Boyd dropped the curveball from his repertoire almost entirely over the course of 2018 and ’19. By the end of last season, hitters could expect a fastball nearly 75% of the time on three-ball counts. In consequence, they hit .309 against the pitch in June, .304 in July, and .344 in August. Read the rest of this entry »

White Sox Extend Bummer’s Contract

Two months after extending Luis Robert, and less than a year after doing the same with Eloy Jiménez, the White Sox have locked in a contract for another young star, reportedly signing 26-year-old groundball specialist Aaron Bummer to a five-year extension worth a minimum of $16 million. The deal also includes options for Bummer’s 2025 and 2026 seasons, for $7.25 and $7.5 million, respectively, with $1.25 million buyouts in each year. If Bummer receives certain awards considerations, the final option year could be worth up to $10 million.

All told, the White Sox have guaranteed themselves a minimum of five and a maximum of seven years of Bummer’s services at a maximum cost of $32 million. Bummer has guaranteed himself $16 million. I suspect both parties will leave this deal feeling satisfied. As Bob Nightengale noted this is the largest extension given to a non-closer who has yet to qualify for arbitration in major league history. While the breakdown in the traditional closer role and the rise of elite sixth- and seventh-inning relievers makes that distinction somewhat less notable than it might have been a few years ago, this is still a major deal.

You may have already read Devan Fink’s detailed analysis of Bummer’s sinker earlier this month, but if you didn’t, here are the numbers that likely prompted the White Sox to put guaranteed money on the table: Bummer’s groundball rate in 2019 was 72.1% (second in the majors), he generated 14 runs on his sinker alone (also second), and he generated barrels on only 2.3% of batted ball events (third). Those numbers look a lot like those of another star reliever of recent vintage, Zack Britton, and it is indeed Britton who Bummer trailed in the first two categories. Read the rest of this entry »

Brewers Sign Brock Holt, Human Swiss Army Knife

That’s according to Ken Rosenthal, anyway, and the last time Ken got one of these signings wrong was never. We don’t have contract information yet, but you guessed two years and $8 million at the beginning of the offseason, and that sounds roughly correct to me. It’s possible that this late signing date is a clue that either the years or the dollars will be somewhat less than our expectation for them, but in the absence of any hard information, I’d bet there was enough interest in Brock Holt’s services that he hit what he was aiming for.

In Milwaukee, Holt will join a host of players competing for the role of Craig Counsell’s Favorite Son in spring training: Ryon Healy (who played first and third in 2019), Jedd Gyorko (first, second, and third), Eric Sogard (second, third, short, left, and right), and Luis Urías (second, third, and short) have already joined the Brew Crew this offseason. Holt, who did everything but pitch, catch, and play center field for the Red Sox last season, has been a more consistent hitter — especially over the last two seasons — than any of those four men, and so he probably has an inside track for a roster spot come April.

Given Milwaukee’s revamped outfield configuration — Christian Yelich in left (where he spent most of his time in Miami), some combination of Lorenzo Cain and Avisaíl Garcia in center, and Garcia and Ryan Braun in right — Holt will likely pick up much of his playing time in the infield, I’m guessing primarily on the left side. Sogard (third base) and Urías (shortstop) are both stronger starters if their bats hold up, but the odds of that happening for both men seem reasonably low. I wouldn’t be shocked if the 350 or so plate appearances we’re projecting for Holt this year end up being low. I also wouldn’t be shocked if Holt gets most of his defensive chances at second base, depending on how Keston Hiura’s sophomore campaign proceeds. Read the rest of this entry »

Minor Leaguers To Be Paid More, Not Enough

Last Friday, Jake Seiner and Ben Walker of the Associated Press reported that Major League Baseball has opted to raise minor league player pay to, at minimum, $4,800 dollars a year. As usual, the change was announced unilaterally: minor league players are not unionized and cannot help but accept this compensation. Specifically, MLB decided to set minimum pay levels (not including spring training, which is unpaid, and not starting until the 2021 season) at:

  • $400/week ($4,800 for a three-month season) for Rookie or short-season (up from $290/$3,480)
  • $500/week ($10,000 for a five-month season) for Class A (up from $290/$5,800)
  • $600/week ($12,000 for a five-month season) for Double-A (up from $350/$7,000)
  • $700/week ($14,000 for a five-month season) for Triple-A (up from $502/$10,040)

Assuming that players work an eight-hour workday five days a week (which is an assumption you’d make only if you both knew nothing about how long minor leaguers work and also were feeling extremely generous towards the league), the new pay scale works out to an hourly minimum wage of $10, $12.50, $15, and $17.50, respectively. Assuming even 50 hours a week puts everybody below $15 an hour; 60 hours a week puts everyone below $12. And all of the scenarios assume either that players are independently wealthy or that they’ll fit their year-round conditioning and training in around finding some other way to make money seven or nine months out of the year. Read the rest of this entry »

San Francisco Signs Pence, Hamilton

I firmly believe that every baseball fan over 15 years of age — old enough to remember 2012 with some clarity — has a story about the day they fell in love with Hunter Pence, who signed a major-league deal with the Giants last week. Mine was the day, sometime in the late fall of 2012, that I watched his San Francisco teammates demonstrate, through the very best impressions they could muster, that they loved him too. From that day forward, I was a fan of every bug-eyed, gangly, corkscrewed swing. I watched with delight as Pence helped bring a third title to San Francisco in 2014 (his second), then in dismay as he faded to a 60 wRC+, -0.8 WAR nadir in 2018 that spelled the end of his first Giants run. In reporting on his 2019 deal with the Rangers, I wrote that:

I’m never optimistic about players’ ability to re-tool their games after 35 — this is increasingly a young man’s sport, and there’s precious little margin to get it right — but in Pence’s case I hope I am wrong, and that Pence makes the roster and contributes for Texas this year. Hunter Pence is not like many we’ve seen before in this game, and we need more like him.

I was wrong. Pence rode a revamped swing (discussed here by Devan Fink) to a .297/.358/.552 line across 316 plate appearances for the Rangers in 2019. Pence’s 128 wRC+ was the fourth-highest of his 13-year career and his best since 2013’s 135 mark. Pence’s improvement was driven not by an increase in contact rate (his 70.3% mark was unchanged from 2018) but by a marked elevation of his launch angle (to 10.1 degrees, after sitting at 5.7 last year), which led to a substantial increase in his fly ball rate (35.6%; second-highest in his career, again after 2013) and an even more dramatic increase in his HR/FB rate (to 23.1%, more than triple last year’s mark and by three points the best of his career). Read the rest of this entry »

Rockies Retain Story, Troubled Narrative

Last February, shortly after the Colorado Rockies agreed to pay Nolan Arenado $260 million to play baseball in Denver through the 2026 season, USA Today’s Bob Nightengale quoted the team’s franchise player as saying “I grew up here in this organization, so it feels like home in a way. I’ve been here since the tide has changed, and that’s a really good feeling.” The meta-story of that signing was that the Rockies had convinced Arenado that they were finally serious about building a contender around him, and it was that assurance (plus, of course, the $260 million) that convinced their generational star to sign his name on the dotted line.

We’re not even a year into that deal, and things have soured at Coors Field. The Rockies finished 2019 71-91, fourth in a soft-besides-the-Dodgers NL West, and until last week, their biggest offseason deal was signing Chris Owings to a minor-league contract. That by itself would probably be enough to alienate Arenado, but a reportedly disastrous offseason meeting between the Rockies star and GM Jeff Bridich led to a public rift that has yet to fully resolve itself. Bridich declined to answer media questions about the Arenado situation (or any other subject) at the team’s Fan Fest last week, and although Arenado worked to tamp down the public aspect of the story last week, it’s clear things aren’t over. Read the rest of this entry »

Angels Acquire Andriese From Arizona

With Anthony Rendon now under contract in Anaheim, our depth charts project Angels position players for 30.0 WAR — fifth-best in the major leagues, and within a half-win of second place. Anaheim pitching, however, is projected for just 13.1 WAR (eighth-worst). No team projected to finish in the top half in WAR is expected to finish with so little of their total coming from their arms (the Twins, who’re projected for 14.9 pitching wins and 45.2 overall, are closest). Given that imbalance, it’s not entirely unexpected that the Angels would spend this latter part of their offseason trying to get arms wherever they can. This week, they got Matt Andriese in a trade with the Diamondbacks in exchange for minor league right-hander Jeremy Beasley.

Andriese, 30, has played in parts of the last five major-league seasons for the Rays and Diamondbacks but has yet to spend a full season at the major league level since making his professional debut in the San Diego system back in 2011. Last year, his first (and, as it turns out, only) season in Arizona, was also his first season pitching exclusively in relief. Andriese acquitted himself adequately in that role, posting an 85 FIP- and 107 ERA- over 70 2/3 innings, mostly ahead of Archie Bradley and Greg Holland. Perhaps most appealingly, he posted a 50.3% groundball rate in a season where the league average was just a touch below 43%. Read the rest of this entry »

Dodgers Add Latest Pitching Project in Jimmy Nelson

It’s not a new insight to point out that the Dodgers decided a few years ago that one helpful thing they can do with all their money is take fliers on a ton of injured or otherwise unreliable starting pitchers, only some of whom will work out. Other teams do this too, of course, but only the Dodgers do it at a scale that leaves their starting pitchers’ depth chart looking quite this crowded year after year:

Jimmy Nelson, row seven, is the newest addition to the Dodgers’ crop of injured arms, as he reportedly signed with Los Angeles for $1.25 million in guaranteed dollars with a litany of incentives and option years (up to $13 million over two years, according to reports). That structure has the effect of capping Nelson’s earnings through the end of 2021 if he comes back healthy — starting pitchers have signed for a median of $8.25 million a year so far this offseason, which puts Nelson’s cap of $6.5 million well below average — while committing the Dodgers to very little guaranteed money in the event Nelson fails to bounce back. Read the rest of this entry »