Building a Frankenstein Backup Catcher

One of the things people enjoy about sports is the role they role they play in starting conversations and debates. People enjoy arguing, especially about trivial matters like “who was the best hitter of all time?” and “who’s the best shortstop in the game right now?” These exchanges satisfy one’s desire to engage in battles of wits without challenging someone’s moral character, which is what often happens when debates turn to more sensitive topics such as politics or religion.

Sports allows for fierce debate with extraordinary low stakes. Think about how much time we’ve spent arguing about the difference between Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera! While you might think those conversations were tremendously unproductive, I would submit that they provided many people with a confrontational, emotional, and intellectual outlet. We’re a species blessed with language and reason, but cursed with imperfections in both. Arguing about the performance of athletes allows us to exercise those muscles without inadvertently causing real damage to society.

In that realm, I would like to present a baseball question to which you have probably devoted almost no attention. If you could take the best attributes of baseball’s backup catchers and fuse them into a single, lovable backstop, what components would you choose and how valuable would the resulting Frankenstein Catcher be?

I would remind you that this is an exercise meant to explore the talents of backup catchers. FanGraphs strongly discourages any attempt to actually combined two or more people into a single baseball player.

The exercise works like this. I have mined our Depth Charts for a list of backup catchers, grabbing the player projected to get the second most plate appearances at catcher for each team. In doing so, I made a couple of exceptions, however. The Mariners, Red Sox, and Padres all had #2 and #3 catchers projected for similar playing time, so I included all six backups from those three clubs. The Rays and Phillies have a virtually even split between their #1 and #2 catchers, so I excluded those options entirely.

We’re left with 31 catchers and are going to pick a bat, some legs, a glove, and an arm based on different statistical options. Obviously, we’re at the mercy of the data and that can get especially tricky when we’re focusing in on a group of players who are lucky to get 200 plate appearances in a given season. Regard all of the following with that caveat in mind.

The Bat

The most direct way to pick the hitting portion of the Frankencatcher is to sort the 2016 Steamer projections by wRC+. If you do that, the top-rated catcher is Gary Sanchez at 96 wRC+. Yet that’s not an entirely satisfactory solution because Gary Sanchez has only two major league plate appearances and we generally have less confidence in projections based entirely on minor league data. This isn’t to say the projection isn’t justified, as Sanchez has a terrific track record in the minors, but rather that we might err on the side of certainty if there is another option.

One option arrives in the form of Dioner Navarro, projected for a a 94 wRC+ via Steamer. While that is worse than Sanchez, Navarro has the highest three-year wRC+ of the 31 catchers (min. 100 PA) at 107. So perhaps Navarro is our man?

On the other hand, a lot of that three-year wRC+ is based on his 139 wRC+ from 2013. In 2015, Navarro produced just 84 wRC+ for the slugging Jays. Andrew Susac comes in with a 106 wRC+ from 2013-2015 and a 91 projected wRC+ for 2016, which is exactly what he posted in 2015.

The other compelling choice is Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who has a three-year wRC+ of 104 and a projected wRC+ of 92. You have to deal with the platoon issues, but his 116-92-100 three-year run is a little less lopsided than the others.

This is all small sample work, so we have to make a call based on limited information. It’s a gamble, but let’s dream on Gary Sanchez.

The Legs

Catchers are notoriously lead-footed. Fifty-four players in 2015 both (a) were classified as catchers and (b) received 150 total PA or more in 2015. Only one of them produced more than one run from base running (as measured by Baserunning Runs), and that was a likely 1B/DH who plays outfield, Kyle Schwarber. J.T. Realmuto came in at 1.0 exactly. Austin Hedges and Chris Stewart, both options for our exercise, each racked up 0.8 BsR last year. But BsR is a counting stat, so we need to do some work to land on a player.

If we go by projected BsR, Mike Zunino comes in at 0.4 BsR/450 PA. If we use three-year BsR (min. 100 PA), Hedges leads the way at 2.4 BsR/450 PA. Given that Hedges was fourth in the projections and decisively first among recent performance, I have to give this one to the Padres backup.

We don’t have a lot of information to go on here, and perhaps Statcast will offer more insight going forward, but if we’re forced to choose, Hedges will do just fine.

The Glove

For the fielding aspect of defense, let’s turn to framing. Granted, we want to be able to include blocking in this analysis but that would require mining a tiny number of chances for a set of statistics that has a very narrow range. A good blocker probably saves a handful of runs over a full season and these guys don’t get full seasons of chances for us to say much about their abilities.

For framing, let’s look to Baseball Prospectus. A simple sort of their framing leaderboard for 2015 offers several potential choices. Looking on a per pitch basis, here are the top eight Player-Level results for our 31 catchers:

BP Framing, 2015
NAME Level Framing Chances CSAA
Josh Thole AAA 3261 0.023
Austin Hedges AAA 1233 0.022
Kevin Plawecki MLB 3963 0.021
Austin Hedges MLB 2712 0.021
Chris Stewart MLB 2470 0.019
Max Stassi AAA 6176 0.018
Tyler Flowers MLB 6317 0.018
Jose Lobaton MLB 2492 0.014
SOURCE: Baseball Prospectus

Josh Thole leads the way, but his results are a product on minor league data, and those numbers are based on a less sophisticated method due to the lack of PITCHf/x data available below the majors. That’s not a deal-breaker, but given that Thole hasn’t excelled as a framer in previous MLB stints, let’s keep looking.

It comes down to Hedges, Kevin Plawecki, Chris Stewart, and Tyler Flowers. Hedges’ framing numbers are consistently excellent for the seasons and levels available at BP. Plawecki has been good, but not quite as good, Stewart has been extremely good, and Flowers has also been a very strong framer.

There is no obvious choice as far as I am concerned. All four seem to be very talented framers and I would be hard-pressed to separate them, especially Hedges, Stewart, and Flowers. I am partial to Stewart and even invented a way for him to play more often, so I’ll choose him, but feel free to go another way if you’re playing at home.

The Arm

There are plenty of ways to measure a catcher’s arm, but the purest form is by timing how long it takes them to get the ball from their glove to second base. In 2015, Statcast recorded 1,784 such throws, giving us the following averages for players eligible for this article.

Statcast Pop Times, 2015
Name Recorded Throws Average Pop Time
Chris Stewart 27 1.876
Christian Bethancourt 16 1.890
Austin Hedges 28 1.896
Martin Maldonado 30 1.903
Roberto Perez 16 1.920
David Ross 39 1.924
Josh Phegley 18 1.929
SOURCE: MLB Advanced Media

Stewart and Hedges feature prominently. In fact, Stewart is pretty decisively the best of the group. Bethancourt, Hedges, and Maldonado are very good, but the separation between Stewart and the rest makes it hard to go in another direction. There’s a strong case to be made that Stewart is the best defensive backup catcher, but Hedges is right there with him in both categories and also won our running contest. If either of these guys were good hitters, they would probably be down-ballot MVPs.

So we’ve arrived at a Sanchez-Hedges-Stewart-Stewart mashup for the Frankencatcher. If we wanted to makes sure we didn’t repeat anything, we could go with Sacnhez-Hedges-Flowers/Plawecki-Stewart.

There’s a saying to the effect that “knowledge is knowing Frankenstein isn’t the monster and that wisdom is knowing Frankenstein is the monster.” While the facts indicate that quotation is based upon Mary Shelley’s 19th century classic, it seems nearly as applicable to the journey we’ve just completed.

Aside from (hopefully) being entertaining, this gives us a little insight into the various skills possessed by baseball’s largely forgotten warriors. For most people, seeing the backup catcher in the lineup is eyeroll inducing, but the difference between backups and starters is really just that backups don’t have a complete game. Every one of the skills we selected here passes muster relative to the league’s stars. Sanchez’s bat (if it’s as good as projected) would be league average for a catcher. Hedges would be one of the better catcher-runners. And Stewart is easily in the conversation for best defensive catcher in the game. Our hybrid catcher is a good catcher.

It’s a little tricky to finagle a number, but if you really buy the framing and give this player 450 PA, you could squint your way to 5 WAR. It’s probably safer to call the Frankencatcher a 3-4 WAR option, but this amalgamation would legitimately be an above-average backstop.

We hoped you liked reading Building a Frankenstein Backup Catcher by Neil Weinberg!

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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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