Cubs and Pirates Snag Top Two Catchers in Ever-Shrinking Market

Within the span of a few hours on Tuesday, the last two free-agent catchers projected to produce over 1 WAR next season came off the market. The Cubs landed Yan Gomes, as reported by Craig Mish of SportsGrid, for two years and $13 million with a $6 million option for a third year and some games played incentives worth up to $1 million per year. The Pirates, on the other hand, quickly filled a hole of their own making after trading Jacob Stallings to the Marlins on Monday afternoon by landing Roberto Pérez, the former Guardians catcher, as reported by ESPN’s Jeff Passan. The deal was later specified to be worth $5 million over one year by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey.

As discussed by Devan Fink a couple of weeks ago, the catcher market this offseason is particularly dire, and the signing of Pérez and Gomes means that there are essentially no more starting caliber options left at the position. Let’s take a closer look at each player and how they fit with their new team before seeing what further implication these moves might have around the league.

Pérez comes to the Pirates after two injury-plagued seasons that followed his 2019 breakout, one of only two seasons in which he has been an above average hitter (a 109 wRC+ that year and a 107 wRC+ in ’15). For the most part, he’s been well below that, putting up a 49 wRC+ over 271 plate appearances in ‘20 and ‘21. His offensive value, even in his down years, has largely come from a substantial walk rate, which has been freakishly close to 10% for the last five seasons. It’s a surprising skill, and it derives from his knack for leaving the bat on his shoulder. Over the last three seasons, Pérez has swung only 39.3% of the time (league average is about 47%) and chased pitches only 23.1% of the time (league average is about 31%).

A return to somewhere closer to his 2019 numbers seems possible, though, especially when noticing some of the growth in his underlying metrics last season, like career bests in exit velocity and barrel rate. His xwOBA of .300 (against an actual wOBA of .251) also suggests that this improved contact went largely unrewarded. It’s important to remember that xwOBA is less a predictive stat and more a descriptive one, but an underlying improvement in his quality of contact just might carry over into next season with the Pirates.

Defense is the clear strength with Pérez, and it’s why the Pirates signed him to replace Stallings, the 2021 NL Gold Glove winner. Pérez has two of those trophies himself, from 2019 and ’20, and while 2021 was his first negative DRS season of his career, a right shoulder injury and the small sample size are more likely explanations than a true loss of talent. And even with his dud of a season, he still ranks first among all catchers in DRS since 2015, with many fewer innings than those around him. He has the all-too-rare ability of being an above-average framer and also allowing few passed balls, a combination of skills that often work against each other.

Pérez has been brought to the Pirates for his defense and to help an inexperienced pitching staff that will likely see plenty of turnover next season. It doesn’t hurt that he can also be around to help develop and mentor Henry Davis, the no. 1 pick in the 2021 draft and the potential catcher of the future in Pittsburgh.

On to Gomes. His consistent production at the position, made up of quality defense and average hitting, made him stand out among the catchers in this year’s class of free agents. He appeared all the way up at no. 26 on our top 50 free-agent rankings — the only backstop on the list, and ahead of a number of players expected to be more valuable next season. Being the best at your position on the market has its perks, and we figured it would help him earn a large raise on the $5 million he made last season. And while the $7.5 million he could earn this year may not be as much as predicted, getting any raise at all — plus multiple years of security — when you’re a catcher heading into your age-34 season is remarkable in its own right.

Gomes has put up five straight seasons with a wRC+ of 80 or higher and has a 96 wRC+ over the last two years. He’s been able to improve as a hitter by swinging and missing less, which has dropped his K% to better than average over each of the last two years. The improvement hasn’t come at the cost of power either, as he has a slightly above-average isolated slugging and is coming off of a career-high barrel rate of 8.8% (7.9% is average). The thing keeping him from being an above-average hitter has always been his poor walk rate (5.1% in 2021) thanks to his eagerness to swing at balls, which you can see in his below-average career chase rate (36.7%).

Gomes is still a high-quality defender at the position, with only his framing showing signs of slowing down. While on the whole he may have aged onto the negative side of the spectrum, he has still managed to remain an average framer when it comes to pulling in strikes on the corners. And wouldn’t you know it, the Cubs threw the second highest rate of pitches to the corners in all of baseball. Even if Gomes is now a below-average framer overall, a team that pitches east/west like Chicago does would seem to be a good fit for his current skills.

But where does Gomes’ signing leave the Cubs’ current catcher, Willson Contreras? Unlike Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Javier Báez, he was not shipped out at the deadline last season, but the two-time All-Star remains under team control in Chicago for only one more season. Shortly after Gomes’ deal was announced, Contreras tweeted out the rare quadruple plane emoji, which could mean about eleven different things, but the timing alone suggests that he thinks he’ll be — or maybe wants to be — on his way to a new team.

The irony is that adding Gomes should drive up the market on Contreras. The Cubs simultaneously got a good backup, or replacement, and took away the best option in free agency. That doesn’t necessarily hurt their leverage in trying to deal him, though, because with the designated hitter likely coming to the NL in 2022, the Cubs could just keep both catchers. This might be an expensive option for a team that’s been so set on cutting costs, but it would allow Contreras plenty of at-bats and rest before Chicago tries to work out an in-season trade.

With the lockout expected to start on Thursday, it’s not likely that we’ll have an answer to what the Cubs plan on doing with Contreras any time soon. This pre-lockout run of moves has all but dried up, and whenever we make it to the other side of this abyss, teams wanting a catcher will either be picking among an assortment better suited for a backup role, or they’ll be making a call to Chicago.

Luke Hooper is a designer and writer at FanGraphs. He lives in Portland, Oregon, longing for a major league team to materialize.

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9 months ago

Roberto Perez: Top Two Catcher is the name of a gonzo journalistic account of sabermetrics and nobody will convince me otherwise.