The Astros Have a New Catcher

I’m going to remind you that, last season, the league-average catcher posted an 84 wRC+. The league-average position player posted a 100 wRC+. By definition, it is always 100. Catchers, by and large, cannot hit. Robinson Chirinos hit pretty well as the Rangers’ regular catcher, notching a 103 wRC+ in his age-34 season. It was his fourth straight year of quality hitting, in a career-high amount of playing time. So it was surprising when the Rangers declined to pick up Chirinos’ $4.5-million option for next year. The Rangers aren’t going anywhere, so it hardly matters in the grand scheme of things, but Chirinos was more good than bad, and $4.5 million isn’t much.

Chirinos now has found a new home, and he’s remaining in Texas. The Astros have signed him to a one-year deal, and although I don’t know the terms, let’s assume it’s around $4 – 5 million. The exciting thing for the Astros is that Chirinos makes them better. What’s less exciting is that Chirinos isn’t J.T. Realmuto.

As Kiley McDaniel noted earlier, the potential Realmuto trade market has been busy, and not necessarily by keeping in touch with the Marlins. The Astros looked like a fit for Realmuto, and now they have Chirinos. The Rays looked like a fit for Realmuto, and now they have Mike Zunino. The Nationals looked like a fit for Realmuto, and now they have Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki. The Braves looked like a fit for Realmuto, and now they have Brian McCann.

Granted, there are other possible suitors, like the Mets, the Dodgers, the Brewers, and the Rockies, to list a few. Realmuto remains in demand. And the Astros might not have even closed the door, since, in theory, they could trade for Realmuto by including Max Stassi. This just complicates things for them a little bit, since last season, Realmuto’s backups totaled 208 plate appearances, which was about half of Chirinos’ total. Either Chirinos would have to accept reduced playing time, or Realmuto, in Houston, would have to play more first base. Let’s say the Astros are less likely than they were yesterday to make the splash. I don’t think that’s controversial.

So the Marlins will stay busy on the phone, while remembering that the list of free-agent catchers includes Yasmani Grandal, Wilson Ramos, Jonathan Lucroy, and Martin Maldonado. Francisco Cervelli and Russell Martin are other trade candidates. Realmuto is possibly or probably the best catcher in the game, but trading is never as easy as you’d think.

Back to Chirinos and the Astros. Garrett Stubbs is in the upper minors, but at the big-league level now, the two catchers are Chirinos and Stassi. Chirinos is 34, and Stassi is 27, and last year Stassi finished with a 100 wRC+ of his own. On the other hand, over the final four months, Stassi managed a wRC+ of just 64, his power evaporating. On the other other hand, there’s the other side of the game. According to both Baseball Info Solutions and Baseball Prospectus, Stassi last year was one of the game’s best defensive catchers. According to the same sources, Chirinos last year was one of the game’s worst defensive catchers. Maybe some of that just reflects that Stassi caught a good pitching staff and Chirinos caught a bad one, but Stassi has a pretty clear edge behind the plate, even if the hitting is unpolished.

Something more fun for Chirinos and his new employer: Chirinos is a right-handed hitter, and, half the time, he’ll be hitting in Minute Maid Park. You know what looms in left field in Minute Maid Park. Over the past three seasons, more than 300 hitters have hit at least 500 batted balls. Here are the ten highest rates of pulled batted balls in the air:

Pulled Air Balls, 2016 – 2018
Player Batted Balls Pulled, Air Rate(%)
Brandon Moss 513 150 29.2%
Rhys Hoskins 538 149 27.7%
Mike Zunino 553 153 27.7%
Matt Carpenter 1161 319 27.5%
Robinson Chirinos 514 140 27.2%
Salvador Perez 1185 317 26.8%
Mike Napoli 633 169 26.7%
Joey Gallo 551 147 26.7%
Brian Dozier 1391 362 26.0%
Curtis Granderson 988 249 25.2%

It’s a small thing, but it’s something. Chirinos hits the ball in the air, and he likes to pull it. By doing that, he might now hit his way into some lucky home runs. That is, he might gain particular value while hitting in Houston, above and beyond how other righties might benefit. It’s one of those neat little statistical quirks. I don’t know if the Astros factored it into their decision, but Chirinos hits with an appropriate profile.

This wasn’t Tuesday’s big news. If anything, given that Chirinos isn’t Realmuto, Astros fans could be disappointed. But there’s still plenty of offseason to go. Plenty of significant moves to be discussed. And several months on down the line, perhaps Chirinos will win a ballgame by lifting a lazy fly over the left-field fence. Some would call it a fluke. Others would laugh at the notion.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Hmm, Baseball Prospectus says he was the fourth worst framer in baseball last season. Obviously the Astros are very confident in their analytics and player development, so I’m curious to see if they think they can improve him, or if they’ve just decided he was the best available catcher they wouldn’t have to break open the vault for.