Pirates Go to the Pitch-Framing Well, Add Francisco Cervelli

Did you read the article from a week ago about the Astros trading for Hank Conger? Great, then you’ve already read this article, too. The Pirates just followed a similar path, sending Justin Wilson to the Yankees in exchange for backstop Francisco Cervelli. Wilson’s left-handed and cost-controlled, and he throws hard, so the Yankees see him as a valuable part of the bullpen right away. But it’s Cervelli who’s the more interesting piece, here. He’s the more interesting piece for reasons you might be tired of reading about.

The Pirates, as you know, are probably going to lose Russell Martin to a team with a higher payroll. Listen to them tell it, and getting Cervelli doesn’t close the door on a Martin return; the front office is still hopeful. But the team sounds prepared to give Cervelli the bulk of the playing time, if necessary, just as the Yankees were in 2013. Cervelli is unproven as a regular, but he’s fairly proven as a framer, which is a skill the Pirates appear to value.

The framing numbers like Cervelli. They like Martin. They like Chris Stewart, and they like Tony Sanchez. Could be, it’s a coincidence; probably, it’s not a coincidence. The Pirates need to be on the lookout for potential inefficiencies, given their limited spending, and framing still looks like one of them. That’s clearly up for some debate, but inefficiencies are always up for some debate, or else they wouldn’t be inefficiencies because the whole market would recognize them. It seems like the Pirates buy into framing. We know the Padres do. The Rays have paid very little for Jose Molina and Ryan Hanigan. The Astros just got Conger. The Brewers love the guys they have. The framers are finding jobs, for relatively low salaries, which makes them appealing potential bargains for teams who can’t throw money at their problems.

Cervelli? He’ll turn 29 next March. He’s got two more years of team control. He’s projected to cost just over $1 million in 2015. That’s nothing, and the Pirates aren’t going to miss Wilson too bad, and now let’s take a look at the Baseball Prospectus pitch-framing data. Here’s 2010 through 2014, leaving out a 2012 in which Cervelli played in just three big-league games. You’ve got framing runs standardized to a rate basis (7,000 framing opportunities), and you have the per-7,000 distance between Cervelli and the guy in first place. Yes, the Cervelli samples are smaller than, say, the Yadier Molina samples. But indications are that this sort of data stabilizes pretty fast.

Season Runs/7000 Distance from 1st
2010 9 30
2011 18 13
2013 24 7
2014 24 1

Cervelli, in 2010, was above average. The next year, he got better. He’s only gotten better still, according to this data, to the point where, last season, Cervelli was basically tied for first place. The numbers put Cervelli at +24 framing runs per 7,000 chances. Hank Conger, +24. Martin Maldonado, +24. Jose Molina, +24. Christian Vazquez, +23. Rene Rivera, +22. You can argue whether the data shows Cervelli as one of the very best framers in baseball. That can be a little subjective. What can’t be denied is that Cervelli looks very good. Which leads to the same conversation as always: how much of this, then, is actually true value that the given catcher possesses?

It’s probably not all of it. It’s probably not none of it. Francisco Cervelli is an excellent receiver, which doesn’t not matter. Beyond that, he seems like something like an average blocker. His arm’s not great, but running is mostly about the pitchers. And by the way, Cervelli doesn’t have to be thought of as a specialist, because he’s actually hit some. I’m making this very convenient for Cervelli’s case, but, he debuted in the majors in 2008. Since then, 71 catchers have batted at least 750 times. Cervelli’s 26th in wRC+, ahead of Matt Wieters and barely behind Salvador Perez, Russell Martin and Miguel Montero. In limited time last year he was 28% better than average. Steamer projects just a 90 wRC+, and maybe that makes more sense for a guy who didn’t even really hit much in Triple-A, but that’s equal to Kurt Suzuki‘s projection. It’s better than Conger and Hanigan. Mike Zunino‘s at 94, Jason Castro’s at 93. Chris Stewart’s a framer who doesn’t hit. Cervelli’s a framer who can hit a little.

And as long as I’m here, I might as well include these tweets from Brandon McCarthy, even though I don’t know what to make of them analytically:

Followed by:

It’s the subjective opinion of a pitcher who pitched to Cervelli for 34 innings, so there’s no WAR value that goes with this, but we could at least say this much: Cervelli might be easy to work with. He and his pitchers might be good at staying on the same page.

Cervelli’s not as good as Russell Martin, but he might now be a better receiver than Russell Martin. He’s never been a big-league regular, but he was supposed to be in 2013, and his injury history is littered with freak sorts of accidents. An injured wrist from a home-plate collision. A concussion from a home-plate collision. A foot fracture from a foul ball. A hand fracture from a foul tip. The Pirates don’t know what kind of workload Cervelli can carry, and that’s another reason why he was cheap to acquire, but his rate numbers are promising, and at about $1.1 million, he’s almost guaranteed to be a value no matter what he does.

There’s a lot we’re not sure we know about Francisco Cervelli. The best-case scenario is that he can stay healthy, and that he’s worth what his framing numbers say. Maybe he’ll have to go on the DL, and maybe he’s worth a fraction of that framing value, but perceived inefficiencies always come with performance risks. That’s because they don’t come with much financial risk. Whatever the chance is that the Pirates just added an actual good catcher, it’s not costing much for the opportunity to find out.

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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8 years ago

PNC suppresses most hitting, but actually helps RH singles and doubles guys, like Cervelli.