Rangers Add Chirinos, Make Massive Positional Upgrade

Last night, the Texas Rangers made another nifty signing in their humble but effective winter. Robinson Chirinos, coming off a career season in his Houston sojourn, will return to his roots this spring. He inked a one-year deal worth $5.75 million, with a $6.5 million team option for 2021; the contract also includes a $1 million buyout if the Rangers choose not to exercise the option.

Chirinos is one of those players who’s both older and better than you think. A career part-timer until 2018, the 35-year-old has quietly emerged as one of baseball’s best hitting catchers at an age most players fade into retirement. He has a very modern offensive game: He’s content to work the count, draw a few walks, take a few more strikeouts, post the occasional Insta, and smack a dinger every 10 days or so. He’s finished with a wRC+ above 100 in each of the last five campaigns, and among catchers with at least 1,000 plate appearances over the last three years, only seven have been better with the stick:

Best Hitting Catchers 2017-19
PA wRC+
Yasmani Grandal 1632 117
Omar Narváez 1099 115
Willson Contreras 1381 115
Gary Sánchez 1345 115
J.T. Realmuto 1703 113
Kurt Suzuki 1006 113
Wilson Ramos 1164 112
Robinson Chirinos 1172 111
Buster Posey 1461 109

If all of that sounds like a way to avoid talking about his glove, guilty as charged. Per our framing metrics, Chirinos is one of the worst receivers in the league. This is not a minority view either, as Baseball Prospectus’s framing numbers track very similarly. He’s given away nearly 50 runs over his career from his framing alone, and while he improved a bit last season, he’s very much a bat-first option behind the plate.

Still, the overall sum of the parts is pretty valuable here. He’s topped a 110 wRC+ in two of the past two three seasons, and while he hasn’t been super durable — the 114 games he appeared in last year set a career high — he also hasn’t missed significant time with an injury since 2016. He compiled 2.3 WAR in 2019 and nearly reached that mark in 90 games back in 2017. He’s good.

He’s also not at such an advanced age that we should expect his production to crater. While he’ll likely take a step back from last season, a year in which he notched a 113 wRC+ while posting the highest WAR of his career, the relatively light load he’s carried behind the plate may help him as he ages; he just has fewer miles on his haunches than most big league catchers do at 35. As projection systems do by their nature, Steamer forecasts quite a bit of playing time and age regression, and even then expects him to post 0.7 WAR in 95 ballgames. I’ll take the over on that.

But even if Chirinos is more of a league average hitter, his presence in the lineup is a massive upgrade from what Texas slogged through in 2019. Detroit’s catchers hit .186 with a 41 wRC+ while producing -3.3 WAR and even that crew bested what the Rangers got out of their backstops. Just look at this mess:

“A” For Effort
PA BA OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
Tim Federowicz 83 .160 .213 .347 33 -0.2
Jose Trevino 126 .258 .272 .383 59 -0.2
Isiah Kiner-Falefa .222 .238 .299 .322 57 -1
Jeff Mathis 244 .158 .209 .224 2 -2.1

For reasons that only future anthropologists will ever grok, the Rangers gave Mathis a two-year deal last winter, so he’ll return in 2020. Pitchers rave about throwing to him, so there’s at least some value there, even if he hits like a Little Leaguer now. It was imperative for the Rangers to limit his time in the bucket though, and to also improve upon everyone else’s production as well. As long as Chirinos stays healthy, he should manage that comfortably.

The big question here is how the new man’s presence will affect the pitchers. The Rangers added Corey Kluber and Kyle Gibson to a staff that already included late-career breakouts Mike Minor and Lance Lynn. On the surface, it seems risky to pair a talented but somewhat volatile group of starters with a catcher not known for his glove, perhaps all the more so given the pitching staff’s low swinging strike percentage last year.

It’s a fair concern. The Rangers, as a team, do not miss a ton of bats and guys like Kluber and Minor survive in part by dotting the edges of the strike zone; a bad framer makes their delicate job even harder.

Still, there are reasons Chirinos is worth the gamble. First, it’s worth emphasizing that he’s more of a generically bad defender than the reincarnation of Ryan Doumit. He’s a decent blocker with a strong arm who won’t let opponents run the bases with abandon. And, whatever your concerns about him, it’s not like the Rangers are downgrading significantly defensively. On top of their offensive struggles, Rangers catchers were no great shakes behind the plate either: Kiner-Falefa was one of the league’s worst framers, and Mathis was nearly as bad as Chirinos on a rate basis. There are undoubtedly growing pains any time a pitching staff starts working with a new catcher, but the presence of Chirinos alone likely won’t prove too disruptive.

Between that and his bat, this is a better move than it looks at first blush. The Rangers are paying Chirinos like a one-win player and they could be in line for a 4-5 win upgrade over what they got at the position last year. It’s the kind of signing that goes some way toward solidifying the Rangers as a mid-table club. The squad still has too many holes around the infield and regression candidates on the pitching staff to project as a legitimate playoff team, but this increasingly seems like a competitive outfit, one you can dream on as a surprise contender if the front office makes a couple savvy moves and the right guys have big years. A surprise Josh Donaldson signing changes that equation for the better, of course, but for now let’s celebrate this for what it is: A good player making a decent team a little bit better. If only they could all be so ambitious.





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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I checked over to the projections to see what Steamer thought of them, and wow, Steamer is really down on this group! Before this signing, they thought this was the worst group of position players in major league baseball. They see Gallo reverting back to who he was before, Solak’s performance as a blip, Choo turning into someone barely playable, and Calhoun regressing with the power (although also becoming a non-embarassing defender; I find neither of those plausible). And even better, they’re in on Castellanos, who Steamer is also down on (they see him reverting to his 2017 form). If I had to pick one team that Steamer is missing low on, it’s this one (if I had another one, it would be the Cardinals).

Shalesh
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Shalesh

Unless they have a skill in rehabbing late-career SP’s, I think the projections are spot on. An off-season of Kluber and Gibson and potentially Castellanos doesn’t signal enormous confidence in their playoff chances. These are more mid-range moves for playoff-optionality that they wouldn’t have taken if Lynn & Minor hadn’t broken out last year. As a White Sox fan though, please Rangers sign Castellanos so you won’t be on the Betts/Springer bidding for next year!

carter
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carter

At least from an offense standpoint, I do not agree with the projections at all. I do not know why Gallo would revert to who he was prior, and I do not know why Choo would stop being able to hit, when he is relatively reliable year to year.

Regarding pitching, it does seem that the team likely has a skill with later career pitchers. While neither Lynn nor Minor was bad prior, neither was ever this good before. Lynn had 6.8 WAR last season, behind only Cole and deGrom and ahead of Scherzer and Verlander. Whether or not you believe he was the 3rd best pitcher in the MLB last year isn’t the point, it is that they have gotten a lot out of pitchers lately. The team does seem to have a type, as well. Minor had a big turnaround in late 2018 and carried it into the next season. Also Lyles put up some very good numbers after his trade. Advanced stats didn’t like him as much, but 50+ innings of 2.5ish era and a 9ish K/9 at least gives you hope.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Steamer is relatively accurate because it just assumes that there are no breakouts, ever, and any breakout will eventually return back to where they were before, and any serious downturn in performance will eventually revert back to the previous trajectory. That’s sound advice, but it does look kind of silly when you break it down. They’re projecting Mike Minor to actually be worse than he was in 2018 (much less 2019) because of his career prior to joining the Rangers. Lance Lynn, on the other hand, is projected for a 4-win season because Steamer still remembers his performance with the Cardinals way back when.

(Lyles, on the other hand, is probably who he is)

On the average, you do way better going with the projection than trying to guess on your own but the whole team broke out last year, so its inherent conservatism may be understating the team’s likely performance.

carter
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carter

I get it, steamer is smarter than me. I do think that some breakouts are real though, and having the Rangers get it from multiple people makes me think that maybe they actually are doing something well with marginal pitchers.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Steamer is smarter than us *in the aggregate*. It gets this way by consistently assuming everyone will move back to their previous norms. So in this case, Steamer thinks everyone will regress downward, and no one will regress upward. And generally speaking, when we start talking about an entire team regressing in one direction I think that’s probably wrong.

docgooden85
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docgooden85

Word choice quibble: one cannot “regress up” in this context. Moving “up” (away from the mean) would be the opposite of regression: progression.

CL1NT
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CL1NT

I sort of lost hope in Steamer when seeing Julio Teheran’s 2020 projections.

After his best season in the last 2 years, he’s projected to post an ERA (5.29) almost two runs higher than his career average and a HR rate almost half a homer per nine higher than the highest mark of his career (1.77 / 1.48).

I mean, JT isn’t the guy he was in 2014, when he tallied 3.4 WAR, but he’s a solid innings eater that can every now and again deliver a nice stretch of quality starts.