The 2018 Replacement-Level Killers: Catcher

In a race for a playoff spot, every edge matters, yet all too often, for reasons that extend beyond a player’s statistics, managers and general managers fail to make the moves that could improve their teams, allowing subpar production to fester at the risk of killing a club’s postseason hopes. In Baseball Prospectus’s 2007 book It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over, I compiled a historical all-star squad of ignominy, identifying players at each position whose performances had dragged their teams down in tight races: the Replacement-Level Killers. It’s a concept I’ve revisited on several occasions over the past decade, both at BP and beyond, albeit not for a while. With the trade deadline looming, this seems an ideal moment to dust it off and identify some of the bigger holes at each position among contenders.

When it comes to defining replacement-level play, we needn’t be slaves to exactitude. Any team that’s gotten less than 1.0 WAR from a position to this point might be considered fair game, even if in some cases that means an above-average starter and ghastly backups. Sometimes, acceptable or even above-average defense (which, of course may depend upon which metric one views) coupled with total ineptitude on offense is enough to flag a team. In theory, a team may be well ahead of replacement level at a given position but has lost a key contributor due to injury. As with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of hardcore pornography, I know replacement level when I see it.

For this series, I’ll start with the catchers and go around the diamond, pointing out the most egregious examples of potential Killers at each position among contenders, which I’ll define as teams with playoff odds of at least 15.0%, a definition that currently covers 15 teams (sorry, Angels, Giants, and Pirates, and fuhgeddabout it, Mets and Blue Jays). I’m less focused on these teams’ solutions; colleague Dan Szymborski will examine the potential trade candidates at each position.

Replacement-Level Killers: Catchers
Rk Team Bat BsR Field Framing* WAR
30 Nationals -25.4 -2.0 1.0 -0.8 -0.8
29 Red Sox -18.4 -3.3 -1.0 10.8 -0.2
27 Rockies -20.1 -0.8 0.0 6.1 -0.1
25 D-backs -16.6 -1.1 -1.0 17.4 0.1
22 Brewers -13.6 -3.4 0.0 2.2 0.3
21 Indians -13.6 -0.6 -2.0 6.2 0.4
20 Athletics -15.2 -3.3 3.0 -4.0 0.5
19 Mariners -11.6 -2.8 1.1 3.7 0.7
All statistics through July 21. Rk = rank among all 30 teams. Framing Runs data is from Baseball Prospectus and is not included in WAR.

My, but there are a whole bunch of contending teams getting very little of tangible value from their backstops, at least according to our WAR measurements, which don’t include pitch framing — and in this day and age, it’s certainly a good idea to include pitch framing, so I’ve included Baseball Prospectus’s metrics in that department; as with the batting, baserunning, and fielding categories, those are in runs rather than wins, but unlike that aforementioned trio, they’re not included in the WAR shown above.

Once we include framing, it’s fair to excuse the Diamondbacks’ light-hitting trio (Alex Avila, Jeff Mathis, and John Ryan Murphy) from further discussion despite their collective 65 wRC+ to date. We can also probably rule out the Indians, who are getting solid work from starter Yan Gomes (93 wRC+, 1.1 WAR, 2.6 framing runs), if not from backup Roberto Perez (21 wRC+, -0.7 WAR, 3.6 framing runs); their best shot at an upgrade was just traded to San Diego in the Brad Hand deal, namely prospect Francisco Mejia. Finally, while the Mariners’ Mike Zunino hasn’t hit this year (.189/.251/.403, 80 wRC+), his 122 wRC+ over the past two seasons, strong framing work (including 5.0 runs this year), and recent return from the disabled list for a bruised left ankle indicate better days might be ahead.

That still leaves five teams that should have catching concerns to one degree or another. Working from the order of the table above, from the worst to the most borderline…

Nationals

Between oblique and hamstring injuries, Matt Wieters has been limited to 29 games, 100 PA, a 73 wRC+ (.207.303/.333), and 0.1 WAR this season, while backups Spencer Kieboom, Pedro Severino (now at Triple A) and the since-DFA’d Miguel Montero haven’t been to the task of replacing him. That quartet as a whole has combined for a 44 wRC+, 12 points lower than any other team’s catchers. While Wieters returned from a two-month absence on July 9, he’s 3-for-22 with one walk since coming back, and in light of last year’s sub-replacement level performance (62 wRC+, -0.3 WAR), it’s time to admit that he’s a shell of his former self. It’s Wieters’ slash line that makes Chuck Norris cry like a little girl now.

Whether it’s trading for former National Wilson Ramos (who just hit the disabled list with a hamstring strain) or cloning the long-retired Brian Schneider — the only other catcher in Nationals’ history besides Ramos with at least 1.0 career WAR for the team — something needs to be done. Heyyy, wasn’t Bryce Harper a catcher in his amateur days?

Red Sox

For all of his defensive prowess — which has amounted to a net of 13 Defensive Runs Saved since the start of 2016 — Christian Vazquez has never learned to hit. This year, he’s batting just .213/.249/.300 (46 wRC+), and just before the All-Star break, he suffered a fractured right pinky that required surgery and will keep him sidelined for six to eight weeks, meaning a late August return at best. Neither backup Sandy Leon (72 wRC+, 0.2 WAR, 5.8 framing runs), nor catcher-turned-utilityman-turned-catcher Blake Swihart (38 wRC+, -0.4 WAR) — remember when he was such a hot trade commodity the Red Sox wouldn’t give him up in a potential 2015 deal for Cole Hamels? — appear up to the task of regular duty, and Jason Varitek ain’t walking through that door.

Rockies

Starter Chris Iannetta’s batting line (.227/.327/.381) would be passable for a catcher in a a lower-scoring environment, but as it is, his 76 wRC+ is just one more sinkhole in an offense that has too many of them: eight of their 12 players with at least 100 PA have a wRC+ of 90 or lower. What’s more, Iannetta’s framing has been all over the map, with swings from +16.4 runs in 2015 to -10.2 and then +11.0 runs in each of the past two seasons, but now he’s back in the red (-0.3). A bold move here might be to take a longer look at Tom Murphy, who has hit .291/.316/.455 in 57 PA this year and owns a career 87 wRC+ with nine homers in 171 PA, but the Rockies seemed more inclined to give reps to Tony Wolters, who’s hitting only .156/.273/.262 for a 36 wRC+ — that after seasons of 49 and 77. Somehow, he’s hit all of five homers in 639 PA over the last three seasons while calling Coors Field home. He’s a good framer, at least (6.7 runs), but the races for the NL West flag and a Wild Card spot are tough enough for the Rockies without an extra handicap.

Brewers

The Brewers hoped that Stephen Vogt would do a substantial share of the catching, but a spring shoulder strain and then a more severe strain involving his rotator cuff, labrum, and anterior capsule while on rehab necessitated season-ending surgery. Neither starter Manny Pina (.231/.297/.377, 79 wRC+) nor backup Erik Kratz (.231/.268/.372, 69 wRC+) have hit or done much inspiring on defense, though the latter now has a 4.50 ERA and 2.66 FIP in two innings of mop-up relief work this season, the second of which was on Sunday. That only furthers the separation between him and the farmed-out on Jett Bandy, best known for a name that “sounds like something George Lucas would come up with while extremely distracted.”

Athletics

That the A’s have played their way into the AL Wild Card hunt is a surprise. That they’ve done so while starter Jonathan Lucroy has been dreadful on both sides of the ball (.241/.296/.311, 69 wRC+, -2.7 framing runs, and -9 DRS) is an even bigger surprise given the extent to which he once ranked among the game’s elite catchers. His decline, as Jeff Sullivan documented this spring, is something of a mystery. Neither current backup Josh Phegley nor the farmed-out Bruce Maxwell has been much help. While 2016 third-round pick Sean Murphy is currently hitting .291/.359/.506 at Double-A Midland and rates as a 50 FV prospect, a broken hamate cost him a chance to play in the Futures Game and will sideline him until mid-August; an accelerated path to the majors probably isn’t in the cards. Lucroy’s $6.5 million salary and solid projection going forward (0.8 WAR) will probably be enough for him to keep his job, but if the A’s are serious about this contending thing, they could use more help.

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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stever20
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stever20

The thing I find interesting about Wieters right now- despite his numbers- the Nats starters pitch almost all better with Wieters than they did Severino.
by ERA:
Scherzer 2.22 Wieters/2.56 Severino
Strasburg 2.57 Severino/5.06 Wieters
Gonzalez 2.38 Wieters/5.35 Severino
Roark 4.15 Wieters/4.48 Severino
Hellickson 1.65 Wieters/4.17 Severino

So only Strasburg better with Severino than he was with Wieters. Gonzalez and Hellickson much better with Wieters.

Team ERA with Wieters is 3.42 to 3.61 for Severino and 4.56 for Kieboom.

dodgerbleu
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dodgerbleu

Is that you, Scott Boras?