The 2019 Replacement-Level Killers: Catcher

Josh Phegley hasn’t been great as the A’s starter, either at the plate or behind it. (Photo: Keith Allison)

In a race for a playoff spot, every edge matters. And 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 smothering a club’s postseason hopes. In Baseball Prospectus’ 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, both at BP and beyond; last year, I brought it to FanGraphs in an expanded format. With the July 31 trade deadline looming, it’s once again time to point out some of the bigger holes at each position among contenders, and it’s worth noting that this time, there’s no August waiver period for teams to fall back on.

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 uses) coupled with total ineptitude on offense is enough to flag a team. Sometimes, a team may be well ahead of replacement level, but has lost a key contributor due to injury; sometimes, the reverse is true, but the team hasn’t yet climbed above that first-cut threshold. As with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of hard-core pornography, I know replacement level when I see it.

For this series, I’ll go around the diamond, pointing out the most egregious examples of potential Killers at each position among contenders, which I’ll define as teams who are above .500 or have playoff odds of at least 10.0%. That definition covers 17 teams (sorry, Padres, Pirates, Reds, and Rockies, but you’ll have to do this without my help). If one of the aforementioned fringe teams gets their record and odds above the threshold this week, I’ll do an additional Very Special Padres (or Rockies, or Whichever Team) installment at the end. And while I may mention potential trade targets, I’m less focused on these teams’ solutions than I am the problems, because hey, human nature.

This first installment will cover catchers.

Replacement-Level Killers: Catchers
Rk Team AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Bat BsR Fld WAR
30 Rangers .186 .250 .294 37 -28.8 0.8 -15.5 -2.3
27 Cardinals .247 .281 .385 73 -14.6 -3.5 -4.9 -0.2
25 Nationals .230 .303 .383 75 -13.4 -1.0 -5.8 0.0
23 Athletics .240 .286 .431 88 -5.8 -5.0 -5.9 0.4
22 Angels .254 .336 .394 100 -0.2 -7.1 -9.1 0.6
All statistics through July 21. Rk = WAR rank among all 30 teams.

Unlike last year, when I manually added Baseball Prospectus’ framing metrics to our stats for an unholy sabermetric concoction, this year we have our own such stats, which are incorporated into the defensive numbers above. The Batting, Baserunning and Fielding numbers are all denominated in runs and wow, it’s a rough year for catchers. Fourteen teams are cumulatively below 1.0 WAR at the position, but I’m inclined to rule out a couple of here, lest the length of this piece test my editor (you’re welcome, Meg). So let’s skip the Astros, whose Robinson Chirinos has been worth 1.1 WAR, but whose backups, Max Stassi and Garrett Stubbs, have done very little in very little playing time. That still leaves five contenders coping with catching woes, not counting the sub-.500 Pirates (-0.7 WAR at catcher), who have many problems besides the concussion-induced absence of Francisco Cervelli, and Rockies (0.1 WAR, including -0.4 from the two guys not named Tony Wolters).

Rangers

Are they really in this? Given rumors of a possible Mike Minor trade, the Rangers don’t seem convinced that they are, and neither do the playoff odds (0.4%). If they do intend to stick around, they’ll need much better work behind the plate. Jeff Mathis, who has started 52 of the team’s 99 games, may be renowned for his handling of pitchers, but he’s been below-average by our framing metrics (-0.7 runs), though BP’s numbers view him more charitably (2.7). Either way, he’s even worse than you remembered as a hitter, carrying a 4 wRC+ (yes, four) via a .155/.213/.211 line en route to a honking -1.6 WAR. Backups Isiah Kiner-Falefa (who was recently activated from the IL with a sprained ligament in his right middle finger and optioned to Double-A) and Tim Federowicz are big hitters by comparison, with wRC+ of 68 and 67, respectively, but neither has been much help.

Nobody they’ve got at Triple-A (Jett Bandy, Adam Moore or Jose Trevino), can hit a lick, either, meaning that help will have to come from outside the organization. Among pending free agents on non-contenders — which is to say potential trade targets — the Diamondbacks’ Alex Avila stands out, and not just because he’s first in the alphabet; hitting .218/.376/.483 (114 wRC+, nine points above his career mark), he’d boost the offense of any team here.

Cardinals

Thirty-seven-year-old Yadier Molina may or may not be a future Hall of Famer, but he’s been underwater this season, batting .261/286/.368 for a 70 wRC+, while posting below average framing numbers (-1.3 runs here, and -1.5 at BP); if you want to give him credit for his intangible magic in handling pitching staffs in the past, you’d have to concede that the magic ain’t happening here given a rotation that’s 10th in the NL in FIP (4.75) and ninth in WAR (7.2). To be fair, he’s been hampered by a right thumb strain that sent him to the injured list for the second time on July 8, and isn’t expected back until late July or early August.

Matt Wieters, who was supposed to be helpful in such situations, has continued his post-Baltimore miseries (97 wRC+, 0.2 WAR), but hey, he’s thrown out 50% of runners attempting to steal. Andrew Knizner, their 24-year-old, No. 2 prospect, is 3-for-22 to start his major league career, but his contact-oriented profile suggests he could be an average or better bat in the long run. Meanwhile, former heir apparent Carson Kelly, who just turned 25, is hitting .267/.353/.524 for the Diamondbacks, outdoing Paul Goldschmidt (for whom he was one of three players traded, plus a Competitive Balance B Pick) in all three slash stats. While it’s funny how that worked out, it’s virtually impossible to imagine the Cardinals making a drastic, short-term-focused move at the position.

Nationals

After Wieters, Pedro Severino, Spencer Kieboom, and Miguel Montero landed the team in this space last year and finished right at 0.0 WAR, the Nats turned over their catching corps, signing free agent Kurt Suzuki to a two-year, $10 million deal and trading for Yan Gomes. They haven’t lived up to expectations, however, so here we are again. Gomes, who has started 53 of the team’s 98 games, has hit just .198/.292/.283 (51 wRC+) en route to -0.2 WAR. Suzuki has hit adequately (.263/.315/.486, 101 wRC+) but again done a poor job of pitch framing (-3.7 runs) and has been worth only 0.3 WAR. Giving the latter an increased share of playing time could provide some help, if only to bury Gomes’ bat. Gomes’ cost certainty — he has back-to-back club options at $9 million and $11 million beyond this year — could make him an appealing change of scenery candidate and allow the Nats to take on salary. Perhaps they’d take old friend Wilson Ramos off the Mets’ hands? Just a thought.

Athletics

Josh Phegley, who has started 64 of the team’s 101 games, has been subpar at the plate (.246/.287/.439, 90 wRC+), and behind it (-4.9 framing runs, -5 DRS). Backup Nick Hundley, who’s started 23 times, has hit for just a 53 wRC+ and is recovering from June 18 arthroscopic surgery on his left knee; he just began a rehab assignment on July 12 and was moved up to High-A on Wednesday, so he should be back by month’s end and perhaps sooner. Chris Herrmann, the team’s intended starter before he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in early March, is actually off to a strong start since making his season debut on July 2 (.310/.333/.483 in 30 PA) but his depth charts projection (.214/.301/.357, 81 wRC+) is pretty grim except when compared to his career 69 wRC+. He figures to get a longer look unless the A’s come up with a better idea, such as bringing back Stephen Vogt, who’s across the bay with the suddenly surging Giants.

Angels

Jake Marisnick’s collision with Jonathan Lucroy concussed the catcher and broke his nose. He’s not expected back for another three weeks, and while that certainly sucks, this isn’t the 2014 NL MVP candidate we’re talking about here; rather, Lucroy is a 33-year-old backstop who’s now well into his third straight year of replacement-level production (82 wRC+, -0.3 WAR). Kevan Smith, a 31-year-old backup who has started 24 times, has hit an eye-opening .281/.375/.438 (122 wRC+) in 112 PA while providing 0.3 WAR even despite dreadful framing (-3.6 runs in just 205 innings of work). He’s projected for an 95 wRC+, which means he’s a better bet to maintain some semblance of offensive form than Dustin Garneau, who’s made 17 starts and has a .278/.391/.444 line (131 wRC+) in his 65 PA. He’s projected for just a 70 wRC+, but he’s the better defender of the pair.





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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Fireball Fred
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Fireball Fred

“Killers” … maybe. But the Red Sox got nothing from three positions last year, and did fine.

kbpms2
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kbpms2

I mean having one of the greatest seasons of all time from your RF, an MVP-type season from your DH, and a Cy Young-type season from a starter helps that a lot. I don’t think holding up the 2018 Red Sox as an example is exactly illustrative for ordinary teams in the hunt and trying to make upgrades.

Ryan DC
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Ryan DC

Well the 2015 Nationals had all that and look where it got them

The Ancient Mariner
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The Ancient Mariner

If they were depending on an MVP-type season from a DH while playing in the NL, it’s no wonder they didn’t win it all.

bosoxforlife
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bosoxforlife

Fireball Fred is spot on. The exact same thing is happening again this season and the team is none other than the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodger catcher with the most innings caught and PA’s is hitting below the Mendoza line and the backup is a veteran with nothing to be proud of in his line either. The difference in catchers across the game is small and can be covered up offensively. Catch and throw is all that is required.

wily mo
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it seems clear at this point that the vagaries of baseball terminology are going to keep memory of 1998 chow yun-fat vehicle “the replacement killers” alive in (some pockets of) public memory far longer than would otherwise have been the case