The 2020 Replacement-Level Killers: Catcher

For the full introduction to the Replacement-Level Killers series, follow the link above, but to give you the CliffsNotes version: yes, things are different this year, and not just because the lone trade deadline falls on August 31. We’ve got just a month’s worth of performances to analyze (sometimes less, due to COVID-19 outbreaks), about a month still to play, and thanks to the expanded playoff field, all but six teams — the Pirates, Angels, Red Sox, Mariners, Royals, and Rangers — are within two and a half games of a playoff spot.

While still focusing upon teams that meet the loose definition of contenders (a .500 record or Playoff Odds of at least 10%), I’ll incorporate our Depth Charts’ rest-of-season WAR projections into the equation, considering any team with a total of 0.4 WAR or less to be in the replacement-level realm (that’s 1.1 WAR over the course of 162 games, decidedly subpar). I don’t expect every team to go out and track down an upgrade before the August 31 trade deadline, I’m not concerned with the particulars of which players they might pursue or trade away, and I may give a few teams in each batch a lightning round-type treatment, as I see their problems as less pressing given other context, such as returns from injury, contradictory defensive metrics, and bigger holes elsewhere on the roster. Got it? Good.

Note that all individual stats in this article are through August 24, but the won-loss records and Playoff Odds include games of August 25.

2020 Replacement Level Killers: Catchers
Team AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Bat BsR Fld WAR ROS WAR Tot WAR
Rockies .223 .253 .287 29 -9.2 -1.6 -1.2 -0.6 0.0 -0.6
Diamondbacks .190 .248 .310 49 -7.1 -0.5 -2.0 -0.3 0.3 0.0
Blue Jays .131 .253 .250 43 -7.3 -0.8 -0.6 -0.4 0.5 0.1
Rays .156 .240 .322 57 -5.3 -0.9 -0.8 -0.2 0.3 0.1
Indians .101 .245 .146 16 -11.1 -0.5 1.4 -0.3 0.4 0.1
Padres .114 .188 .273 27 -9.5 0.1 0.8 -0.3 0.4 0.1
Giants .198 .259 .297 55 -6.5 -0.7 0.2 -0.1 0.3 0.2
Cardinals .210 .231 .226 26 -6.2 -0.4 0.9 -0.2 0.5 0.3
Statistics through August 24. ROS = Rest-of-season WAR, via our Depth Charts.

Have we discussed the possibility of adding a second designated hitter to the lineup? Some of these offensive performances truly offend the sensibilities, just as particularly inept pitchers hitting may do. By Nichols’ Law of Catcher Defense, these guys should be the second coming of Johnny Bench or at least Ivan Rodriguez behind the plate, and yet many of them are in the red defensively — even the team with the catcher who himself is widely acknowledged as Pudge’s successor when it comes to being the game’s best defender. Also, what the hell happened to the catchers in the NL West? Somebody should be dialing Russell Martin’s number.

Rockies

Despite the superficially acceptable batting average, the Rockies are the worst behind the plate in terms of production and projection by a wide margin, even as their rotation has done an exceptional job of run prevention. Tony Wolters has gotten the bulk of the work (63 PA) but has hit just .217/.230/.267 with one walk, 15 strikeouts, and a 16 wRC+ — a day ago it was -8. Unfortunately, this is hardly a new thing for Wolters, as the 28-year-old backstop owns a career wRC+ of just 56, and was half a win below replacement level last year. In fact, the collective career WARs of Wolters and backups Elias Díaz and Drew Butera add up to -2.5 WAR. That’s a cry for help.

Diamondbacks

Stephen Vogt and Carson Kelly have split the playing time down the middle, with 49 PA apiece, but neither has done anything positive with the stick, and lately it’s Vogt, the grizzled vet, who’s been getting more reps. The 35-year-old Vogt owns a career wRC+ of 97, and was at 107 last year, but he’s hit just .154/.211/.288 (30 wRC+), while the 26-year-old Kelly, who last year hit .245/.348/.478 (108 wRC+) with 18 homers and 1.9 WAR, is at .196/.268/.275 (49 wRC+). The latter is clearly the catcher of the future, and by the metrics, he’s also the better defender, so it makes sense that he should be drawing more playing time if healthy, particularly for a team that has to be regarded as a long-shot given that a seven-game losing streak has dropped its record to 13-18 and its Playoff Odds to 18.1%, second-lowest in the league.

Blue Jays

At 14-14, the Buffalo Jays have a 56.2% chance at making the playoffs, and their catching tandem of Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire, both of whom are just 25 years old, was promising enough to place seventh in our Positional Power Rankings less than six weeks ago, the highest of any team in the table above. The righty-swinging Jansen, who by the metrics — including Baseball Prospectus’ gold-standard FRAA, where he ranked eighth last season — is the better defender, and despite the ugliness of his batting line (.138/.301/.259), his 65 wRC+ is just three points below last year. The lefty-swinging McGuire, an above-average defender who last year hit for a surprising 128 wRC+, albeit in just 105 PA, is just 3-for-28 with a homer but no walks. Even so, signs here point to the Jays staying the course with the kids.

Rays

Typically an excellent defender, starter Mike Zunino has been all over the map with his bat. In 2016, he hit .251/.331/.509 with 25 homers, a .355 BABIP, and a 126 wRC+. This year, he has exactly one single to go with his three doubles and four homers in 66 PA, “good” for a .148 BABIP and a 68 wRC+. He’s also striking out 42.4% of the time, the highest rate among backstops with at least 60 PA. Backup Michael Perez entered the year as a 40 Future Value prospect, “an athletic catcher with a plus arm, average receiving skills, and some feel to hit… a safe bet to be a quality backup” in the words of Eric Longenhagen. Given that the Rays are running first in the AL East at 20-11, they’re likely to ride this one out, perhaps with Perez getting a longer look, but an upgrade would serve them well just the same, particularly if they aspire to go deep into the playoffs.

Indians

Roberto Perez did the bulk of Cleveland’s catching duty last year and was quite good (98 wRC+, 3.0 WAR), but a shoulder strain sent him to the Injured List after just three games, and he only returned last Tuesday. If he’s healthy, that would provide the club with a big boost, particularly given that Sandy León, who started 13 of 20 games in Perez’s absence before leaving to deal with a family emergency, is batting .119/.288/.214 and gunning for his third straight season below the Mendoza Line.

Padres

Austin Hedges is one of the game’s elite defenders; last year, he was 26 runs above average according to Baseball Prospectus’ framing-inclusive defensive metrics. He’s hitting just .149/.216/.340 thus far, and backup Francisco Mejía, who’s supposed to be the offensively gifted one, is 2-for-38, which ain’t good even if two of those hits are both for extra bases. Former Rule 5 Draft pick Luis Torrens arrived from the alternate training site last week, but given his .163/.243/.203 in 139 PA in 2017, he’s probably not the solution.

Giants

Given Buster Posey’s decision to opt out and the offseason departure of Vogt, the Giants catching corps underwent a complete turnover this year. Even before the team began the season with rookies Tyler Heinemann, a 29-year-old switch-hitter, and Chadwick Tromp, a 25-year-old righty whose name I totally did not make up, sharing the job, the clamor for top prospect Joey Bart had begun — that despite the fact that the second pick of the 2018 draft had just 22 games at Double-A. Neither Tromp nor Heineman did anything to distinguish themselves over the first four weeks, and with the team just 9-16, they optioned the latter to their alternate training site and recalled Bart. He’s started hot, and the Giants have won seven in a row, climbing to 15-16 and sneaking into the eighth playoff spot. The future has apparently arrived.

Cardinals

Because he was sidelined with a COVID-19 infection on a team that endured one of the major’s biggest outbreaks, Yadier Molina has caught just 11 of the Cardinals’ first 19 games. He’s back now, while backup Matt Wieters, who went 0-for-12 while sharing starting duties with Andrew Knizner, is on the IL with a contusion on his left big toe. A few years ago, the Cardinals wouldn’t have cause to worry, but Molina is 38 year old, coming off an 87-wRC+, 1.2-WAR season, and likely to need help carrying the load given that the team has eight doubleheaders still scheduled as they try to make up ground following their 16-day layoff due. That means a bit of extra work for somebody, whether it’s Knizner, a 25-year-old former Top 100 prospect whose subpar receiving skills have diminished his stock, or Weiters, who has totaled just 0.9 WAR since the start of the 2014 season, once he returns.





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.

newest oldest most voted
gvanlue
Member
gvanlue

I expected to see the Mets here; it feels like an indictment on the sport that somehow the catcher position is so dearthy that at least ten teams are in worse shape than them.

Anon
Member
Member
Anon

The Mets’ numbers have been boosted by Nido’s nice batting line in the 7 games he’s caught. That said, even Ramos’ 68 wRC+ tops all the teams on the list.

gvanlue
Member
gvanlue

Yeah, Nido had 2HR in one flukish game, which is really skewing his #s since he only has 24 AB– but I guess it’s enough to drag the team’s standing closer to mediocrity. Ramos has been bad enough defensively that it’s hard to believe a 68 wRC+ is enough to keep him in the lineup…

Smiling Politely
Member
Member
Smiling Politely

Mets fans when FG writes critically of the Mets: “Why are you picking on the Mets all the time?”
Mets fans when FG doesn’t write critically of the Mets: “Why aren’t the Mets on this list?”

ihatehataz
Member
Member
ihatehataz

I don’t follow the catcher production across the league but I’d guess that outside of just a few teams everyone could appear on this list. Given the small sample it’s likely that the Mets situation, one good game by a backup, is similar to most other teams not on this list. How many teams truly have a stable above replacement option?

gvanlue
Member
gvanlue

We’re not all masochists or desperate to see the team discussed if it’s not pertinent. This is a data-based article, and I was simply expressing surprise at what the data showed. I think anyone who’s watched the team play much this year would be surprised. But if the data showed the Mets were one of the ten worst, I wouldn’t have thought FG was being unfairly critical. I understand the difference between data analysis and editorial criticism.

The Mets get more than their share of editorial criticism here– criticism that is based on opinions and feelings, not data. Some of it is serious, and some of it is fair. But there are a lot of superfluous joke attempts and swipes, and sometimes actual misinformation, for the sake of perpetuating a narrative. Some writers have admitted to consciously playing to the LolMets audience. It’s not a big deal in the grand scheme of the world, but it adds up and gets annoying. So if I see something that seems unfair and unnecessary, I point it out.

ihatehataz
Member
Member
ihatehataz

As a lifelong Mets fan it’s mostly deserved and frankly a lot of writers are too kind to the Mets. Once the Wilpons sell there’s going to be all kinds of information making its way out that will show just how dysfunctional and even immoral they were. Given them any benefit of the doubt is frankly undeserved.

gvanlue
Member
gvanlue

No. The world is a complex place where a lot of different realities coexist, and to reduce the equation to Mets=Wilpons=bad is intellectually lazy.