The Astros’ Quiet Catching Advantage

CLEVELAND — In the seventh inning on Friday at Progressive Field, Astros starting catcher Brian McCann did not come out for his scheduled at-bat. Instead, fellow catcher Max Stassi appeared out of the third-base dugout as a pinch-hitter. Astros manager A.J. Hinch had elected to pinch-hit for his starting catcher with another catcher to face Indians left-hander Tyler Olson, owner of considerable splits. We don’t often see a manager pinch-hit for his starting catcher, but the decision worked: Stassi singled.

The Astros have not exactly made it a regular practice, but it was the eighth time they have pinch-hit with a catcher for a catcher this season in order to gain the platoon advantage. But the Astros are one of the teams that has regularly tried to do this with the left-handed McCann and right-handed Stassi and Evan Gattis. (With McCann going on the DL on Tuesday, the Astros’ aggressive catcher platooning will be placed on hold, probably.)

In an age where managers try to leverage handedness as often as possible, catchers have the lowest platoon advantage (41.4%) among all non-pitchers, according to research assistance from Sean Dolinar. Shortstop is next (42.8%) and is the only position that doesn’t enjoy a platoon advantage the majority of the time. What they share is status as specialized, glove-first positions:

Platoon Advantage by Position
Position PA Platoon Adv %
P 1572 40.1%
C 5883 41.4%
1B 6359 61.7%
2B 6328 60.8%
3B 6275 53.5%
SS 6173 42.8%
LF 6318 59.8%
CF 6244 51.9%
RF 6304 54.7%
DH 3137 50.7%
PH 1568 67.5%

If a club is looking for a position from which to extract more value by facing more opposite-handed pitchers, catcher is the untapped positional market.

Of course, the problem is the scarcity of catchers who can hit — the position collectively holds an 87 wRC+ this season — let alone left-handed-hitting catchers. Also, roster flexibility is an issue, as a majority of teams only carry two catchers.

The Astros are carrying three, including Gattis, who has only caught four innings this season but was behind the plate for 413 innings last year.

The Astros are one of nine teams enjoying a platoon advantage at the position. The Dodgers (84.5% platoon advantage) are an outlier amongst hopeful contenders. Not only do they roster the switch-hitting Yasmani Grandal, but they essentially have formed a platoon where the right-handed bat of Austin Barnes starts often against left-handed pitching. It’s quietly been a significant advantage.

FanGraphs asked Hinch about whether he’s become more curious and interested in trying to create platoon advantages with his three catchers, including in response to in-game matchups.

“When I hit Stassi for McCann [Friday], there is some safety net knowing there is a third catcher,” Hinch said. “The schedule doesn’t always allow you to play a perfect platoon. You may run into a string of night games, or a string of right-handers or left-handers where a perfect platoon is not always going to happen. Third catcher on roster does help… against a mid-game, pinch-hit platoon situation that you don’t mind going to.”

While Gattis hasn’t caught much this year, he notes it’s another area the club is trying to leverage as much as possible to create advantages.

“I think it makes sense, it’s pretty cool,” Gattis said. “I think it just makes us more dynamic. We have a bunch of guys that play outfield-infield and we have three catchers. Two right-handed and a left-handed, which is good.”

Hinch said Stassi and McCann sit in on all pre-game scouting meetings with that day’s stating pitcher and Astros pitching coach Brent Strom, so having familiarity with an opponent and a plan of attack shouldn’t be a problem. But could there be issues in not having an up-close view of opposing batters’ swings and takes before entering the game in the middle or late innings as a catcher off the bench?

“I think there’s something to be said for a pitcher and catcher being in rhythm, same game plan,” Gattis said. “But the guy coming into the game will be prepared. Our guys know what they want to do.”

The Astros are perhaps making the case that there is value in carrying a third catcher — that is, if a club can find three competent catchers. That’s easier said than done at a weak-hitting position, but even if a club is carrying two below-average offensive catchers, platoon advantage is still platoon advantage. Catcher is, of course, a highly specialized position, so if a club can carry players who are capable of playing infield and outfield positions, it frees up more flexibility to enable a third catcher.

Advantages are tough to find and even more difficult to retain in today’s game. But if you want to increase your platoon advantage, there is a glaring opportunity available.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Joe Joemember
5 years ago

Rumor has it Stassi is second among AL rookies in WAR among position players. Hard to believe he still has rookie status in his 6th season (looks like most of his time was in September and Astros beat writer confirmed he is still technically a rookie).

5 years ago
Reply to  Joe Joe

Funny what a .412 BABIP will do for your WAR…

Joe Joemember
5 years ago
Reply to  Jon

That and being a good defensive catcher. Expect his offense to crater, but defense (even without taking into account framing) to keep him playing and accumulating WAR. There is a very good chance he remains in the top 3-4 in rookie position player fWAR for the season.

The Guru
5 years ago
Reply to  Joe Joe

Stassi looks to be a good framer. But he is actually the worst in MLB in pop time among guys with more than 5 attempts according to statcast with an avg pop of 2.15, thats no bueno