The Brewers Shop in the (Backup Catcher) Luxury Aisle

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Few positions on the Brewers depth chart are more set than catcher. William Contreras, whom they acquired before last season, was their best player in 2023. He led Milwaukee in hitting and finished third on the team in plate appearances despite shouldering a full-time catching load, which normally limits playing time. Most impressively, he delivered a sensational defensive performance a year after he was one of the worst receivers in baseball. On a team that struggled to generate offense, Contreras was a rare and brightly shining exception.

Naturally, the Brewers just signed the best free agent catcher on the market, give or take DH Mitch Garver. That’d be Gary Sánchez, who is joining the team on a one-year, $7 million contract, as Jon Heyman reported. It sounds bizarre – and it may well be bizarre. But there’s a method to Milwaukee’s madness, so let’s try to figure it out together.

There’s one obvious thing going for the Brewers: They really needed a second catcher. Before they signed Sánchez, the plan was to use Eric Haase, he of the 42 wRC+ in 2023, as their second backstop. That plan was not great, to put it succinctly. Haase probably isn’t that bad offensively, but he’s also not particularly good behind the plate. In his best years in Detroit – he hit a career-high 22 home runs in 2021 and topped out at 1.3 WAR in 351 plate appearances the following season – he wasn’t used as a pure catcher, dabbling in the outfield and at DH and racking up meaningfully negative framing numbers when he did don the tools of ignorance.

If you didn’t like that plan, the next line of defense was… well, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure what the next line of defense was. Replacement level backup catchers – or, well, often sub-replacement level by the numbers – are a fungible commodity, but that’s not a great way to get ahead in a competitive NL Central. Contreras is so good offensively that he’ll end up DH’ing quite a bit to get the most out of his bat, which means Milwaukee’s backups will end up with plenty of time behind the plate.

This is a standard move for good offensive catchers, even those who are great defensively. Adley Rutschman does the same thing in Baltimore, which is part of why they traded for James McCann after the 2022 season. J.T. Realmuto and Will Smith have gotten this treatment at various points in the past. So has Alejandro Kirk, though to be fair he doesn’t appear to be a masterful defensive catcher either. It just makes sense, though: If your catcher can rake, you’ll want to manage his innings behind the plate catcher, because playing catcher is hard!

Sánchez projects to be a lot better than Haase. A few years ago, that outcome didn’t feel particularly likely; he fell out of favor with the Yankees thanks to his shoddy performance behind the plate and then got shipped to Minnesota, where he did a lot of DH’ing and didn’t hit or defend particularly well. He ended up in the wilderness, as it were, signing a prove-it deal with the Giants before bouncing through the Mets on waivers and ending up in San Diego. In the best weather in America, he found himself again, posting his best offensive numbers in a half decade while catching more or less full-time.

Receiving has never been Sánchez’s forte, but he’s not without merits as a defensive catcher. He boasts a thunderous throwing arm, annually ranking among the top 10 in the majors in pop time and arm strength, skills that took on increased importance in go-go 2023. Can he do it all? Absolutely not. He’s an indifferent blocker at best, and downright disastrous at worst. Baseball Savant makes a nice little graphic of blocking value for the 2018-2023 seasons, and yeah, this is ugly:

Put those three skills together, and Sánchez has undoubtedly been a below-average defensive catcher. The book on him is that he makes up for it with his bat, which is otherworldly for a backstop. He socked 19 dingers in only 267 plate appearances in 2023, and since debuting in 2016, his rate of homers per plate appearance is 11th in all of baseball, in a virtual dead heat with Shohei Ohtani. He’s not hitting cheapies, either; there’s some Joey Gallo in Sánchez’s game, and Gallo coincidentally has a nearly identical wRC+ in that time span.

Joey Gallo as a so-so defensive catcher sounds awesome, and if that’s all the Brewers are getting, I think they’d still be reasonably happy. Our projections think he’ll be a little worse than that, but I’m skeptical; I think his form in San Diego is fairly repeatable, and he didn’t benefit from incredible luck or anything like that. The point is, if he ends up more or less hitting projections, he’ll be a meaningful upgrade over Haase at a reasonable rate. That’s the kind of deal that a lot of teams would be happy to make, particularly given how hard offense has been to come by in the free agency market this year.

It could be more exciting than that, though, because these are the Brewers we’re talking about. They turn indifferent receivers into defensive stalwarts on a yearly basis. “Run prevention coordinator” Walker McKinven is noted for how well he teaches receiving. Manager Pat Murphy was a good defensive catcher and knows a thing or two about the job. Here’s a look at some of their handiwork:

Brewers Framing Improvements
Year Primary Catcher Prev Year FRM This Year FRM
2018 Manny Piña -3.4 2.2
2019 Yasmani Grandal 10.4 17.0
2020 Omar Narváez -10.4 3.9
2021 Omar Narváez 3.9 8.8
2022 Victor Caratini -4.2 3.7
2023 William Contreras -2.8 14.4

That’s an average gain of nearly 10 runs of receiving value, just from going to the Brewers. And it really is going to the Brewers that seems to do it; Grandal was already an excellent receiver, but Narváez, Contreras, and Caratini all got much better immediately after joining the team. Piña got much better as time wore on, too.

If Sánchez’s receiving improves, he’s going to be a plus defensively as well as an average bat. Catchers like that are all but impossible to find – again, Sánchez himself was the best catcher on the market this year. It’s tough going out there for teams looking for a do-it-all backstop. They mostly don’t hit free agency, because teams who have a chance to retain them trip all over themselves to do so.

If you looked at the Brewers’ roster before the Sánchez signing, you wouldn’t find a lot of offense, but you also wouldn’t find a lot of easy upgrades. They’ve mostly gotten the people they want; any infielder they added would be displacing either a returning contributor (Brice Turang and Willy Adames) or someone they traded for this offseason. The outfield is crowded already. There weren’t a lot of places to improve the team offensively.

On the pitching side, there’s plenty of room for improvement, but pitching is expensive. The Brewers are all about scrimping and saving. Their big pitching signing of the offseason was Wade Miley – unless it was Joe Ross – unless it was Jakob Junis. It’s tough to get good pitching for cheap, because everyone needs it. In other words, the Brewers were in an awkward spot of needing to improve in 2024 without any obvious way of doing so.

By signing Sánchez, I think they’ve solved that puzzle. I think they’ll get more than a win’s worth of improvement out of him between improved backup catcher production and the extra time it lets them spend with all their best hitters in the lineup thanks to the DH slot. It’s not so much that he’s a slam dunk All Star – you heard it here first, I don’t think Sánchez will be an All Star this year – but the Brewers had painted themselves into a corner by trading Corbin Burnes. Now they’re out of the corner, and in a division with four so-so teams slugging it out for the crown, these little edges matter. This feels like a good deal for Milwaukee, and if Sánchez does indeed get coated with some Brewers catching magic dust, it’ll be a great deal for him too: Just imagine the demand for him in free agency a year from now if he repeats his offensive season and also learns a bit of defense.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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airforce21one
22 days ago

Paying 7 million dollars to a backup catcher on the chance that he may get better defensively…yeah, sorry, I’m not buying this move.

If the logic is that the Brewers can turn any catcher into framing gold, then let them work their magic on Austin Nola for a lot less $$.

Philmember
22 days ago
Reply to  airforce21one

But can they turn any catcher into hitting gold?

Nola had a worse wRC+ than Haase last year.

airforce21one
21 days ago
Reply to  Phil

Great. Then work the magic on Haase.

hughduffy
22 days ago
Reply to  airforce21one

After running Gary Sánchez through the Brewers secret catching lab, he will be better defensively. Secret catching lab slogan: “We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was.”

On January 5, the Brewers signed Austin Nola to a minor league deal. He will make $975,000 if he makes the major league team, with an additional $250,000 in bonuses available based on games played. Why pay an addition $6 million?

Austin Nola is 34, Gary Sánchez is 31. Catching is hard on the body, and I’m not sure that Nola has that many years left in him. There’s a reason the Brewers only signed him to a minor league deal.

Second, Brewers need slugging, and they need it bad. In 2023, their team SLG was .385, good for 25th in MLB (OBP was a respectable .319, good for 17th in MLB).
Gary Sánchez career SLG: .469
Gary Sánchez 2023 SLG: .492
Austin Nola career SLG: .370
Austin Nola 2023 SLG: .192

Yeah, Nola is cheaper than Sánchez, but he may be cooked. They signed him as a minor league depth piece, a break glass in case of injury catcher. Nola’s exit velocity and hard hit rate both went down precipitously in 2023, probably due to a concussion and lingering effects that resulted in oculomotor dysfunction.

Even if Nola does recover back to his career production, that’s still below the team average.

They’re not paying $7 million for a backup catcher to get better defensively. They’re paying $7 million for a backup catcher who can hit almost as well as the main backstop.

airforce21one
21 days ago
Reply to  hughduffy

“Second, Brewers need slugging…”

“They’re paying $7 million for a backup catcher who can hit almost as well as the main backstop.”

Slugging percentage over the last three years:

Eric Haase: .401
Gary Sanchez .420

You’re saying .19 points of slugging percentage is worth 7 million.

hughduffy
21 days ago
Reply to  airforce21one

Fun with arbitrary endpoints!
Eric Haase 2021-2023: .230 AVG / .281 OBP / .402 SLG
Gary Sánchez 2021-2023: .207 AVG / .293 OBP / .420 SLG

So why pay one 31 year old catcher more?

Let’s not hide the baseball anymore. Eric Haase had a poor 2023 offensive season.
Eric Haase 2023: .201 AVG / .247 OBP / .281 SLG
Gary Sánchez 2023: .217 AVG / .288 OBP / .492 SLG

From what I’ve read, Haase struggled against the fastball in 2023. That may be a sign of an undiagnosed injury, like with Austin Nola, but it may be a sign of aging. Catching is hard on the body.

No, .019 points of slugging is not worth $7 million.
But .211 points of slugging may be.

That said, the Brewers may not be paying all of that $7 million. Gary Sánchez will be on a reasonable one-year contract, so if he improves defensively and continues offensively, he’ll be an attractive trade piece mid-season. The Brewers may have signed him with the idea that they’ll trade him at the trade deadline should they get an attractive offer. And if not, he should still have his bat.

Both Haase and Nola have multiple years of control left, and Nola has an option year left, so if they trade Sánchez, they’ll have backups available.

airforce21one
20 days ago
Reply to  hughduffy

You’re saying one season is a better predictor versus the last three seasons.

Mmmkay.

hughduffy
20 days ago
Reply to  airforce21one

Yeah! Sometimes it is! Especially if the player in question is dealing with injury.

If you want to say that Eric Haase will hit closer to his career numbers, be my guest, but point me to any statistical measure that suggests he’ll do that in 2024.

All of Haase’s statcast measurements are pointing in the wrong direction: down. His EV, down, his launch angle, down, barrel %, down, hard hit %. sweet spot %, down, his wxOBA, WAY down.

In 2023, on 4-seam fastballs in the heart of the plate, his AVG was .231 and his wOBA .247.
In 2022, against the same, his AVG was .297 and his wOBA .387.

It’s really difficult to succeed in MLB if you can’t hit a fastball in the middle of the plate.

This is not the case of a player being unlucky on batted balls. This is a case of a player suddenly being unable to hit a four-seam fastball down the middle of the plate.

airforce21one
18 days ago
Reply to  hughduffy

Okay, let’s look at projections for next year. Would that be a good enough “statistical measure” for you? Since, you know, presumably this would include statistical trends:

ZIPS 2024 projected SLG%

Sanchez: .401
Haase: .388

Is that 13 points worth 7 million to you?

And keep in mind – we aren’t talking a full season of slugging percentage, we’re talking maybe 200 ABs worth.

Last edited 18 days ago by airforce21one