The Marlins Get Their Backstop

The Marlins have one of the most intriguing starting rotations in baseball. They just signed Sandy Alcantara to a five-year extension after his phenomenal 2021 season. Trevor Rogers just finished second behind Jonathan India in the National League Rookie of the Year voting. Behind those two, Pablo López, Jesús Luzardo, Sixto Sánchez, Elieser Hernandez, Edward Cabrera, and Max Meyer provide tons more talent to dream on. The only thing missing was a catcher to help guide and maximize those young arms.

Ever since J.T. Realmuto was traded away after the 2018 season, the Marlins had been rather aimless behind the plate. In the three seasons since, their catchers have accumulated just 1.3 WAR, the sixth worst mark in baseball over that stretch. In 2021, Jorge Alfaro, Sandy León, and a few other backup catchers combined for -0.1 WAR. Things got so bad with Alfaro that they tried playing him at first base and in the outfield after Miami acquired Alex Jackson at the trade deadline.

On Monday, though, the Marlins got their man: Miami acquired catcher Jacob Stallings from the Pirates in exchange for right-handed pitcher Zach Thompson and two prospects, Kyle Nicolas and Connor Scott. (Alfaro was traded to the Padres a day later for a player to be named later or cash considerations.)

It’s been quite a journey for him since making his major league debut in 2016. He’s been designated for assignment twice and managed to stick around in Pittsburgh’s organization both times. He finally became their everyday catcher in 2020 and enjoyed a solid breakout season in 2021. Even though Stallings is already entering his age-32 season, his short but excellent track record should provide a boost to the Marlins pitching staff. Since 2019 when he started receiving semi-regular playing time, Stalling has saved 17.1 framing runs in 1,700 innings behind the plate, fifth best among all catchers during those three years. He also leads all of baseball with 42 runs saved per DRS. The other advanced catching metrics agree: over the last three years, Statcast’s measure of catcher framing has him saving eight runs, while Baseball Prospectus has him saving 13.2 runs. He also blocks well — he didn’t allow a single passed ball in 2021 — and capably manages the running game, too. Stallings just won a Gold Glove for his efforts after being named a finalist for the award in 2020.

Stallings recognizes that his work behind the plate is likely the best way he can contribute to the team. In his media availability following the trade, he told’s Christina De Nicola, “The most important role for a catcher is game-calling, [the] pitcher/catcher relationship — just everything that encompasses.” The Pirates pitching staff have raved about his communication skills and ability to call a ballgame. Along with his excellent receiving skills, he should provide a steady hand to guide the Marlins pitching staff as the team moves out of its rebuilding cycle.

At the plate, Stallings made some significant strides this year, too. Last season, in his first taste of regular duty, his strikeout rate spiked up to 28.0%. He still managed to post a 93 wRC+, due in large part to a corresponding jump in his walk rate, up to 10.5%. This year, his overall offensive contribution was only slightly higher — a 95 wRC+ — but his strikeout rate was a much more manageable 19.9% and his walk rate a point higher. In 2020, his swing rate was 38.5%, one of the lowest in the majors and well below the 49% swing rate he had established in his previous four seasons in the big leagues. That passivity led to far too many called strikes — he swung at just half the pitches he saw in two strike counts. That rate jumped up to 64.6% in 2021 and his overall swing rate was up nearly four points to 42.4%. His swinging strike rate stayed stable between the two seasons, so the dip in strikeout rate looks like it was simply due to being a little more aggressive with two strikes. If he can take that refined approach to Miami, there’s a good bet he’ll post an offensive line just below league average, which translates to fantastic production from the feeble catcher’s position.

For Pittsburgh, Thompson should slot into their 2022 rotation right away. He signed with Miami in 2021 as a minor league free agent after spending the early part of his professional career with the White Sox, the team that drafted him in the fifth round of the 2014 draft. With injuries decimating Miami’s rotation last summer, he made his major league debut in June and made 14 starts and 12 relief appearances. He posted a 3.24 ERA backed by a 3.69 FIP in 75 innings, a phenomenal start to his big league career.

Thompson’s xFIP was a little less pristine at 4.65, telling us a lot about how he came by his success. His 21.0% strikeout rate wasn’t anything special and his 8.9% walk rate was a touch above league average. He found most of his success by limiting hard contact. Opposing batters managed a 34.4% hard hit rate and just a 6.9% barrel rate against him, both marks well below league average. His best pitch for inducing weak contact was his cutter; batters posted a .289 expected wOBA on contact off that pitch, the 16th lowest mark for that pitch type in the majors.

If Thompson needed to get a swinging strike, he turned to his curveball and changeup. Both pitches ran whiff rates around 40% and he freely used both of them to put away batters. His changeup in particular looks rather interesting. Thrown at 85 mph on average, it doesn’t have great velocity separation from his 92 mph fastball. Instead, it possesses tons of vertical drop, falling more than four inches more than similar changeups thrown around that speed. The 43.4% whiff rate on his changeup was 33% better than the league average rate for that pitch type and the 16th highest among all changeups thrown at least 100 times in 2021.

Of the two prospects headed to Pittsburgh, Nicolas is the more interesting. He was a first round pick in the 2020 draft, taken in the competitive balance rounds, and ranked 18th in the Marlins system with a 40+ FV grade. In his first professional season, he pitched well across two levels, ending the season in Double-A. He started 20 games in the minors, though his pitch arsenal is rather limited; he relies primarily on a 93 mph fastball and a hard slider. Those two pitches led to a 31.9% strikeout rate but rough command and the lack of a third pitch in his repertoire caused his ERA and FIP to rise above four. Without another pitch to call on, he’s likely bound for relief duty at some point in his near future, though his fastball/slider combo would likely play well there.

Scott was another first round pick by the Marlins, selected 13th overall in the 2018 draft. He was ranked 16th in their system and just finished his most successful season in the minors. After making his professional debut as an 18-year-old in rookie ball, the Marlins aggressively promoted him to Single-A that same year and up to High-A in 2019. After the lost minor league season in 2020, he stayed at that level in ’21 and put up a 112 wRC+, showing improved in-game power and a better overall contact rate. He has the speed and instincts to cover center field but much of his development will hinge on his ability to handle hard pitches located up in the zone. He has a chance to be a speedy fourth outfielder if he can figure out how to address that hole in his swing.

With Stallings out of the picture, the Pirates quickly brought in his replacement, signing Roberto Pérez to a one-year, $5 million deal. Luke Hooper will have a more detailed breakdown of that addition, but it’s a pretty savvy move by Pittsburgh. Pérez has his own sterling defensive reputation and is only a year older than Stallings. There aren’t many other catching options in the Pirates system outside of their number one prospect Henry Davis and he’s still years away from making his major league debut. Pérez should provide quality receiving skills and veteran leadership for the Pirates own young rotation.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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9 months ago

is “4th OF” a consensus ceiling on Scott? or is that more of a “likely outcome”?