The Nationals’ Glaring Need Remains

Jeff Sullivan has found that framing data is going insane. Jeff has also previously written about the rise of the framing floor. And perhaps none of this should comes as a surprise. As the value of pitch-framing has become more apparent, clubs seem to have valued the skill more, emphasizing catcher presentation both in development and in their assessment of players. The narrowing of the advantage for some clubs was probably inevitable.

Still, there remain some players with a consistent year-to-year individual advantage at the position. Players like Yasmani Grandal and Yadier Molina and Buster Posey. And in 2017, there remained a sizeable gap between framing Haves and Have Nots.

After signing Matt Wieters to be their primary catcher last offseason, the Nationals suffered a 30-run decrease in framing runs from 2016 to 2017. Last season, only the Rockies were worse than the Nationals by that measure among postseason teams.

Readers of this site are likely familiar with Wieters’ framing issues. This author alone has addressed them at least three times: prior to last offseason, prior to the trade deadline, and during the postseason. And even though Wieters exercised his $10.5 million option earlier this offseason, the Nationals could still stand to upgrade at the position.

Wieters is praised for intangibles. It’ also my understanding that he’s a popular teammate and decent man. We cannot quantify everything about a player — and certainly not a catcher. It’s possible he has a positive effect in working with a staff related to pitch-calling, game-planning, etc. But what we can measure isn’t good.

Not only did Wieters’ bat decline to post a career-worst 62 wRC+ mark last season, but his framing was below average for a fifth consecutive season, falling to a career-worst -13.6 runs below average. That ranked him 108th out of 110 catchers, according to Baseball Prospects’s framing metrics. Even Wieters’ throwing ranked below average (-0.6 runs), according to BP. He threw out 25% of runners.

Last season, Wieters posted a -1.1 WARP (BP’s win metric, which includes framing) and -0.2 WAR. The only team positional groups worse than the Nationals’ catcher position (-1.1 WAR) last season were the Giants’ (-1.5) and Braves’ (-1.3) left fielders, the Giants’ third basemen (-1.8), and the Padres’ shortstops (-2.5).

Now, with or without a superior catching option, the Nationals are a heavy favorite to win the NL East. They feature an an edge of 13 games, according to FanGraphs’ early projected standings. Still, every club with postseason aspirations should be looking to gain wins at this time of year, and it’s a position where the Nationals could quietly add multiple wins through a framing upgrade before even considering offensive performance at the position.

And there is one player who would fill the need perfectly: Yasmani Grandal.

This author has argued that the Dodgers are simply best served by keeping their competitive advantage at catcher with their tandem of Austin Barnes and Grandal, a duo that combined for nine wins when including framing value last season.

But if the Dodgers are motivated to move Grandal, would they consider moving him to a club they could very well meet in a postseason series? There’s a price for everything, but trading Grandal to an NL rival would complicate a potential deal.

Intra-division trades are even rarer, but there’s a perfect match in-division for the Nationals and the Braves.

According to Baseball Prospectus’s framing numbers, Atlanta’s Tyler Flowers was the game’s top receiver last season, worth 25.8 runs above average by that measure. While there have been no reports suggesting that the Braves are interested in shopping Flowers, Flowers is in the last year of his deal, and the Braves don’t appear to be contenders for 2018.

With league-leading framing numbers and back-to-back years of above-average offense, Flowers is a quietly elite player at the moment and the perfect fit for the Nationals. The Braves would be selling high on a 32-year-old asset. According to BP’s WAR metrics (which, again, include framing), Flowers was worth 5.9 wins last year and would have marked a seven-win improvement at the position for the Nationals.

One could argue that the Nationals shouldn’t pay — or, at least, overpay — for such an upgrade with such a projected edge in the division, but the Nationals have to also keep an eye on the postseason.

This is the last season in which they can control Bryce Harper. And it’s also a season in which Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg enter as ace-caliber arms, pitchers whom an elite framer could make that much better. We cannot assume the long-term health and effectiveness of pitchers. This coming season seems like an important one for the Nats. One could argue that no club should bet more heavily upon 2018.

Consider the Nationals’ called-strike success in the borderline areas of the strike zone in the postseason. While it’s a small sample, it’s also the most important of sample sizes. Swinging a count in the favor of a pitcher matters most in the postseason.

Borderline Strike % in Postseason
Rank Team 50/50 Locations Called Strikes CS%
1 CLE 329 85 25.9
2 BOS 234 60 25.6
3 ARI 270 67 24.9
4 HOU 1001 237 23.7
5 NYY 778 180 23.1
6 LAD 767 177 23.0
7 CHC 601 133 22.1
8 COL 59 12 20.4
9 WSH 275 49 17.8
10 MIN 66 10 15.1
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Here’s a visualization of the Nats’ borderline balls/called strikes from last October, courtesy of Baseball Savant:

Wieters particularly struggled at getting the low strike. That has been a consistent issue for him, perhaps due to a 6-foot-5 frame that prevents him from presenting the low pitch effectively. It’s likely that Wieters’ size is conspiring against him as a receiver.

Wieters didn’t have much success in the regular season, or postseason, in getting his pitchers called strikes on the edge. While not everyone trusts framing data, teams have generally behaved in a way consistent with the publicly available data. And for Wieters, it’s a trend that accelerated downward in 2017.

Every extra edge in the postseason is significant for a team that has World Series aspirations. And it’s the Nats’ catcher position that was the weakest among all non-pitcher position groups among contenders last season. As we wait for the stove to warm, it’s something to consider.

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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6 years ago

Man, the Giants were bad last year.

6 years ago
Reply to  James

Too bad the Giants won’t trade Posey. They could still get a pretty nice haul for purposes of a rebuild for him.

6 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan

They still think they’re going to compete next year. Two days ago, I was skeptical. But if they land Stanton and Ohtani and get someone to competently play center field, then they might be able to make one last run.

Six Ten
6 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Do they even need a competent center fielder? The Giants project for 78 wins now. Stanton projects for 5.3 WAR, a 6.8-win upgrade over what they got from one corner spot last year. If Ohtani is, say, 2.5 as a pitcher, that’s 9-10 extra wins. If he spends enough time as a bad to be worth another 1 WAR they’re heading for about 89 wins. (I don’t know, these might be conservative on him.) That’s already enough to project them as a playoff team with a few games to spare.

Seems like the biggest opportunity for them is to put a competent body at third base. An average player nets them another 3 wins and put them basically on the level of the three best NL teams. In the outfield they’d need to find a 4-5 win player to make as big a jump.

6 years ago
Reply to  Six Ten

What the Giants got from one corner spot last year is different from what they’re projected to get this year. They’re currently projected for a still bad -.6 wins at LF in 2018, although -.3 of that comes from Calixte, who they out-righted to AAA.

Dave T
6 years ago
Reply to  TimEsquit

Good point, karovda. Steamer also projects 1.3 WAR from the Giants’ 5th starter spot (mix of Blach and Stratton), so Ohtani’s WAR also isn’t all an incremental upgrade over their current projection.

6 years ago
Reply to  Dave T

If Ohtani takes that 5th starter spot, Blach/Stratton would improve the relief corps.

6 years ago
Reply to  Six Ten

Being the wild card team sucks. In as much as the LADs are a behemoth, should the SFGs wake up with both Stanton and Ohtani under their Christmas tree it would behoove them to try and upgrade other places as well and not risk missing the real post season because they thought 88 wins should be enough.

6 years ago
Reply to  Six Ten

I’m starting to come around on Six Ten’s argument here that 3B is the greater issue, but a Stanton-Span-Pence outfield would be (a) not very good defensively and (b) need someone to step in for the inevitable injuries. Fourth outfielder would essentially be a starting outfielder.

Really, they should try and get a competent third baseman and center fielder. They don’t have to be stars. Just not black holes.

Less convinced about the need to get more wins. That projection is the mean of a probability distribution, and not something to bank on at this stage.

6 years ago
Reply to  James

What’s the percentage of articles that get hijacked by people wanting to talk about the Giants? Anyone got the numbers on this?