The Nationals Need a Catcher

Earlier this week, I examined the Rafael Devers call up and the void that has been the Red Sox’ third base production for what seems like forever. But I also looked at the weakest position player units among the contenders such as the Rockies’ right field situation (and catcher, and first base and shortstop positions) and the Yankees’ first base production.

But another notable production void among contenders, particularly among division leaders with aspirations of playing deep into October, is the Nationals’ catching situation.

According to FanGraphs leaderboards, the Nationals rank 28th in baseball in catching WAR (-0.3). That’s not great. And the situation is perhaps more dire since those measurements do not include framing value.

The Nationals rank 23rd in baseball with -7.8 framing runs saved above average, according to the framing metrics at Baseball Prospectus.

And that framing rank should not be surprising since the Nationals, for some reason, signed Matt Wieters in the offseason.

There was a reason Wieters remained unsigned until February 21. One of the first pieces I wrote for FanGraphs back in January was looking at the curse of tall catchers. Wieters’ body might be betraying him at the position.

Not only does Wieters rate as a poor receiver perhaps in part because of his 6-foot-5 frame that inhibits his ability to cleanly receive low pitches, but Wieters’ framing continues to decline, and at an accelerating pace.

Out of the 84 catchers graded by Baseball Prospectus, Wieters ranks 81st with -9.2 framing runs saved this season, which is a career worst mark.

We’ve seen some mysterious framing declines across the game this season like that of Jonathan Lucroy and Yadier Molina. Framing was thought to be a skill that ages well but in a number of cases it is not aging well in recent years.

While Wieters, 31, can still throw, his glove is in decline and it is apparently not coming back. While he receives plus marks for his intangibles and his ability to handle a staff — and perhaps there is significant unquantifiable value there — his glove, as expected, is hurting the Nationals pitching staff. Yes, Max Scherzer could be even better.

But it’s not just Wieters’ glove that is declining, his bat is hurting the Nationals, too.

Wieters has a career-worst 71 wRC+ and .246/.293/.380 a slash line. In the year of the home run, he has hit just seven and has an 8.3% HR/FB ratio.

“Mauer with Power” comps never quite materialized for Wieters. That 2009 PECOTA projection was not a prophecy. And perhaps the trajectory of the careers of Mauer and Wieters careers are reason to pause when considering drafting a tall catcher early, or when considering significant multi-year deals. Wieters and Mauer have each not posted 2-plus WAR in a season since 2013.

While the Nationals owe Wieters $10.5 million next season they ought to consider that a sunk cost and look for other alternatives.

This is a team playing for now with Bryce Harper controlled through next season, an organization that knows well the fragility of an ace’s elbow ligament. The Nationals have to go for it and their upgrade of their bullpen in acquiring Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson was a proper and necessary trade. Perhaps they shouldn’t stop there.

So who could they target as an upgrade?

Earlier this month at MLB Trade Rumors, Steve Adams examined catchers that could be available.

Tyler Flowers has become the game’s top framing catcher this season, ranking ahead of even Yasmani Grandal. Flowers has been 19 runs above average as a framer, or nearly three wins better than Wieters with his glove alone. He also has a $4 million team option for next season and could net a solid return for the Braves — or help their 2018 club. Flowers is also having a career-best offensive year (125 wRC+).

While Alex Avila ranks as the 79th worst framer int he game (-6.9 runs framing above average) his offensive breakout looks for real. Avila’s average exit velocity (92 mph) trails only Aaron Judge, Miguel Sano, Joey Gallo, Nelson Cruz and Kris Davis. (min. 50 batted ball events).

While Avila wouldn’t save runs, he would create more runs than Wieters. The Nationals rank fourth in baseball in wRC+ (107) and could build an even more potent lineup.

Flowers or Avila would be excellent fits.

The Rangers are shopping Lucroy, reportedly, but it would have to be a bet on his bat coming around as his hamstring issues apparently are still affecting his receiving ability.

The Nationals have other trouble spots, too.

The have zero cumulative WAR from left fielders, and rank 26th in production at the position. The loss of offseason acquisition Adam Eaton was a blow to the outfield, though Jayson Werth is nearing a return and is eligible to return in the first week in August. So there is potential for internal help in the outfield. Moreover, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo told MASN he is not seeking outfield help.

The catching situation is different. There are few if any internal upgrades possible.

The Nationals probably wish they would not have listened to Scott Boras’ sales pitch on Wieters. But there’s still time to get their catching situation right, to add an upgrade, and work toward making a very good team a great team.

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

Well, absent signing Wieters they would have played Derek Norris a lot instead and likely not spent the extra money. And Severino’s bat in AAA has been even worse if they had wanted to go defense first and ditch Norris a month ago like the Rays did.

6 years ago
Reply to  mockcarr

The Nationals are going to the postseason and they can hit. The sky is not falling.

Felipe Rivero….100 MPH fastball…..0.703 WHIP….10.3 SO/9

Traded for Mark Melancon who did not lead the Nats to the WS.

Nick Pivetta…..starting pitcher…..9.3 SO/9

Nick Pivetta doesn’t have the eye pooping stats of Rivero but his fastball sits 96 MPH with plus life as a starter and touches 97. Better fastball than Vince Velasquez. Hanging breaking balls have killed Pivetta, but in his starts he has had dominating innings whiffing the side with his fastball. Pivetta would be a shut down reliever if moved to the pen.

Traded for Jonathan Papelbon who choked Bryce Harper.

The sky is not falling in D.C. but it soon will be if these deadline trades don’t stop.

egregious comment
6 years ago
Reply to  JimmieFoXX

Other than eye pooping I don’t understand any of this

kenai kings
6 years ago

remember the Foobird.