The Pittsburgh Pirates backstop will be entering his third year as the starter for the club. Francisco Cervelli has both his critics and fans, an argument based off of his offense and defensive skill sets, but how good, or potentially bad, is Cervelli?
Russell Martin, one of the most beloved Pirates in his time, was great defensively and seemingly clutch, coming through time and time again. After signing with the Pirates before the 2013 season, which was the anti Matt Morris deal, Martin was a success. In 2013, Martin’s 14 defensive runs saved were second to only Yadier Molina’s 16, and he was third in drs/inning among catchers to Sal Perez and Molina.
Martin’s great defensive ability can be seen from finishing fifth in gaining calls according to Stat Corner, and Martin ranking first in throwing runs (3.1) according to Baseball Prospectus. But Martin also brought offense to the Pirates. He posted a 120 wRC+ in his two years, with a wRC+ of 102 and 140 in the two individual seasons. Martin proceeded to parlay his 9.0 fWAR as a Pirate, and career 2014 season, into a five-year and $82 million deal.
That opened up the door for the Pirates to trade for Francisco Cervelli, another former Yankee catcher, and one that cost only left-handed reliever Justin Wilson. Cervelli performed well in 2015, going over 100 games played for the first time, and playing 130 games. He was rewarded with a three-year and $31 million deal in May.
Overall in his two seasons with the Pirates, Cervelli has posted a 5.4 fWAR, .331 wOBA, and a 110 wRC+ in 231 games and 903 plate appearances. Among 25 catchers with 600 plate appearances in that period, Cervelli ranks third in fWAR behind Buster Posey and Jonathan Lucroy. Cervelli also ranks third in wRC+, behind Posey and Yasmani Grandal. Cervelli over the last two years has been exceptional, but there’s much more to his game.
How good Francisco Cervelli actually has been, however, can be seen by looking more into his defensive ability. In 2015, Cervelli’s first season, he had 19.0 framing runs according to Baseball Prospectus. Stat Corner had Cervelli leading the league with +201 calls, Tyler Flowers finished second with +169. Cervelli finished second in calls per game of the 33 with 4000 pitches caught, this time just a tad behind Flowers, but still, Cervelli was one of the best pitch framers in the game.
Even in 2016, a year in which Cervelli had injury problems and played only 101 games, Cervelli finished sixth in calls with +75. He also finished ninth among the 34 catchers with 4000 pitches caught in calls per game. Baseball Prospectus has Cervelli ranked seventh in framing runs in 2016. He’s a tremendous pitch framer, something that helps pitchers, but what is his worth?
In the 2015 season, Francisco Cervelli’s BWARP was the 13th best in the league, with a mark of 5.65. This put him between Jason Heyward (5.9) and Mookie Betts (5.52). It also put Cervelli second among catchers, behind only Buster Posey, who ranked fourth with a BWARP of 7.67.
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But that isn’t too helpful, considering an uneven amount, if you create a denominator, such as plate appearances, it can be compared equally. Once doing this, Cervelli ranks ninth with a BWARP/PA of 0.0111 among 269 players with 300 or more plate appearances. This puts Cervelli up four spots with a more equal measurement. However, it does drop him among catchers. Posey still ranks first with a BWARP/PA of 0.0123, but Yasmani Grandal moves up and ranks ahead of Cervelli, and sixth overall, with a value of 0.0115.
Doing that same exercise of dividing BWARP by plate appearances, we get a total of 268 players with at least 300 plate appearances. Among these 268 players, Cervelli ranks 34th at 0.0077, ahead of Josh Donaldson and below Odubel Herrera.
Among catchers, Cervelli ranks sixth, below Tyler Flowers (23rd overall, 0.0088 BWARP/PA) and ahead of Yadier Molina (60th overall, 0.0066 BWARP/PA). Note though, Evan Gattis ranks 48th overall, but he played 71 games as a DH compared to only 55 behind the dish. Also, Grandal ranks first among catchers, among players too.
There are negatives to Cervelli, though. His ability to control the running game is rather disappointing, but some of that is on the pitcher. But over the last two seasons, there have been 213 attempted base stealers, Cervelli has only caught 45 of them, 21%. In 2015, Baseball Prospectus has him at -2.6 throwing runs, and -2 throwing runs in 2016. His arm is a problem.
However, with Cervelli’s ability to frame pitches and be a solid bat, even without power he managed to be essentially league average last year with a wRC+ of 99, he ranks among the best catchers in the game. Buster Posey is the poster boy, followed by Yasmani Grandal and Jonathan Lucroy, but after that, Cervelli fits right in.