Pittsburgh Pirates: What to Expect From Jacob Stallings in 2020
By Noah Wright
Catcher was the weakest position on the diamond for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2019, but that could change in 2020 with Jacob Stallings behind the dish.
Last year, one of the weakest positions for the Pittsburgh Pirates was catcher. They entered the year with Francisco Cervelli and Elias Diaz behind the plate, which was a productive tandem in 2018.
Throughout the 2018 season, the duo combined for a 4.8 bWAR in 681 plate appearances. But Cervelli played only 34 games with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2019 before being released to sign with the Atlanta Braves, and Diaz was flat out awful.
Diaz got the lion’s share of playing time behind the plate, appearing in 101 games and receiving 332 plate appearances. But the former prospect put up a line of just .241/.296/.307 with two home runs, a 61 wRC+ and 73 DRC+. Among batters in 2019 with at least 300 plate appearances, Diaz’s wRC+ was the 8th lowest in baseball.
But the biggest issue with Diaz was his defense. He caught about 26% of runners trying to steal on him, which is league average, but he had -21 DRS, and the lowest framing runs saved in baseball at -14.4.
Because of Diaz’s awful season, he was non-tendered after the year, and stepping into his place is Jacob Stallings. Stallings is set for regular big league action for the first time in his career, so what should you expect from the catching position next season?
Stallings posted a slashline of .262/.325/.382 in 210 plate appearances. That comes out to an 82 wRC+ and 87 OPS+. He also posted a .297 wOBA. But that is not awful for a catcher. The average catcher in the MLB last year batted .236/.308/.405 with an 85 wRC+ and .303 wOBA. Stallings was pretty much a typical catcher in 2019 with the bat. DRC+ painted him in the best of light, placing him just below league average at 96.
Offensively, I think you could expect some improvement from Stallings, but not by much. His DRC+ and xWOBA represents a bit more potential in his bat than he showed last season. In 2019, his xWOBA was .313 which places him in with the likes of Adam Jones, Jonthan Villar and Josh Reddick.
While all but Villar were below average bats in the previous season, the kind of production from each would be more than welcomed from the catching position, which was about 10% below the league average. His exit velocity of 88.8 MPH was among the likes of Corey Seager and Marcus Semien. In the batter’s box in 2020, I think you’re looking at a .260/.330/.400 batter with a wRC+ in the low-90’s. Had he posted those kinds of numbers in 2019 across at least 300 plate appearances, he would have ranked as a top 15 offensive catcher in the league. While that’s great production from the catching position, it’s his glove where you’re going to get the most value.
Stallings was easily one of the best defensive catchers in baseball throughout 2019. This was evident by Pittsburgh Pirates pitchers requesting to pitch to Stallings by the end of the season.
He racked up a +14 DRS, caught 40% of all runners trying to steal on him, and had a pop time of 1.98 seconds. That pop time ties him with defensive standouts Sean Murphy, Yadier Molina, and Christian Vazquez. Out of all of Stallings’ defensive numbers, the most impressive might be his framing skills. Stallings ranked 8th in framing runs saved in the MLB with 8.7. That’s in just 3,058 framing chances.
Buster Posey, even though he had over double the amount of chances than Stallings, only outpaced the Pirate catcher by just 1.4 runs. Brian McCann had 5.3 framing runs saved, but had more than 1000 more chances than Stallings did. In terms of FanGraphs’ framing stat, he was 6th among catchers with at least 450 innings behind the plate with 6 runs saved. He also had a strike rate above 50% at 50.3%. Stallings should continue this kind of defensive production heading forward. Stallings has the potential to be the best defensive catcher in baseball, and as long as he stays healthy, I could absolutely see him reaching that peak.
Overall, Stallings has the potential to be a 3+ fWAR catcher. His main value comes from behind the plate, and that should help in more ways than one. Not only will he be posting great defensive stats, but we might see Pittsburgh Pirates pitchers improve because of increased playing time with Stallings behind the dish. But you shouldn’t overlook his potential with the bat. He may never be a major offensive force, but not too many catchers are. But if he can produce at about a 10% below league average rate across 400 to 450 plate appearances, that’s more than what many teams could ask for from their catcher.