Following the 2014 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates had a tall order ahead of them. That tall order was replacing Russell Martin at the catcher position. To the credit of Neal Huntington and his staff, they did a good job of replacing Martin.
Following the 2014 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates were faced with a big challenge: filling the shoes Russell Martin was leaving behind. Martin was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates on a two-year deal following the 2012 season, and he provided more value than the Bucs could have ever hoped for.
In the two seasons he played in Pittsburgh, Martin batted .256/.362/.401 with 26 home runs and a 120 wRC+/116 OPS+. He also racked up +42 DRS and 24.7 framing runs saved per FanGraphs. Only five other catchers qualified for a higher number of framing runs. You also ca not forget the multiple clutch home runs Martin had in his two season run.
Very few catchers can produce that way on both sides of the ball, yet Martin did. So, how do you replace that kind of production? Well the Pittsburgh Pirates attempted to do that by trading left-handed relief pitcher Justin Wilson to the New York Yankees for catcher Francisco Cervelli.
Cervelli had always shown promise, but never had an opportunity. If he wasn’t stuck behind Jorge Posada on the depth chart, he was stuck behind Russell Martin. In 2013, he only appeared in 17 games, and was the back up catcher to Brian McCann in 2014.
Cervelli, like Martin, was a good defender. During his tenure with the Yankees from 2008 to 2014, Cervelli was responsible for +13 DRS and 21.7 framing runs in 1786.1 innings behind the dish. He also was not bad with the bat in his hand, posting a .278/.348/.381 line with a 97 OPS+ and 101 wRC+ in 785 plate appearances. But still, Cervelli had a tall order ahead of him. Martin was easily a 5 WAR player in Pittsburgh. Those kind of players are hard to come by, let alone one that’s a catcher.
Well, Cervelli definitely did not disappoint in his first season in Pittsburgh. Through 510 plate appearances, the right-handed hitting catcher had a .295/.370/.401 slash line with seven home runs. He posted a 117 wRC+, which ranked second in baseball among all catchers. Only Buster Posey passed him in overall offense. Defensively, he was all you could have asked for. Cervelli had a +10 DRS, and was worth 21.3 framing runs per FanrGaphs. In his first season in Pittsburgh, Cervelli had posted a career best 5.9 fWAR.
In early 2016, Cervelli was rewarded with an extension through 2019, but in the next two seasons, Cervelli saw a downturn in performance. Between 2016 and 2017, Cervelli was essentially a similar batter in both seasons. Cervelli was slightly below average, posting a .257/.362/.343 line and 96 wRC+. But the one thing he did really well in both seasons was get on base. Cervelli posted a 12.6% walk rate. That was the 22nd highest walk rate in baseball in these two seasons (min. 600 plate appearances). Cervelli’s production with the glove also fell a peg. He only had 0 DRS and 4.8 framing runs. That includes a -6 DRS/-6.4 framing run season in 2017.
After 2017, the extension the Pirates signed Cervelli to was starting to look like a bad decision. After all, his fWAR in 2017 was just 0.3. But Cervelli followed it up with his best season in Pittsburgh in the batter’s box.
During the 2018 season, Cervelli batted .259/.378/.431 with a career high in home runs (12), OPS+ (123) and wRC+ (124) in 404 PAs. He continued to walk at a strong clip. Among all players during the season with at least 400 plate appearances, the catcher had the 31st highest walk rate. In terms of wRC+, only Wilson Ramos (132), J.T. Realmuto (126) and Yasmani Grandal (125) posted a higher mark as catchers.
But his defense was still considered below average. He may have caught 39% of runners trying to steal on him, but he had -7.3 framing runs and -3 DRS behind the plate. Still, he was extremely productive with the bat, which set him up for semi-regular playing time with Elias Diaz at catcher.
Then in 2019, Cervelli’s Pirate career would come to an end.
Like in 2016 and 2017, injuries played a major role. Injuries limited Cervelli to just 34 games with the Pirates. He only amassed 123 plate appearances, 21 hits, six of them going for extra bases, and walked just nine times. Although he was better defensively, the major issue was his concussions. This wasn’t the first time Cervelli had suffered a concussion, and it put his long-term health in serious question and if he could continue to catch. So much so there were even rumors that he would no longer put on the catchers gear.
The Pittsburgh Pirates couldn’t really get anything of value except maybe the littlest bit of salary relief from Cervelli at this point. Instead, the Bucs elected to outright release Cervelli, which meant they would be paying him the rest of the money that was left on his extension so he could sign with the Atlanta Braves.
In all likelihood, the Pirates probably saw the writing on the wall for the veteran catcher. The scares with the head injuries throughout his career might have stopped it then and there, and probably wanted him to have another chance to go for it. The Braves were 77-52 when Cervelli was released, and once he joined the team, he did his part as a part-time catcher. He only got 37 plate appearances in a Braves uniform, but racked up nine hits, five being doubles and two being home runs, and he walked four times.
In the off-season, the Miami Marlins signed Cervelli to provide a veteran presence to a very young team. He’ll pair with 26-year-old Jorge Alfaro in Miami. While it might seem counter-intuitive if you are trying to give it maybe one last run, to sign with a team like the Marlins, it’s not as counter-intuitive as you may think. If he performs good enough, he’ll be almost guaranteed a trade out of Miami to a contender looking for some help behind the plate down the stretch.
Regardless, Francisco Cervelli had a positive impact on the Pittsburgh Pirates, both on and off the field. He was well liked by the pitchers, as well as being a fan favorite, and I think the Pirates did the right thing by releasing him, paying him the money they still owed him so he could play for a contender, which at the time seemed like it could be his last chance at another World Series. Cervelli wrapped up his Bucco tenure with a .264/.362/.374 batting line, 105 wRC+ and 11.3 fWAR. His fWAR ranks 9th among all Pirates catchers. Defensively, Cervelli had +10 DRS and 18.8 framing runs saved.