One of the biggest concerns fans have had about the Pittsburgh Pirates’ is their future at catcher. But is it truly as bad as it seems?
Long term, the Pittsburgh Pirates don’t have an obvious answer at catcher. Previously, we have pointed out two names that could eventually become more notable as they develop, but both Jommer Hernandez and Geovanny Planchart have yet to play a full professional season.
Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Ben Cherington has said that he wants to add to the catching depth. Many fans were hoping that the team would reel in a catching prospect in the Starling Marte trade, but they were unable to. Then during the draft, there were expectations by many that the Pittsburgh Pirates would select a catcher, but selected Nick Gonzales, a middle infielder, and pitchers with their remaining picks. They still can get a top prospect catcher in a Josh Bell, Adam Frazier or Keone Kela trade, but it’s not a guarantee.
However, if you think about it in depth, is this lack of a top catching prospect as big of an issue as it seems? Well I’d argue that it might be a bit blown out of proportion.
Yes, there is no long term answer in the higher level of the minors. But catching is a position you can get away with having a below average bat at as long as they’re decent fielding wise. It’s not like first base where you can hide a below average defender because they can hit.
After all, most of the time a defensive catcher is worth a lot more than an offensive catcher. The only exception to that might be Mitch Garver and possibly Gary Sanchez, but most teams would rather have an Alex Avila over a Wilson Ramos for example. Not only do they need to keep runners at bay, but also be a good game caller for pitchers to be comfortable with and to be a good pitch framer as well. A good example of this happened last season. Despite being an impact bat, the New York Mets only started the aforementioned Ramos 113 games because pitchers like Jacob deGrom were more comfortable pitching to the defensive minded Tomas Nido instead.
Catchers have historically been the worst offensive position in baseball. Since 2017, the position ranks last in wRC+ and wOBA out of any of the other positions in the sport that isn’t pitcher. Last year, your average catcher batted .236/.308/.405 with a .303 wOBA and 85 wRC+. The last time catchers as a whole posted a wRC+ of at least 100? Well you have to go back to the 1870s when it happened 4 times and not since 1879 has it happened again.
In comparison, the MLB average batter in general in 2019 hit .252/.323/.435 with a .320 wOBA. A catcher’s average offensive production is very similar offensive production to 2019 Freddy Galvis, Kike Hernandez, Jose Iglesias, and Adam Jones. Now, obviously, that’s not very good production for a middle infielder or right fielder. But would you complain if your catcher hit like Hernandez did last year with a .237/.304/.411 line, 17 home runs, 19 doubles and being great in high leverage situations? Out of the 30 catchers to receive at least 300 plate appearances in 2019, only 12 had a wRC+ above 100. That’s the least amount compared to any other position. The next closest is centerfield at 17 (min. 300 plate appearances).
Plus, many teams, contending teams I should add, are going with a defensive heavy catcher approach. Teams that are considered contenders like the Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Angels, Milwaukee Brewers, Washington Nationals, Houston Astros, San Diego Padres, and Tampa Bay Rays all are going to give a significant amount of playing time to catchers who are well below average bats, but well above average defenders pitchers are comfortable pitching to.
Does that mean Cherington will never ever get a catcher they can develop into both an above average batter and fielder? No, absolutely not. He already has signed an undrafted free agent catcher in Joe Jimenez. But the point I’m trying to make is as long as the Pittsburgh Pirates can develop a good offense, they don’t really need to worry about having an All-Star level catcher in the batter’s box.
Having an overall average or better offense is more of a likelihood more than it is just a possibility with guys like Gonzales, Oneil Cruz, Mason Martin, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Liover Peguero, Jack Herman, and Travis Swaggerty in the system, with Kevin Newman and Bryan Reynolds in the Majors already. There’s always going to be defensive first catchers who aren’t great at the plate available.
Teams have tons of those kinds of guys available to them. It’s an over-saturated market. The Pirates added two of these kinds of catchers this off season when they signed John Ryan Murphy and Luke Maile in free agency. Next off season, Mike Zunino, Tyler Flowers, Jeff Mathis, and Alex Avila are free agents, with Austin Barnes and Austin Hedges potentially available in trades as prospects will be pushing them out. Many more could follow Hedges and Barnes like Tucker Barnhart, Manny Pina, and Aramis Garcia. As long whatever catcher the Pittsburgh Pirates have in the future is not as bad as a pitcher batting while being excellent at defense who can handle a pitching staff well, the Pirates would be just fine going forward with a Stallings-level catcher.