Though it might not look like it, the Pittsburgh Pirates already have their catcher of the future. His name is Jacob Stallings, and he should be the Pirates catcher for the forseeable future.
Many people might look at the Pittsburgh Pirates rosters, farm system and depth chart and think “they really need a catcher for the future”. But I am now of the opinion that we already have our catcher of the future. That catcher is Jacob Stallings, and I think he needs to stick around for the long run.
Before we get why Stallings should be part of the Pirates’ future, we need to see how he got to this point. Stallings was drafted in the 7th round of the 2012 MLB Draft. Stallings steadily made his way through the minors as a defensive first catcher, but never really made any prospect waves. His best minor league season so far has been 2017 when he hit .301/.358/.431 with 4 home runs and a 120 wRC+ through 243 plate appearances at Triple-A.
Stallings mainly served as the third-string catcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first three years of his career. He received a total of 72 plate appearances between 2016 and 2018 as he was consistently blocked by Francisco Cervelli, Elias Diaz and Chris Stewart at the Major League level. He was even designated for assignment at one point in 2016 and outrighted off the roster in 2019.
Later in 2019, with Cervelli on the injured list for most of the year, and Diaz putting up poor numbers, Stallings got his first chance at semi-regular playing time. He didn’t do awful at the plate, hitting .262/.325/.382 with an 87 OPS+ and 82 wRC+. He fell right within other players at his position offensively as the average catcher in 2019 hit .236/.308/.405 with an 85 wRC+.
However, Stallings established himself as an elite defender, and one that could be a future Gold Glove winner if given the opportunity to play more. In just 463.1 innings behind the dish, Stallings had racked up +14 DRS, caught 40% of the runners that tried to steal on him. Stallings ranked 4th in catcher DRS, despite catching nearly half or more innings than his rivals. What was even more impressive is that he had 8.7 runs saved through framing.
So far this year, Stallings has continued to show he is an elite defender, and is the front-runner for the National League catcher Gold Glove. He has +6 DRS, which ties with Tucker Barnhart for the NL league lead. But while Barnhart has caught just 33% of the runners trying to take a base on him, Stallings has caught 39% of runners attempting to steal. Stallings also has +1.1 framing runs saved per FanGraphs’ metric, making him one of six total catchers to save at least one whole run with their framing alone. Stallings has also caught more innings than any other catcher in the NL this season.
But while it’s not a surprise to some that Stallings has remained extremely great as a defender behind the plate, Stallings has improved offensively as well. Entering play on Wednesday, he slashing .262/.333/.391 with a .317 wOBA and 98 wRC+.
The average catcher in 2020 is hitting .227/.308/.381 with an 88 wRC+ and .302 wOBA in comparison. The most impressive part is Stallings is making soft contact less than 10% of the time at 9.8%. He’s just one of 18 total players to have both 130 or more plate appearances and a soft contact rate lower than 10%. Though Stallings fell into a slump during September, he hit .392/.475/.510 through all of August. Plus he has a 99 DRC+ which gives an optimistic outlook for the catcher.
He’s also been great when he has an opportunity to drive in a run or two, as he’s hit .286/.432/.393 with runners in scoring position. He has also put up a respectable .258/.342/.452 line in high leverage situations.
In total in 2020, between his elite defense, and improved offense, Stallings has managed a 1.0 fWAR through 136 plate appearances. Across 500 plate appearances, that’s about 4+ fWAR. If you took his average WAR per plate appearance in 2019, and put that out across 500 plate appearances, you’d get an fWAR of about 3.1. If you can find a catcher who can average 3 or more WAR a season, then you know you have something special.
Now sure, Stallings isn’t young for a baseball player. He’s already 30, and turns 31 in December. But he doesn’t have that much mileage. Across nine professional seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, he’s caught a total of 5158.1 innings. That comes out to less than 600 a year on average. So despite being a bit older, he doesn’t have the same amount of wear as another catcher of his age.
Stallings might never be a super flashy, or popular catcher like Yaider Molina, Buster Posey, or Salvador Perez, but he doesn’t need to be popular to be just as, if not more productive as those three. You don’t just find a catcher who has both game changing defense and isn’t a complete slouch with the bat everyday. Stallings might not be treated like a player who can produce 3-4 fWAR in a complete season, but if the Pittsburgh Pirates look into extension for any of their players, Stallings should be high up on their list.