Pittsburgh Pirates: Journey of Jacob Stallings From DFA to Top Catcher

PITTSBURGH, PA - JULY 17: Jacob Stallings #58 of the Pittsburgh Pirates reacts as he rounds the bases after hitting a walk-off grand slam home run to give the Pirates a 9-7 win over the New York Mets during the game at PNC Park on July 17, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - JULY 17: Jacob Stallings #58 of the Pittsburgh Pirates reacts as he rounds the bases after hitting a walk-off grand slam home run to give the Pirates a 9-7 win over the New York Mets during the game at PNC Park on July 17, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images) /

Jacob Stallings, who is one of the most valuable catchers in the sport right now, had a long journey to reach that point, including being designated for assignment by the Pittsburgh Pirates.

On July 5th, 2016, catcher Jacob Stallings was a 26-year-old catcher who was designated for assignment by the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was such a quiet move, MLB Trade Rumors, who usually reports on every roster transaction, didn’t even report it. They only reported on him being outrighted. Nobody, not even Stallings himself probably, would have guessed where he would be in a few years. After getting a shot at semi-regular playing time in 2019, Stallings has since become the Pirates’ regular backstop and is one of the most valuable catchers in the sport. So how did he rise to such a point?

The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Stallings in the 7th round of the 2012 MLB draft out of the University of North Carolina. Stallings did solid throughout college, batting .293/.396/.437 with a .359 wOBA. His main offensive skill was reaching base, having a 13.6% walk rate in 572 trips to the plate. Though he did rack up an impressive doubles total, hustling out 42 two-baggers. Though the real attraction was his defense, something that has progressed to today.

Though he was a good on-base/contact hitter in college, that kind of batting never turned up in the minor leagues. His highest single-season OPS from 2012 through 2016 was just .722. He only ever once had a wRC+ above 100, with a 113 mark in 2013. Though he was still showing off some defensive prowess. He caught 30%+ of attempted base stealers in 3 of the 4 seasons. But defensive-only kinds of catchers are pretty common.

Stallings started to show some ability to hit in 2017 and 2018. In 2017, he had a .789 OPS, .352 wOBA, and 120 wRC+. Though it was in just 240 plate appearances at Triple-A, these were all career-best marks. He didn’t reach these heights in 2018, but still put up a solid .749 OPS, 335 wOBA, and 111 wRC+ at Indianapolis.

But up through 2018, Stallings barely got any playing time in the major leagues. Between his debut in 2016 up to 2018, he had played just 24 games and collected 72 plate appearances. His biggest moment in these 24 games was a walk-off hit on just his second ever hit. On September 23rd, the Pirates came back against the Washington Nationals, scoring a run on then recently traded closer Mark Melancon. Stallings finished the job, smacking a walk-off single into left field vs Yusmeiro Petit in the 11th inning. This gave him his first of many walk-off hits and showing a clutch gene that is a big part of his game now.

2019 would be the highest he made it onto the Pirates’ depth chart. He had always been behind the likes of Francisco Cervelli, Elias Diaz, and Chris Stewart. Even in his 2016 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates opted to go with Eric Fryer and the well-respected veteran journeyman, Erik Kratz over Stallings.

Stallings would finally get a chance at regular playing time in the second half of the 2019 season. Going into the year, the Pirates were going to use a tandem of Francisco Cervelli and Elias Diaz in a time-share-like operation. The two had hit well in 2019 and showed some decent defensive prowess. Since Cervelli had an injury history, it looked like a good idea. Give Cervelli less playing time and let Diaz get some regular reps.

However, this plan fell apart. Cervelli suffered a concussion. It was far from his first in his career and it even put his job as a catcher in jeopardy. At one point, he was ready to give up catching altogether. The Pirates ended up releasing him, paying him what was left on his extension he signed in 2016, in order to play with the contending Atlanta Braves. Diaz on the other hand completely fell apart. He ended up posting just a .603 OPS while being worth -21 DRS. His DRS mark is the third lowest since 2000 for a catcher (min. 500 innings).

This opened up a window for Stallings, and he took it. Now he didn’t do exceptionally well with the bat. He hit just .262/.325/.382 with a .297 wOBA, and 82 wRC+. But he showed off some incredible defense. Despite catching only 463 innings, he racked up +14 DRS while being worth 6 framing runs. Just for reference, he tied with San Francisco Giants backstop Buster Posey in DRS despite Posey catching over 350 more innings

Stallings went into 2020 as the team’s primary catcher. He improved his hitting ability, batting 248/.326/.376 with a .309 wOBA, and 93 wRC+. Again, he was among the best defenders behind the dish. His +7 DRS fell just 1 run behind Tucker Barnhart. He had +2.4 framing runs and was a finalist for the Gold Glove. The aforementioned Barnhart won the award, but Stallings showed he wasn’t just a depth catcher anymore. He was a regular in every sense of the word. Had the MLB played a regular-season and Stallings racked up 500 plate appearances, he would have had a 3.5 fWAR.

So far this year, he’s further built off his last 2 seasons with his bat. Currently, the backstop is hitting .239/.328/.393 with a .318 wOBA, and 99 wRC+. His offensive numbers have steadily increased every year since 2018. His wRC+ is 17% better compared to 2019. Though none of this has hurt his defense. Stallings arguably is the best defender, regardless of position. His +18 DRS is far out and in front of Michael A. Taylor and Joey Gallo who are in second place with +14. His 5 framing runs are the 6th best in baseball. Stallings is on pace for over 3 fWAR again, with a 3.1 fWAR/500 PA this year.

Earlier, I said that Stallings showed off a clutch gene that has carried over into his game today. He’s been one of the best clutch hitters in baseball this year. According to FanGraphs, Stallings has been thrust into 33 high leverage situations. Among other players with at least 20 PA’s in these moments, Stallings’ 250 wRC+ is the 8th highest mark in baseball. His .552 wOBA is the 7th best, and he’s one of just 16 players with a batting average of at least .400 in these situations.

One of Stallings’ most recent walk off hits is a good emodiment of what his career started as compared to what it has become. On July 17th, the Pittsburgh Pirates trailed the New York Mets 6-0 going into the 8th inning. Up to that point this year, teams have were 314-0 when leading by 6 or more runs in the 8th.

But the Pittsburgh Pirates scored 5 in the bottom of the 8th. Stallings came up with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 9th and the Pirates and hit a walk off grand slam, on a 98 MPH fastball in on his hands, and on a ball that would have gotten out in 13 of 30 MLB Parks. Just as his walk off was so unlikely to happen, Stallings rise to becoming such a valuable catcher was also extremely unlikely to happen.

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If you told anyone, even Stallings himself, that he would be a top 10 catcher in a few years back in 2016, they would probably think you were crazy. But that’s exactly what has happened. Stallings went from DFA limbo to one of the most valuable backstops in the sport. It’s been an uphill battle for Stallings, but he made the most of his opportunities and has now cemented himself as a very valuable asset to the Pittsburgh Pirates, especially given the amount of young pitching they have right now and coming up through the minor league farm system.

Stallings is one of the many inspiring baseball stories that is the emobodiment of a prhase uttered by one of the most legenday catchers in the game, Yogi Berra; “It ain’t over till it’s over”.