Pittsburgh Pirates catchers have been downright awful since Roberto Perez’s injury, but is there a readily-avaiable solution to the problem?
The Pittsburgh Pirates took a massive blow in early May when Roberto Pérez went down with injury. He was among the best defensive catchers in baseball to start the year and one of the better hitting catchers at the time of his injury. He was top 10 among catchers in wRC+ and wOBA.
Since his injury, the Pittsburgh Pirates have used patchwork behind the dish. It’s quite impressive how bad Pirate catchers have been since the injury. They have a .297 OPS, which is slightly better than the average pitcher last season (the average pitcher OPS was .285 in 2021). Not only has the offense been abhorrently bad, but the defense has only been average, having -2 Defensive Runs Saved and +.1 framing runs saved between Tyler Heineman and Michael Perez.
The Pirates need to do something. They can’t essentially bat a pitcher when they don’t have to. Catchers have a combined .650 OPS this season, so below-average offense is acceptable if it means it comes with good defense. What solutions do the Pirates have in fixing this problem?
The Pittsburgh Pirates could start Jason Delay for now. Delay does bring the excellent defense that catching requires; however, his offense is well below average, which keeps his ceiling as a second catcher. This year he has a .306 wOBA, .668 OPS, and 86 wRC+ at Triple-A. Those are career-best offensive numbers for him. He’s never once put up an OPS over .700 since being drafted in 2017. But at this point, a .500 OPS and good defense would be gladly welcomed with open arms.
The Pirates don’t have much at Triple-A as of now. Jamie Ritchie and Taylor Davis are pretty much organizational depth, and likely won’t be called upon unless it’s an emergency. Even prospect Carter Bins hasn’t done much to deserve a promotion to the Major Leagues. So what outside help is there the Pirates might be able to find?
The Pittsburgh Pirates aren’t about to go out and deal any prospects for a backstop. Both Henry Davis and Endy Rodriguez should be in the majors within the next two years, so the Pirates don’t need a permanent solution. One catcher the Pirates might be able to get for nothing more than cash, and maybe some pieces of organizational depth are Cleveland Guardians’ Austin Hedges.
Hedges has pretty much become the young Jeff Mathis, bringing almost negative value at the plate, but is considered one of the best defensive catchers in the game. Since making his debut back in 2015 with the San Diego Padres, Hedges has +72 defensive runs saved and +63 framing runs. The former he ranks second, and the latter he ranks third among catchers. That’s quite impressive, considering he’s caught less than 5000 innings.
The downside is that you’re losing a lot on the other side of the ball. Since 2019, Hedges has hit for a .537 OPS, .233 wOBA, and 44 wRC+, all three of which he ranks last in by a considerable margin. However, he keeps getting playing time because his defense is just that good. Hedges is also in the last year of his contract, so Hedge’s value isn’t at its peak. Between his status as a defensive-only catcher and being a rental, the Pirates might be able to pry him away from Cleveland for pretty much nothing but his remaining salary.
Hedges is probably the most readily available catcher with MLB experience the Pirates can get in a trade. Even then, it’s not a guarantee, given that the Guardians are still only 2.5 games out of the division and a half-game out of a wild card spot. But the Pirates should at least entertain the idea as it’s still a possibility. The Guardians have five catchers stationed on their Triple-A roster. Three have an above-average OPS, and current back-up Luke Maile is outperforming Hedges with the bat while giving the Guardians plus-plus defensive value and framing.
There aren’t very many solutions to this problem. The Pirate alternative is to scour the Triple-A depth market and try to find a fix for now. Regardless, something needs to be done. Pirate catchers, since Perez’s injury are hitting like pitchers and are only giving average defense. The team needs to prioritize defense and find a good defensive catcher who can at least hit for an OPS above .500. At this point, the Pirates should at least be semi-desperate to find a solution. Even in a year where you don’t plan on competing, you can’t keep trudging out catchers with a sub-.300 OPS. That’s just unacceptable.