Catching It From The Bump
by Jim Silva
Most catchers are imperfect. Actually we can say that about most people, except for our wives who put up with us, which makes them perfect. So as I said, most catchers are imperfect, and Nick Hundley is no exception. He does some things well that help his team, and he does some things poorly that hurt his team. The math for the Rockies management involves deciding if there is a way to maximize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses enough to make him valuable enough to keep. If they decide that he isn’t worth keeping around then they need to try to find another team who needs his strengths and can tolerate his weaknesses. Hundley is a decent hitter – slightly better than league average last season even after making the park adjustment – OPS+ (park adjusted on-base percentage, plus slugging) of 104. As a catcher that is darn good. A note of caution – Hundley’s on-base percentage was buoyed by an unsustainable .368 BABIP (measures batting average on all balls that he put in play) – eerily similar to the .362 BABIP he posted in his anomalous 2011 “breakout” season with the Padres. Much of his offensive value comes from his power – he cracked ten home runs in 389 plate appearances last season. Nick’s throwing was around league average last season as he nailed 34% of the 71 scofflaws attempting base thievery – 6% above his career average. He is also pretty average at blocking pitches saving 0.2 runs last season. But Hundley is abysmal at framing pitches. With Nick Hundley behind the plate, the Rockies’ pitchers gave away 14.8 runs due to his poor framing skills. When you put the whole package together Nick Hundley looks like a fringe starting catcher who will hurt your pitching staff but help with the bat in his good years.
The other two catchers, whom the Rockies are likely to deploy, will be Dustin Garneau and Tom Murphy. Garneau hasn’t shown the ability to hit minor league pitching since being drafted in 2009, nor did he show the ability to hit major league pitching last season when he was called up for 76 plate appearances at the end of 2015. Defensively, his numbers look a lot like Hundley’s, with poor framing numbers, and average throwing and blocking stats. As for Murphy, in his late season cameo last season, he only managed to throw out one of the eight runners who attempted a steal. He did a little better in AAA but has demonstrated lackluster numbers with his arm in the minors too – he figures to be a tick below major league average at nailing base-stealers. Murphy makes his money by knocking the ball out of the park. His slugging percentage has been in the high 400s to mid-500s at virtually every stop. His 39 plate appearances with the big club last season netted him three long balls. Murphy’s problem offensively appears to be a lack of command of the strike zone. In his career to date, young Tom has struck out 315 times and walked only 101 times in 1229 plate appearances at all levels. Unless he can recapture some of his discipline from early in his minor league career, he is going to be creating a lot of outs. Hugh Rothman, writing for FakeTeams.com, lists Murphy as the Rockies’ tenth-best prospect based on his bat, and his improved defense. Murphy is only 24 with legit power, so maybe he will turn into at least a good-hitting backup at catcher. Conventional wisdom says that catchers need longer to develop so we shall see.
All told, the Rockies’ catching situation is bleak. They are likely to get league average or slightly below hitting from the position, but hurt the pitching staff with their poor pitch framing abilities. Hundley didn’t grow up in the organization, but Garneau and Murphy did, which makes one wonder if the organization isn’t teaching pitch framing. It is a mechanical skill like other parts of catching, and with pitch framing stats appearing in the last few years, perhaps the Rockies will begin to develop catchers in the minors who do a better job of it. For now though, the bats will carry the day, or the catching in Coors Field will be below league-average.