Beef and Tuffy Catching for The Rattlers?
by Jim Silva
Some nicknames just rock. “Beef” Wellington Castillo has one of those nicknames, especially for the fact that he hits the ball far like a guy nicknamed Beef should. Last season he hit like someone nicknamed “Stick” or “Bean” until the Cubs, and then the Mariners traded him. With the Diamondbacks he jacked 17 home runs in 80 games and slugged .496, even though his batting average was only .255 in his D-Backs stint. Castillo has always been able to hit the ball far probably dating back to preschool when he was crushing whiffle balls over the monkey bars.
But bashing home runs is not the only duty for a catcher. Wellington has always been slightly above league average with his caught stealing rates. His career caught stealing percentage is .297 in the majors, while the league average over the last six seasons is about 28%. Last season, he allowed three of every four would-be base thieves to successfully take the base (11 caught out of 44 attempted), so 25% were caught. One could try to blame the slightly below league average numbers on the pitchers – after all, Beef had the second best pop time throwing to third, and 8th best among qualifiers throwing to second, according to the 2014 fielding bible. You could blame the Cubs pitchers for Castillo’s slightly below average caught stealing rates, but whom would you blame for similar rates in Arizona? He threw out 28% of the prospective base thieves once he moved to the desert. With pop times like his, you would think he would be an elite controller of the running game instead of hovering around league average.
It will be interesting to see what he does this season with Greinke, Miller, Corbin, and De La Rosa throwing to him. Greinke has a career caught stealing rate of 46% percent when he pitches. Miller is right at league average – 28%. Corbin, in his last full season of 2014 saw 75% of potential base swipers get nailed, and De La Rosa, in his short career is slightly about league average at 31%. If indeed Castillo is an elite arm who has been betrayed by his pitching staff then one would expect his caught stealing rate to increase greatly with a full season in Arizona. If Beef is at fault due to the accuracy of his throws, or some other cause, then he will likely be close to his career 28% rate again in spite of the stingy pitching staff throwing to him.
The biggest hole in Castillo’s game is his ability to frame pitches. In his last three major league campaigns, the stocky Dominican has cost his pitching staff 21.4, 15.6, and 11.1 runs. His numbers have improved each season, but he has also caught a decreasing number of innings in each of the last two seasons. Is framing more important in Arizona an extreme hitter’s park, than it is in say, Oakland or San Diego – both pitcher’s parks? The thinking behind the question is that it would seem that giving a team an extra out in Arizona is more likely to lead to a home run than it would in Oakland or San Diego. It would be challenging to prove that assertion, but logic says that outs are more valuable in a hitter’s park than they are in a more forgiving – from a pitcher’s viewpoint – pitcher’s park. With that in mind, the Diamondbacks coaching staff should be working with Castillo to mend that hole in his game.
The overall package that is Beef looks like a valuable power hitter who won’t hit for much average but draws just enough walks to get on at about a .320 clip. Given 500 plate appearances, his manager should expect 20 jacks and 120 or so k’s. He should hamper base stealing efforts slightly better than the average catcher – especially with his new pitching staff – but give away some strikes. His offense drives most of his WAR, which last year was a bit over 1.0. His peak, at age 26 was 4.5, but he has never accrued more than 1.4 WAR in any other stretch. He is unlikely to make the All Star team in Arizona, but he will be well-loved by fans for his home runs and cannon-like arm. Usually when a player hits, their perceived defensive value seems to improve. If catching a new staff that holds base-runners better actually improves his caught-stealing rates, and his hitting is helped by the park, which it should, then Beef could look like an All Star in this age of mediocre catchers.
Speaking of nicknames, James Gosewhisch, whose nickname is Tuffy, has to wonder about his prospects moving forward. Gosewhisch is a “catch and throw” flavor of catcher. He peaked offensively last season when he put up 0.2 offensive WAR – his first season in the black. It is behind the dish that Tuffy makes his money. The 32 year old catcher has a career caught-stealing mark of 38%, and has historically put up good framing numbers, although the last two seasons have been mostly neutral (-1.7 both years). So as the guy who catches when Castillo is resting, what does he need to worry about? There’s always a young buck isn’t there?
In this case, the young buck is named Pete O’Brien and he has yet to obtain a commonly used nickname. Irish O’Brien? The Miami Mauler? Only time will tell. There is a catch though. This young buck may never catch again. A number of newspapers reported that O’Brien developed the “yips” in spring training last year. He struggled throwing the ball back to the pitcher. This was apparently a significant enough issue to cause the Diamondbacks to have O’Brien play most of the AAA season in the outfield. The Diamondbacks should work tirelessly with O’Brien to turn him back into a catcher where his bat is likely to be valuable, but the yips are tricky – ask Macky Sasser, who fought the issue from 1990 until the end of his career. O’Brien got an itty-bitty call-up to the majors, and in his very small shot of espresso (12 plate appearances), he homered, doubled, and knocked two singles, but didn’t catch – he played the outfield.
O’Brien is young (for a catcher – I know, I know!) – just 25 – and has a career caught stealing rate of 25% in the minors. His throwing numbers are all over the place – seasons around 10% and seasons around 30%. His framing numbers look neutral so far, but minor league framing numbers are harder to come by. If he never moves back behind the plate it significantly diminishes O’Brien’s value, because catchers who can hit are much rarer than corner outfielders or first basemen who can hit. With 22, 34, and 26 home runs in his last three campaigns, O’Brien will eventually make it to Arizona in some capacity. The young slugger doesn’t walk much and strikes out about 120 times every 500 trips to the plate. As a catcher, he is a mid-range star if he can get past his throwing problem. As a corner outfielder, or first baseman, he is a stretch unless he controls the strike zone better – fewer strikeouts and more walks.
O’Brien has played the outfield exclusively this spring and showed his usual blend of power hitting and lack of walks. If he stays in the majors this season he is probably done as a catcher. If they send him back down, it is hard to imagine why they wouldn’t try to make him an acceptable catcher to increase his value immensely, although after a full season and an entire spring in the outfield it looks like the D-backs have made up their minds about O’Brien as a catcher – he isn’t one.
So why write about him in an article about catching? Because having someone who can even sort of catch, and then losing that, is a big loss to an organization when the player is so close to the majors. It’s hard to say that anyone is to blame for that, but losing a catcher who can already hit on the eve of his arrival to the majors is the kind of loss that an organization with money can take, but has more of an impact on mid-market and small-market teams. It will be interesting to see how the Diamondbacks deal with O’Brien’s transition. Will they find a way to make the most out of the now outfielder, or think of him as a failed catcher and give up on him? It looks like they are already transitioning by moving him to left, so will they be able to develop a replacement in the minors? That remains to be seen. If they can’t, then they have to fill his spot on the catching depth chart through free agency or a trade, because someone has to squat back there and throw the damn ball back to the pitcher.
The Diamondbacks are in a good spot with their catching tandem for now. If they can keep Beef and Tuffy healthy then the position will be an asset. If either or both players spend significant time on the disabled list then it will be hard for the Diamondbacks to respond because they no longer have a decent answer in the minors. I’m sure Dave Stewart is crossing his fingers hoping that O’Brien’s yips don’t cost the Diamondbacks a chance to take advantage of their window to rule the West.