The Astros catchers aren’t awful, but are they championship caliber?

Strong Up The Middle?
by Jim Silva

    The Astros are one of the youngest, most exciting teams in baseball in spite of their ugly start, but their catching is neither particularly young, nor especially exciting. In fact, (yawn), their current catching cohort of Jason Castro and Evan Gattis might be the biggest weakness the Astros have. That puts the Astros in a tough spot. Do they dance with the one that brought them or find a prettier date to go to the fancy dress ball (where the fancy dress ball is the post-season)? As the Astros surge and make themselves appear relevant again, the trade deadline gets closer and Jeff Lunhow will need to decide if this season is a wash, is their catching enough, or do they have a shot at a playoff run that will be worth trading for an upgrade at catcher. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – first a look at the current state of catching in Houston.
    Jason Castro was once young and exciting as he won a berth in the All Star game in 2013 at the age of 26. When your catcher makes the All Star game that is something to get excited about. There is an aphorism about being strong up the middle, which says essentially that your team will be as good as your catcher, middle infielders, and center fielder, so you can see why the Astros may have shown a bit of enthusiasm about young Mr. Castro. But Jeff Lunhow is not one to fall in love after one good date, and when Castro’s bat went the way of Pterodactyls and Betamax, the Astros GM went and traded for Evan Gattis, who was at the time, young and exciting, although only marginally considered a catcher. In fact, Gattis spent his first year with the Astros not catching and it looked like he had hung up the tools of ignorance for good, but catching is hard to find – even marginal to bad catching, so Gattis put on the steel cup and the other accoutrements of the job and started squatting again this season, at least from time to time. It wasn’t so much that all of a sudden Gattis learned some tricks from Johnny Bench as Castro learned some from Mario Mendoza, i.e. how to hit around .200, and that is where things stand today.
    What happened to Castro? Well, for starters, his glove is still excellent. He currently leads MLB with nearly 13 runs saved – most of that comes from his excellent pitch framing. His arm is usually around league average, although he has been awful this season allowing 18 steals in 22 attempts. His career caught-stealing rate is 26% where league average is 28%. Bottom line, he is near the top of the class for defensive catchers. What made him an All Star in 2013 was adding the bat to the arsenal. Seemingly out of nowhere he put up 4.1 points of offensive WAR (Wins above what a replacement level player would contribute). He had never, and has never ventured out of the single oWAR except for that shining Camelotesque 2013. Expectations are not your friend – once you’ve done something once, everyone expects you to do it again since it appears to be part of your skill set. Another reason that Castro’s hitting inspired people to say, “Yep, knew he was going to hit like that in the bigs,” was his success in the minors. His career minor league slash line is .293/.382/.422. He looked like a guy who would get on base with doubles power and at least a decent average. Package that with his framing ability and a solid arm and you have a perennial All Star, right? Even before his breakout 2013, Castro looked like that would be the norm for him in the majors. He drew walks and hit enough to make it so the Astros could plug him in and forget about him. Unfortunately, since 2013 Castro’s numbers have dropped each season to the point where he is now batting in the low .200s. In 2014 and 2015 he hit .222 and .211 respectively and today carries a .209 average.  In the past two seasons he didn’t draw enough walks to push his on-base percentage close to .300. At least this season he is walking more which has boosted his on-base percentage to .333 so far. Bottom line: he is making way too many outs and now looks like a catch and throw backup or at best a glove first catcher who can hit a homerun from time to time. That is not what the Astros thought they were getting when they took him with the 10th pick of the 2008 draft or when they saw him wear the Astros’ jersey in the 2013 All Star showcase.
    Evan Gattis is what he is – a power-hitting, uh power hitter. Yep, that’s what he is. He hits home runs – 81 of them in his first 1593 major league plate appearances. The problem with Gattis is that he doesn’t seem to get much of a chance to wear a glove that isn’t for batting and that depresses his value to a team quite a bit. In 2015, at the age of 28, it had already been decided that not only was Gattis not even an emergency catcher (zero games behind the plate), but he was only an emergency left fielder (11 games in left), which left him as a young designated hitter. There is very little room for decline if you are already at the very end of the defensive spectrum. His bat, and only his bat, would decide his fate. Good thing he hits lots and lots of home runs, eh? Well, yes, but there are problems. Problems like not getting on base. His on-base percentage for each of the last three seasons has been damning – .291, .317, and .285 respectively. Much like Mr. Castro (Jason, not Fidel) Gattis makes way too many outs. Castro has the advantage of a stellar glove where Gattis had no glove at all, or did he?
    Someone in the Astros stat head room (that’s gotta be a thing, right?), must have looked at Gattis’ pitch framing numbers from his time in Atlanta and noticed that he was actually a pretty solid pitch framer, having saved 6.1 and 3.5 runs in 2013 and 2014 by his framing efforts. In fact, in 2013 his relatively soft hands saved his team 6.2 runs – solid work from a guy who can crush the ball. In 2014 his throwing cost him and he only saved 0.9 runs, which is not good work for a defensive catcher, but again, if the guy can smash the ball why not use him back there as your backup catcher? Apparently the Astros agreed as they have been using him and his essentially neutral D this season. His throwing in the 14 games behind the plate has been surprisingly good as he has nailed six of the 13 runners attempting to steal on him – well above league average in a small sample size. The only problem with this situation, which would seem like a win if he can play at least neutral defense behind the plate, is the apparent death of his bat. He is still hitting the ball hard when he makes contact; unfortunately he is striking out at the rate of 25.7%, after a 2015 rate of 19.7. This has led to a batting average of .212, which is unacceptable, especially when his increase in walks has only bumped his on-base percentage to .286 so far.
    Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. That seems to be where the Astros are in the catching department. Castro is an excellent defender with a hole-filled bat, while Gattis is at best a neutral defender with power who doesn’t get on base enough to warrant his playing time. Max Stassi is the guy who you’d think would get the next chance to be the backup catcher, should the Astros decide an all catch/no-hit approach is the way to go for the second half. Stassi really can’t hit. He can’t hit major league pitching, he can’t hit minor league pitching; he can’t hit in a boat or in a moat; he just plain can’t hit as his career minor league slash line of .244/.310/.413 attests. He has a reputation for being a good defensive catcher, but his career caught stealing rate of 28.5% is just solid. His overall defensive statistical totals look good so I have to assume he is a good pitch framer, but I can’t see the Astros seeing him as part of a championship club.
    There is another guy at triple-A, Tyler Heineman. Heineman is in his first full season at triple-A and has eventually hit everywhere he has played leading to a career minor league slash line of .285/.364/.402. With a 39.4 career caught-stealing rate in the minors it looks like the arm is there. Based on his development pattern to date, it would be nice if the Astros could leave him at triple-A for at least a full season. Do the Astros have enough time to wait?
    Their catching is a place where they could improve. If the Astros intend to improve it somehow, there are currently two avenues to get the job done: promote one of the minor leaguers or trade for a veteran they know can do the job. Everybody is looking at Jonathan Lucroy who is back from wherever his game went last season. But the Brewers will ask for the moon and a planet with an atmosphere to trade him, as they should. Instead of looting their minor league system to get a Lucroy-level catcher, the Astros should look at someone like Stephen Vogt. Vogt isn’t a great catcher but he is essentially league-average as a defender with good throwing numbers (34% caught stealing rate this season) and he isn’t off to his best offensive season. That said, he won’t be costly to obtain, he will hit better in Houston than in the cavernous Oakland Alameda County Coliseum, and he is already hitting better than the catchers the Astros are running out there everyday. Another advantage that Vogt brings to the table is his positional versatility. Vogt can play left and first base. It doesn’t have to be Vogt, but Lucroy will be incredibly expensive and the Astros catching won’t kill them as is.
    Whatever the Astros decide, it had better happen in the next few weeks. If they decide to stand pat, then fine, but if they want to look toward next season, they need to get Gattis right and ship him to a team that needs a DH. I doubt many teams see him as a catcher anymore since the Astros didn’t use him there last season. Once they move Gattis they have a chance to look at their two triple-A backstops before the off-season so they can decide if there is anything there worth using as something other than a “break glass in case of emergency” catcher.

Can the Red Sox catchers recover from an ugly start, complicated by injuries, to contribute to a playoff drive?

A Potentially Unmatched Masked Duo
by Jim Silva

    Not many teams can say that they have two good catchers – even fewer can say that they have developed two good catchers who are major league ready. But the Red Sox are rich in the catching department and even have one man behind the dish who might be a star in the making. In Blake Swihart and Christian Vazquez, the Red Sox might eventually have one of the best catching tandems in the majors. The 25 year old, Vazquez, started the season on the disabled list and it looked like Ryan Hanigan would be the stand-in who would be the odd man out as soon as Vazquez and Swihart were healthy at the same time, but as we approach the trade deadline, that isn’t exactly how it has played out. What can Red Sox fans look forward to from their catching crew?
    Swihart was one of the youngsters everyone was calling Dave Dombrowski about when the Red Sox were struggling and needed pitching. Dombrowski wisely held onto Swihart – good young catchers are much harder to find than pitchers these days. What makes Swihart even more valuable is that he is under team control for several more years. The young catcher was ranked in the top 20 by everyone who bothered to rank prospects in 2015. The Red Sox fan base can look forward to several years of watching Swihart hit because hit is what he does best. His major league audition looked similar to his minor league career hitting numbers. His minor league slash line of .286/.340/.427 shows Swihart to have a good hit tool with decent, although not world beating, power and good plate control that doesn’t result in many walks but does result in moderate strikeout numbers. Last season in 309 plate appearances he managed a slash line of .274/.319/.392 while striking out 77 times. Swihart has shown the ability to adjust and grow at each level so it is reasonable to expect his numbers to improve as he adjusts to the league and matures. At 24 he is young for a catcher so it is reasonable, even for objective non-Red Sox fans, to expect more from him offensively.
    Defensively, Swihart doesn’t have to be great to have value because he can hit for average and knock doubles enough to put him in the top five or so catchers in baseball. Although last season he only managed to throw out 28% of runners attempting petty theft (below the league average of 32%), his minor league career numbers show that he can throw, as he has nailed 39% of base-swipers since 2012. Swihart did allow the second most passed balls in baseball at 16 and cost his pitchers some runs with his framing (-7 DRS from his framing alone), but baseball people who watch him report that his physical tools and intelligence are cause for optimism that he will become at least an average defensive catcher.
    Christian Vazquez is the yang to Swihart’s yin. He is a defensive stud with a canon arm who saved the Red Sox 13.7 runs with his tremendous pitch framing skills. If the Red Sox had traded Swihart, they’d have been just fine running Vazquez out there to save games with his arm and glove instead of his bat – that is until he blew out his elbow and submitted to Tommy John surgery. If he can return to form (and if pitchers can, why not a catcher?) then he will continue to provide All Star quality defense when Swihart is catching a breather.
    As to Vazquez’ ability with the bat, it is reasonable to state that he won’t be an automatic out, but that he should probably bat in the 9th spot in the order on a good offensive team, which the Red Sox are. His minor league slash line is inflated by one monster season in the Sally League (high single-A) where he hit 18 homers, batted .283 and slugged .505. To date, his slash line in the minors is .267/.346/.393. There isn’t a lot of pop in his bat but there is some ability to get on base via the free pass including a season in double-A where he struck out 44 times while walking 47 times. With only 52 games at triple-A there is likely some development left in his bat. Even if he only hits .240/.308/.309 like he did in 2014 in his major league debut, with his arm and glove he is still valuable – especially as the short end of a catching pair that includes Swihart.
    The guy the Red Sox planned to pick up the slack while Vazquez rehabbed his arm is veteran and old guy (especially for a catcher) Ryan Hanigan. Hanigan has been someone’s backup catcher since 2007 and at the age of 35 is nearing the end of a good career. Hanigan has always had the ability to get on base as his career OBP of .352 will attest. But he achieves that robust on base percentage without the benefit of power or speed. He does it by walking more than he strikes out (career: 241 walks to 237 k’s), making him an anomaly in this age of free swingers. He also possesses a good arm according to his career caught stealing rate of 37%. The career backup saved the Red Sox 1.3 runs with his framing skills so with Vazquez out, the Red Sox calculated they would be fine until Hanigan is forced back down to Pawtucket to await the zombie apocalypse or an injury to one of the Red Sox catchers.
    Ah, the best laid plans… Yeah, it didn’t work out quite the way the Sox had planned. Vazquez came back and resumed his role of stud defensive backstop. His arm hasn’t quite looked the same yet. Runners have tested him a bit and while they haven’t made him look like a clown back there, his caught stealing rate is down to a merely mortal 35% at the time of this article. In other words his defense is just fine, thank you. His bat, on the other hand, has looked insufficient. His walk rate is down, along with his batting average and on-base percentage, while his strikeout rate is up. It is still early, especially for him, as he had to work his way back from surgery, so his off-season wasn’t the same as his teammates’. Still, the Sox have to be at least a little worried. And that’s not the least of it!
    Blake Swihart in left field. Yes, Blake Swihart, the 24 year old potential star catcher was playing mostly left field in a platoon with Chris Young when he ran into a wall and severely sprained his ankle. Even if Swihart doesn’t look like the second coming of Muddy Ruel behind the plate, why would you mess with his development as a catcher? Before his call up, he had thrown out 39% of base thieves. While he wasn’t hitting quite as well in the bigs as he had last season, there were some good signs that he was showing maturity as a hitter. Swihart had increased his walk rate while his strikeout rate had decreased a bit. Even though his average is down, his OPS is up because of the walks and three triples. I doubt anyone is seriously worried about Swihart’s stick so unless he is destroying the Red Sox pitching staff, why is he running around in left when Christian Vazquez is hitting under .220? Before going to the DL, Swihart had caught six games while spending 13 games in left (two more games than he had played in the outfield over his entire minor league career). It might take a while for Swihart to get back on the field, and it will be interesting to see how the Red Sox use him when he is healthy again. Is it possible that his misadventure in left that landed him on the DL was caused by inexperience?
    So now the Red Sox are starting Vazquez and using Sandy Leon as their backup because Hanigan is on the DL. Leon is only 27, but is seeing action in his fifth major league season this year with Boston. Leon is a weaker hitting version of Vazquez. He is the ultimate catch and throw guy behind the plate with a major league career slash line of .216/.291/.264 but a caught stealing rate of 45%. His hitting numbers look like a pitcher’s slash line while his throwing numbers look like Vazquez. The pairing of Vazquez and Leon matches top notch defense with mediocre to awful offense – and maybe the Red Sox can afford to give up one spot in the batting order as an automatic out, but they have Swihart who is anything but an automatic out. The Red Sox have some interesting decisions to make about their catchers.
    Having catching depth like the Red Sox have is a luxury in this age where apparently nobody wants to put on the tools of ignorance, and it means that at least at that position, the Sox will almost assuredly be ahead of the game. If desperation forces the need to trade a young player, either Vazquez or Swihart should bring back value and still leave the Red Sox in a better spot than most teams in baseball. The franchise that has featured Rick Ferrell and Pudge Fisk behind the plate is now set to watch two potentially great catchers, Swihart and Vazquez, try to find themselves. The player who isn’t anointed starter either gets traded or helps the winner of the battle extend his career behind the plate. The Red Sox seemingly can’t lose in this situation although I suppose they could screw it up somehow (like moving Swihart to the outfield). Oh, did I say that out loud?

A Look at The Current State of The Colorado Rockies Catching Corps


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.