White Sox catchers have offense to spare, if league wants it(Keith Allison / Flickr)

White Sox catchers have offense to spare, if league wants it

One of the things I like most about the Offseason Plan Project is that it forces would-be GMs to prioritize problems. From a sample of dozens, we can see which positions end up getting fixed first, and which ones have to wait due to constraints of one type or another, no matter how creatively some try approaching it.

Take White Sox catchers, for instance. As a group, they can hit. As a group, they aren’t much behind the plate, especially now that Kevan Smith’s decent framing is in Los Angeles. Ideally, at least one catcher would be swapped out for somebody who can give the pitchers some help, but when assessing the pros and cons against both other teams needs and the landscape of the league, would the position stand out as one of the biggest priorities?

According to the Offseason Plan Project, no. More than half of the 70 plans are rolling with the incumbents.

  1. Welington Castillo and Omar Narvaez, 44
  2. Narvaez without Castillo, 9
  3. Yasmani Grandal, 9
  4. J.T. Realmuto, 3
  5. Austin Barnes, 1
  6. Kevan Smith, 1

It kinda makes sense. Narvaez was the team’s best hitter, and with Castillo in a contract year, the position could naturally open up for Seby Zavala should he prove worthy of an extended audition. Moreover, when you look at FanGraphs, White Sox catchers produced the league’s third-highest wOBA in 2018. That’s at least one reason to retain the combination for at least one more year before considering a larger overhaul.

Alas, that stat loses a lot of its impact when seeing the Red Sox win the World Series with the league’s worst-hitting catchers by far. Conversely, Red Sox catchers posted the third best Fielding Runs Above Average total according to Baseball Prospectus, while the White Sox finished 29th out 30. Chicago’s catchers finished last in blocking, fourth-worst in framing and sixth-worst in throwing.

That isn’t to say that the Red Sox drew it up that way. Sandy Leon and Christian Vazquez took big steps back, and Blake Swihart wasn’t much help, either. Fortunately for Boston, it had plenty of offense elsewhere, so the catchers only needed to bring defense to the table to win 119 games. Give the White Sox batless framers, and they’re likely still awful.

The Red Sox aren’t counting on that combination again, so they’re on the lookout for upgrades. They’re far from alone. As Mike Petriello of MLB.com notes, there’s a historic drought in production from catchers leaguewide.

In that entire century of baseball, only three times have catchers hit worse than the .232/.304/.372 (.296 wOBA) they combined for in 2018 — and all three times were in the low-offense 1960s, an era so devoid of production that the sport had to lower the mound in 1969 to account for it.

For context, the entire sport of backstops hit basically like White Sox infielder Yolmer Sanchez, who put up a .242/.306/.372 line this year. (If we look at it as a comparison against the league hitting average that year rather than as a raw number, it’s still one of the 10 weakest seasons.)

Petriello examines three reasons for this shortage:

  1. Maybe it’s just a down year.
  2. Maybe it’s just harder than ever to be a catcher.
  3. Maybe it’s just harder than ever to develop catchers.

And he ends up rolling more with the second and third points. Teams are preferring receiving over slugging, especially with the increasing number of pitchers they’re expected to handle over the course of games and seasons. As a result, even the top-ranked prospect catchers end up falling by the wayside when it’s their turn to show up.

Eno Sarris responded to Petriello with his own observation in support:

Petriello used all this information as a way to show what kind of leverage the Marlins have in dealing a well-rounded star like Realmuto, even if they should theoretically lose some of it with the knowledge that Realmuto has no intent to stay in Miami. He still has three seasons under team control, which makes him a fit for everybody, from the White Sox to the Red Sox.

In this context, the White Sox are in a fascinating position, with all the double-edged weight a word like “fascinating” wields. If teams are jonesing for offense from catchers however they can find it, the Sox probably shouldn’t hesitate in dealing Castillo or Narvaez (preferably the former), because there seem to be rapidly diminishing returns from two catchers who hit without receiving.

But if defensive-minded upgrades favor the sellers and White Sox catchers already do one thing very well, it makes it very tempting to stay the course. The Offseason Plan Project is in the same boat. If we can get just mild defensive improvement, the White Sox are probably thinking. Rising to “merely subpar” could given them a surprisingly potent combination, but the Sox haven’t been able to generate substantial receiving progress since Tyler Flowers. As it stands, if the White Sox stand pat and the defense grades the same, they could have one of the best offensive combinations behind the plate just in time for it to matter the least.

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Patrick Nolan
Editor

This is exactly why I wanted Smith over Castillo. If the Sox don’t stand much chance of at least a mid-80s win total, who cares if Castillo puts up a .350 wOBA.

As it stands, if the White Sox stand pat and the defense grades the same, they could have one of the best offensive combinations behind the plate just in time for it to matter the least.

armchairGM
Member

I’m curious what you would do about the catching situation. do you pin the white sox pitching staff leading the league in walks on weak catching defense, vice versa, or coincidental? do you roll with high offensive output or attempt to supplement the catching corps with a good defensive catcher? from a probability standpoint is the offense more likely to regress to average or is the defense more likely to ascend to average?

Patrick Nolan
Editor

You weren’t asking me, but I pin the White Sox pitching staff leading the league in walks on Giolito, Fulmer, et al not having a clue where the strike zone is. Goofs like Narvaez and Castillo didn’t help, but the Sox most likely lead the league in walks regardless of who is back there.

A lot of the damage done by bad framing comes from plate appearances that don’t end in a walk (e.g. turning a 1-2 count into a 2-1 count, etc.).

armchairGM
Member

i should have framed my post better…

its a line of thinking that warrants (and has) several different takes. i always welcome your opinion pnoles.

GoGoSoxFan
Member

Put me in the Grandal/Narvaez camp. While Realmuto is the prize, Wilson Ramos is a better hitter and Martin Maldonaldo a better receiver, Grandal is the best combination hitter/receiver availble that won’t cost anything prospect-wise.

I think he should be a prime target because next year’s FA catching class is a bunch of has beens and never weres. I don’t think they can count on Zavala next year any more than they can count on any other prospect. If he does progress as hoped Narvaez would become a nice trade piece and as he declines (even though he’s only 30, catchers generally wear out before age 35) Grandal could become the veteran mentor to Zavala at the end of a four or five year contract.

metasox
Member

Narvaez may also be a DH possibility if the Sox make an acquisition or when Zavala is ready to get a look.

HallofFrank
Member

Generally, how solid are framing numbers? There seems to be a fair amount of uncertainty about both (a) the effect of framing on wins and (b) how accurate framing numbers are. Perhaps this is outdated by a couple of years, but that’s been my general impression. Of course, the more we learn the more confident we’ll be in the numbers, but framing – more than other skills – has seemed more elusive with respect to quantification.

Patrick Nolan
Editor

This is a complicated and very good question.

There’s two components of the framing valuation, and we can have plenty of confidence in one of them (and it’s why I put stock in framing calculations in the first place): the value of extra strikes. There are relatively straightforward probability calculations (I use “straightforward” loosely — there’s an insane amount of arithmetic but a spreadsheet could theoretically calculate it as opposed to running a black-box type model in R) that can convert extra strikes to runs. Runs are converted to WAR. So essentially, if you trust the calculation of the offensive components of WAR (which are fairly standard these days), I think you can feel pretty confident in framing’s valuation of extra strikes.

So we have a pretty good idea that extra strikes are valuable. The question then becomes how to determine which catchers have actually earned extra strikes. This is a lot more complicated, and involves mixed models that adjust for the batter, pitcher, umpire, and other factors. There is always going to be a great deal of uncertainty in this component of the calculation (and BP’s historical framing numbers even change from time to time). However, some catchers have generally consistent year-to-year results in their framing ability, and while their value might fluctuate, we can at least get a pretty good sense of which catchers are good and which catchers are bad. We can also get some sense of the rough number of strikes that separate good framers from bad framers, and per the first component above, we have a decent idea of what that’s worth.

I’d say treat the framing stats as similar to defensive metrics — saying that a catcher cost his team EXACTLY 12 runs with framing is being overly precise, but if the guy has a history of sucking at it and you see -12 framing runs on his ledger, you can probably reason that he’s cost his team about a win from framing (using the approximation of 10 runs = 1 win).

HallofFrank
Member

That’s really helpful, thanks. Another question I have about framing is whether umpires will adjust to it. As someone who caught through high school myself (and excelled at defense but not offense), I love that framing is getting credit. It’s also a bit surprising to me. I use to get umpires say to me “don’t frame it.” Mostly because if I was making balls look like strikes, it made them look bad.

From the umpires perspective, it shouldn’t matter how the ball is caught (or even if it is caught), so that there is some sort of stable framing statistic can’t be good news for umpires. I wonder if it’s something that umpires will take notice of more and more and even adjust to? 

karkovice squad
Member

It’s also a bit surprising to me. I use to get umpires say to me “don’t frame it.”

That’s because most amateur catchers who try to frame a pitch are moving the glove after they catch the ball to make the pitch look like a strike (whether that’s just turning the glove or moving their whole arm). That’s not what the skill is. Those movements usually cost strikes.

The skill is mostly getting the glove in position to where the ball will be caught early rather than as it arrives at that point. Then receiving it with as little motion as possible. Plus a little bit of technique in how the glove closes around the ball.

Done properly, there isn’t much for umpires to adjust to.

HallofFrank
Member

Totally agree, as framing is very subtle if done well. And Jim is of course right that framing is rarely is about “fooling the umpire.” My point was rather that strikes and balls are, ideally even if not practically, catcher-independent. If this is the case, then data suggesting that the catcher does matter (in some cases significantly) for strikes and balls is at least partially an indictment on umpires, no? And if this continues to become apparent, isn’t this something umpires would adjust to or become more aware of thus lessening it’s impact? (If it’s even possible for umpires to be aware of it or notice it in any strong way, and perhaps it isn’t)

I’m certainly not suggesting that the White Sox shouldn’t prioritize framing. I would take the Adam Engel version of a catcher over the Daniel Palka version any day. This is just a question I’ve had, and I think it’s one the Sox should at least entertain if they decided to go after Grandal on a multi-year deal (though unfortunately I don’t anticipate this happening).

WaltWilliamsFan
Member

Are the skills the Sox catchers lack teachable? I assume that arm strength is a natural talent, blessing some catchers with ability to throw to 2nd base the same way some pitchers are blessed with the ability to throw 98 mph. But what of the other skills? Catchers who are good at blocking or framing weren’t born that way. Is it something that can be coached? If it is, are the Sox trying to teach it?

karkovice squad
Member

The receiving skills are teachable. e.g. The Astros trained up Jason Castro.

But whether they have the underlying natural talent to improve is another question.

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