The Pittsburgh Pirates brought in Chris Stewart last year to serve as a defensive specialist behind Russell Martin. Stewart did not exactly specialize in defense during the 2014 season.
The catcher posted his best year ever offensively, with a .693 OPS that was over 100 points higher than his career numbers entering the season. That was largely fueled by a .364 BABIP, which is way up from his career .259 BABIP. Stewart has never really provided any power, and actually saw his power drop during the 2014 season, to a very small .037 ISO.
Defensively, Stewart saw his numbers regress. He has a career 31% caught stealing rate, but saw that drop to 23% this year. His blocking skills have been good in the past, but were down this year by several metrics. FanGraphs had him dropping from 2.7 in 2013 to 0.9 in 2014 in RPP (blocked pitches in runs above average). Baseball Prospectus had him going from 2.2 blocking runs per 7000 chances to -1.6.
With all of that said, I raise the following question: could Chris Stewart be a good option as the Pirates’ starting catcher in 2015?
I’m sure that the quick answer is going to be “No!” and that answer is probably warranted without a specific set of conditions surrounding the question. So let’s add those conditions.
I’ve written a lot of articles saying the Pirates should bring back Russell Martin. As long as the price isn’t huge, I still think that should be the case. If Martin costs $15 M per year over four years, then that’s a price the Pirates can, and should pay. But what if a big market team like the Dodgers gets involved, pushing the bidding to five years, or well above $15 M per year, or both? The reality of Major League Baseball is that if a big market team wants a player bad enough, they can easily out-bid small market teams to get that player.
In 2014 there were 54 deals that paid $15 M or more. Out of those deals, only five were made by teams that could be classified as “small market”. The Rockies (Troy Tulowitzki) and Twins (Joe Mauer) were both on the list due to franchise players who signed massive extensions. The Twins might be starting to regret the Mauer deal, and the Rockies have been talked about in rumors involving Tulowitzki being traded. The other three teams are Baltimore, Cleveland, and Milwaukee.
The Orioles were paying $15.35 M to Nick Markakis, at the end of a six-year deal. The Indians were paying $15 M to Nick Swisher, as part of a four-year, $56 M deal. The Brewers paid $15.1 M to Aramis Ramirez in the final year of a three-year, $36 M deal.
On the other side of the spectrum, there were eight teams that made up almost three-quarters of the $15 M salaries. Those teams were the Yankees (8 players), Dodgers (7), Tigers (5), Cardinals (4), Phillies (4), Angels (4), Red Sox (4), and Giants (3). The Cardinals aren’t exactly a big market team, but their annual attendance figures, their prolonged success, and their drafting and developing of players makes it possible for them to spend on multiple teams. The attendance figures play a huge factor here.
As we saw with Cleveland, Baltimore, and Milwaukee, a small market team can spend $15 M on a player, but not much more than that. And usually, a player making $15 M will end up with a big market team.
So let’s assume Martin gets paid by a team like the Dodgers, to the point where the Pirates can’t match the salary. Now the Pirates are looking for a new starting catcher. Free agency isn’t an option. They could go for a trade, and this is an area that I’m not going to explore deeply in this article, because we have no clue at this point who is going to be available. I’m not dismissing that a trade is possible. That said, the idea that a team is willing to give up a Russell Martin type player in a trade is impossible. If the Pirates are making a trade, they’re doing it for a defensive specialist. Teams don’t just trade two-way catchers.
If the question about Stewart being a good catching option is “Chris Stewart vs Russell Martin”, the answer is clearly in Martin’s favor. If Martin is gone, and the Pirates are left looking for a defensive specialist, Stewart might not be a bad bet.
For this to be true, you’d have to assume Stewart was just having a down year in 2014. His career caught stealing rate is 31%. He dropped down to 23% in 2012, before jumping back to 31% in 2013 as a starter. It’s not out of the question that he could see his caught stealing numbers bounce back next year. The blocking numbers were also poor, although they look like an outlier when compared to his career numbers. As an interesting side note, Russell Martin’s blocking numbers were also way down this year. The difference between last year and this year was 6.1 runs. The difference for Stewart was 1.8 runs.
Then there’s the area where Stewart didn’t struggle this year — his pitch framing. Stewart posted 9.0 framing runs, according to his Baseball Prospectus page. That was as a backup catcher, which translates to 21.3 framing runs per 7000 framing chances. By comparison, Russell Martin had 7810 chances as a starter this year, and had 17.3 Framing Runs per 7000 chances. Stewart was a better framer than Martin, and that’s been the case every year they’ve been in the league together.
I looked at the framing runs numbers over the last two years, and out of the 133 catchers in the league, Stewart ranked 17th in framing runs per 7000 chances. If you remove the catchers who had less than 3000 chances in those two years, Stewart ranks 12th with 16.4 runs, and Russell Martin ranks 13th with 14.6 runs.
The impact of pitch framing is much bigger than the impact for blocking or caught stealing. Stewart had a rSB (Stolen base runs saved) of 2 last year, when he caught 31% of base stealers. He was at 1 this year, with 23%. If he goes back to 31%, it won’t make a massive difference. His blocking, according to BP, would have been worth 2.2 runs per 7000 chances last year, and -1.6 runs this year. If he reverts back there, it would be another 3.8 runs. Together, he’d have about 5 runs, or half a win extra, if he reverts back to his old defensive ways. But the framing runs have always been there, and could add an extra 2-2.5 wins as a starter.
Stewart wouldn’t be close to Martin. For one, Martin throws out an unreal amount of base stealers. His 40% caught stealing over the last two years has led to 15 rSB. The difference in 2013, when both catchers were starting, was seven runs in Martin’s favor. The blocking for Martin last year would have been worth an extra 3.5 runs per 7000 chances (although catchers usually get around 5000 chances, so the season impact would be smaller). Those two factors give Martin about an extra win in value over Stewart, defensively.
Looking at the DRS numbers, it could be more. Martin was worth 16 DRS in 2013, while Stewart was worth 1 DRS. That 15 run difference would be about 1.5 wins. If you consider the pitch framing about equal (and slightly in Stewart’s favor), then Martin’s defense gives him an extra 1-1.5 wins over Stewart.
The biggest divide comes on the offensive side. Martin and Stewart both had career years at the plate in 2014, although “career year” needs to be defined in each case. A career year for Martin makes him a middle of the order hitter. A normal year for Martin provides average to below average offense from the catcher position. Chris Stewart needs a career year to get in the normal range for Martin. His normal play would make him one of the worst offensive regular catchers in baseball. His .575 OPS coming into the season would rank dead last among the 31 catchers with 300+ plate appearances in 2014.
That’s a huge downgrade from Martin. But we’re not exactly comparing those two, since we know Martin is much more valuable. What we’re comparing is Stewart versus every other option that the Pirates could get via trade. In the likely event that they can only get a defensive catcher, then they’re looking at someone very similar to Stewart on the offensive side, and possibly no better defensively.
If the Pirates can’t bring back Russell Martin, the options are bad. They would most likely be looking at a backup and defense only at the catching position. In that event, Stewart would be one of the best options they could get. That is, at least until Elias Diaz is ready for the majors.
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