2016 Catcher Recap: The Injury Bug Hit the Pirates Hard This Year

Every off-season, the Pirates sign a few minor league catchers, and there are always comments wondering where those guys will play, and how many catchers the team actually needs. Somehow, I don’t think those questions will exist after the 2016 season.

The Pirates haven’t been strangers to needing an extreme amount of catching depth. They went through eight different catchers in an injury plagued year in 2011. They have been fortunate since then, which is a bit of a surprise since they mostly relied on previously injury prone guys like Russell Martin, Francisco Cervelli, and Chris Stewart.

The 2016 season ended up being a repeat of the 2011 season. The Pirates went through six different catchers, at one point going with a combination of Erik Kratz and Eric Fryer for a long stretch in July. As you can imagine, this led to a big drop in expected production. I had the catchers combining for 3.2 WAR at the start of the season, using ZiPS projections. They ended up with a combined 1.3 fWAR, falling short by almost two wins.

Francisco Cervelli missed time with various injuries. He dealt with a foot injury that caused him to miss a few games, a fractured left hand that cost him a little over a month, a head injury, a left wrist injury, and a thumb injury that limited him in September. Overall, he played in 101 games and had 393 plate appearances, which were the second highest totals of his career, although that’s not saying much due to his previous injury history.

Cervelli saw a drop in his production, to 1.7 fWAR, down from a 2.5 WAR projection in ZiPS pre-season (which was based on 326 plate appearances). He still had value from a framing perspective, with 11 framing runs, down from 19 last year, with about 1700 fewer pitches in 2016. The interesting thing here is that he’s still matching Russell Martin’s production, with Cervelli out-pacing Martin 5.5 to 5.4 fWAR, and 30 to 25.8 framing runs the last two years. Martin has the edge in blocking and throwing, but it’s not a significant difference to affect the overall values.

That’s probably why the Pirates opted to extend him before the season. Even in a down year with a lot of injuries, he showed value behind the plate, and showed a very consistent .377 OBP, which is the third year in a row that he’s been at .370 or higher. His power completely dropped off this year, which might have been approach related, or might have been impacted by the injuries (he had hamate surgery, which reduces power, although the power was lower before that than after the surgery).

Chris Stewart also dealt with a lot of injuries, mostly dealing with a left knee injury that kept him out for most of the second half. This would have provided a great chance for Elias Diaz to step up, although he missed half the season with an elbow injury, only to return around the same time Cervelli returned, and then missed time at the end of the year with a leg infection.

With the top three depth options out, the Pirates turned to guys like Fryer, Kratz, and Jacob Stallings for a brief amount of time. This resulted in the biggest hit to the catching production, with the depth options behind Cervelli and Stewart combining for -0.4 fWAR.

The one bright side here is that this type of injury plagued season only comes around every few years. Catchers will deal with injuries, but we’re unlikely to see that happen to the extent that it happened this year. Cervelli still stayed productive, even finishing with a .270/.380/.352 line in 192 plate appearances after his surgery. That’s the most encouraging sign, as he’s projected to be the starter for the next three years.

The Future

At this time last year, it looked like Elias Diaz was set to take over, with Reese McGuire looking like the long-term answer at the position. The Pirates extended Chris Stewart through 2017, with a cheap $1.5 M option for 2018. They went on to extend Francisco Cervelli for three years and $31 M, which means he only has to be worth about 1.5 WAR per year to justify the contract, and that doesn’t even consider his framing value.

This obviously changes the plans with Elias Diaz, as he goes from the short-term starter to a very strong depth option if he can return healthy next year. The Pirates also still have Eric Fryer as a depth option for a 2017 backup if Stewart can’t return, and Jacob Stallings is there to provide strong defense as emergency depth out of Triple-A if things get bad again.

The long-term catching depth took a hit this year with the trade of Reese McGuire to the Blue Jays. There were questions about McGuire’s ability to hit in the future, but there were no questions about his defense. That will get him to the majors as a defensive backup at the least, and he has the chance to add offense to be a starter. Now, the Pirates will put most of their future stock in Diaz.

Aside from Diaz, the Pirates still have Jin-De Jhang, who gets a boost in playing time with McGuire gone. Jhang is good offensively, with a .298/.338/.383 line in Altoona this year. He will go to the Arizona Fall League, where he will get more experience against upper level pitching. He’s got a good arm, and some impressive agility behind the plate for a big catcher. He’s not as good defensively as McGuire or Diaz, which is a tall order, but he’s got a chance to provide some defensive value as long as he keeps his conditioning in check.

The lower level catchers are mostly strong defensive options, with no one standing out at the moment as top 50 prospects. Christian Kelley leads the group, getting a late promotion to Bradenton and showing some good defense between West Virginia and Bradenton this year. Unless someone surprisingly emerges from the Kelley/John Bormann/Brent Gibbs/Arden Pabst group, most of the eggs for the future of the Pirates’ catching position will be placed in the basket of Diaz. That future will come after Cervelli leaves in 2019, when Diaz is 29, or earlier if Cervelli sees bigger injury problems in his future.

  • Dumbest trade by Huntington was to include McGuire in the salary dump with Liriano for triple a Hutchinson.

  • Diaz and McGuire were/are carbon copies of each other?

    • michael schalke
      October 11, 2016 1:31 pm

      I’m hoping Diaz has a little more pop but generally agree with that.

    • They’re similar in broad strokes terms, but different players. Diaz seems more like a Russell Martin type on offense, where he’s got power potential and the ability to get on base, but might not hit for a high average consistently. McGuire seems like his upside is closer to Cervelli on offense, with a high OBP and a good average, but not as much power as Martin.

      And then defensively, they both have strong arms and work well with pitchers, while McGuire has the edge in blocking. They’re very close, which is why they both got “Best Defensive Catcher” awards in the minors last year from different outlets.

      • I liked that McGuire was a left handed hitter. Some players have a way of finding their hitting stroke in Toronto. Not sure why, but they do.

  • michael schalke
    October 11, 2016 11:09 am

    Here’s hoping this bunch can stay healthy next year. If they can, we should be fine behind the dish. Getting another catcher that can hit a little and pair with Diaz in the future would be a good idea IMHO.