Williams: Luke Maile and the Crazy Idea of a Four-Man Catching Staff

It would be nice if the Pirates added a catcher who was a better option than Jacob Stallings or Luke Maile.

It would also be very difficult.

It’s been a while since I’ve had to write about a catching situation this bad in Pittsburgh. The last time was after the disastrous 2012 season. My analysis of the catching market at the time led me to believe teams needed to choose either offense or defense. You’d like to get someone who could do both, but those catchers were rare.

They still are.

I wanted to see if that theory still held up about needing to choose between offense and defense. So I looked at every catcher from 2016-19 who had 200+ plate appearances in a season.

I then looked for catchers who were above the yearly positional average in wOBA, wRC+, and Defensive Runs on FanGraphs. The idea is to find the examples of those catchers that seem so elusive: Someone who is above-average on both sides of the ball.

There were 190 catching seasons overall. Only 46 of those seasons (24%) qualified as above-average both offensively and defensively.

There were 81 catchers that made up those 190 seasons. Of those 81 catchers from 2016-2019, 53 had 200+ plate appearances in multiple seasons. Only 10 of those 53 catchers (18.9%) were above-average both offensively and defensively in multiple seasons.

On the opposite side, there were 28 catchers who only had 200+ plate appearances in a single season during this time. Five of those 28 catchers (17.9%) were above-average both offensively and defensively in multiple seasons.

I should note here that Luke Maile was one of those catchers in 2018. I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions about the signing based on this info. It just obviously stood out to me.

This shows us how difficult it is to find a good, consistent catcher. It makes sense. The catching position is the most taxing position on the field. All of the work catchers need to do with pitchers and with their own defensive skills leaves very little time for hitting. They also have fewer plate appearances than starters at other positions, making them more susceptible to small sample sizes.

There were two numbers above that really stood out to me: 18.9% and 17.9%. Those two numbers represent a key free agent decision.

If you’re going for a catcher who can be a multi-year starter, you’re hoping he’s above-average both offensively and defensively for multiple years. The numbers above indicate that this would happen in 18.9% of cases.

And let’s look at those ten catchers who had good two-way seasons multiple times:

Brian McCann – He qualified in 2017 and 2019. He qualified on offense in 2016, but not defense (though he did provide positive value). He didn’t qualify for any category in 2018 (slight positive value defensively.)

Buster Posey – He qualified in 2016, 2017, and 2018. He had great defensive numbers in 2019, but the offense didn’t qualify for either category.

Gary Sanchez – He qualified for both in 2018, and just squeaked in defensively in 2017. He qualified offensively in 2016 and 2019, with his defense dropping in 2019.

J.T. Realmuto – He qualified in 2017, 2018, and 2019. His defense was bad in 2016, but the offense was above-average in both categories.

Jorge Alfaro – He’s qualified in 2018 and 2019, the only two years he’s been on the list. Alfaro was traded for Realmuto prior to the 2019 season.

Manny Pina – He only showed up in 2017 and 2018, and qualified both years. He had 337 and 359 plate appearances in those seasons.

Russell Martin – He qualified from 2016-18, but missed it on both offensive stats in 2019.

Tyler Flowers – He qualified from 2016-18, and missed due to his wRC+ in 2019.

Yadier Molina – He qualified from 2016-18. He missed in both offensive categories in 2019.

Yasmani Grandal – He’s qualified all four years.

Take a look at that list. Those are a lot of franchise catchers — past, present, and future — and also Manny Pina.

There’s a reason these guys command huge trade returns and get locked down for years by big market clubs. They’re rare. The franchise guys, that is. Not Pina.

So let’s think about that 18.9% number and what it really represents. Unless you develop a great two-way player from within, or give up a ton for him after he’s established in the majors, you’re probably not getting multiple years of above-average offense and defense. You’re typically getting one or the other at best.

Now let’s look at the 17.9% figure. Those mostly represent the backup catchers and one year fliers. Since Luke Maile is part of that group, I think it’s fair to say that he’s the type of guy you’re typically going to find here. Here were the other four guys on the list who were above-average on both sides of the ball in a single season:

Chris Gimenez – 225 plate appearances with Minnesota in 2017

David Ross – 205 PA with the Cubs in 2016

Max Stassi – 250 PA with Houston in 2018

Tom Murphy – 281 PA with Seattle in 2019

And then there’s Maile in 2018 with 231 plate appearances. It’s interesting that all of these guys had between 200 and 300 plate appearances.

They also followed the same trends: A backup catcher who is strong defensively, and who either had good enough offense for one year, enough playing time for one year, or a combination of both. Murphy is getting the chance to be the primary catcher for the Mariners in 2020, and I guess Maile is going to get an opportunity in Pittsburgh to show he can repeat 2018.

A New Approach to Catching is Needed

I’m going to cut right to the truth: the Pirates aren’t getting one of those franchise catchers like Posey, Grandal, or Pina.

There are none available as free agents. I don’t know if there are any established guys by trade, but I do know that the Pirates aren’t yet in the “one established catcher away” phase of whatever their plan is right now.

They could try to acquire a prospect who isn’t established in the majors yet. The problem here is that teams value those guys very high. Perhaps that’s why the Pirates have seen rumors linking their top trade chip — Starling Marte — with their desire for a top catching prospect.

It might be easier to go for a lower level catcher who can develop into a two-way guy one day. It doesn’t take a guy like Starling Marte to pry a lottery ticket away. Or perhaps the lottery ticket can be a nice second piece in a Marte deal.

The problem is that prospects, regardless of whether they’re lottery tickets or established guys, aren’t guaranteed to be good two-way catchers.

My opinion, based on all of my time spent around the game, is that catcher is the most important position on a franchise. If I’m starting a franchise today, I’m building it around a strong two-way catcher. That gives you the defense you want to help your pitching staff each night, plus an offensive bonus that most teams aren’t getting behind the plate (or they are getting offensive value at the expense of defensive value).

But have we tried to force the catching position into being something it should have never been?

Every team still strives for that catcher who can start 120 games, or at least 100 games when paired with a backup who can handle the other 62. At best, everything works out and you’ve got a Grandal/Pina dynasty. At worst, you see your Cervelli/Diaz rival dynasty crashing and burning after only one good year. And most of the time you’ve got one of these familiar situations:

  1. The starter is having a good year, but you dread when the horrible backup comes in.
  2. The starter is having a horrible year, but at least the backup has been a nice surprise.
  3. Eight people get injured and you have someone like Dusty Brown making starts.

But what happens if you’re in a situation like the Pirates are in right now, which is somehow worse than that 2011 situation?

They don’t have a guy who can start 100 games. They might not even have a guy who can start 81 games.

They have two guys who look like backups at best, and who you don’t really want getting more than a third of the season’s playing time by design.

I could see Stallings providing plenty of defensive value and hitting enough that he could replicate his 2019 numbers if he was only relied upon for a third of the season’s playing time.

I could see Maile repeating his 2018 season, with offense good enough in a small sample size to make him very valuable when paired with his strong defense.

That still leaves a third of the season in question.

Unless you want to get really creative…

Forget Everything You Know About Starting Catchers

Why do we look for 120 games out of a catcher? Or even 100? Why don’t we split the position into smaller playing portions?

Why do catchers play every inning of their starts, rather than playing half games?

More importantly: Why do we continue to treat the catcher position like every other position?

The current view is that good starting catchers are hard to find. But what part exactly is hard to find?

Is it finding someone who can provide both above-average offense and defense?

If that’s the case, which one of those is more difficult to find?

And is the issue finding someone who can both hit and play defense? Or is it finding someone who can do that over an arbitrary amount of games?

We look at guys like Molina, Grandal, and Posey and we know they are rare. Maybe we just don’t understand exactly how they are rare.

We tend to think that those guys are rare because it’s hard to find catchers who can hold up under a starter’s workload, while maintaining good production all season long on both sides of the ball. But maybe those guys are just rare because they can do something that most people shouldn’t even be asked to do.

This raises the most important question: Should catchers be treated less like position players and more like pitchers?

A Catching Staff?

There was a time when pitchers threw 300+ innings in a season as the norm. There was a time when a starting pitcher would pitch every inning of the game. We know those totals are crazy today. We’ve seen the benefits of rest, and we’ve seen the stats showing a clear decline as a pitcher sees a batter multiple times in a game, with a steep drop the third time through the order.

My prediction is that there will eventually be a time when we say the same thing about catchers. I’m 36, so maybe in 20-30 years people my age will be old enough to bitterly complain about the good old days when Yadier Molina caught 140-150 games a year, unlike these four man catching groups today.

Yes, you read that right.

I’ve been leading you on a journey that concludes with the idea that the Pirates need not two catchers, not three catchers, but four catchers in 2020. And maybe beyond.

Yeah, there’s a joke in there about the quality of their current catching situation. That situation is why they’re in a very unique position to make a change throughout the system.

Before I explain how this concept works, let me address the obvious rebuttal: The impact to the bench.

A typical NL roster today consists of 13 position players and 12 pitchers. Two of the position players are catchers, and you usually have an emergency catcher who never actually gets in the game. This is usually an infielder who has caught a bullpen at one point in his life. If none are available, teams usually go with whoever has the best catching skills in the most recent version of MLB: The Show.

The bullpen has typically been split up as five starters and seven relievers, with one of those relievers being a closer. Some of the more innovative teams around the game have started to play around with this format in recent years, breaking all of the rules on the pitching side of the game.

We accept that there are going to be 13-14 position players and 11-12 pitchers on a typical team. But why do we not treat the catchers like pitchers and mark off 3-4 spots for their position?

That is now easier to do with the expansion to 26-man rosters. It’s also something that could lead to much better results for the pitchers and the catchers combined.

And again, the Pirates are in a perfect position to try something extreme like this, since they literally have no catching in the system.

Let’s walk through how it works.

A Four Man Catching Staff

Everything below is a wild scenario, and none of the details are meant as a forecast for what the Pirates might do, even under a normal catching system. This scenario is specifically with the Pirates situation considered, so it wouldn’t apply the same way for all catchers or systems. I’m also proposing some pretty extreme and complex ideas, so I’ll simplify them as best I can.

Roster Construction

The 26-man roster is broken up into the following: 11 pitchers, 4 catchers, and 11 non-catcher position players.

The 26th roster spot would be used for the third catcher, while a pitcher would be swapped out for a fourth catcher. Not an extreme shift, especially since teams already go with three catchers on occasion with this very same makeup.

So you’ve got four catchers. The pitching staff is five starters and six relievers, with no designated closer.

Again, don’t take any details of this idea as a prediction or indication of what the Pirates might do. I literally have no clue. But I’ll be damned if I’m creating an idea where four catchers is a thing, but still committing to the idea of your best reliever only being used in the ninth inning when you’re up by three or fewer runs.

Catcher Qualifications

This idea prioritizes defense, game calling, and strong communication and work with pitchers. Offense is a bonus, and there are enough potential benefits stemming from this idea that you won’t even need to worry about a catcher’s batting average. This isn’t far removed from what Ben Cherington has been talking about for the Pirates’ actual plan.

Personal Catchers

Each starting pitcher would get their own catcher. The best catcher on the staff gets two starters, increasing his playing time to 65 starts in a season.

We currently call it a “battery,” but in reality it’s just “here’s the starting catcher and whoever is pitching tonight.” What if it was an actual battery pair that changed out completely every night? Here are the quick benefits:

**With fewer pitchers to work with, catchers have more time dedicated to developing the bat. So they might be more likely in this scenario to have a surprising offensive season, especially since they’re each only getting 200-300 plate appearances, tops.

**With a personal catcher, each starting pitcher can be paired with the best possible catcher specifically for him.

Since the plan is built around catchers who are good at working with pitchers, the pairing with the starter can be based on specific things about that starter’s approach. This is where we get back to forgetting everything you know about catching.

We just assume that every catcher is the same in certain ways. They all can catch a fastball, slider, curveball, changeup, cutter, splitter, and so on. They all move exactly the same while they’re blocking pitches. There’s no difference between Catcher A and Catcher B in any of these categories.

But what if there is a difference? What if Catcher A does better receiving and working with power pitchers, while Catcher B does better with finesse pitchers? You’d want Catcher A working with Mitch Keller and Catcher B working with Trevor Williams.

What if Catcher B does better blocking pitches in the dirt in front of him, while Catcher A does better moving side to side? You’d want the pitcher who spikes his 12-to-6 curveball to go with Catcher B, while the guy with the sweeping slider pitches to Catcher A.

Then there’s the more basic idea of one catcher being better than another at catching left-handed pitchers.

This is not far removed from what already exists. We have specialized catchers for knuckleball pitchers. That’s mostly because there are very few knuckleball pitchers who make the majors. But if every pitcher started throwing a knuckleball alongside his slider or curveball, you’d see every catcher learning how to catch the pitch.

I think we can agree that not every catcher would be equal in their skill catching a knuckleball. Some would be better than others. So why do we assume every catcher is the same with every other pitch, or every other pitching style? MLB teams have all of the raw data to find out how catchers compare in these areas. I wouldn’t be surprised if some front offices are already trying to find value in these types of match-ups.

This is the biggest potential bonus. Imagine the benefit every starting pitcher would receive with a personal catcher who is suited exactly for his pitching style.

I’d say that you could then expand this idea to the pitching coaches, and have each starting battery get a pitching coach who is customized to the starter’s pitching style, but I don’t want to get even more out in the weeds than I already am.

Relief Catchers

We already know the benefits of having relief pitchers. We know the benefits of starters going less than nine innings every start. Those same benefits could exist with the catching position.

This idea would also require that catchers leave the game after 6-7 innings max, unless their starter is going longer. Like any starting pitcher, the catcher can be changed out earlier if needed.

Once the starting catcher leaves the game, the manager has two more catchers to either play match-ups at key points in the game (imagine bringing in a caught stealing specialist to counter the opposing team’s pinch runner), or to simply finish out the game with the best available catcher. This still preserves one remaining catcher for emergency purposes.

No catcher would catch more than two days in a row. No one would start after catching the day before. Here is how it would work out with the current projected Pirates rotation:

  1. Chris Archer – Luke Maile / Catcher 4 in relief
  2. Joe Musgrove – Jacob Stallings / Catcher 3
  3. Mitch Keller – Luke Maile / Catcher 3
  4. Trevor Williams – Catcher 4 / Jacob Stallings
  5. Steven Brault – Catcher 3 / Jacob Stallings

Under this, the top three catchers would catch just under 400 innings each, while the fourth catcher would catch just under 300 innings.

To put that in perspective, Jacob Stallings caught 595 innings last year between Triple-A and the majors. He was also catching full games, and back-to-back full games. No catcher would get close to catching a single complete game, unless their starter took them there.

Tapping Into a Market Inefficiency

This idea would create a catching staff with the equivalent of four strong defensive backups who have shown some potential with the bat. Any offensive production is a bonus.

The catchers see a reduced workload, both in terms of the individual game workload and their season workload. This could help to reduce injuries and fatigue, keeping performance levels higher and more consistent.

The catchers would have more time to focus on their offense with fewer pitchers to work with. The combination of a smaller sample size and less fatigue could give them a better chance to see that bonus production on the other side of the ball.

The starting pitchers would benefit by having personal catchers tailored to their style of pitching, and a stronger working relationship with the catcher.

And since it’s much easier to get backup types of catchers, you can have 12-16 catchers for the majors and the top two levels of the minors, giving plenty of depth options in the system. And you could do all of that for a fraction of what a top free agent catcher would cost, giving more resources to other areas on the team.

The New Way to Get Star Production?

Every team wants Yasmani Grandal, Yadier Molina, or Buster Posey. More specifically, they want their production, regardless of whether it comes from one player or four.

If you’re a big market team, you have a shot at those guys by spending money or trading top prospects that you can afford to part with.

If you’re a small market team, you either need to develop those guys, or pay more in money or prospects than a small market team can comfortably afford. Even then, the odds of getting a catcher who is both above-average offensively and defensively aren’t good.

So maybe you try to gain the next edge in the game by completely blowing up the traditional catching position, similar to what teams like the Rays have already done on the pitching side with the traditional starting rotation and bullpen.

I can’t stress this enough: The Pirates would have nothing to lose trying something like this. They are in a very unique position to make this type of drastic switch. They’re not expected to win in 2020. They have no one with expectations to be a starter, either now or in the future. They would benefit more than any other team right now in blowing up the entire catching position and doing something innovative with their approach.

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