A Strategy For Deploying Baseball’s Best Backup Catcher

It wasn’t that long ago that the Pittsburgh Pirates were a laughingstock. They experienced two decades of losing seasons from 1993 to 2012, but getting that proverbial monkey off their backs in 2013 didn’t exactly free them from the pain baseball can inflict.

In fact, the Pirates found a way to be simultaneously great and depressing. They’ve hosted three consecutive wild-card games, winning the first one and losing the last two. Not only have they failed to advance past the Division Series despite averaging over 93 wins a year, they have had to endure the madness of the coin-flip game three times in a row. Needless to say, the Pirates and their fans desperately crave a longer October stay in 2016.

To do that, they’ll either have to be better than the powerhouse Cubs or they will have to secure a wild-card spot and win a one-game playoff. The Pirates are perhaps the team at the steepest spot on the win curve because the best team in baseball is in their division, they’re projected to be competing among a tightly bunched group of contenders, and the indignity of another wild-card defeat might be too much to handle. 

However you wish to imagine it, the Pirates are a good team in a tough division and they don’t seem to have the financial muscle needed to spend their way to the top. In order to be successful, the need to find ways to squeeze every last drop of value out of their roster to push them from back-to-back one-and-dones to a team that challenges for a title.

One thing the Pirates have a lot of — aside from talented outfielders — is catcher defense. The Pirates have so much catcher defense it’s spilling out of their sandwiches like french fries. 

Good-fielding catchers have been something of a special interest of the Pirates over recent years, starting with Russell Martin, then moving to Francisco Cervelli, and finally Chris Stewart. Essentially, if you’re a Yankees catcher with a good glove, you might want to look into real estate in western Pennsylvania before too long.

The club currently features Cervelli and Stewart, the former being a breakout star and the latter being a glove first backup. There’s no question that Cervelli is the better player, but there is also no question that Stewart is a premier defensive catcher. His framing numbers at Baseball Prospectus are outstanding and his arm is among the best in the league. Since 2011, he’s averaged about +25 framing runs per 7,000 chances using the BP model, including +19 per 7,000 chances in 2015. Statcast tracked 1,784 throws to second in 2015 and Stewart’s 1.876 average pop time trailed only J.T. Realmuto (1.867). Cervelli, to his credit, is no slouch either. His 1.968 average pop time was above average and only Yasmani Grandal saved more total runs through framing than Cervelli in 2015.

pirates catchers

One downside to having two great defensive catchers is that you can only utilize one of them at a time. Granted, a good backup will catch 40 games, but it’s not comparable for a team to having a second great starter or a third elite hitter. Cervelli and Stewart  have an elite ability that they can’t stack. The club will always have a good framer behind the plate, but it does seem like they aren’t getting the most out of Stewart when he’s only catching 400 innings a year.

Given the Pirates desire to get over that last little obstacle, it makes sense that they should try anything and everything to pad their win total, and I have an idea for how that can leverage their unique asset toward that aim.

It goes like this. Cervelli starts most games like you would expect. Let’s say the split will be 122/40, obviously acknowledging injuries could derail us all. During those 122 starts, however, Chris Stewart serves as a late-inning defensive replacement. After John Jaso, the presumed first baseman, bats for the third or fourth time (depending on the inning), Cervelli moves to first and Stewart slides in to catch. You can include Mike Morse interchangeably if you like, but I’ll stick with Jaso for simplicity.

This does a number of things. First, it maintains or improves the quality of catcher defense. Both players are elite framers and Stewart seems to be a better thrower given the data we have available to us. Second, this plan keeps Jaso fresher by leaning on him less. He’s never had a full season of reps and has a long enough injury history that you want to be extra careful. Third, the Stewart Swap saves some wear and tear on the valuable Cervelli without losing Cervelli’s bat, and without taking a catcher off the field and risking every manager’s nightmare — a catcher injury with no backup.

The downside is the drop off from Jaso to Stewart with the bat. This might seem significant given Jaso’s superior history and projection, but consider that the swap would be timed to occur so that few PA are affected. Remember also that Jaso is a hitter vulnerable to a late-inning LOOGY. In his career, Jaso has a 127 wRC+ versus righties and a 64 wRC+ versus lefties.

I don’t mean to argue that Stewart would project comparably, just that the difference between the two late in games is lower than it is overall because Jaso is someone who seems to have an extreme platoon split which teams are liable to attack with relief specialists. On top of that, this system still allows the Pirates to pinch hit for Stewart if he comes up in a big spot after the swap because Cervelli remains in the game and can move back behind the plate if it comes to that. If you need a catcher, you have one.

I don’t mean to suggest there is no offensive cost, but it does seem to be a small one. You’re risking a small amount of offensive value over a small number of PA, but the ability to pull him back out of the game mitigates that a bit.

The benefits seems meaningful, if not easily estimated. The plan would presumably save Jaso’s body, which would presumably increase his productivity and decrease the odds of time missed with injury. The same is true for Cervelli. Even if he isn’t getting a full break, less catching seems to provide some benefit to player health. This is why the Giants use Buster Posey at first base. His bat is excellent but catching too much would have consequences so they shift him to first for some degree of rest. The same principle applies here.

The fun part about this is that we have no idea if Cervelli can play first base. He has just 40 innings there in his career so it’s a complete unknown. But, the savvy reader knows we are equally as unsure about Jaso at first base given his five career innings at the position. We know the catcher defense would be stable under this plan, but we have to assume that Cervelli is roughly as good or better than Jaso for it to work. I think it’s a fair enough assumption to try such an experiment.

There are reasons why it might not work. Maybe catching fatigue is more about starts than innings and this won’t actually save Cervelli very much. Or perhaps Cervelli can’t play first well enough. Maybe frequently having no catchers in reserve will wear on Clint Hurdle’s nerves to the point that he loses the ability to make wise decisions.

But it also seems like an idea worth considering because it allows the club to get roughly the same set of skills on the field while potentially improving the durability of two players. I recognize it’s an unusual and elaborate plan designed to get more playing time for Chris Stewart, but the Pirates are known for their willingness to try things other teams haven’t. They were early adopters both of framing and shifting, so they are likely susceptible to other innovations as well.

The problem with great catchers is that the more you ask them to catch, the more likely it is that they will stop being great catchers. The Pirates have a big incentive to keep Cervelli healthy, and if they utilize the Stewart Swap in the late innings, they will be able to do that more effectively without sacrificing catcher defense, a key component of the club’s winning formula.



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Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs. He is also the Managing Editor at Beyond The Box Score and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.


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King Flops
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King Flops
3 months 25 days ago

I read this whole thing thinking it was about baseball’s best back-up catcher, but when I got the end Caleb Joseph wasn’t even mentioned.

TrevorCap
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TrevorCap
3 months 25 days ago

Josh Phegley and his 1.8 WAR beg to differ. This article should be called, “A Strategy for Deploying one of the Top-5 Backup Catchers and Probably the Best Backup Cather at Pitch Framing”

majnun
Member
majnun
3 months 25 days ago

I do something similar in a simulation league all the time. I feel like the risk of not having a backup catcher available is way overrated. Worst case, you have an emergency terrible catcher and you lose one game. Granted, in a simulation I don’t have to answer to the beat writers who would rake me over the coals. But is that the big difference?

Defensive replacements for catchers. Do it!

baycommuter
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baycommuter
3 months 25 days ago

No, worst case you lose an infielder who has no business catching for the rest of the season to a concussion or a play at the plate.

Jason G
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Jason G
3 months 24 days ago

This is why the strategy described in the article includes keeping Cervelli in the game at first base. If Stewart were to get hurt, Cervelli would go back behind the plate and someone else would play first.

Grant
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Grant
3 months 25 days ago

Resigning Sean Rodriguez probably puts this fun hypothetical to bed.

pitnick
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pitnick
3 months 24 days ago

Trading for Jason Rogers probably puts this hypothetical to bed. Rodriguez won’t be playing any first this year.

Jross
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Jross
3 months 24 days ago

SRod can be an emergency catcher. Rays broadcast use to always mention that.

Poor Mans Rick Reed
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Poor Mans Rick Reed
3 months 25 days ago

“I recognize it’s an unusual and elaborate plan designed to get more playing time for Chris Stewart…”

This is wonderful. I love Fangraphs in January.

Alice Cooper
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Alice Cooper
3 months 25 days ago

“…they’ll either have to be better than the powerhouse Cubs…”

*looks at 2015 standings*

*blinks*

Ohh wait, I forgot. They don’t mesh up with your magical projection system that they break every year. Just like the Nats were going to automatically win the World Series last year. I don’t even know why they bother playing the season…

Alice Cooper
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Alice Cooper
3 months 25 days ago

“the best team in baseball is in their division”

Did they move to the AL Central then? Or maybe the NL east? Last I checked there hasn’t been a game played this year. How can you call the Cubs “the best team in baseball”?

Maybe the better phrase would be “They share a division with the team we project for the most wins”

majnun
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majnun
3 months 25 days ago

Everyone knows what was meant by the phrase, including you, so just translate it in your head. Instead your wrote two consecutive comments whining about it, and I predict those weren’t your first or your last.

alang3131982
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Member
3 months 25 days ago

Or maybe if you polled baseball fans, writers and projection systems and the majority said teh Cubs were the best team in baseball right now then we can call them the best team in baseball…..

Tom Dooley
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Tom Dooley
3 months 25 days ago

I don’t understand what projections are or how they work and this makes me mad at other people.

jwpepa
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jwpepa
3 months 25 days ago

You can cancel your subscription to Fangraphs at any time and get your back.

LieutKaffee
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LieutKaffee
3 months 25 days ago

Austin Barnes is the best backup catcher.

zachbuccos
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zachbuccos
3 months 25 days ago

As a Pirates fan, it’s nice to see Stewart getting appreciation for being the excellent backup catcher he is. It was only a few years ago that our catching situation was a nightmare. We were starting Rod Barajas, for F-sake. Now we are pretty flush. We’ve got Cervelli for one more year, resigned Stewart for two (potentially three) more years and have both Elias Diaz and Reese McGuire in the pipeline.

One thing I will note from this. You mentioned that Stewart has a great arm. Objectively speaking, as someone who watches almost every Pirates game, I would maybe call it average.

Only glove, no love
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Only glove, no love
3 months 25 days ago

Pretty sure you mean the opposite of objective, namely subjective. Not saying you are wrong, just not objective.

zachbuccos
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zachbuccos
3 months 25 days ago

Oy. Yeah I caught that when I just reread it. Dumb ass mistake by me.

Sam Choung
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Sam Choung
3 months 24 days ago

“The Pirates have so much catcher defense it’s spilling out of their sandwiches like french fries.”

I swear to god I thought I was the only one that did that. Throw some crushed potato chips along with those fries and I’m in carb heaven

Spa City
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Spa City
3 months 24 days ago

100% of Pirate fans get the Primanti Bros reference. In Pittsburgh, fries are served on the sandwich… the way God intended.

Shirtless Bartolo Colon
Member
3 months 24 days ago

But will they ever put gravy on the fries, the way God intended?

Man I miss Montreal!

Only glove, no love
Member
Only glove, no love
3 months 24 days ago

MD’s Eatern Shore does fries like that… w the Old Bay of course.

TheEmbassy
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TheEmbassy
3 months 24 days ago

Yes. At the Potato Patch in Kennywood.

Jason Kendall
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Jason Kendall
3 months 23 days ago

Not only do fries cone on sandwiches, but most salads sport fries as well!

FinethanxandYou
Member
FinethanxandYou
3 months 24 days ago

Caleb Joseph is an excellent backup: so good he could legitimately start on 1/2 the teams in MLB.
He’s a clean player with fast and accurate arm and one of the best framing abilities in all MLB.
Next time you want to play with Back-Ups, include Caleb

Dave T
Member
Dave T
3 months 24 days ago

Interesting thought, but this idea seems overly convoluted.

As for the view that Cervelli’s defense at 1B will be as good as Jaso’s, that strikes me as over-optimistic and unlikely. Why? Because it ignores that, whatever their respective histories, Jaso will almost certainly be devoting a lot of time to practicing the position both before and during this season, plus of course gaining experience as he plays there.

I don’t imagine that Cervelli – who is already shouldering the game preparation workload of a starting catcher – has the time to go out and take a bunch of infield practice before every game. And that’s what he’s going to need to do to be a serviceable 1B. Having him take on that extra work every day also is counterproductive if part of the goal here is to get Cervelli more rest.

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