Today, the Cincinnati Reds have agreed to sign Brayan Pena to a two year contract. Brayan Pena is a generic replacement level catcher, so you probably don’t care too much about him. You might care about Ryan Hanigan, however, since you’re reading FanGraphs. Because Hanigan is something of a sabermetric darling, and now he’s being cast aside in favor of a player who seems demonstrably worse.
For the Reds, this probably has less to do with Hanigan and more to do with Devin Mesoraco, who looks to be the team’s regular starting catcher in 2014 after today’s news. Pena fits the prototypical backup role, and now the team can attempt to use Hanigan as trade bait. And, given his skills and the amount of teams looking for a catcher this winter, they should have no shortage of suitors.
Let’s be clear: Hanigan did indeed have a dreadful 2013 season. He had two trips to the disabled list (his first trips to the DL since 2010), dealing with a strained oblique in April and a sprained wrist in July. When Hanigan was available to play, he simply did not hit, and finished 2013 with a .198/.306/.261 (53 wRC+) line for the season.
Even for a good defensive catcher, a 53 wRC+ does not cut it. Hanigan projects to make a little over $2 million if he goes to arbitration. Given that the Reds see Mesoraco as their catcher of the present and future, moving Hanigan is somewhat understandable.
Of course, it is not clear that Pena is an upgrade over Hanigan. Pena hit decently for a catcher in 2013 (.297/.315/.397, 93 wRC+), and though his reputation as a defender is poor, as a backup it will not necessarily kill a team. Pena actually has some pretty good numbers according to one measure of pitch framing. Pena is a switch-hitter who hits better as a lefty, and could complement the right-handed hitting Mesoraco in that way. He also has a reputation as an affable player and good teammate willing to accept a backup role, and that should not be ignored.
Despite all of this, outside of his 2009 season with the Royals (94 wRC+), 2013 is the only year he has hit decently, as Pena sported 75, 68, and 54 wRC+s each season from 2010 to 2012 in limited playing time. Ability to hit righties in a platoon situation is not enough to make him a big asset. Pena is a workable backup catcher, but not much more. The Reds might be saving a little money in 2014 by opting for Pena over Hanigan, but it probably is not much more than a million dollars given Pena’s likely salary (the precise numbers for Pena’s deal are not available as of this writing).
Meanwhile, Hanigan has a well-founded reputation as a good defender. He usually rates as above-average, and despite limited playing time in 2012, Hanigan ranked among the best defensive catchers in baseball according to multiple metrics. Those metrics do not include his pitch framing value, which still ranked near the top this past year. His 2011 and 2012 pitch framing rankings were also among the best in baseball as well, and Hanigan seems to understand that he has this skill.
However one measures it, Hanigan’s defensive skills are not really a huge question, with the natural caveat that there are parts of catcher defense that we cannot measure. Nor, as we have seen, does this seem to be an issue of money. The real question is his bat, which almost totally collapsed this season. Steamer projects a rebound to .254/.346/.344 (89 wRC+) for Hanigan in 2014, which is just fine for a good defensive catcher, but let’s look a bit more closely to see why there is reason for a bit of optimism for a bounceback.
Going season-by-season with Hanigan’s numbers is a bit dicey, since he never has had a full season of plate appearances — he had 371 in 2012, and that was the most of his career by far. His 304 in 2011 was the only other time he has has more than 300 in one season. With that sample size caution noted, we do need to compare a bit to see if there is any particularly troubling change in 2013 in the peripherals. If we break things to into more precise units, we find that the peripherals indicative or true talent over small samples for Hanigan are pretty much the same in 2013 as in previous seasons. His strikeout rate is still low (is has been about 12 percent for the past three seasons) due to his excellent contact rate (over 90 percent, as it has been for his career. Hanigan’s 2013 power numbers (.063 ISO) are poor, and have been on the decline for a few years, but a .063 ISO is actually the same as 2012, and power is not really a major part of Hanigan’s (limited) offensive game, anyway, which is primarily about taking walks and making contact.
Hanigan has always had good walk rates to go with good strikeout rates. It has been (correctly) pointed out that Hanigan’s walk rates are inflated because he has spent much time hitting in front of the pitcher than thus gets more than his share of intentional walks. Still, even when the intentional walks are removed, Hanigan fares pretty well. He had double-digit unintentional walk rates from 2009 to 2011, and though his unintentional walk rate dropped to about a bit under nine percent in 2012 (when he offense was sufficient overall), in 2013 , his unintentional walk rate was still over eight percent — practically the same given the sample. Hanigan might be getting some “intentional unintentional walks” given his place in the batting order, but we are not talking about Barry Bonds here.
The real statistical culprit in Hanigan’s 2013 disaster at the plate was our old friend BABIP. Hanigan managed to hit just .216 on balls in play in 2013. Hanigan is a slow, right-handed hitter, so a low BABIP is not that shocking, but there are not too many true-talent .216 BABIP hitters in the majors. For his career, including 2013, he has a .283 BABIP, which is right in line with the .285 BABIP he put up in 2011 when he managed a 100 wRC+. Of course, he hit for a little more power back then, but even with less power, he would have hit well enough to be a decent catcher given his glove. Batted ball data is far from perfect, but it does present us with something that might be telling in Hanigan’s case: he hit about his career rate of fly balls in 2013, but more of them were infield flies. Pop ups will drive down a batter’s BABIP, and that may have been one factor in Hanigan’s trouble at the plate this season. It should not be exaggerated, though, even for the present or future. There is a correlation year-to-year, but that does not mean past years should be ignored, and it is not on the level of say, contact and walk rates.
The elephant in the room, of course, is Hanigan’s wrist injury. As we have seen, outside of his BABIP, most of his 2012 and 2013 peripherals are practically the same. Could the wrist injury have caused problems? Sure, but it is difficult to pinpoint. I am not doctor or trainer, so will not make any grandiose claims here, but just look at the numbers. It would make sense that there would be issues. Hanigan came off of the DL for his wrist injury on August 9. In August, he actually had a good month: .290/.450/.323 (115 wRC+, and wOBA/wRC+ does not include intentional walks). In September, though, things fell apart: .152/.235/.174. In both months, Hanigan’s power seemed to be gone: .032 and .022 ISO respectively. Maybe the wrist had something to do with it, I do not know.
It is far from clear how we should interpret this. For one thing, he had 40 plate appearances in August and 52 in September: those samples by themselves are basically nothing as in terms of statistical significance. It could be the injury or something else, but it could be just noise. Moreover, even if the wrist did hurt his offense last year, is that good or bad news? This is one for the doctors, and again, I am not one. I will simply present two possible options. The positive spin would be that the wrist did hurt his power output and ability to drive balls in play last year, and with an off-season of rest and healing he will bounce back in 2014. The negative spin would be that the wrist injury and age are dragging Hanigan down anyway, and given the rigors of his position, the wear and tear are going to continue to worsen his offensive output, even if not quite to the extent of 2013.
The Reds obviously know Hanigan and his physical condition better than anyone else, an important factor to consider. Still, we can pretty much say that about any player. Strictly from the simple statistical examination, while Hanigan is 33 and is clearly in decline on offense, he seems likely to bounce back to something closer to his 2012 performance on offense. Combined with his excellent skills behind the plate, he seems to be at worst a very good backup, and might even be worthy of starting for some teams if his workload was attenuated by another decent catcher. Brayan Pena (full confession: Pena is a personal favorite of mine) may represent a small cost savings, but unless something much worse than obvious is going on with Hanigan, is not nearly the same caliber of player. Even Pena’s offense is not clearly better if we take past history into account.
The Reds, of course, probably will try to trade Hanigan now, and given his skills, he does have some value. In fact, given his place as a sabermetric poster boy, it would not be at all surprising to see nearly the entirety of the American League East competing to acquire his services. The Rays, Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Yankees are all looking for a catcher this winter, and Hanigan’s skillset is tailor made for a team that emphasizes walks and values defense from the position. Toss in the Phillies (if Carlos Ruiz leaves) and a host of other teams who could use at least a part-time catcher, and Hanigan is likely to be in heavy demand.
Perhaps this was the plan all along. Maybe the Reds anticipated that Hanigan would incite a mini-bidding war among the nerdy teams, and they’ll use him to upgrade another hole of their roster that Mesoraco couldn’t fill. That would actually make sense. If they’re just dumping Hanigan because they think Brayan Pena is better, well, that’s weird.
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