Earlier in the offseason, it seemed absurd to think the Yankees wouldn’t acquire an established veteran catcher. Or re-acquire, if we’re speaking about Russell Martin. The Yankees are the Yankees, and even a fiscally restrained version of the Yankees is less fiscally restrained than almost everyone else. The Yankees, in theory, had the resources to get a catcher, and the Yankees, in reality, appeared to have a need at the position. And the Yankees always plan to contend, so addressing needs is sort of a thing.
Martin left, for a very reasonable contract with the Pirates. Other options have turned into non-options. The Yankees could still get a backstop, in that offseason time remains, but now they seem content to run with Francisco Cervelli, Austin Romine, and Chris Stewart. No one’s been promised a job, but this is the situation staring the Yankees in the face. These have been the in-house options all along, and the Yankees, to date, have been okay with them.
In December, Mike Axisa ran a poll asking Yankees fans who they’d like to see as the starting catcher in 2013. Out of those options, I mean, and also then including Eli Whiteside. Romine was the big winner, followed by Cervelli, followed by Stewart, followed by Whiteside. Stewart received just under 6% of the nearly 3,000 votes. The rest of this post is basically about him.
Stewart seems primed to get an awful lot of playing time. Cervelli has struggled with injuries, and last year as a Yankee he batted all of two times. Romine has 20 big-league plate appearances, and has hardly set the minors on fire. Stewart’s been a dependable backup for two years in a row, first with the Giants and then with the Yankees, and the Yankees are quite openly fond of his defense. They have to be to justify his roster spot — you don’t justify Chris Stewart on his offense — but if the Yankees didn’t like what they had at least a little bit, they presumably would’ve done something.
You don’t know much about Chris Stewart, and that’s fine, because there hasn’t been a reason to. He’s a 30-year-old who’s almost a 31-year-old and he’s batted fewer than 400 times in the bigs. Last April he was traded for George Kontos. That was before Kontos actually pitched well. But to understand Chris Stewart is to understand a division rival of his. A year ago, the Rays signed the old and underwhelming Jose Molina to be a regular catcher. They liked him enough to pick up his second-year option. Stewart and Molina are cut from similar cloth.
Let’s do this somewhat quickly and somewhat painlessly. Stewart’s got a career 59 wRC+ in limited plate appearances, but his minor-league track record doesn’t hint at big things to come. The Bill James projections see a .280 wOBA in 2013; the Bill James projections are routinely optimistic. Molina’s got a career 68 wRC+ in many more plate appearances. Now he’s 37. The Bill James projections see a .270 wOBA. I don’t think it’s fair to say that Stewart or Molina suck at hitting, but they do suck at hitting compared to other hitters at their level. They are offensive problems.
And, of course, don’t look for them to contribute with their baserunning. Stewart is a catcher. Molina is an even older, bigger catcher, who is one of the Molinas. Stewart’s the better runner, but then I think the same could be said of my desk. Moving on.
Stewart is praised for his defense, just as Molina is praised for his defense, just as most catchers who can’t hit are praised for their defense. Stewart, over his career, has thrown out 34% of would-be base-stealers, which is good. Molina has thrown out 39% of would-be base-stealers, which is even better, because 39 is bigger than 34. Molina has excellent reactions and an excellent arm, and Stewart is no liability himself.
When it comes to pitch blocking, we can pull numbers from the FanGraphs player pages, and Stewart’s been a little above average. Molina’s been a little below average. We’re talking about just a few runs in either direction from zero, and there could be noise in the data, but there you go. That’s a factor, too.
And now we get to the heart of this. Used to be, when you talked about Jose Molina, you were talking about a bad hitter who still always had a job. Now you can’t talk about Jose Molina on the Internet without talking about pitch framing. I feel like I don’t even need to provide for you a reference link because you know what I’m talking about. Molina has drawn a lot of attention for turning balls into strikes as an expert receiver. I think it was Mike Fast who first shed light on this, and since then we’ve seen more evidence, both statistical and visual. The Rays have talked about Molina’s framing, and it’s probably the biggest reason why they signed him. Molina saves runs with his catching, and saved runs are value, and we care most about a player’s overall value to his team.
I’m going to be leaning here on research by Matthew Carruth. Since 2007, by PITCHf/x, Molina has caught nearly 26,000 pitches that weren’t swung at. By location, he’s caught 917 more strikes than you’d expect, or about 36 more strikes per 1,000 called pitches. Since 2010, Molina has caught about 29 more strikes per 1,000 called pitches. This is a significant effect; every pitch matters, and these things add up.
Stewart has caught more than 8,000 called pitches, and by location, he’s caught 213 more strikes than you’d expect, or about 25 more strikes per 1,000 called pitches. Since 2010, Stewart has caught about 28 more strikes per 1,000 called pitches. This is also a significant effect, and it rates Stewart among the premier pitch-framers in the game. He’s comparable to Jose Molina, he’s comparable to Jonathan Lucroy, he’s comparable to Brian McCann. Here are .gifs, which prove nothing, but which break up the text:
Stewart’s sample size is limited, due to his limited playing time. That could be a source of error. The pitchers he’s caught could be a source of error, the umpires could be a source of error, the count distribution could be a source of error, and there are more potential sources of error still. From this, we can’t matter-of-factly conclude that Chris Stewart is one of baseball’s most valuable pitch-framing catchers.
But there’s strong evidence, making him a sort of Jose Molina approximation. If you believe that Molina is a good player for the Rays, you should be open to the idea of Stewart being a good player for the Yankees. One notes that the Rays were just 41-39 in Molina starts last year, which, okay, but that isn’t a very good evaluation tool. The Rays like Molina quite a bit. The Rays might also like Chris Stewart to a somewhat similar degree. Or dislike him, on account of he’s a rival of theirs.
We don’t know enough to say how much value Chris Stewart truly provides with his pitch receiving. We don’t know enough to say whether Stewart should get more playing time in 2013 than Cervelli or Romine, in the event the roster doesn’t change. What we have is reason to believe that Chris Stewart is better than the rest of his numbers would indicate. He might even be tremendously underrated, depending on your faith in the research. It’s something. And for a player with Chris Stewart’s other numbers, it’s really something.