White Sox Beef Up at Catcher

Welington Castillo is no stranger to home runs.
(Photo: Keith Allison)

It’s been a veritable desert for baseball transactions this offseason, and there may not be an oasis on the horizon, as teams dance on the line between spending efficiency and collusion. But we’re starting to get metaphorical trickles of water here and there. One came over the weekend, as catcher Welington Castillo agreed to sign with the White Sox.

When Dave wrote up his top-50 free-agents piece, he ranked Castillo 48th, which was actually good for third best among catchers. (Jonathan Lucroy ranked 23rd,
Alex Avila ranked 43rd.) Nevertheless, Cameron was also a bit mystified as to who would actually sign Castillo:

I just can’t figure out who is going to be interested in a decent-bat/bad-glove catcher who turns 31 next year. I have him getting $20 million because catchers who can hit are still somewhat scarce, but if you asked me who was going to give it to him, I wouldn’t have an answer for you.

Enter the perpetually unpredictable White Sox. The White Sox aren’t expected to be contenders this season — and maybe not next season, either — though there’s certainly precedent for teams jumping the line if their young prospects mature quicker than anticipated. And if there’s one thing the White Sox have in abundance, it’s young prospects.

Some of those prospects/phenoms — like Eloy Jimenez and Yoan Moncada — are viewed as sure things, or at least players with very high floors. That’s not necessarily the case with their pitching prospects. Dylan Cease, Lucas Giolito, Alec Hansen, Michael Kopech, and Reynaldo Lopez all come with big talent but also some big questions. White Sox general manager Rick Hahn thinks Castillo will help them. “We think he’ll make an impact on both our young pitchers and our young catchers,” Hahn told MLB.com. Later in that piece by Rhett Bollinger, we find this excerpt:

Hahn also said he believes Castillo has improved defensively as a catcher, as the knock on Castillo early in his career was he struggled with pitch framing. But Castillo said it remains a point of emphasis for him to improve, and he’s asked backstops such as Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina for advice.

“This last year with Baltimore he continued to make progress in that area,” Hahn said. “It says a lot about his work ethic and character.”

Hahn, as you might suspect, is on to something here. Let’s look at Castillo’s framing numbers, courtesy of Baseball Prospectus (FRAA denotes fielding run above average):

Welington Castillo, BP Catching Metrics
Year Framing Chances CSAA Framing Runs Throwing Runs FRAA Adj. FRAA
2010 398 -0.017 -0.9 0.0 -1.5 -1.4
2011 259 -0.036 -1.2 0.0 -1.3 -1.4
2012 3,262 -0.009 -3.7 -0.3 -3.1 -4.5
2013 7,026 -0.020 -19.4 0.9 -16.5 -16.1
2014 6,661 -0.016 -14.2 1.0 -11.7 -11.1
2015 5,486 -0.014 -10.1 0.0 -8.3 -8.3
2016 6,886 -0.010 -9.4 3.1 -7.8 -10.3
2017 5,977 0.004 3.7 3.1 7.9 7.4
SOURCE: Baseball Prospectus

After seven seasons (four of which were full seasons) of being pretty bad at framing, Castillo suddenly got better at it in 2017. Is that a lasting change? Only time will tell. But pair the quote with the data and it becomes pretty clear that Hahn thinks it will. The throwing runs had actually taken a turn for the better in 2016. After recording caught-stealing percentages of 25%, 29%, 33% and 25% from 2012 to 15, Castillo upped it to 38% in 2016 and then 49% last season. That 49% mark led the majors by a decent margin, as Tucker Barnhart came in second at 43.8%.

Whether this defensive improvement sticks, certainly no one can have a beef with Castillo’s offensive prowess. Over the past three seasons, he’s one of nine catchers who have posted a .190-plus ISO (minimum 500 plate appearances). In that time, he’s posted a 100 wRC+. Since he became a regular catcher in 2013, he’s posted a 101 wRC+. Since that 2013 season, he’s been the sixth-best catcher in the game by WAR:

Catching Leaders, 2013-2017
Name PA WAR
Buster Posey 3,005 24.0
Jonathan Lucroy 2,675 16.5
Russell Martin 2,373 16.2
Yadier Molina 2,640 14.3
Salvador Perez 2,730 12.6
Welington Castillo 2,045 11.2
Brian McCann 2,366 11.1
Jason Castro 2,161 10.2
Yan Gomes 1,876 9.6
Yasmani Grandal 1,916 9.2

As you can see here, Castillo certainly hasn’t been a star, but once you get past the very small first class, Castillo is right there in that second tier. Now, as Dave mentioned, he’s about to turn 31, so maybe you wouldn’t expect him to keep this production up, but Steamer is reasonably confident. Over 90 games, he’s forecast to be a two-win player. This ranks in the middle of the pack, but 0.1 WAR separates 11th and 15th place, so it’s all relative.

From the White Sox’ end, it’s almost a negligible investment. In the macro sense, even with Castillo, their Opening Day payroll may be $30 million south of what it was last year, and roughly $50 million shy of where it had been the two seasons prior. MLB may not have a hard payroll floor, but the Players Association has been known to raise a stink in the past when teams failed to reach a certain payroll level. The White Sox probably needed to spend some money on someone.

In a micro sense, the Castillo contract carries very little downside. Contract crowdsourcing data produced a $24 million average and $18 million mediate estimate for Castillo. Cameron himself predicted $20 million. At two years and $15 million, the White Sox got Castillo for less than all three. If he’s a 1 WAR player — a bar he’s cleared in six consecutive seasons — then the White Sox can’t go wrong. And if he turns out to be really good, that $8 million club option for 2020 will be a pittance.

Welington Castillo is certainly not a star, but he’s a solid catcher, and paired with Omar Narvaez, the White Sox suddenly have the 11th-best projected catching corps in the majors. Castillo has sneakily been one of the steadiest and most productive catchers since he started receiving regular playing time, and if his catching improvement from last season is real, he could be an asset helping handle the team’s young pitchers. For his part, he seems excited about that role. Swimming in the free-agent waters can be dangerous, but this isn’t the kind of deal a team ends up regretting. Either way, it’s nice to finally a trickle of real player acquisitions.

We hoped you liked reading White Sox Beef Up at Catcher by Paul Swydan!

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

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John W.
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John W.

Best titled post ever.

Brad
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Brad

Please don’t encourage puns

thestatbook
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thestatbook

So you’re saying you want to PUNish Paul for the title?

Oneear
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Oneear

You realize “Beef” was his nickname with the Cubs, so don’t give Paul too much credit.