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State of the position: Nick Hundley and Michael McKenry to hold down the fort in 2015

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The first of Purple Row's 2015 State of the Position series examines what the position might look like at the beginning and end of 2015.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, Wilin Rosario was the incumbent catcher because Brian McCann and Carlos Ruiz spurned the Rockies’ advances. After another well below average defensive season accompanied by an offensive decline for Rosario, the Rockies courted another backstop. This time, they got one. Nick Hundley joins Michael McKenry, who emerged as a legitimate catching option in 2014, as the clear one and two on the Rockies’ depth chart. With Rosario still on the roster, the Rockies just might begin the season with two and a half catchers.

The starter(s)

The Rockies signed Hundley for two years and six million dollars in December. It’s unlikely that they did so for him to be a backup. Likewise, it’s not likely that Hundley had any intention to reaffirm the "backup" label he was stuck with in San Diego before becoming a free agent again prior to his age 33 season. All things considered, I’d bed that Hundley will be calling pitches when the season opens on April 6. And yet, it’s not clear that he’s a big upgrade from Michael McKenry.

Hundley doesn’t bring much with the bat. He has a career slash line of .238/.294/.386, and a wRC+ of 88 over seven big league seasons. He served as the primary catcher for the San Diego Padres in 2013, but that was due to Yasmani Grandal’s PED suspension and torn ACL. In 114 games and 408 plate appearances, Hundley made good on his career batting line, producing a 90 wRC+ alongside .233/.290/.389 triple slash. After starting the season in San Diego and finishing it in Baltimore following a late May trade, 2014 was a down with the bat season for Hundley. He hit for less power than he ever had, seeing his slugging percentage dip to .358. To boot, his strikeout percentage went up and his walk rate went down in 2014. And that was for someone who never had good plate discipline. He’ll get his Coors Field boost on offense, but he’s going to remain a below-average hitter.

But the Rockies didn’t sign Hundley for his bat. The Rockies needed to improve their catcher defense. First, the unquantifiable: Hundley is considered good at handling a pitching staff and calling games. Because this is a skill without a clear reference point to prove or disprove it, I can’t say for sure that this is something the Rockies lacked with Wilin Rosario. It did seem that way, though. That is a plus. Another plus is that Hundley is a defensive upgrade for the quantifiable things: throwing out runners, pitch blocking, and pitch framing.

But for all of the upgrade he brings, Hundley still ranges from below to just above average in those skills. The 2012 season was the last one in which Hundley was firmly above average at throwing out runners. He had a 32 percent caught stealing rate, comfortably above the league average of 28 percent. Then he was about average in 2013, as his rate fell to 26 percent. And then it plummeted to 14 percent in 2014. As far as balls in the dirt go, Baseball Prospectus rates Hundley as above average at saving wild pitches and passed balls. In 2012 and 2013, they estimated that he ranked No. 13 and No. 6 among all catchers in that category. There is a however, however; Baseball Prospectus also estimates that he gave back the runs he saved with poor pitch framing. They do think that he had one plus framing season though, and that was 2014. Pitch framing is a skill with a downward aging curve, but Hundley is still just 31, so he could have improved his framing skills.

If pitch framing can noticeably improve in a single offseason, it might manifest elsewhere on the roster. "This offseason," Michael McKenry told Ryan Hammon of Rockies Zingers in October, "[pitch framing] is going to be my focus." If McKenry, who is headed into his age 30 season, can improve his pitch framing ability and sustain a portion of his offensive output from 2014, then he should probably sit atop the catching depth chart—and this despite his mediocre to below average pitch blocking and caught stealing percentage. Receiving is the most important defensive attribute of a catcher. It’s reassuring that McKenry should have help in this department. Member of the Rockies’ player development staff and catching instructor Jerry Weinstein recently told David Laurila of FanGraphs that framing is an emphasis of the organization’s catcher development. That might have a greater role in shaping the on the farm guys than it does for McKenry, but it’s reassuring to know that McKenry has support in his pursuit of improving pitch framing. We just have to see if the work pays off with noticeable improvement.

McKenry excelled with the bat in 2014, and though his peripherals suggest that he will regress, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to turn into a punchless pumpkin. In Hammon’s excellent profile of McKenry from October, Ryan dwelled on what contributed to McKenry’s offensive output. McKenry finished the season with a .315/.398/.512 line. He did so, however, in just 192 plate appearances. Not only that, but his on-base ability rested on a .381 batting average on balls in play, while his power rested on an 18 percent home run to fly ball ratio. He’s not going to repeat those numbers. And yet, his 2014 numbers aren’t easily dismissed.

While McKenry finished the season with groundball rate that fit his career norms, his line drive rate went up while his fly ball rate went down. What we can hope for is that he did this mostly on purpose, which would indicate that his power numbers will decrease more than his on base numbers in 2015. In other words, his Edwin Encarnacion-esque home run to fly ball ratio will dip partly because he’s hitting fewer fly balls and his on base percentage will also decrease, but not as much because of the line drives. I’m confident they’ll both decrease; the question is, just how much? Either way, the result just might be an average-hitting catcher. For someone who began the 2014 season behind Jordan Pacheco on the depth chart, we have to be pleased with that result.

It’s best to see Hundley and McKenry as catchers 1A and 1B. They have different strengths and similar flaws. Barring injury, expect both to start at least 75 games behind the dish in 2015.

MLB-quality depth

Wilin Rosario is now the Rockies’ catcher of the future of the past. Rosario’s troubles behind the plate are well documented. As of this writing, he’s still a member of the Colorado Rockies, but that might not be the case for very long. As it stands, Rosario will probably get most of his plate appearances as a first baseman or right fielder. In the event of injury, he can serve as an emergency catcher. But even then it will probably be only for a very limited time, as there are farmhands who might be better suited to fill in for Hundley or McKenry if either goes down. His role on the team remains unclear—besides the likelihood that the Rockies are only going to ask him to don catcher gear if they absolutely have to, that is.

On the farm

If either Hundley or McKenry get injured early in the season, it’s possible that the Rockies would select the contract of Dustin Garneau to fill in rather than go to Rosario. Garneau split time between Double A-Tulsa and Triple-A Colorado Springs in 2014. He hit a respectable .270/.363/.383 in Tulsa, but he struggled to adjust in Colorado Springs, where he hit just .216/.297/.405. Garneau does bring above-average defense though, especially as a receiver. While his hollow bat will keep him from ever being a big league regular, he appears to be the team’s first emergency option in 2015.

If either Hundley or McKenry get injured late in the season, the Rockies might go to the top catching prospect in the system, Tom Murphy. Murphy had a lost 2014 due to injury, which has significantly dulled his prospect shine. While Kiley McDaniel of FanGraphs still likes his chances to become a major league contributor, Nick Faleris of Baseball Prospectus needs to be convinced that the he can overcome the shoulder issues that kept him off the field in 2014. It does appear that Murphy can stick at catcher if healthy, even though it looks like he’ll bring more value with the bat. He’ll begin the year in the upper minors, and if he can hold his own there, we’ll probably see him in September. If the injury bug makes its way to one of the Rockies’ primary catchers after the All-Star Break, we might see him in August.

While it seems that Murphy will remain a catcher, that isn’t true for Ryan Casteel. In Double-A Tulsa and the Arizona Fall League, Casteel played as a catcher, a first baseman, and a designated hitter. It’s still possible that he sticks behind the plate, but he’s also firmly behind Tom Murphy as a catching prospect. At the lower levels, the Rockies have Dom Nunez, Hamlet Marte, and Wilfredo Rodriguez as catching projects. Each is far away from making the Show, but Nunez and Marte in particular might begin climbing prospect rankings if they can make good showings above Rookie ball in 2015.

Who’s available in the event of a catastrophe?

Unless the Rockies quickly need two major league catchers, don’t expect them to go outside of the organization during the season. That is especially true if Rosario is still on the roster. If either Hundley or McKenry go down, Garneau should serve as a sufficient backup. If Rosario is still on the roster, he’s an option too. The free-agent market is dry. Gerald Laird was the best available catcher market until Arizona signed him. Jose Molina, who turns 40 in June, is also available if things get really bad. Any emergency catcher will probably just be a bridge to Tom Murphy late in the season.

Depending on how well McKenry performs this season, Murphy’s presence might set up a three-man competition for playing time in 2016.