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Tony Wolters didn’t provide an answer to the Rockies’ catcher questions

Where did the defense go?

Welcome to the 2017 edition of Ranking the Rockies, where we take a look back at the in-season contributions of every player to don the purple this past season. The goal wasn’t and isn’t to quibble with order. Instead, it’s to get a snapshot of a player along with a look forward. For that reason, we simply sorted by Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement (rWAR) and will start at the bottom and end up at the top.

No. 35 Tony Wolters (-0.4 rWAR)

What was the catching plan for the Colorado Rockies in 2017, might you ask? It involved a job share between potential power hitter Tom Murphy and ex-infielder turned defensive catching prodigy Tony Wolters. It seemed that having one guy who could possibly hit well in Murphy and one who could field well in Wolters, the combination would approximate an average major league catcher. In terms of rWAR, however, Murphy and Wolters combined for -0.8 rWAR, almost a full run below replacement. For comparison’s sake, Jonathan Lucroy was worth 0.9 rWAR in just his 46 games of work for the Rockies.

The thought process was sound. The Rockies had two young cost controlled catchers in Murphy and Wolters with reasons to believe both could perform. Setting up such a competition might even allow one of them to claim the role of every day catcher. But questions for both remained.

Wolters was a discovery, having joined the Rockies as a non-roster invitee before the 2016 season and winning a major league job with a stellar spring training offensively. Wolters did well that first year, worth 1.0 rWAR in 2016 thanks to a .723 OPS and top ten catcher framing metrics according to Baseball Prospectus. His catching prowess was significant enough that his name made the rounds in statistical articles. In analyzing Wolters, Russell Carleton wrote that a good framing catcher would get their pitchers into more advantageous counts, they could save their team 70 runs over the course of a year and that a bullpen would have to cover 20 less innings because of the additional outs generated. In Colorado, where pitching success can be hard to find and can get overworked when it is found, the potential for Wolters to shave some of that workload was intriguing. Wolters was also becoming a fan favorite, for his funny tweets and his Reddit AMA.

But it didn’t work out that way. Tony Wolters’ CSAA (Caught Strikes Above Average) dropped from .017 in 2016 to -.012 in 2017, a downturn in 16.1 framing runs, or a loss of almost a win and a half in terms of defensive value. Catcher framing metrics adjust for both the pitcher and the umpire, so this appeared to be some decline in skill. It was the first time in his major and minor league career that he was below average. He also had issues blocking pitches, as evidenced by the -0.5 Blocking Runs allowed compared to other catchers. Usually, catcher framing is a pretty stable metric so it is unclear if the change in technique came from coaching, injury or perhaps seasonal fatigue as the small-bodied Wolters adjusted to becoming a major league catcher. Either way, Wolters didn’t seem to be helping the Rockies pitching staff in 2017.

Though his defense got worse, Wolters’ bat held up pretty well in the early going. While he didn’t have much power, he had a .360/.407/.460 OPS through the end of April. Though he had a batting average of .225 in May and .270 in June, he traded many of those hits for walks, posting OBPs of .380 and .378 in May and June, respectively. But what little power he had completely disappeared. After getting just four extra base hits by April 30th, he had only three for all of June. After the first half was over with, his slash stats were .267/.358/.316, which is hard to stomach as a catcher and even moreso at Coors Field, especially with Wolters’s diminished defense.

It got worse from there. In July, right as the Rockies started really struggling on offense as the team fell out of first place, Wolters struck out 17 times in 55 plate appearances and hit just .122/.204/.163. He just wasn’t on base any more for Charlie Blackmon to drive in. At the trade deadline, the Rockies acquired the veteran Lucroy to increase their Wild Card chances. Lucroy received the bulk of the playing time for the rest of the year, while the Rockies sent Wolters to the minors at the beginning of August. He hit .259/.310/.500 in Albuquerque that month which was a promising sign and led to a return to the Rockies, where he closed out the year with a .616 OPS in September.

Now, Wolters had a career minor league OPS of .687 so any contributions with his bat would’ve been gravy assuming that his defense had remained stellar. But it didn’t. Further complicating an evaluation of Wolters was a concussion he received on May 2nd which sent him to the disabled list. Did his offense and defense get worse because he was hurt once he returned? Unfortunately, there isn’t a good answer for that.

Finding a potential major league catcher for the major league minimum salary is a feather in Jeff Bridich’s cap, especially for a player as atypical as Wolters. In the end, the idea that Murphy and Wolters could form a productive major league catching tandem was a good one, even if the results didn’t work out.

2018 Outlook

After Murphy’s disappointing 2017 performances at the major and minor league levels, the vanilla answer is that the Rockies will likely acquire (or in Lucroy’s case, retain) a veteran catcher and relegate Wolters to the backup role. If you’d like an answer with a little more flair, the idea I once hexed the Rockies with would be to carry three catchers, which would allow Wolters to be used in an Alexi Amarista-type role as a lefty pinch hitter, pinch-runner and defensive replacement in the infield, while freeing up pinch hitting and possible first base opportunities for Murphy. That’s assuming, of course, that Murphy could hit and play first base and Wolters could field.

Either way, 2017 was Wolters’ best shot at earning a starting catching role. With the mystery surrounding his defense, no trace evidence of a bat and potential free agent catchers available, there’s little reason to believe Wolters has earned another starting role in the near future. But, he’s a good guy so I’m hoping both his bat and defense will return for more taco’s.