On Friday, January 4, MLB.com’s Mike Petriello tweeted his hot stove plea to the Rockies:
Flogging an extremely dead horse here, but I have no idea why the Rockies aren’t all-in on Grandal. Elite framing would make those quality young P even better, their lineup still needs lots of help, and they’re not as good as the Dodgers are right now. Go forth.
Although former Dodger and current free agent Yasmani Grandal had a less-than-stellar 2018 post-season, Petriello has been his consistent advocate. To summarize, Grandal is available, comparable to [JT] Realmuto, and would not require losing prospects in a trade (although he would cost the signing team a draft choice).
Petriello has been clear about how good Realmuto is, too. Although one year remains on his contract, Realmuto has said he wants to leave the Marlins. Houston’s Martin Maldonado is another free agent option who’s been linked to the Rockies by MLB Trade Rumors.
Like Petriello, Rockies fans have been urging the team to do something about the catching position, given that primary catchers Chris Iannetta and Tony Wolters were relatively unproductive in terms of offense. Back-up catchers Tom Murphy and Drew Butera saw little playing time.
Keep in mind, all indications are that the Rockies like their current catching corps. As Jeff Bridich told Thomas Harding prior to the 2018 non-waiver trade deadline, “We’re getting more questions from teams asking if we would trade them catching than us reaching out to anybody.” There is no indication his thinking has changed.
With this in mind, I looked at offensive and defensive numbers, possible salaries, and intangibles. In addition to Iannetta, Wolters, and Murphy, I added Butera (to provide some contrast) as well as Grandal, Realmuto, and Maldonado.
The numbers indicatd the current Rockies catchers are adequate, as is Maldonado, although Grandal or Realmuto would provide an upgrade. It’s worth examining the cost and consequences of going after one of those upgrades.
First, consider the each catcher’s defensive abilities. I’ve relied on CSAA, “Called Strijkes Above Average,” and framing. Baseball Prospectus defines CSAA as
a measure of how many called strikes the player in question creates for his team. In the case of catchers, we isolate the effects of the pitcher, umpire, and other situational factors which allows us to identify how many additional called strikes the catcher is generating, above or below average. For catchers, this skill is commonly described as ‘framing’ . . . .
Here’s what the defensive metrics show:
|Player||CSAA||MLB Rank||Framing Chances||MLB Rank||Framing Runs||MLB Rank|
|Player||CSAA||MLB Rank||Framing Chances||MLB Rank||Framing Runs||MLB Rank|
In terms of CSAA, Wolters is easily the best of this group (5th) with Grandal ranking second (14th). However, in terms of framing, Grandal is the best in baseball and Wolters comes in second at 9th.
By a number of metrics, Grandal is the best defensive catcher in baseball, and while Wolters’ defensive skill is exceptional, it does not rise to the level of Grandal’s.
Given their anemic offense, the Rockies need bats. Catcher was one the team’s least productive positions in 2018. Here are the rankings in terms of offense. In addition to slash lines, I wanted to explore how each catcher stands in terms of bWARP — Wins Above Replacement Player [WARP] gained as a non-pitcher.
Grandal and Realmuto are clear upgrades. Maldonado brings minimal offense though he’s better than Wolters, whose overall value is badly damaged by his poor hitting, despite some key offensive moments in 2018.
Given that the Rockies are trying to negotiate a contract extension with Nolan Arenado, money is a consideration. The Marlins have said they would be open to a deal for Realmuto, though all indications are the asking price is ridiculously high. Grandal has a strong sense of his market value given that he declined a $17.9 million qualifying offer from the Dodgers and is said to have rejected a four-year $60 million offer from the Mets. (Ken Rosenthal reports industry insiders believe his final salary will far below that.) By comparison, Iannetta is on a two-year, $8.2 million dollar contract while Wolters is just now entering his first arbitration year.
MLB Trade Rumors predicted that Maldonado would sign with the Rockies for two years and $8 million, but signing Maldonado means, essentially, getting a 32-year-old Iannetta, who will be 36 in 2019.
So a the question becomes how much is a catcher worth in terms of allocating future monies for retaining team cornerstones (e.g., Arenado and Story) and pitchers (e.g., Freeland and Márquez)?
There are also factors the data misses. For example, what is the value of Iannetta’s experience? As he explains, “For a catcher, maybe you had a conversation with a pitcher that changed his mentality, and then he pitched a great game. . . . Or another guy gets a hit in a certain situation, and maybe you helped the pitcher relax in a certain situation. You can’t put that on a stat sheet.” Iannetta was Kyle Freeland’s go-to catcher in 2018. To what extent was Iannetta’s experience relevant to Freeland’s success?
The same is true of hitting. Remember Iannetta’s walk-off walk against the Dodgers on August 12? As Nick Groke explained, Black chose to pinch hit Iannetta over Carlos González because “Iannetta is a more picky hitter and Gonzalez is better as a starter than off the bench.” That’s experience.
Similarly, Tony Wolters caught German Márquez, who had a stellar year. Here’s Groke’s description of a Rockies game against the Phillies:
Their breathing exercises started in the third inning Wednesday, when German Márquez and Tony Wolters synchronized their baseball zazen and centered a focus back on the steady steamrolling of hitters.
“I wanted to slow the game down a little bit,” Wolters said. “His tempo was too snappy. He got a little tired. I kept getting breaths with him. It calms his shoulders. When he relaxes, he’s so whippy.”
Wolters adds, “I know how he thinks.” That’s not to say that Grandal and Realmuto couldn’t do this — they’re professional baseball players, after all — but the relationships between pitchers and catchers should not be undervalued.
And there’s manager Bud Black, who is demanding of his catchers. To quote Groke, “Black, a 15-year pitcher, spends so much of his time instructing his catchers with a firm hand.” How would these potential catchers work with Black?
In a recent podcast, Harding discussed the Rockies’ needs at catcher, pointing out that while Grandal appears to be a good fit, his salary demands place him out of the Rockies’ price range. Instead, Harding recommended the Rockies look “further down the food chain.” He suggested that given Iannetta’s age, it would make sense to add an additional catcher and allow Iannetta to catch fewer games. But who are those players? After Grandal and with Wilson Ramos off the market, options diminish quickly. Just look at Maldonado compared to Wolters and Murphy.
Here’s my proposal:
Based on current data, Iannetta, Wolters, and Murphy are fine, and they are doing well at their primary job, which is to help the Rockies build excellent pitching. Although a catcher who can hit makes a great addition to a lineup, they’re rare and, consequently, well paid. Signing Maldonado would be a way to lessen some of Iannetta’s catching load at a reasonable cost, but he would not provide an offensive jolt.
That’s why the Rockies should look elsewhere for offense. I’ll reiterate something I’ve already said: Sign AJ Pollock, get another right-handed bat, and take the pressure off the catchers to provide offense, leaving them to do what they’re best at. The Rockies don’t have a catcher problem, but they do have an offense problem. There are better ways to address it than looking behind the plate.