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Tony Wolters’s 2019 season: Myths, truths, and a mustache

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Tony Wolters is good at baseball, but is he good enough?

Welcome to the 2019 edition of Ranking the Rockies, where we take a look back at every player to log playing time for the Rockies in 2019. The purpose of this list is to provide a snapshot of the player in context. The “Ranking” is an organizing principle that’s drawn from Baseball Reference’s WAR (rWAR). It’s not something the staff debated. We’ll begin with the player with the lowest rWAR and end up with the player with the highest.

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No. 9, Tony Wolters (1.4 rWAR)

Tony Wolters started the 2019 season in possession of a thick new lip sweater and the starting catcher position. Even though Wolters had provided almost no offense the previous year, the Rockies were comfortable enough with his defense and game-calling that they DFA’d longtime prospect Tom Murphy before the season even started and pushed Chris Ianetta into the backup role, where he stayed until being DFA’d himself in August. By the time Wolters had caught his last pitch in September, he had accrued 1.4 rWAR, a huge gain from his 2018. And the snot mop was still safely intact.

So it was a happy ending for the Rockies, right? They have their catcher, finally. Our lovable, diminutive “Papers” has finally stopped the carousel of catching that’s been spinning for almost as long as the Rockies have been a franchise. Right?

The narrative that developed about Wolters in 2019 was built on two premises: 1) he is a great defensive catcher; 2) he made big improvements in his offense. These two claims meant to those making them that the Rockies could now move on to other, bigger concerns like pitching, first base, and outfield defense. But are both of those claims true? Is Wolters a great defensive catcher, and is he an adequate offensive player? Let’s take them one at a time.

The truth about Wolters’ improved offense

Here’s a simple question: did Tony Wolters improve offensively in 2019? And here’s a simple answer: yes. He raised his batting average from .170 to .262. That’s not insignificant. Up, too, were his OBP (.292 to a very respectable .337) and OPS+ (up 25%). So if the question is: did Tony Wolters do more on offense in 2019 than in 2018 to help his team win, the answer is yes.

But the real question should be this: did he do enough offensively in comparison to the rest of the league to justify his starting spot?

The answer to that question seems to be no. Of 207 hitters with at least 400 plate appearances, Wolters ranked in the bottom of the league almost across the board:

197th in OPS

202nd in fWAR

205th in wRC+

207th in ISO

207th in HR

In isolation, some of his offensive numbers don’t look too bad. A .337 OBP is pretty good in a vacuum, for example. The problem comes with the type of offense he produces. Wolters only had 20 extra base hits out his 94 total hits. All those trips to first base don’t help all that much in the National League, when it’s on the pitcher to do something with that runner.

To be sure, though, Wolters’s improvement on offense, which put him right at replacement level, was welcomed. If the Rockies are unable or unwilling to upgrade the catching position, perhaps Wolters can make another stride offensively next season to bolster his great defense. That brings us to the second premise: is he a great defensive catcher?

The truth about Wolters’ elite defense

The story is a bit more complicated on defense. To be sure, Wolters is a capable catcher. His 2.0 defensive WAR was 2nd among all catchers in baseball, only behind Cleveland’s Roberto Pérez. He only had 1 error the entire season, good for a .999 fielding percentage, which is well above average. He also threw out runners at a much higher rate than league average. These numbers all seem to indicate that Wolters is, in fact, a great defensive catcher.

The trouble comes with his framing, which is even more important for a catcher than how many errors are committed. Framing happens on every pitch and can be the difference between a 1-2 and a 2-1 count or between a walk and a strikeout. Pitch by pitch, framing has an important impact on the success of a pitching staff, and in this area, Wolters takes a hit.

According to Baseball Prospectus, Wolters is one of the worst catchers in baseball in a couple of key areas. By their metrics, he ranked 107th in MLB in framing runs, and 95th in a metric called “fielding runs above average,” which aggregates some adjusted defensive metrics. Those are obviously not elite numbers. This is especially problematic in the NL West, where the Padres, Dodgers, and Giants all have catchers in the top 12 in framing.

So claims that Wolters is an elite defensive catcher ignore an issue he has that could be having a major impact on the success of Rockies’ pitching, which is their greatest weakness heading into 2020.

What the future holds for the Rockies’ starting catcher

The Rockies seem to be happy with Wolters’s growth in 2019. He made improvements on offense and remained an elite backstop behind the plate. But with the Rockies’ pitching woes derailing their 2019 season, the catching position may need to be reevaluated as part of that problem. Wolters is a fan and clubhouse favorite. He’s a likable player who brings it every game, prepares meticulously, and shows signs that he may not have reached his ceiling yet. The trouble is that his ceiling may not be good enough to justify starting him next season and beyond.