The Rockies have historically had a tough time finding a productive catcher for extended periods of time. We’ve talked about this before. Early into the 2021 season, they’re still not getting the production they need from at least half of the backstop platoon. In 28 seasons of baseball, the Rockies have just 19.5 total bWAR from their starting catcher, and an even worse position-wide bWAR of 13.2. The team has been plagued by a revolving door of catchers with no long term solution ever seeming to be in place. Now in 2021, we have have a new starter (again) in Elias Díaz, and a new backup (again) in Dom Nuñez. As the team plays their 29th season carrying just two catchers on the 40-man roster, Díaz is struggling and Nuñez is very inexperienced. With few in-house options to bolster the position, the Rockies need to figure out what they’re doing behind home plate.
Elias Díaz was named the starting catcher out of camp after taking the role over from the now-departed Tony Wolters in 2020. Díaz wasn’t exactly impressive in 2020, but his offensive production was leaps and bounds above the mediocre returns the Rockies were getting from their then-current catchers in Tony Wolters and Drew Butera. He hit two home runs, which is twice as many as the zero combined between the two, while slashing .235/.288/.353 across 26 games and 13 starts. Per MLB’s Baseball Savant, his pitch framing is average at best, and his pop time is mixed. In 2019 he had a pop time of 1.93 to second base, good for 6th best in the league. In 2018 and 2020 it was a less impressive 1.98. Defensively, Díaz is adequate with no passed balls in 2018 or 2020, but Fangraphs shows he has never had a DRS (defensive runs saved) of above zero. However, the Rockies saw the potential in increased offensive production from their catching unit, and Díaz had a solid spring to earn him the starting spot.
Things have not gone as planned. As the season heats up in earnest and the Rockies have are about to finish their fourth series—a road stand against the Dodgers—Díaz finds himself at what could be a crossroads. He is struggling immensely at the plate, slashing a pitiful .091/.167/.091 in 22 at-bats. For his trouble, he has just two hits—none for extra bases—and zero RBI to show for it. He’s also walked twice while striking out nine times. This is not the kind of output Rockies fans were hoping for. Meanwhile, his backup Nuñez isn’t slashing particularly well either at .174/.208/.565, but when he makes contact he tears the cover off the ball. Nuñez has three home runs in 23 at-bats with five RBIs. He’s striking out a ton, to the tune of a 45.8% K-rate with nine total, but he’s also worth 89 wRC+ to Díaz’s miserable -34.
Elias Díaz vs Dom Nuñez in 2021
So what should the Rockies do? They are currently in freefall, boasting a league worst 3-9 record and scoring just two runs in their last 29 innings. The series in Los Angeles will be important. If Díaz can’t get it together, he might be facing a DFA or at the very least get significantly less playing time. Nuñez should become the primary starter in any case. The rookie is only 26-years-old, with just 62 total at-bats at the major league level. The Rockies need to see where he fits within the future of the organization. Nuñez is a better defender, better framer, and currently a better hitter than Díaz, and it’s possible he only continues to improve as he gains MLB experience.
If the Rockies do decide to shed Díaz, the first option to replace him is likely to promote one of their alternate training site catchers like Brian Serven, a 25-year-old who showed solid production during the spring. In 17 at-bats, Serven slashed .353/.389/.588 with a double, a triple, and three RBI. However, in four seasons of minor league play from 2016-2019 he slashed just .241/.312/.399. Most recently in Double-A Hartford for the 2019 season, he struggled to adjust with a line of .202/.286/.364 in 242 at-bats.
The Rockies could also turn to a veteran presence to back up Nuñez like the freshly released Jonathan Lucroy. Lucroy spent a brief period of time with the Rockies in 2017 as a deadline acquisition and has been bouncing around since. He spent the spring with the Chicago White Sox and slashed a .333/.478/.389 while drawing an impressive five walks to just one strikeout. He then spent five games with the Washington Nationals as a fill-in, going 5-for-14 with two RBI. A patient veteran hitter could be just what the Rockies need, and what they thought they were getting with the also-struggling C.J. Cron. They could even bring back Tony Wolters—who was designated for assignment by the Chicago Cubs on Wednesday—if only for his defense and relationship with the pitching staff.
Regardless of what the Rockies do from here, it should be clear that Elías Díaz could use a change of scenery while the team tries to determine the future is behind the plate. Maybe it’s Nuñez, maybe it’s a veteran free agent signing, or maybe they end up waiting for Drew Romo to develop. Either way, the Rockies need to figure out exactly what it is they’re doing behind home plate as the team’s 30th anniversary draws near—and the absence of a perennial catcher continues.