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Catcher profile: Devin Mesoraco is a strong candidate to repeat his 2014 breakout season

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Devin Mesoraco's hard contact makes his potential in 2015 incredibly exciting

Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

A former top prospect, Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco struggled in his first 600 plate appearances. From 2011 to 2013, Mesoraco hit .225/.282/.359 with 16 HR and a 70 wRC+. The Reds had shown a strong future commitment to Mesoraco by trading their other top catching prospect, Yasmani Grandal, to the Padres as part of the deal for pitcher Mat Latos, and Mesoraco wasn’t coming through for the Reds the way they had hoped in the early part of his career.

However, in 2014, Mesoraco exploded into one of the most productive hitters in the National League. Over 440 PA, Mesoraco hit .273/.359/.534 with 25 HR, 80 RBI and a 147 wRC+. Mesoraco’s 147 wRC+ would have been 11th best in baseball had he qualified, slightly edging out Buster Posey for the top wRC+ amongst catchers.

Process at the plate: Mesoraco creamed the ball in 2014

If you’ve been reading my articles, you know that I like to measure the process behind the results for fantasy player evaluation. For hitters, one major characteristic of good process at the plate is hitting the ball hard, and Devin Mesoraco’s hard hit% was right up there with the most elite hitters in the sport.

Mesoraco hit the ball hard in 23.3% of his at bats, which was 5th best in baseball and ahead of hitters like Victor Martinez, Andrew McCutchen, Buster Posey, Giancarlo Stanton and Mike Trout. Only Troy Tulowitzki, Paul Goldschmidt, David Ortiz and Miguel Cabrera hit the ball harder than Mesoraco in 2014. This stat strongly supports Mesoraco’s 2014 season as being completely legit. Good results aren’t lucky when you hit the ball hard.

Here's a look at the top 10 players in hard hit rate and their weighted runs created plus:

Player

Hard hit%

wRC+

Troy Tulowitzki

24.1%

171

Paul Goldschmidt

23.7%

155

David Ortiz

23.7%

135

Miguel Cabrera

23.3%

147

Devin Mesoraco

23.3%

147

Victor Martinez

23.1%

166

Andrew McCutchen

22.9%

168

Adrian Beltre

22.9%

141

Edwin Encarnacion

22.4%

150

Corey Dickerson

21.8%

140

Increase in home run to fly ball ratio

Sometimes, when a hitter sees a massive spike in his HR/FB ratio from his career norm, it is labeled unsustainable or flukey. This, however, is not the case if the hitter is now making significantly harder contact than he made previously. The harder a player hits a fly ball, the greater chance it has to go for a home run. If a player is hitting his fly balls much harder than in previous years, more of them are going to go over the fence.

Mesoraco is an example of this. See this table:

Year

Hard hit%

HR/FB%

2014

23.3%

20.5%

2013

15.7%

10.0%

2012

17.0%

10.0%

2011

16.0%

11.1%

The increase in Mesoraco's hard contact aligns with both the increase in home runs to fly balls and the increase in overall production offensively.

Sustained success

When a hitter changes up his process at the plate and begins to crush the ball, pitchers will adjust in an attempt to generate weaker contact. Often, they will find an area of weakness. For example, a batter may square up outer and middle third pitches very well but struggle to square up pitches on the inner third. Or maybe a batter hits fastballs very hard but can't square up offspeed pitches too often. Pitchers will attack this area of weakness and the hitter will see his results diminish. It is then up to the hitter to readjust to how he's being pitched.

Based on his hard hit% of swings in specific pitch locations, Mesoraco has no plate coverage weaknesses. His hard hit rate was above average in every location:

Pitch location

Hard hit%

Avg. hard hit%

Inside

9.1%

7.5%

Outside

8.5%

7.3%

Up

9.1%

8.0%

Down

7.2%

7.0%

Middle (vertical)

16.1%

12.6%

Middle (horizontal)

17.0%

11.7%

Mesoraco also hit the ball hard against both fastballs and offspeed pitches in the zone:

Pitch type

Hard hit%

MLB avg hard hit%

Fastball strikes

8.8%

7.1%

Offspeed strikes

7.4%

5.2%

This data is a good sign for Mesoraco sustaining success.

Swing change

Mesoraco changed his swing in 2014. Eno Sarris of Fox Sports wrote,

After an offseason talk with hitting coach Don Long, the Reds catcher was left with a couple of changes to his swing.

"In the past, my bat path was not very tight and short. We really tried to get shorter to the ball and more athletic and dynamic," Mesoraco said.

He used to get his front foot down "super early" and then swing — "Now I'm stepping into the ball a lot more."

Now he has a "more rhythmic thing" going, his swing is shorter, and his hands are closer to his body.

Hitters want to keep their hands inside the ball when swinging and keeping the hands closer to the body can help accomplish this. Keeping the hands inside the ball makes it easier to square a pitch up with the sweet spot of the bat, which creates hard contact.

Changes in Plate Discipline

It appears that Mesoraco traded some of his contact for harder contact. Here were Mesoraco’s changes in plate discipline, via FanGraphs:

Year(s)

Contact %

SwStr%

Z-contact%

K%

Pre 2014

80.6%

9.6%

88.4%

17.7%

2014

71.9%

13.3%

82.6%

23.4%

Marlon Byrd had a similar change in plate discipline before his breakout season in 2013.

Mesoraco also increased his walk rate, improving from 7.5% to 9.3%.

Consistent playing time

Mesoraco finally began to receive much more consistent playing time in 2014. FOX Sports Ohio wrote,

When the Reds traded with San Diego a couple of years ago and acquired pitcher Mat Latos they sent catcher Yasmani Grandal to the Padres as part of the deal. That sent the message that Mesoraco was their catcher of the future. The trade of Ryan Hanigan to Tampa Bay this past offseason made Mesoraco the catcher of the present.

"I think there's a certain something to be said about knowing that you're going to play even if you get off to a slow start," said manager Bryan Price. "I think the trade of Hanigan created an environment that he took advantage of, and that's that certain amount of ability to relax and not treat every start as the game that might get you more playing time."

In 2015, Price says that Mesoraco will catch more often and left the door open to playing some 1B. Price said,

"I’ve been asked that question a lot about Mesoraco playing first base," said Price. "How much would he play? Only if Votto was injured. Realistically, I see him as a Yadier Moilina type guy who is going to catch 145 games a year, more so than I see him catching 110 a year and playing 20 or 30 at first base.

Aaron Gleeman pointed out that Yadier Molina has never started 145 games in a season and has only eclipsed 135 games started once, so Price's statement likely reflects an emphasis on playing Mesoraco more behind the plate rather than any concrete number.

One negative: Mesoraco didn't use the whole field well in 2014

Mesoraco is primarily a pull hitter. Because of this, teams can strategically place their defenders in a better position to field his batted balls which will give him less space to find a hole. Here were Mesoraco's results on batted ball locations, via FanGraphs:

Location

AVG

OPS

wRC+

Pull

.433

1.390

293

Center

.359

.871

138

Opposite

.154

.333

-17

Here's a spray chart via FanGraphs:

Mesoraco is a candidate to see more of this in 2015 (image from ESPN):

What can we expect from Mesoraco in 2015?

Steamer projects Mesoraco to have a 110 wRC+ in 2015, which I think is selling Mesoraco’s 2014 accomplishments way too short. If Mesoraco's hard hit rate stays well above league average, he will far surpass that number.

Mesoraco hits in an extremely hitter friendly home ballpark in Cincinnati which makes his HR and RBI totals easier to inflate. Since the NL unfortunately does not have the DH, Mesoraco will not be able to play as often as a strong hitting catcher in the AL, which will slightly reduce his chances at extra RBI, R and HR.

It will be interesting to see if the Reds allow Mesoraco to play some 1B in 2015; if they do, that will give a big boost to his fantasy value because he'll get more at bats. I think it would be prudent to play Mesoraco there once a week to give Joey Votto's body a break. The Reds have a lot of money tied up in Votto and they need to keep him healthy.

I expect Mesoraco to perform as a top 3 catcher in 2015 and have him ranked 2nd overall, behind Buster Posey. If Mesoraco can reach a healthy 500 PA, I'm pinning him for 28 HR and 95 RBI with a decent batting average. Mesoraco won't have a batting average in the same ballpark as Buster Posey, but he's a strong candidate to have the top power numbers in fantasy baseball next year.

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Talk baseball/fantasy with Tim on twitter at @TimFinn521