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Catchers in 2018: A Review

In the immortal words of Tim Riggins, “can we just embrace the suck, for once?”

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

When I first started researching (and tweeting) some of these catching factoids, I lost followers on Twitter. That’s right. People unfollowed the baseball editor for tweeting about Francisco Cervelli. Weird, man.

Anyway, for today’s effort I worked with a sample of 21 catchers from 2018, with the criteria being 350 or more plate appearances. If you scan the last three years of data, 300 at-bats is pretty much the floor for the Top 20 catchers in fantasy baseball. Only two guys were Top 20 in 2018 with fewer than 300 at-bats (Austin Romine and Elias Diaz). In 2017, only Robinson Chirinos and Chris Iannetta completed the feat. And as far back as 2016, Gary Sanchez, Sandy Leon, Willson Contreras, and Nick Hundley were Top 20 options despite not reaching 300 at-bats. Sanchez was a major exception that year, as he crushed 20 homers in only 201 AB. He is a distinct anomaly at the position. Without him, there would have only been three guys in 2016 to crack the Top 20 with less than 300 AB.

Soooooo, in summation: 300 at-bats was my guide. When I sorted on Fangraphs for catchers with 350 or more plate appearances, that gave me a list of 21 guys—the low-end of which were right at 300 at-bats (once you factor in walks). I liked starting with the guys who had the most volume at backstop last year. Now let’s unpack who did the most with that volume, eh? I wrote in bullet form, because for some reason that’s easier for me to tolerate. It should also be easier to read. Let’s do this, ladies and gents.

1 Of this grouping of catchers, Gary Sanchez had the WORST luck on batted balls, checking in at a very unhealthy .197 BABIP. Additionally, Sanchez had the highest discrepancy between BA and xBA (-.037) among catchers in this grouping. He also had the highest discrepancy in wOBA and xwOBA (-.039). Put differently, his batting average was .186, but we should have expected something around a .223 mark—which would have been much more tolerable (a la Robinson Chirinos).

2 Nine catchers were above a league average walk rate, and here they are in order of highest to lowest: Russell Martin (15.9%!), Yasmani Grandal, Chris Iannetta, Francisco Cervelli, Gary Sanchez, Robinson Chirinos, Tucker Barnhart, Buster Posey, and Willson Contreras. Martin and Iannetta surprised me the most, and Iannetta bears watching, as he pops up on this list more than once.

3 Mike Zunino’s 37.0% strikeout rate was the worst of any catcher with at least 350 plate appearances in 2018. Good thing he is a good defender, eh?

4 Only five backstops hit 20 dingers last year, and they are: Salvador Perez (27), Yasmani Grandal (24), J.T. Realmuto (21), Yadier Molina (20), and Mike Zunino (20). At least you know what you get if you invest in Zunino, right?

5 Gary Sanchez totaled 18 home runs despite amassing only 374 plate appearances. For comparison, Russell Martin appeared in one more game and managed 10 home runs. Jorge Alfaro had three more plate appearances and mustered 10 home runs. Sanchez’s .220 ISO ranked second among this group of backstops, second only to Yasmani Grandal (.225 ISO).

6 Kurt Suzuki’s 11.1% strikeout rate was the best mark among catchers, followed closely by Buster Posey’s 11.8% mark. The average catcher had a 23.5% strikeout rate in 2018, and exactly 12 of these backstops were better than average. Only half of these 12 managed 12 or more home runs, and they are: Kurt Suzuki, Yadier Molina, Wilson Ramos, J.T. Realmuto, Salvador Perez, and Francisco Cervelli.

7 Only TWO catchers were above the league average in BB%, K%, and ISO in 2018. They are Willson Contreras and (drumroll)............Francisco Cervelli! Cervelli’s marks were impressive: a 12.6% walk rate, a 20.9% strikeout rate, and a .172 ISO. He exceeded Contreras’ production in every category (9.7% BB%, 22.2% K-rate, .141 ISO). Still, this is really solid by both players, and smart money should be on Contreras regaining his power stroke in 2019. Here are a few noteworthy exclusions:

Yasmani Grandal’s 23.9% strikeout rate was a hair above the 23.5% average for all catchers, as was Gary Sanchez’s (25.1%). J.T. Realmuto, Salvador Perez, Yadier Molina, Kurt Suzuki, and Wilson Ramos were all excluded due to walk rates below last year’s 8.0% average. Ramos (7.7%) and Realmuto (7.2%) were the closest. Chris Iannetta’s 24.2% strikeout rate barely ruled him out, which is interesting to me since he is generally an afterthought in fake baseball (Iannetta managed a healthy 13.9% walk rate and a solid .161 ISO). Again—shouts to my man Cervelli. Contreras probably isn’t a name that would surprise most people, but I think Cervelli would.

8 Jorge Alfaro’s .406 BABIP topped all catchers in this grouping. While unsustainable, it does jive with his three stolen bases (tied for 4th) and his sprint speed of 28.3 ft/sec. That’s second among all catchers, bested only by J.T. Realmuto (28.6 ft/sec). Of all the catchers in this grouping, the only other catcher above the MLB average of 27.0 ft/sec was Willson Contreras (27.6 ft/sec). Speed is scarce among backstops. For what it’s worth, Austin Barnes’ 27.4 ft/sec mark was above average and it appears he may have a pathway to playing time in Los Angeles in 2019.

9 On average, catchers posted a 21.2% line drive rate in 2018. Of the 21 catchers who had 350 or more plate appearances, eight catchers were “below average.” They are a decorated group of backstops, though—which leads me to the conclusion that perhaps line drive rate is overrated when it comes to catchers. Here are the eight guys with below average line drive rates and their end-of-year ranks among catchers in fantasy baseball: Wilson Ramos (5), Salvador Perez (4), Francisco Cervelli (11), Mike Zunino (21), Yasmani Grandal (3), Willson Contreras (10), Gary Sanchez (14), and Russell Martin (39). Other than Martin, that is a pretty distinguished list of catchers. Maybe pay more attention to fly balls and dingers when it comes to catchers, right?

10 On average, catchers posted a 11.1% swinging strike rate in 2018. Of this 350+ PA sample, 10 catchers were better than league average: Lucroy, Posey, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Martin, Barnhart, Yadier, Suzuki, Cervelli, Grandal, and Realmuto. Light-hitting guys like Lucroy, IKF, Martin, and Barnhart are no surprise. Posey, Yadier, Suzuki, Cervelli, Grandal, and Realmuto are the real deal, though—marrying their low swinging strike rates with some actual power. And yes, I’m banking on a return to form with Posey in the power department.

Lastly, Franciso Cervelli popped up again (pun not intended, as Cervelli’s IFFB% is a hair better than average) when I scoped out chase rate. Cervelli’s 21.5% O-Swing% was far better than the 31.5% average for MLB catchers last year. Only the light-hitting Russell Martin was better at 14.4%—which jives with Martin’s No. 1 spot among catchers in walk rate. Truly, Martin’s only goal was to get on base last year. Anyway, Cervelli had a legitimate breakthrough in 2018. Still only 32 years old, if he can improve on last year’s 104 games played (only 404 PA), we could have a solid catching option on our hands. And he won’t be expensive, either.

That’s it for me! I just wanted to plug Cervelli one last time without making an additional bullet point. Otherwise I couldn’t have had an even list of 10 facts. Blame the OCD. Anyway, I hope this wasn’t too laborious for everyone, and I’ll move on to another position soon enough (I promise). As always, hit me up in the comments, or on the Twitter machine at @HeathCapps. You may also drop me a line at heathcapps19@gmail dot com. Peace!