The hottest two catchers in the Major League Baseball market this off-season were Yasmani Grandal and J.T. Realmuto. Yet as statistics help redefine what we perceive as valuable in baseball, it does beg the question just what we value in those who play catcher and what they bring to a baseball team.
The value of pitch-framing really started gaining traction a few years ago, perhaps personified by Jason Castro and the 3 year $24M contract he signed with the Minnesota Twins before the 2017 season. It was not for his offense, as he was roughly a .220 career hitter who would get you about 10 home runs a season. It was for his defense – particularly his pitch framing. According to statcorner, he was among the best in the game in 2016 by various ratios, including the fact that 8.3% of balls he caught outside of the strike zone got called strikes. That was good for 5th in the league that year.
Second in the league in 2016-2018 thought was Yasmani Grandal. Despite some of his defensive miscues that were on display in the 2018 Playoffs – the guy turns a lot of pitches that are borderline or even balls – into strikes. Not to mention a much better hitter by any standard than Jason Castro. Consequently he signed a 1 year $18M contract with the Brewers even after turning down a 4 year, $60M contract offer from the Mets.
With J.T. Realmuto, he delivers in many of the offensive categories that is lacking from modern catchers. Which by the way is also how it used to be. While pitch framing certainly is still worth considering and studying, this FanGraphs article also points out that we are starting to see a lot more variance in how we can study and view it. In other words – while there are still going to be a few outliers that are consistent and make a big difference – the majority of catchers will fluctuate year to year and how they measure in regards to pitch framing statistics. In one word to say how some catchers rate stronger year by year? Luck. From the article:
Even if everyone were exactly the same, there would still be variation, because the baseball season isn’t infinitely long. If every team, for example, were a true-talent .500 ballclub, a season would still end up with 90-win teams and 90-loss teams. You could detect this volatility because, in subsequent years, you’d observe further randomness. Performances wouldn’t correlate so well year to year. That’s what we’re seeing with framers.
Realmuto is only 26, under contract through 2020, and stuck on a bad team. In 2018, Realmuto was the best hitting catcher, hitting .277 with an OBP of .340 and OPS of .825. Yadier Molina still sat in there in second place at .261/.314/.750. By contract 10 years ago in 2008 Joe Mauer hit .328/.413/.864 and Brian McCann was second at .301/.373/.896. The 1998 stats aren’t worth looking at because, you know, steroids.
The point being that many teams are moving offensive-minded catchers to other positions that are easier on their bodies like first base or left field. Realmuto seeks to gain from that shift. There are still guys out there like Russell Martin who stand out for their team leadership and handling of a pitching staff which are slowly becoming quantified numbers. The Phillies have a stud in Jorge Alfaro whose arm strength is very impressive.
For now, the Marlins are holding onto Realmuto but with less than two weeks until pitchers and catchers report he is expected to be with another team by then. The Reds are a strong contender who look to shake up the NL Central after early front runners Dodgers went with the aforementioned former Dodger Martin and appear willing to give up some solid players to get him. We should find out soon. As much as baseball is valuing defensive metrics particularly with catchers, a quality young hitter like Realmuto is still a powerful trade chip for the hapless Miami Marlins.