Back It Up: The State of Catching in Arlington
Rangers won’t survive having Holaday and Nicolas as their catchers
— jamie (@JamieLanders10) April 26, 2016
@Friar_Faithful so why you keep trying to send him to texas. The Rangers already have enough bad catchers
— Brooks⚾ (@brooksy__d) April 14, 2016
There were calls throughout the offseason for the Rangers’ brass to acquire a front-line backstop. Fans seemed to tire of the low rent, catcher-by-committee approach that Jon Daniels seems to employ. Speculation centered on two specific targets, including the Brewers’ Jonathan Lucroy and the Padres’ Derek Norris, and names like Joey Gallo and Jurickson Profar were bandied about as possible trade bait.
At the quarter mark of the 2016 season, however, it is clear that Jon Daniels and Company have taken a different tack. Before attempting to understand his logic, though, let’s take a historical look at the numbers to try and discover Daniels’ philosophy when approaching the catching position.
The Rangers have employed 30 different catchers at the major league level during Daniels’ tenure, highlighted by Mike Napoli’s peak 2011 season in which he hit 30 home runs while slashing a gaudy .320/.414/631 line (5.4 WAR) in a scant 432 plate appearances. Low lights include the failed J.P. Arencibia experiment in 2014.
Here’s what the numbers reveal. After taking every catcher in the Rangers’ organization from 2005-16 (min. 100 PAs), I averaged their counting stats along with some advanced metrics to come up with the following statistics:
Indeed, under Jon Daniels the Rangers have been below average in terms of offense. Other than the power categories, the Rangers’ backstops have been slightly below league average in most offensive categories. The power bump is most likely due to playing in hitter-friendly Arlington, so it is right to say that JD’s catchers have failed to distinguish themselves with their bats.
By the same token, however, they have not been bad either. Specifically, according to Fangraphs’ Offense Runs Above Average (Off) statistics, Rangers’ catchers posted a -157.5 mark (18th overall) from 2005-16. Note that only the Indians and Braves have posted positive numbers during that period. The quick takeaway, which comes as no surprise, is that catchers league-wide have not typically been great offensive players—and the Rangers’ catchers have been no different.
Fangraphs’ defensive metric (DEF) measures a player’s defensive value relative to league average using a Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) metric specifically for catchers. It includes calculations like Stolen Bases Runs Saved (rSB). While defensive metrics are volatile, what these numbers are able to do is compare Rangers catchers historically to their counterparts on other teams.
Rangers catchers have finished just below average during Daniel’s tenure, combining to average 18th overall in the league and combining for about 1 win per year (+10 def = 1 win).
The numbers on the field only tell half of the story. If, as the statistics indicate, the Rangers under Jon Daniels have fielded mediocre catchers over the course of his tenure that is one conclusion. However, if the salaries related to performance were well below league average then some of this may be forgivable. From 2013-2015 the Rangers spent the following money on the position:
In fact in 2014, MLB catchers were paid the fourth lowest salary ($9.4MM average) among all players on the diamond, out-earning on average only relievers, designated hitters, and closers. Outside of A.J. Pierzynski’s bloated $7.5mm deal, the Rangers have been frugal when it comes to paying their backstops. Therefore, although the performance has been distinctly below average, the adage “you get what you pay for” seems at least somewhat fitting here.
Just for fun, here are the best (and worst) catcher performance awards from the Daniels’ era:
JUGGERNAUT AWARD—Mike Napoli (2011)
The Rangers paid him $5.8mm that season and they got their money worth. He caught 61 games and played 35 more at 1B. Among catchers that season (min. 400 PAs), Napoli led the league in several offensive categories and only Jose Bautista was a better offensive producer according to weighted Runs Created (wRC+, league average is 100) in all of baseball. At the same time, he proved to be a bottom-tier defender, posting a -9.2 runs above average (RAA).
HONORABLE MENTION: Mike Napoli (2012)
IRONMAN AWARD—Gerald Laird (2007)
Laird was behind the dish longer than any other backstop in 2006-08 since JD took over in 2005, by nearly 200 PAs. While he couldn’t hit his way out of a wet paper sack (wRC+ 79), he posted a combined 29.5 defensive (Def) rating per Fangraphs during his tenure with the Rangers. Only two other catchers in the entire organization during that time have put up positive double-digit defensive ratings.
HONORABLE MENTION: Robinson Chirinos (2014)
QUAD-A BAT AWARD—Gerald Laird (2007)
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times for Laird in 2007. Not to be outdone with a wRC+ of 59, only Josh Barfield and Nick Punto had worse numbers (min. 400 PAs) that season. Other notable Ranger stinkers were Bengie Molina’s 2010 (54 wRC+), Geovany Soto’s 2013 (54 wRC+), and Carlos Corporan’s 2015 (42 wRC+).
PASSED BALL AWARD—J.P. Arencibia (2014)
In just 222 plate appearances, Arencibia posted the worst defensive rate of all the catchers in the JD era. Of course, this could have been do to his terrible defense at 1B as well (22 games), but he gets the nod here for also managing a .177/.239/.369 slash as well.
HONORABLE MENTION: Jarrod Saltalamacchia (2007)
Outside of one phenomenal season from Mike Napoli, the Rangers catchers during the Jon Daniels regime have been slightly below average both offensively and defensively. The Rangers have not invested a large portion of their salary to the position—A.J. Pierzynski and Mike Napoli being notable exceptions. While this, in and of itself, might be reason for the naysayers to jump back on the Lucroy or Norris bandwagon, it would first be helpful to look at how the current catchers have fared thus far.
THE 2016 RANGERS CATCHERS
What’s past is past and what’s been done cannot be undone. Looking at the present day conglomeration of backstops the front office has assembled, one finds signs of hope. Thus far in 2016, the Brett Nicholas–Bryan Holaday-Robinson Chirinos-Bobby Wilson experiment has produced the following numbers (since June 1) with respect to the historical Ranger catchers (2005-15):
Interestingly enough, the 3-headed monster has out-produced its predecessors by a wide margin. Although the walk rate is almost exactly the same, the strikeout rate is down 10%, their isolated slugging percentage is 50 points higher, and they’ve moved from a below-average 86 wRC+ to an above average 119 mark. As a whole, the group has compiled a 1.9 WAR (2nd overall), which trails only the Brewers (read: Lucroy). Some of the special highlights include:
• Among catchers with at least 80 plate appearances, Bryan Holaday is tied for 6th in overall WAR among catchers.
• Holaday has the 3rd best baserunning mark behind Colorado’s Tony Wolters and Jonathan Lucroy.
• In extremely limited action (39 PAs), Brett Nicholas lead all catchers in ISO and is tied for 9th overall in the league in wOBA (a measure of overall offensive production).
• Bobby Wilson is slashing .304/.347/.406 this season, including two grand slams in one week.
• As a team, the Rangers have the 4th best ISO, 3rd best batting average, 5th best on-base percentage, and 7th overall runs and RBI despite having nearly 20 fewer PAs.
Historically the Rangers have been content to get below average performance behind the dish, and they have not invested big money to bolster the position. The last offseason was no different, and so it would be somewhat surprising to expect Daniels and Company to do so before the July trade deadline this season. The production the Rangers have received thus far from their catcher battery has been very productive when compared to the rest of the league. With just $2.5MM allocated to Chirinos, Holaday, and Wilson, the front office will undoubtedly use their money elsewhere to make a run at back-to-back AL West pennants.