The State of The Catcher

Brad Miller, Robinson Chirinos
Since the latter part of 2011, The Catching position has been in a real state of flux for this organization. Yes back in the magical second run at the pennant, Mike Napoli was tagging the heck out of the baseball and seemed to be primed to remain a staple at the position for several years. That is until his scorching fire streak ended with a bit of an average 2012 (though a 13 percent walk rate is not average). Still, concerns of his health led Texas to let him walk in Free Agency. 2013 comes along and the franchise used a one-year stopgap in AJ Pierzynski. That experiment had its moments as AJP slugged 17 homers but his extreme lack of plate discipline led to JD letting him go after one mediocre year.
Last year the plan was to use JP Arencibia and Geovany Soto in a time-share but naturally an injury, a trade, and JPA being incredibly awful derailed that idea so the club turned to 30 year old breakout journeyman Robinson Chirinos. It turned out to be a nice season for a player who was thought of highly in his days on the Cubs farm. The Rangers also promoted 23-year-old Tomas Telis later in the year to take Soto’s roster spot and the switch-hitting Venezuelan showed some backup promise. So that leaves the future with some question marks on where the club goes at the position. Let’s dive in to this situation and try to find a plan to go about the present and future of the Rangers Catching situation.

As it stands right now, Robinson Chirinos appears to be the starting catcher for the 2015 season, likely slated for about 105-110 games behind the plate. Steamer has him projected for exactly 105 games. When the Rangers acquired him from the Rays prior to the 2013 season, they likely didn’t imagine him being a full time player. However, injuries and trades happen and that was exactly what he was in 2014. He displayed the power that he showed in the minors with the Cubs as he slugged .415 and smashed 13 homers in only 338 plate appearances. The power was nice but the main thing the club liked was his arm strength and ability to slow the running game down. Though he didn’t qualify in the official league leaders, only Yadier Molina (who also didn’t qualify) had a higher caught stealing percentage among regular catchers. He posted an eye popping 39.7 percent in his 91 games he caught. (The league leader was Brian McCann at 37.2.) The club also likes how he handles the pitching staff as well especially youngster Martin Perez. He also rated above average defensively last year posting a plus 4 Defensive Runs Saved.

One area that he still has not gotten the hang of is the whole Pitch Framing thing. Nicholas Minnix of Fangraphs did a little piece on him and Telis in August of 2014 and he mentioned that area where he needs work. The guys over at StatCorner rated him near the bottom of 2014’s list of all catchers who at least caught one pitch. Where framing icon Jon Lucroy had a plus 22.1 RAA, Chirinos was a negative 8. RAA is the measure they use to group all the aspects of framing together for a grade. While admittedly, framing metrics is still in its infancy, Chirinos certainly has work to do in that area.

As long as the Rangers are paying Chirinos league minimum (he isn’t due for Arbitration until 2016) he has some nice value with what he provides. Steamer projects him next year to be about a 2 WAR player after posting a 2.5 WAR season in 2014. They believe his power will dip back down in 2015 with a more stabilized home run rate. I feel with some more work and improvement to his framing he can be a nice little bridge to the Future.

So that brings us to Tomas. Obviously, Chirinos will only be able to catch about 105 games (Salvador Perez actually caught 143 games last year) so that means they need a decent option to pair with him. I’m going to assume that Jon Daniels won’t be adding anyone else from Free Agency as the group is about as thin as a Kenyan marathon runner. The current projected plan is to try Telis as the primary backup. The 5 foot 8 Telis had a big time breakout year in AA Frisco and AAA Round Rock as he slashed .318/.352/.431 in 442 Plate Appearances in those upper levels. It was his best year of full season pro ball. In his small sample at the big league level, he did hit .250 in 71 PA’s but only had 2 extra base hits resulting in a .279 slugging percentage. He’s a switch hitter that has gap power with good contact rates. (Its pretty much the opposite skills from the clubs top catching prospect). But just with Chirinos, Telis has a lot of work to do in the framing department. He rated even lower than Robinson in StatCorners RAA metric. As far as fielding went, he had a below average DRS and he only threw one base runner out in 17 attempts.

Tomas can still improve as he is still a young player fresh from the farm but he pretty much projects to how they will use him this year. Steamer has him slated to catch 45 games and slash .246/.277/.337 for at least a positive WAR. One could do worse at backup catcher (like signing JP Arencibia. Hello Baltimore).

The future does look bright for the position in the organization. The Rangers do own one of the top catching prospects in baseball. One so good he already has a nickname to the likes of “The Legend”. Pretty high expectations are already forming for Mr. Jorge Alfaro. Baseball America rated him the Rangers 2nd best prospect after the 2013 season and 54th overall. He has more tools than Tim Taylor. He has a great work ethic and understanding of the game. His combination of raw power, arm strength, and bat speed is unlike any other. (He puts on quite the show during most batting practice sessions as I have seen personally for myself). However, as Nathaniel Stoltz at Fangraphs described here, Jorge has two significant holes in his game. He has problems receiving (28 passed balls in 2013 alone) and he has contact issues. Breaking pitches gives him some problems and it’s led to a 22 percent strikeout rate in every season. He also has never walked more than seven percent in a season. He’s got to continue to tighten up the zone and find the proper amount of aggression.

This past season between High A Myrtle and AA Frisco Jorge slashed .261/.323/.440 with 17 homers which is a bit down from his 2013 numbers. He is projected to open 2015 at Frisco and should probably stay down there to further his game and receiving ability. Most sites don’t have his ETA in the Majors until late 2016 at the earliest. The Rangers are being patient with his development and with Chirinos being paid league minimum they can afford too.

Comparisons have ranged all the way up to Pudge Rodriguez (who has taken an interest in Jorge) but he is not the hitter that Pudge was. He just has too much contact issues. Most scouts see a Wilin Rosario type player that can be a nice everyday player but likely not the superstar that our fan base is wanting. Only time will tell on how he improves and develops but his impact in Arlington won’t be felt for a few more years.

So the ultimate question becomes, what will Daniels do about this important position for now and on into the future? Well first, barring any late trades he will be going with Chirinos and Telis for 2015. After that is unknown, the upcoming free agent catchers for the 2016 season is just as thin with only Matt Wieters or Alex Avila not doing anything for me. Do you, the fan feel, good about him using Chirinos and Telis for not only 2015 but probably most of 16 as well? With the current core they have, is that good enough for a division run? In this writers’ opinion it can be for what they will be paid. It appears to be the best bridge until your hopeful future in Alfaro is ready. Rather than spending big money on a Russell Martin this year or Matt Wieters next off-season, the best approach would seem to be to continue getting by and wait on The Legend’s appearance. Just temper those expectations for him folks. The flashy tools could still make him very good but if he’s simply a Yan Gomes type, that will do.

Austin Dietz
I'm just a local Dallas kid that enjoys baseball, craft beer, and using my best hitter second. I'm a co-host of the 20 Grade Podcast.

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