March 11, 2016
Life at the Margins
Disaster comes in many forms. In 2016, one of those forms will probably be catching in the American League Central. There is no other position-division combination which PECOTA projects so poorly in the aggregate: Four of the division’s five teams project to generate 0.4 WARP or less from the catcher position in 2016, and three project to actually lose value (relative to replacement level) from their catchers next year. Cleveland, which has Yan Gomes holding down the fort at the position, is the lone exception to the rule.
Now, we usually frown upon discussing past disasters with any precision. We prefer to let our friends and neighbors who experience disaster—financially, emotionally, or otherwise—save face and sanity in their time of trouble by treating them with a sort of vague empathy, thereby absolving them (and ourselves) of the requirement to relive yesterday’s tragedies in detail. Nobody wants to be the one to pry.
But baseball is different. The stakes are lower—it’s just a game, after all—and with respect to the AL Central’s catching situation in 2016, the disaster in question hasn’t even happened yet. It only probably will, as far as we can tell. And so it might be worth talking, for just a moment, about the two distinct ways in which catching might be a disaster in the AL Central in 2016. Because although each of the teams in question—the Indians, the Royals, the Tigers, and the White Sox—has ended up in roughly the same ignominious place, the ways in which they’ve all arrived there are in fact quite different. Disaster comes in many forms.
Consider first the White Sox and the Royals:
1.0 — The White Sox
2.0 — The Royals
Discerning observers will note that the two starters—Avila and Perez—are not the main problems here. I mean, they are problems in that 1.0 WARP (Perez’s mark) is not really particularly good, and 0.4 (Avila’s) is quite a bit short of that, but they aren’t problems in that they’re not the people who are really dragging things down for their teams. The problems lie in the backups, who—somewhat remarkably—are projected to perform at levels a full 0.9 wins below replacement over just a hair over 320 plate appearances. Being that bad, in that short a time, takes effort.
Now, of course there are ways to quibble with the data. Perez’s defenders have never really bought BP’s evaluation of his catching (we think it’s quite poor), and Butera and Cruz both have reputations as strong clubhouse presences, which could make up some of the difference for them. Avila, too, is the kind of veteran player who you could see having an impact beyond what he does on the field. But the sad fact is that the Royals and the White Sox, as they’re currently constructed, have starters behind the plate who are projected to be just a little bit above mediocre, and backups who project to be quite a bit worse than that.
There’s no real way to fix that with personnel, at this point in the offseason. Perhaps, though, intelligent platooning can allow the four backups to perform at the highest offensive levels possible for their skill sets, and perhaps umpires’ recent tendency to ignore framing will allow Navarro, in particular, to recoup some of the value we debit for his poor framing (we project him for -5 FRAA next year). When you’re only talking about 320 plate appearances, and just a few turns behind the plate, there are ways to cover things up and stumble forward.
This is more than can be said for the Twins and the Tigers:
3.0 — The Twins
4.0 — The Tigers
Let’s begin with Minnesota, because the Detroit projections, much like the sun on a summer’s day, are hard to look at for too long. And on that note, we find a different problem than before: the starter. It would be nice to be able to say that Kurt Suzuki was once good, and has fallen from commanding heights. But that’s not true: His best season—2.7 WARP back in 2008 for the A’s—was a full 1.6 WARP higher than his next-best mark, which came in the season immediately thereafter. Since 2011, he hasn’t produced more than 0.3 WARP. He was worth -1.5 last year. At a certain point, laying out the numbers like this feels mean.
And yet, Suzuki keeps getting offered starting catching jobs in the big leagues. This means, I suppose, that either there’s something he’s contributing that we’re not measuring, or that there’s a difference in relative valuation between things that both we and teams measure. I suspect it’s both, and that Minnesota values his veteran presence on squads with lots of young talent more than we do (which is not at all in PECOTA; I, in the abstract at least, value it quite highly), and is willing to sacrifice on-field contributions to get it. Which is a perfectly fine thing to think, but it doesn’t make for a particularly pretty projection.
John Ryan Murphy—the bright spot on the Twins depth chart— hasn’t really shown he can stay in the big leagues for a whole season, but seems to be better than Suzuki behind the plate (-1.8 FRAA last year) and has relatively even platoon splits. It might be worth giving him a shot for a bit more than 216 PAs next year, and indeed the Twins are already projected to give him the biggest playing time-share of any backup on this list. That’s about all they can hope to do, because they’ve made their bed with Suzuki and his veteran presence already.
Detroit’s situation, on the other hand, may be hard to salvage: by over half a win, it’s the worst projection at any position in all of major-league baseball. James McCann, the projected starter, was horrific behind the plate last year, and didn’t really do enough offensively to make up for it. And the backups don’t help one little bit: Saltalamacchia is projected for -6 FRAA behind the plate next year, and Holaday for -2. Neither hits much either, and both are on the wrong side of the aging curve. And so, in amongst the worst position-division projection in baseball—catching in the AL Central—Detroit is in quite clearly the worst situation. So, what have we learned? In the case of the Royals and the White Sox, we’ve learned that they’re doing okay with their starters, but will need to paper over bad backup situations. And in Minnesota and Detroit, things look bad all around. Disaster comes in many forms, and this year in baseball it’s more likely than anywhere else to come to the backstops plying their trade for the American Midwest’s junior teams. And Detroit—as has been true in the broader American life these last decades, as well—has been hit the hardest.