February 18, 2013
Painting the Black
Martin Maldonado and Learning to Love Defense-First Catchers
Mark Smith wrote an interesting piece last week about Braves prospect Christian Bethancourt. Bethancourt is, of course, the top defensive catching prospect in the minors and the owner of superhuman pop times. Bethancourt is also an unpolished hitter with a poor plate approach and raw power that has yet to show up in games. Despite the negatives Smith arrived at a logical conclusion by writing that Bethancourt could contribute to a team with his defense even if he never reaches his offensive potential.
Smith’s post about coming to terms with Bethancourt’s offense is just the latest example in what amounts to a paradigm shift in the analytical community regarding defense-first catchers. Think of it in terms of prospect theory: We're no longer looking at what they cost you at the plate, but what they gain you behind it. Teams may be thinking this way, too.
Consider this past offseason. The Rays chose to retain Jose Molina—who hit .223/.286/.355 last season—as their starting catcher, and did not upgrade over their similarly light-hitting main or secondary backup options, Jose Lobaton and Chris Gimenez. All three rate well by most framing measures, with Molina taking his customary spot as the godfather of the bunch. The Pirates signed another king of framing, Russell Martin, to a two-year deal after he posted a career-worst on-base percentage. Then there’s Martin's former team, the Yankees, who will enter the season with defensive ace Chris Stewart as