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February 1, 2017

Transaction Analysis

Shoddy Carpenters Aren't the Only Bad Framers

by Bryan Grosnick


IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed C-S Jarrod Saltalamacchia to a minor-league contract. [1/24]

Saltalamacchia is an optical illusion, a trick of the eye and the mind, and he has been his entire career. First, he was a can’t-miss prospect, the type of catcher teams make Faustian bargains for. After being shipped to Texas for Mark Teixiera, he was part of an extraordinary extended series of bad backstops in Arlington–a trend that only recently ceased with the acquisition of Jonathan Lucroy. After moving over to Boston in 2010, the game changed and Salty peaked at just the right time, proving average or better, and at his best just in time to assist in the Red Sox’s third World Series victory in 10 years.

In fact, he was just good enough to cash in on a three-year deal with the woeful Marlins, where he dropped by 5.5 wins in value in just one season. The last three years have been quite disappointing, leading the man with the long last name to become something of a punching bag among sabermetrically-inclined writers. But like almost all major-league catchers, he’ll keep finding work until the pads don’t fit or the knees won’t bend.

So now he goes North of the Wall as penance for his past three years. And speaking of tricks of the eye, the greatest value-suck in Saltalamacchia’s history is his inability to successfully frame pitches. The problem isn’t Salty’s bat–not really–but rather in his mitt. He’s posted of one of the worst defensive seasons in the history of BP’s metrics, a -38.9 FRAA year in which he absolutely (fish)tanked the Marlins with a historic ability to give away borderline strikes to opposing hitters. It’s a shame too; Saltalamacchia has good power, with 110 homers over his career and a solid overall line against right-handers. If he could just be decent defensively, well, he would’ve gotten a contract more in line with that deal he signed three years back, rather than an invite to spring training.

Nominally a switch-hitter, Saltalamacchia must be protected against lefties, or rather the team should be protected against his .208/.272/.341 career line against them. The Jays could use another hitter who can beat up on right-handed pitching, and they certainly could use another catcher–after all, Juan Graterol isn’t going to DFA himself. But his best role isn’t behind the dish, it’s as a pinch-hitting bat off the bench, so the Jays might want to be extra aggressive in using him and lean even more heavily on the talented Russell Martin. In truth, Martin and Saltalamacchia almost couldn’t be more polar opposites in terms of skill, so perhaps there’s the hope that Martin can finally find a way to make Salty an adequate backstop. (I’d guess that if that were going to happen, it would’ve. Sorry, Russ.)

The only real question you have to ask here is this: do you believe in BP's pitch-framing metrics? Because if you do, then Salty is a true rarity in today’s game: a player whose established talent level is considerably lower than replacement, but often played as if he were greater than that. The days of Yuniesky Betancourt racking up below-replacement innings are over, but Saltalamacchia is a true throwback, the last of a dying breed.

ATLANTA BRAVES
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Signed C-R Kurt Suzuki to a one-year, $1.5 million contract. [1/30]

In the trenches here at BP's Transaction Analysis department, we try to be both fair and kind. I try to be objective but recognize that there are teams who know things I do not, and respectful of the human beings who play this game. As a result, it is incredibly rare for me to say something like “this is a stupid deal.”

This is a stupid deal.

To all of you who say that there is no such thing as a bad one-year contract, I present to you the Braves’ signing of Suzuki. The last season Suzuki had that was above replacement level by WARP was 2011, thanks to defense that can only charitably be described as “bad.” Over his career, Suzuki had given back more than 10 wins on defense, owing to a combination of being a very bad pitch framer (-7.1 Framing Runs in 2016) and a below-average thrower (-1.9 Throwing Runs in 2016).

Of course, you can cover these flaws by earning your keep at the plate, but Suzuki has undershot his .246 career True Average in each of the last two seasons. Given that he’s a below-average hitter and a well-below-average defender, he’d need to be an unbelievable clubhouse presence or at least a platoon partner for regular backstop Tyler Flowers to make this deal make sense.

The point here is not that Suzuki is so fundamentally flawed to be useless. Absolutely anyone who can withstand the rigors of the catching position for a decade–and by all accounts maintain their sanity and good nature–deserves a job at the highest echelons of baseball. It’s just that if the Braves wanted a replacement-level catcher, they could’ve acquired one at one-third of the cost or looked to Anthony Recker, who already existed in their own depth chart.

They could’ve even kept The Beautiful Disaster. Instead, they’ve chosen to spend some of their limited resources on a player who may make the team worse, with little upside. But if we’ve learned one thing about the Braves over the last few years, it’s that they’ll do anything to acquire young pitching; if we’ve learned two things about the Braves, it’s that they’ve got weird taste in catchers.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
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Signed C-R Nick Hundley to a one-year, $2 million contract. [1/24]

For years, Hundley has been a poster boy for the adequate catcher. Year after year, he’s hit just well enough to offset his bad defense, often in relative obscurity in the western reaches of the United States. On those occasions in which he was a starter in San Diego and Colorado, it always seemed like there was a desire to upgrade away from him to the kind of impactful backstop teams dream of. In San Francisco–where the ideal catcher already exists in Buster Posey–Hundley can settle in as the kind of good-hit, bad-field backup catcher contending teams long for, rather than as a miscast second-division starter.

The trick with Nick is making decent contact. At his best he’s capable of hitting for a good average, which bumps up his overall OBP. (He did this well in Colorado, where he reached base in about a third of his plate appearances.) He’s also got a little bit of power–if you give him half a season of plate appearances, he’s likely to put up 10 or so homers whether playing in Denver or San Diego. That’ll suit him well in offense-depressing San Francisco.

His .258 career True Average is just fine for a catcher, but only tells half the story of his game; the other half is his "not great, Bob" defense. Yes, he can wear the tools of ignorance and maintain a crouch, but if you’re looking for extra strikes, this ain’t the guy. In each of the past two seasons, Hundley has been among the worst in the league at pitch framing, racking up -26.2 framing runs and effectively stealing two-and-a-half wins of value from his team. The less time he’s behind the dish, the better for his team’s run prevention.

The Giants need a suitable backup for Posey to allow him to play first base or designated hitter as the situation and his rest requires. Trevor Brown was not going to cut it, especially for a team that’s looking to win every possible game on a rush to the playoffs. Hundley will give the team some mild offensive upside when the team’s MVP sits, albeit at the cost of the Giants’ run prevention. (But, to be fair, few backstops can match Posey’s defensive prowess, let alone his bat.) Hopefully, this move will allow Bruce Bochy to be a little more comfortable resting his star, and allowing him to succeed late in the season and perhaps during the playoffs.

No longer asked to be an everyday option at the two, Hundley should be able to continue his reliable adequacy in San Francisco as the veteran understudy to Posey. At long last, the place he should be is the place where he is.

Bryan Grosnick is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bryan's other articles. You can contact Bryan by clicking here

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