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CHICAGO CUBS
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Reportedly signed C-R David Ross to a two-year deal worth $5 million. [12/19]

On the surface, this is a pretty straightforward signing. Ross checks off multiple areas in which the Cubs wanted to improve this offseason: leadership, framing, calling a game, and handling the pitching staff. What’s of more interest is what the Cubs appear to be doing as a whole at the catcher’s position. With the previously added lefty-batting Miguel Montero, bringing in Ross just makes it all the more certain that incumbent starter Welington Castillo will be moved at some point in the next month-plus.

It’s that last point that has some Cubs fans scratching their heads. Bringing in Montero and Ross is fine and all, but Castillo still has three years on his rookie deal, is just 28, and appeared to be a catcher on the rise. Isn’t that exactly what an organization like this that’s been building around youth wants? Isn’t adding two catchers on the wrong side of 30, one of whom is significantly more expensive (Montero has three years and $40 million remaining on his contract) contradictory to this plan? The problem is that’s too simplistic an analysis of what the Cubs are doing and what Castillo really brings to the table.

First, let’s dispense with a reason that some are bringing up, but that doesn't carry much weight. Theo Epstein and company didn’t sign him solely to appease the recently acquired Jon Lester. Yes, by all accounts the two are close, and having Ross around and likely catching many of his starts should make Lester’s transition to Chicago easier, but Ross isn’t some magic elixir that takes Lester from average to ace. The southpaw had plenty of success on the mound prior to Ross’ arrival in Boston and his 159 ERA+ in his 11 Oakland starts shows that he has no dependence on Ross. Surely Lester has good things to say about Ross, and vice versa, but their relationship wasn’t high on the list of reasons to bring Ross aboard.

A more likely reason is due to some immeasurables that many claim Ross possesses, including leadership, a quality the Cubs front office has been vocal about wanting to add this offseason. Ross was part of the group of high-character individuals Ben Cherington added to the Red Sox prior to their 2013 worst-to-first turnaround. Of course, you’d like your leaders to provide more than just that lone quality, and some would argue it shouldn’t be something that’s even considered when acquiring a player. It’s a topic I find very fascinating and deserves a much deeper dive, but I’ll just say that it’s always been something those in the clubhouse buy into and it’s clear that the people in baseball making the decisions, even the staunchest numbers-lover, have come around to believe that these types of intangibles have value. Whether it’s to turn around a toxic clubhouse, like Cherington did, or to help a young team accustomed to losing open their window of contention, front offices want these types of intangibles on the roster.

But the Cubs aren’t likely sending Castillo on his way solely due to a need for veteran leadership. If you follow the Cubs, it’s a hardly a secret that Castillo's framing hasn’t progressed as many had hoped.

Player

Year

Framing Runs Added By Call

League Rank

Castillo

2012

-5.3

85th

Castillo

2013

-17.4

117th

Castillo

2014

-15.1

97th

Ross

2012

10.9

10th

Ross

2013

7.1

15th

Ross

2014

6.9

22nd

Montero

2012

12.2

9th

Montero

2013

2.4

31st

Montero

2014

21.9

1st

I think the word that comes to mind after seeing the above is: consistency. While Montero and Ross have been consistently good at framing, Castillo, who has been working on the skill with catching coach Mike Borzello, has continued to struggle.

When asked if framing was the primary reason Montero was acquired, Epstein gave an answer that could be used as the team’s general philosophy with what they look for in talent behind the plate.

“(The ability to frame) is a nice thing to have, when you steal a couple strikes here and there for your pitching staff it makes a difference over the course of a season,” Epstein said. “But we don’t go all in on any one number or metric, it’s really the whole package.”

Castillo had improved his performance behind the plate quite a bit in 2013, but according to our Harry Pavlidis, he doesn’t do anything significantly better than either Ross or Montero. Pavlidis said that projected over a full season, Montero has averaged 1.5 passed balls saved over the past three years, Castillo is at 1.4, and Ross -3. And, as Pavlidis said, the impact of blocking isn’t nearly that of framing; the best blocker saves five to 10 runs a season while the top framers can save anywhere from 20 to 40. The three are also considered to have strong, accurate arms (and their similar career caught-stealing numbers would confirm as much, but that statistic can be misleading for a variety of reasons).

Many believed Castillo was on the verge of a breakout heading into this past season. He had not only shown signs of improving behind the plate in 2013, but he slashed .289/.381/.465 in his final 59 games of that season. However, this past summer, Castillo dropped to a below-average bat (89 OPS+) and remained near the bottom of the league in framing. As far as catching goes, if you can excel in one of those two, you’ll bring tremendous value to your team, but Castillo struggled mightily in both areas.

It isn’t off base to wonder why the Cubs wouldn’t have forgone bringing in Ross and used Montero and Castillo as a tandem. But using Castillo in a straight platoon would diminish what they believe Montero brings to the table, while using Castillo as often as Ross will likely start (around 50 games) mitigates Castillo’s value and hinders his development. The best course of action for the Cubs was to bring in a player with strong splits against lefties (which both Ross and Castillo did last year) and who best fits in a limited role, which describes Ross quite accurately. The addition of Ross is less an indictment of Castillo’s future and more an endorsement of Montero’s present, and the Cubs clearly want the former Diamondback getting the bulk of the time donning the tools of ignorance.

While Castillo hasn’t progressed as many had hoped, the fact that he’s likely on his way out of Chicago doesn’t mean the organization believes he’s incapable of reaching the heights they once envisioned. It’s not out of the question that come 2017, Castillo will be a better option behind the plate than either Montero or Ross. But right now, the Cubs know that both Montero and Ross are as good or better, sometimes significantly so, than Castillo with the bat and the multiple facets of catching.

Cubs fans who have gotten used to building for the future are having trouble understanding this move because Montero and Ross aren’t truly long-term pieces, they’re immediate upgrades who can bridge the gap until a prospect (perhaps Kyle Schwarber, Mark Zagunis, or Victor Caratini) or Free Agent Player X take over in a few years. These additions are just further evidence that the Cubs believe their window of contention begins in 2015.

Thank you for reading

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Richie
12/23
Selling low on Castillo unless you really really believe in framing. Which would be a better reason than 'man oh man we really gotta win THIS! year!!' Or 'Ross is a LEADER!'

When you're paying your manager as much as Maddon, you shouldn't pay anything much at all to bring in extra leadership. I mean for goodness' sake, Maddon handled Yunel just fine. Especially since 'leaders' have some history of turning into the biggest whiners when a more talented younger player comes along and takes their job. (see Ray Knight, Luis Gonzalez, Larry Bowa)
majnun
12/23
I think leadership is a complicated issue
sahadev22
12/24
Yes, leadership is complicated at times, but it's something that many front offices buy into and want in PLAYERS, not coaches or managers. Last year, I asked if Eric Hinske could fill that role and many told me that he is a quality guy who filled that 'lead by example' role during his playing days, but it doesn't work as a coach. He's not preparing to play, so younger guys don't see how important that aspect of the game is, to really work your butt off day in and day out, regardless if you're the star player or the 25th man. I've said before, you don't pay a crazy amount for just leadership, but it's certainly something that has huge value, or at least many players, managers, and FO members believe it does. Guys like Ross, Gomes Giambi, Ibanez, and Hinske proved that they were leaders, in good times and bad, whether they were at the peak of their abilities and the star of the team or had been relegated to part-time duty. This is what front offices look for when it comes to leadership. Ross brings that and framing, which is huge, and a decent enough bat against lefties. The Ross/Montero tandem is an immediate upgrade, it improves the team for 2015/16 without sacrificing the future. And they believe they'll either develop or acquire someone to take over come 2017/18, which is why they're comfortable moving Castillo, who they like, but don't love.
cnote66
12/24
This move shocked me -- I had high hopes for Castillo. Hoping he can get traded and get some PT to see what he can do.
50cubs
12/24
It's disturbing that the Cubs actually think they can make the playoffs in 2015 - they're raising hopes that are not really realistic. The realistic hope of an above .500 season (the first since 2009) will seem like a disappointment to the ordinary fan.
Dodger300
12/24
No worries.

I don't imagine that signing Ross and trading Castillo will raise the hopes of the ordinary fan. Quite the opposite, I would expect.
50cubs
12/24
Pitch framing is a useful skill - but doesn't represent the total value of a catcher.

Over the past three seasons, Castillo leads in WAR 7.5 to 5.3.

2012 Montero 4.1 Castillo 1.2
2013 Montero 0.5 Castillo 4.5
2014 Montero 0.7 Castillo 1.8

Catcher's ERA:
2012 Montero 3.87 Castillo 4.53
2013 Montero 4.02 Castillo 4.02
2014 Montero 4.34 Castillo 4.20

Caught Stealing %;
2012 Montero 42 Castillo 25
2013 Montero 33 Castillo 29
2014 Montero 29 Castillo 33

For Montero, the trend is down: 2012 is better than 2014
For Castillo, the trend is up: 2014 is better than 2012.
Castillo's 2014 season wasn't as good as his 2013, when he made a big step upward, but the general trend is positive.
sahadev22
12/24
Even those who put together WAR admit it's greatly flawed for catchers because measuring catcher D is still a work in progress, at least accurately and then put into WAR form. I don't believe the WAR you referenced utilizes framing, a huge aspect of catching, as mentioned in the article. Catcher ERA has been largely debunked as a useful stat to measure a catcher. It's so heavily dependent on the pitchers you're catching, it just has little to no merit as far as judging a catcher's skills. CS% is also heavily dependent on a pitcher (and a coaching staff), how well they hold runners on or if they're even paying attention to the running game at all. Framing, calling a game, handling a staff, blocking, these are things that are important, especially the first three, the latter two which we can't yet measure with stats accurately, when it comes to catchers and their work behind the plate.
ScottLindholm
12/26
Good stuff, Sahadev, and excellent job on 670 The Score discussing it on Wednesday. It made me dig out some old PITCHf/x data and look at it in terms of pitch framimg, and it was an eye-opener. I think I'll write about it at my usual place.
sbnirish77
12/27
BP coming around ?

"even the staunchest numbers-lover, have come around to believe that these types of intangibles have value."

What's next here? An acknowledgement that clutch hitting exists?