A fistful of teams are off to surprising starts this season. The Orioles are better than they have any right to be, for the sixth year in a row. The White Sox tried to trade all of their good players this winter, couldn’t get rid of a few of them, have fixed the coding error in Avisail Garcia’s Miguel Cabrera emulator, and somehow stand above .500. Both of those teams will eventually come back to earth, though. (Sure, Trueblood, go ahead, dismiss the Orioles again. It’ll totally work out this time.)
Three other teams that have also overachieved early are, to my eye, more likely to keep up that performance going forward, and it’s for one common reason: they’ve finally caught the catching wave.
Last season, the Diamondbacks were 25th in MLB in adjusted Fielding Runs Above Average from their catchers. (Adjusted FRAA includes framing, throwing, blocking, and actual, balls-in-play fielding.) That was voluntary, though unintentional. Between Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller combining to stage a modern retelling of Mike Hampton Goes to Denver, A.J. Pollock missing the season, and ownership trying desperately to shut down Jurassic Park before the dinosaurs in the front office got out and took over the world, their problems behind the plate flew under the radar. Welington Castillo truly was a nightmare back there, though, and his supporting cast was just about as bad.
Once the keys to the team were handed over to the kinds of people who run literally every other team, things changed fast. Mike Hazen and company elected to non-tender Castillo, even though they knew they wouldn’t be able to replace his offense in free agency. They signed Jeff Mathis and Chris Iannetta to fill the space behind the plate, and while they’ve been predictably unhelpful at bat, they’ve boosted the team all the way to fifth in MLB in adjusted FRAA. It’s not the top reason why they’ve been surprisingly good, but it’s a reason.
The Twins’ catchers were even worse than Arizona’s last season. Then again, the Twins were worse at most things than most of the rest baseball was. Kurt Suzuki’s two-year extension locked them into a relationship with an aging catcher who retained some athleticism, but couldn’t frame pitches well at all. John Ryan Murphy was a better defender, but was so thoroughly helpless with a bat in his hands that the team gave up on him early in the season and turned over backup duty to defensive butcher Juan Centeno. They finished the season 29th in MLB in adjusted FRAA.
Around midseason, they finally cut back some of the overgrown old forest of their front office, sending Terry Ryan packing. Suzuki and Centeno each hit free agency at season’s end. That paved the way for the new co-showrunners, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, to overhaul the defensive picture at the spot. In a winter that saw almost no other impactful moves, the team signed Jason Castro to a three-year, $24.5 million deal, almost solely because of his framing skills. They also added the solid (if aged and unspectacular) Chris Gimenez as a backup. One month in, they’ve climbed to seventh in adjusted FRAA, and Castro is even getting on base at an above-average clip. Their improvement in run prevention has been about their defense, not their pitchers, and while the outfield has gotten the lion’s share of the credit for that defensive progress, the catchers deserve nearly an equal share.
Unlike the Diamondbacks and Twins, the Angels have been run by smart people for some time now. Also (and unsurprisingly) unlike those teams, the Angels fielded an adequate defensive catching corps last season, ranking 13th in adjusted FRAA. Most of that was on the strength of their old-school catch-and-throw skills, though: they added 3.0 runs with their blocking skills, 2.9 more with their ability to slow the running game, and then gave back 3.7 runs with their mediocre framing talent.
Billy Eppler made a trio of nice arbitrage plays over the winter, aimed at improving the Angels' defense all over the diamond. Swooping in to clear unwanted salary from the Tigers’ payroll, he added Cameron Maybin to play left field. When the friction between the Nationals and Danny Espinosa came to a head, Eppler stormed in and grabbed Espinosa, completing perhaps the best defensive middle infield in the American League. Then, to finish the job, he swapped Jett Bandy to the Brewers for Martin Maldonado, trading some offensive upside and some team control for better framing work. The reward, so far, has been well worth the risk. The Angels rank second in MLB in adjusted FRAA at catcher, a big factor in their above-.500 April. They’re already 3.1 framing runs to the good.
It’s been widely noted, and seems true based on the early distribution of individual and team-level catching stats, that the potential value of framing is dwindling. It’s no longer possible to be 40 runs better than average based on framing, the way the elite framers were early in the PITCHf/x era. However, the market has not become so efficient as to prohibit a team from making big gains by improving behind the plate, and it can still be done without an enormous financial expenditure. Moreover—and this is one of the lessons teams should take from the 2016 Cubs—teams that have multiple competent defensive catchers can quietly accrue extra value for practically nothing. Teams like the Tigers and Rangers, who sit at the very bottom of the adjusted FRAA rankings so far and figure to be on the playoff bubble come September, might come to deeply regret not doing more to shore up that aspect of their club.