The Miami Marlins have changed a lot of things about themselves since the start of the 2012 season, and one of the major changes this year has been the catcher position. Last season, the club ran out John Buck, who had limited upside and apparently loads of downside. Buck put up a career-worst season and ended up playing a role in the team's struggles. By the end of the year, however, the Marlins were starting an interesting new youngster in prospect Rob Brantly, and heading into this season, Brantly will be the team's starting catcher.
1. Rob Brantly
2. Jeff Mathis
The Marlins are counting on Rob Brantly to be a big part of their new team identity, and that hopefully begins in 2013. In 2012, Brantly had an excellent short stint with the Marlins, and that followed a career year in the minors that began with him dominating Double-A. The Marlins had to be happy to see him extend what he did best in the minors into his major league performance.
What exactly was it that Brantly did best? Well, at the plate, he was known at the very least for being a strong contact hitter. In his minor league career, he struck out in just 12 percent of his plate appearances, and that continued in 2012 with the Fish, as he whiffed in only 14.7 percent of his chances. While those numbers seem decent, it is important to note, however, that his strikeout rate should perhaps have been higher based on his contact numbers from last season; Brantly made contact on only 78.1 percent of pitches, and he failed to display proper discipline, as evidenced by his 32.3 percent swing rate on pitches out of the zone. It was early, but this is certainly not the profile of a hitter with a great eye at the plate.
That extends to one of the other things that he did well last season: draw walks. Brantly walked in 11.5 percent of his plate appearances last season despite the bad swing rate and his minor league track record. In the minors, Brantly walked in just 6.7 percent of his chances, and such a number better fits the swing profile he displayed last season. Furthermore, Brantly often hit at the bottom of the order, so he received both intentional walks (two of his 13 walks) and likely some "unintentional intentional" free passes as well. If even two more of his walks were of that variety, you are looking at a hitter who drew just a walk in just 9.3 percent of his appearances, and even that is likely to come with some regression heading into 2013.
And what about the power? That was also something that Marlins fans probably did not expect, given Brantly's career .112 ISO in the minors. Considering the fact that Marlins Park suppresses home runs as well, there is a very good chance that Brantly's numbers will not be able to match up in that department as well.
The one negative from the 2012 season was Brantly's defense, and ironically that seems to be the one thing that is likely to stick from last year to this year. Brantly really struggled with catching foul popups, blocking pitches, and throwing out baserunners, essentially messing up the entire process of defending the position. He has some advantages left to him, primarily in the form of youth and manager and former catcher Mike Redmond at his disposal, but it does not mean that he is a sure bet to improve defensively. in 2013, I would be willing to believe that his numbers will still be a struggle.
So how much of a struggle might the 2013 season be for Brantly? Let's take a look at some projections.
The fans naturally think that Brantly will perform significantly better, but for the most part the projections have him close to a .300 wOBA for the season. They expect a lot of regression in terms of power, BABIP, and walk rate, leaving him likely to struggle more at the plate. As mentioned before, a .300 wOBA is akin to how John Buck performed in 2010, and we all recall our reaction to that.
In addition, we should note that Brantly is still likely a bad defender at the position and should be treated that way. The fans have projected him at four runs below average in 108 games played, and I would be willing to accept such a performance given just how poorly things went last season.
Projection: 450 PA, 1.4 WAR
This is a projection simply based on the numbers listed above. Brantly would be close to 10 runs worse than the average catcher next season, but such a performance is still close to the league average. Given the positional adjustment based on how difficult it is to find a decent catcher, Brantly ends up about two runs worse than average in his playing time.
Brantly is still young and has plenty of opportunities ahead of him, so we cannot fault him too badly for regressing in his second year. The Fish should be more than happy to have a promising young catcher after the last few years' worth of performances.
The Rest of the Team
Jeff Mathis was picked up by the Marlins in the trade with the Toronto Blue Jays, and Jeff Mathis is a classic laughingstock among sabermetric-inclined fans and fans of the Los Angeles Angels in general. Mathis gained notoriety for being a terrible hitter (.198/.256/.314 career line, .252 career wOBA) and still stealing playing time from Mike Napoli. He went to the Blue Jays in an offseason trade and somehow he still ended up signing a two-year extension with one of the smarter franchises in the game. Now he will be the burden of the Marlins, who will play him as Brantly's primary backup. Mathis is a righty, but it is likely he cannot hit lefties as well as Brantly can; nevertheless, the Marlins will likely give Mathis some plate appearances versus lefties more frequently than needed. His only primary benefit is that he is supposedly a good defender, though one would have to be a spectacular defender to make up for his pitcher-level bat.
Kyle Skipworth will likely be moved to Triple-A after repeating Double-A and finally putting up passable numbers. This is his final opportunity to perform well and earn a shot as a backup in the majors, but the likelihood is that he merely remains in the minor leagues for the rest of his career given his mediocre tools. Jake Jefferies, who was acquired in the Burke Badenhop trade, is what Kyle Skipworth will soon become: a minor leaguer with no prospective big league future.