The Miami Marlins would like for prospective 2013 Opening Day starting catcher Rob Brantly to be one of the team's keys to success in their future. Brantly, after all, has displayed good numbers in a limited amount of time in the majors, and these numbers came after a breakout campaign in the minors in 2012. The team may believe it finally has its offensive-minded catcher that it has wanted for years in Brantly.
But unlike the optimistic view seen earlier on this site, the pessimistic view sees past Brantly's exciting 113 plate appearances in 2012. Beyond those plate appearances, there are indeed significant flaws that could hold off his game from being better than that of a career backup. Brantly's bat may be tantalizing for a starved Marlins fan base that has not seen much offense from the catcher position, but it does not mean that his other problems should be overlooked.
The Pessimist's Case
The primary problem that Marlins fans probably noticed about Brantly last season was his defensive play. Most fans probably remember plays much like this one.
Such a play would not be worth mentioning if it had only happened once. But to Brantly, this was not a one-time occurrence; I recall at least four instances in which he struggled to visualize pop-ups, both during daytime and night games, and subsequently failed to make catches and thus gave away outs, much like in the featured picture in this post. Brantly is no converted second baseman new to the catching position either. These sorts of mistakes are not unbelievable, but neither are they excusable.
But these mistakes were simply the most visible ones in Brantly's resume. In 2012, he struggled in all aspects of defensive play. Before the 2012 season, this is what Fish Stripes prospect maven Sam Evans had to say about Brantly's defense.
Defense: Brantly isn't built like a normal catcher, he's a little on the slim side. This helps his mobility behind the plate, which is one thing I've heard has greatly improved this season. Brantly has a strong arm, and his throws down to second base rival those of any catcher in the PCL. He's still learning how to block offspeed pitches effectively, but all reports indicate he is getting better day by day.
The blocking aspect for Brantly may have been his most severe struggle in 2012. In just 247 2/3 innings behind the plate, he allowed six passed balls and 18 wild pitches. That translates to rates of one passed ball every 41.2 innings and one wild pitch every 13.7 innings. Those may not sound like extravagant numbers, but consider that the league average catcher allowed a passed ball every 118 innings and a wild pitch once every 28 innings. In other words, in Brantly's small sample, he allowed passed balls at 2.86 times the league average and wild pitches at 2.04 times the average.
Of course, those could merely be random variations that happened to catch Brantly on some bad days behind the plate, but the results on the field so far have matched the scouting report saying that, despite Brantly's smaller frame and subsequent increased agility, he still had an extremely difficult time blocking pitches. The Marlins cannot be happy with that performance heading into 2013, especially given the fact that the pitching staff for this upcoming season is young and in need of as much help as possible from their catcher.
This analysis does not even consider Brantly's poor baserunner marks (18 percent caught stealing versus league average of 26 percent). When looking at the overall picture, he may have cost the Marlins between two to four runs versus the average catcher last season, and that would translate to eight to 12 runs below average for an entire season.
While that would be a terrible performance, it would certainly be better if Brantly were a sure-fire success at the plate, but some of the underlying numbers suggest that he may not even do that. Given that his 14 percent strikeout rate was such as success, it is interesting to note that Brantly's contact rate in 2012 was a mere 78.1 percent. Among Marlins players, the next highest contact rate was that of Emilio Bonifacio's (81.2 percent), and he struck out 19 percent of the time. The next lowest contact rate was Gorkys Hernandez's (75 percent), and he struck out 24.3 percent of the time. Among qualified major leaguers, similar contact rates were on players such as Ian Desmond (20.7 percent strikeout rate), Ryan Doumit (18.6 percent), and Dexter Fowler (24.2 percent). In other words, there is no guarantee that, even with Brantly's hit tool, he will hit strike out as little as the Omar Infante's of the world.
A Marlins Historical Comparison
Conveniently, you know another former Marlins catcher who boasted an average or worse contact rate and poor defense? John Baker, who made contact on around 80 or 81 percent of his pitches swung at between 2008 and 2009. Baker managed to make more contact than Brantly did in 2012 and still struck out in 20.9 percent of his plate appearances. Brantly is younger and more likely to improve, but Baker has already shown that an average contact rate yields generally average strikeout rates. In addition, unlike Baker, Brantly is unlikely to have a strong batting eye and patience at the plate upon which to fall back.
Baker allowed a passed ball every 170 innings, but he also allowed a wild pitch every 27.2 innings. That second figure almost exactly matches Brantly's mark. Baker also was lanky for a catcher, though he had a taller frame to help him with certain pitches. Given Brantly's smaller figure, passed balls may simply more of a difficulty for him than Baker. In the end, the fact that the comparison between Brantly and one of the worst defensive catchers in Marlins history is somewhat apt is not a good sign for the young prospect.
The Pessimist's Projection
Brantly's strikeout numbers should not hold steady where they are, as the optimistic view likely projects. Thanks to a lower contact rate than you would expect for a player with a 14 percent strikeout rate, we should expect worse production in that department from Brantly. Given a decrease in power that is sure to happen thanks to a non-existent track record in the minors and the aforementioned problems with the strike zone, it is not hard to expect just a .292 wOBA from Brantly next season. To put that in perspective, John Buck hit a .303 wOBA in 2011, and Marlins fans were already prepared to chop his head off.
With that kind of wOBA and a poor defensive performance behind the plate, you can expect just a 1.1-win season from Brantly in 2013 in 500 PA. That is hardly the sort of production that would make fans take notice as a "catcher of the future" on this team.