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Catcher options for the 2021 Marlins

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Analyzing who can help the Marlins get better production from their backstops.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Miami Marlins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Fish Stripes enthusiasts,

One area we all agree on is the fact that the Marlins have an evident improvement opportunity at the catcher position, both defensively and offensively. This 2020 season showed cather to be the Marlins’ weakest point in their current roster development as its WAR as a group was merely replacement level, thanks to Francisco Cervelli’s good short stint with the team. I will use a couple of available sources to address this analysis, so you people can access them anytime. Since this was an unusual year, I would also like to reference some 2019 season stats but only for the sake of identifying important trends.

Let’s get started with what the team currently has:

Jorge Alfaro

If the season started tomorrow and it would be a 162-games season, Jorge would start regardless of finishing the last season in a slump. Here his stats from the previous two seasons:

Baseball-Reference

Total WAR 2019: 1.3

Total WAR 2020: - 0.4

Chad Wallach

Baseball-Reference

Total WAR in 2019: 0.2

Total WAR in 2020: 0.0

Offensively speaking, Alfaro and Wallach combined for a 2020 BA/OBP/SLG/OPS slash line of .226/.280/.350/.630, which when compared to the entire MLB average of .230/.310/.392/.701 doesn’t look so terrible. As a matter of fact, the Fish performed relatively close to other teams’ catchers when taking into account the contributions from Cervelli, Ryan Lavarnway, and Brian Navarreto.

If you think the offensive numbers are concerning, please have a seat. Nowadays it is necessary when evaluating catcher defense to include pitch framing, defined per Baseball Savant as “the art of a catcher receiving a pitch in a way that makes it more likely for an umpire to call it a strike.” It is analyzed using two major components: Runs Extra Strikes and Strike Rate.

Analyzing raw numbers from the 2019 and 2020 seasons, these are the results:

Jorge Alfaro

2019: Rank out of 64 qualified catchers

Runs Extra Strikes (RES): -6 (53rd)

Strike Rate: 47.4% (42nd)

2020: Rank out of 62 qualified catchers

RES: -3 (60th)

Strike Rate: 41.3% (62nd, or in other words, THE WORST and by far)

Chad Wallach

2019: Did Not Qualify

2020: Rank out of 62 qualified catchers

RES: -1 (47th)

Strike Rate: 45.8% (53rd)

To put the 2020 Strike Rate numbers in context, 52% or higher is considered elite (3 catchers), 50-52% good (18 catches), 48-50% average (14 catchers), 46-48% below average (14 C’s), and <46% well below average (13 C’s).

In a holistic analysis, it is pretty clear that the team has a deficiency, but it is way more evident if we only consider the defensive duties. In a 162-game season, one can expect Alfaro goes back to his career averages of .260 BA/.316 OBP/.416 SLG/.732 OPS with HR per 27.5 AB, which is higher than the league average for the position. As for Wallach, the same exercise wouldn’t be fair as he has not had more than 48 PA in a season.

So, what to do? Well, three main alternatives:

  1. Sign a free agent
  2. Trade for an upgrade
  3. The always popular “do nothing”

The latter is unacceptable for a Marlins team that is trying to contend for the postseason, so let’s check the former two and I will start with the easy one:

Free Agency

Who’s out there to sign? Here you have a list of the soon-to-be FA backstops for this coming offseason (via Spotrac and sorted by WAR in 2020):

Spotrac

With several big teams looking for an upgrade in the position, I see it as very much impossible for the Marlins to sign Realmuto or McCann. Moving forward from them, other available names are Jeff Mathis, but he is 38, Kratz is 41, Molina 38, and so on.

From that list, my favorites are Roberto Pérez, Jason Castro, and Sandy León, having as a last option Tyler Flowers. However, Cleveland most probably will pick up Pérez’s option and Flowers might go back to Atlanta. As for Castro and León, both offer good/solid defensive metrics, although below-average offensive output. Maybe they can accept a “cheap” contract to prove they still have a lot left in the tank. With the exceptions of Mathis and Molina, there are no further names to be considered as a defensive upgrade. Welington Castillo? Russell Martin? They did not play in 2020, so who knows.

Here you have a comparison between the above mentioned four and the Miami Cs, via FanGraphs:

  • Batting Stats, sorted by WAR:
FanGraphs
  • Fielding Stats, sorted by Defensive Value:
FanGraphs

In this table, please also have a look at FRM or framing zone value, where Alfaro’s value is extremely negative despite the small sample size. Wallach’s workload was even smaller, but he was at the same defensive level as León.

Trade Market

Now let us go to the tricky part. First of all, it is necessary to identify what the Marlins can offer and then match it with a team that has a clear catcher surplus on their roster AND—at leat to some extent—the need for what the Marlins can offer.

The Marlins can offer young controllable pitching (Yams, Dugger, Elieser, Neidert, Castano, Rogers, Garrett, Vesia, even Ureña as a throw-in) and a couple of OFs (Sierra or Ramirez, but not both). Who the Marlins will send out depends on who they are going to get.

The following teams have a catcher surplus, which I define as at least two above-average defensive catchers (Strike Rate > 48%) on their 40-man roster for the 2021 season: CHC (Caratini and Contreras), MIL (Nottingham and Narvaez; Pina was good in 2019), KC (Gallagher and Salvador Pérez), CIN (Casali and Barnhart), LAA (Stassi and Bemboom), SF (Heineman, Bart, and Posey coming back next year), ARI (Kelly and Vogt) and CLE (R. Pérez if option exercised and Hedges).

  • CHC: Willson Contreras has two years of arbitration eligibility remaining, offering good offensive numbers and better defense. Caratini will be arb-eligible for the first time next year and is a very solid defensive C. Chicago’s starting rotation is aging and might need some young fresh arms. Interesting to see if something happens, but not big chances. I like the Caratini fit better.
  • MIL: Both catchers are still in their pre-arb years and have good numbers defensively, but also, the Marlins could be scarred from their not-so-good history of trading with Milwaukee. This is a team that can definitely use a back-of-the-rotation starter, so I think there are good chances for a trade.
  • KC: Salvador Pérez enters the final year of his contract and comes expensive, so might not happen. Gallagher is not going anywhere. Not so clear way for a trade.
  • CIN: My favorite for a trade. Barnhart has been one of the best defensive catchers in the game for the last two or three years and he has a year left on a very cheap contract with a cheap option for 2022. Curt Casali will enter arbitration years and is a nice second backstop with decent numbers offensively. Also, the Reds have this kid Tyler Stephenson already knocking on the door. Furthermore, now that Bauer is leaving, they do need an SP or two plus a guy like Sierra fits well on a team that has outfielders like Castellanos and Aquino. Makes all the sense to me.
  • LAA: The Angels have been suffering for a long time a scarcity of quality pitching. Both catchers defended above average last year, and Stassi has been particularly good on both sides of the plate. Also a very good candidate. If Eppler comes to Miami, the chances are even bigger.
  • SF: Same as the Angels, but with Posey entering his final year of a very expensive contract, with a team option in 2022. Joey Bart is ready. If they eat a big chunk of Posey’s contract for one of the SPs, I think is possible, but that is a big if.
  • ARI: Kelly is not going anywhere, but Vogt might be a good complementary piece, and young Varsho is coming soon. One of Miami’s preferred trade partners as of lately.
  • CLE: The fact that both Pérez and Hedges are top 15 catchers defensively, makes one of them somehow disposable. It is not that Cleveland needs SP, but neither they have a surplus. What if MIA offers something like Brinson, Stanek, and Yams for Hedges, Cam Hill, and a minor leaguer? Just an example, but something can work out with the Indians.

Repeating the comparison done with the FAs, here you have two tables (FanGraphs) including the proposed trade targets, Alfaro, and Wallach:

  • Batting Stats, sorted by WAR:
FanGraphs
  • Fielding Stats, sorted by Defensive Value:
FanGraphs

All said, there are several options for the Fish, but I guess that they will first solve the GM vacancy before the winter meetings and then will come up with something. To me, CIN, LAA, CLE, ARI, and MIL are the best possible partners for a trade, in that order. Like any trading scenarios this week, it is a way-too-early prediction, but it is always fun to do the exercise.

In my humble opinion, the Marlins should not give up on developing Alfaro’s defensive skills, and that is why I prefer an experienced, defensive-proven catcher to help with the problem. I remember that not so long ago Willson Contreras was a well-below average catcher, and now his defensive numbers are surprisingly good. Bringing a guy like Mathis or Molina to mentor both Alfaro and Wallach does not sound like the craziest idea, that same idea worked this year. I am one of those who believes that, despite this year’s success, it can backfire by creating inflated expectations for the years to come. The team needs to do something, but by no means they must tirar la casa por la ventana.

Hope to get some comments!