For many, players and fans alike, the 2020 season can best be seen as a wash. Questions ranging from “how legitimate is this year’s World Series winner?” to “how much stock should we or should we even put any stock in players who have off years?” have permeated conversation since the season was initially suspended in mid-March amid the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For Marlins catcher Jorge Alfaro, the latter of these two quandaries may serve as the best cop-out for what was a disappointing, yet, trying season for the 27-year old native of Colombia.
Playing in just 31 games following return from a positive COVID-19 test, Alfaro hit .226, finishing the season with a meager .280 on-base percentage, .344 slugging and an OPS+ of just 70 (league average is 100). Among the 32 catchers with at least 100 plate appearances, Alfaro’s OPS+ ranks 26th.
The former Phillies backstop struck out in 36 percent of his plate appearances in 2020. For his career, Alfaro has struck out in 34.3 percent of his plate appearances. In an era when strikeouts are more commonplace than they ever before, front offices have generally batted a blind-eye to the swing-and-miss aesthetic so long as hitters have offset that with adequate power and on-base skills.
For Alfaro, taking four balls in one plate appearances is something he has struggled to do. Across 1,073 plate appearances, Alfaro has walked just 48 times for a worrisome 4.5 percent walk rate. In those aforementioned 100 plate appearances he took in 2020, Alfaro drew just 4 walks to those 36 strikeouts. The worry here is that Alfaro’s plate discipline won’t improve, which could affect his status with the team long term.
The concerns with Alfaro’s 2020 season and future projections extend beyond his inability to draw free passes. In his 29 games behind the dish this past season, Alfaro was worth -7 defensive runs saved (DRS), a total which projects to -39 over the course of a full season.
While always been regarded as a backstop with a strong arm, defensive inefficiencies aren’t foreign to Alfaro. In just 104 games caught in 2018, while still a member of the Philadelphia Phillies, Alfaro led the National League in passed balls with 10. 2020 saw 4 more pitches go by the wayside. Per Statcast metrics courtesy of Baseball Savant, Alfaro ranked last among 62 qualified catchers in framing percentage, costing the team 3 runs on extra strikes.
Given Alfaro’s defense has been suspect thus far, the team could explore several avenues in hopes of salvaging some value out of Alfaro behind the plate, let alone the catching position as a whole.
- Explore the FA market for a veteran backstop whom Alfaro could learn from.
-While the team did sign Francisco Cervelli to a one-year deal prior to the 2020 season, Cervelli, too, missed time due to a positive COVID-19 test. The former 13-year veteran, who retired following the conclusion of the regular season, owns a career .358 on-base percentage. In just 16 games played this past season, Cervelli posted a .355 OBP and 119 OPS+, respectively.
-Given the circumstances of what 2020 brought in terms of team revenues, the market will be depressed, meaning many free agents will be signed for pennies on the dollar for what they may have earned otherwise.
-A reunion with someone like Jeff Mathis could make sense. While presenting an even feebler offensive profile than Alfaro (.194/.253/.300, 48 OPS+), Mathis has managed a 16-year career given his defensive aptitude, saving 100 runs on defense since debuting in 2005.
-The likes of Alex Avila could make sense for the club as well. Avila, a Hialeah native and son of current Detroit Tigers’ GM and former Marlins director of scouting Al, is the owner of a .348 OBP and could provide some power off the bench. A full season of Alfaro learning from someone who has demonstrated patience at the plate and knows a thing or two about handling a pitching staff—as Avila caught the likes of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, and Doug Fister—could pay dividends for his development defensively.
- Pursue James McCann and carry Alfaro as the team’s backup.
-This one lies more within the lines of what may be perceived as an organization growing impatient. Other than former Marlin J.T. Realmuto, McCann holds claim to being the most sought-after free agent catcher available this offseason, and while he won’t command a contract close to what Realmuto projects to get, it should come as no surprise if a team ponies up and commits three years to the former Detroit Tiger. 2020 saw McCann post a career best .360 OBP, posting a 144 OPS+, also a career best, in 31 games played.
-Like Avila, McCann has experience with handling great pitchers. The aforementioned Justin Verlander owns a 3.07 ERA in 372 innings pitching to McCann, limiting hitters to a .274 OBP against in what encompasses 57 starts.
Should Alfaro looks to remain the club’s primary catcher through 2021 and beyond, it is imperative he address the previously mentioned issues surrounding his low walk rate and cut his strikeout rate.
The concerns surrounding the frequency at which Alfaro is set down on strikes can best be summarized by one metric, BABIP.
An acronym for Batting Average on Balls in Play, the premise of BABIP is to inform of a player’s batting average—minus the times they were set down on strikes—when balls are put in play. Alfaro’s .359 BABIP since joining the Marlins is the highest that anybody has ever had for the franchise (min. 500 PA). What this outlines could best be articulated as so; should he emphasize putting the ball in play more, his offensive production can only improve.
Alleviate this ailment somewhat and Miami has yet another asset as they soldier on with this rebuild.