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Diving Into Jacob Stallings’ Defense

The Marlins landed a Gold Glove catcher. Just how good is he?

Jacob Stallings #58 of the Pittsburgh Pirates catches a pitch against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on July 19, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

The Miami Marlins traded for the National League’s 2021 Gold Glove catcher, Jacob Stallings, on Monday. Going back to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Stallings was pitcher Zach Thompson and two prospects, pitcher Kyle Nicolas and outfielder Connor Scott.

Stallings brings superb defense and an upgrade offensively to the Marlins, who relied on Jorge Alfaro and Sandy León for most of the 2021 season. Ely detailed the trade here and noted a few promising things the catcher brings offensively, particularly his pitch recognition. After pretty much nonexistent production out of their catchers this season, nearly anyone would be an upgrade offensively. Below are 2021 statistics from Alfaro, León, and Stallings.

  • Alfaro: 311 PA, 3.5 BB%, 31.8 K%, .244/.283/.342, 73 wRC+.
  • León: 220 PA, 5.5 BB%, 29.5 K%, .183/.237/.267, 42 wRC+.
  • Stallings: 427 PA, 11.5 BB%, 19.9 K%, .246/.335/.369, 95 wRC+.

Although this is a defensive-focused article, I thought the offensive numbers, which speak for themselves, were worth mentioning. Now, onto defense…

Versatile, super-utility players are my favorite, so I haven’t been shy about my appreciation for good defenders. I’ve covered Jon Berti’s past two season reviews (2020 and 2021) and talked about how much his flexibility meant to the Marlins. With the Marlins recent acquisition of infielder Joey Wendle, he might be my next focus.

I’ve also grown fond of good defensive catchers. For Pitcher List, I wrote Reframing the Concussion Discussion about former Pirate and Marlin backstop Francisco Cervelli. While the article was focused around how injuries may have aided in Cervelli’s progression from one of the best pitch framers in the game to one of the worst, I did a lot of research into the qualities good catchers possess and the different areas of catcher defense.

Stallings and Cervelli overlapped a bit during their careers in Pittsburgh, with both players donning the black and gold from 2016 to 2019. Stallings, however, only played a handful of games during those first few seasons. When he got his first chance to play semi-consistently with the big league club, it was because a concussion landed Cervelli on the injured list for 88 days. Because of Stallings being shuttled back and forth from the minor to major leagues and Cervelli’s shuffling to and from the injured list, they spent less time together than I initially thought. Still, I wanted to see what the two had in common.

A few Pirates pitcher threw to both Cervelli and Stallings during their career in Pittsburgh. Right-handed pitcher Chad Kuhl was one of those pitchers. In 2017, Kuhl told Adam Berry of that he would go back and watching replays of pitches he threw to Cervelli and admitted that balls Cervelli framed for called strikes were not really strikes.

When Kuhl was asked recently about working with Stallings behind the plate, he told western Pennsylvania reporter Chris Adamski that Stallings is comparable to Cervelli because they share the characteristics that great defensive catchers have. Further, Kuhl explained to Adamski:

“Those guys who come and sit with you at the end of each inning or whenever you need it, Stallings has those qualities,” Kuhl said. “Obviously, he’s a good receiver. He’s just a good guy to have back there. And people just love throwing to him because he knows that from Pitch 1 to the end of the game that guy is locked in, and that’s why people love him.”

Whatever way you want to analyze Marlins’ catchers over the past few seasons, their numbers don’t come close to Stallings’ production during his recent seasons in Pittsburgh. Stallings representing the best NL catcher when winning the Gold Glove may have surprised you, but I’m certain his impact will be felt rather quickly.

The first picture below has two charts showing basic defensive statistics from 2019 to 2021. The top chart shows Stallings’ numbers and the bottom chart shows the Marlins’ catcher totals:

2019-2021 catching statistics for Jacob Stallings and Marlins catchers FanGraphs

Stallings didn’t play every day in 2019, so the counting statistics (passed balls and errors) are understandably much lower than the Marlins’ totals. He caught eight runners attempting to steal, the same amount the Marlins’ backup catchers caught in roughly the same amount of innings. 2020 was another small sample, but this time not just limited to Stallings. Because of the small sample size of just 60 games, we can’t conclude too much from 2020. We’ll just say his standard statistics matchup well with the Marlins’ totals.

The 102 games Stallings caught in 2021 were the most of his career. I don’t believe standard defensive statistics tell us much about how good a catcher really is, but the one important number to note is the big zero in the passed balls column. That’s right, Stallings did not allow one passed ball all season. That was a huge issue for Marlins catchers this year. Jorge Alfaro allowed 13 passed balls in less than 476 innings, which is roughly one every four games. Sandy León, Chad Wallach, and Nick Fortes each allowed four passed balls this season.

It’s unlikely that Stallings will uphold the high bar of zero passed balls from season to season, but Marlins pitchers will benefit from his ability to block anything in the dirt. This will give pitchers the confidence to unleash breaking pitches without having to fear they will skip by the catcher and allow baserunners to advance. This peace of mind will be vital for Miami’s young pitching staff.

The next picture again shows two tables, Stallings’ statistics on top and the Marlins’ totals on the bottom. These, however, are advanced defensive metrics. If you aren’t familiar with advanced defensive statistics, don’t fear! I’ll give you a quick primer of what to know for each column in the table.

We’ll be looking at what goes into a statistic you may have heard of, DRS (Defensive Runs Saved). DRS tries to capture a fielder’s total value in terms of runs better or worse than average. League average is 0 runs; a positive number indicates a fielder is better than average, a negative number means worse. You can read more about DRS on FanGraphs here, but I’ll end with a question they explore in the article.

Why should we use DRS? Run value defensive stats like DRS provide you with the best estimate of defensive value currently available, and allow you to estimate how much a player’s defense has helped his team win.

There are six statistics listed in the chart below that will help us compare Stallings’ defensive production to what the Marlins have received recently. If you’re a Marlins fan, this is probably where you’re going to get excited.

  • Strike Zone runs saved (rSZ): catchers can “steal” extra strikes by framing pitches.
  • Runs from catcher-ERA (rCERA): how a pitcher’s ERA change from catcher to catcher.
  • Stolen Base runs saved (rSB): catchers can control the running game by throwing out base stealers.
  • Runs from Great Fielding Plays (rGFP): catchers who consistently block balls in the dirt get credit here.
  • DRS: Defensive Runs Saved combines the four areas of catcher defense into one number signifying total defensive value.
  • FRM: Framing is calculated in different ways. “FRM” is FanGraphs’ version of how many extra strikes a catcher earns or loses for their pitcher, translated into runs. (rSZ is Sports Info Solution’s framing metric).
2019-2021 advanced catching statistics for Stallings and Marlins catchers FanGraphs

The thing that probably jumps out at you when looking at Stallings numbers versus the Marlins totals is the 21 DRS Stallings had in 2021. Stallings not only led all catchers with the most defensive runs saved this season, but he also led all position players in DRS. He beat out notable defensive wizards Andrelton Simmons and Kevin Kiermaier easily.

A good chunk of that total came from the nine runs earned on “great fielding plays.” This makes sense considering Stallings didn’t allow a passed ball all season.

Additionally, Pirates pitchers had the most success when throwing to Stallings. Their earned run average, split up by catcher, is: Stallings, 4.88; Michael Pérez, 5.40; Taylor Davis, 6.19. This ability to affect his pitchers’ earned run average in a positive way is reflected in the four runs from catcher-ERA.

Stallings did not save or cost the Pirates any runs regarding the running game. His caught stealing rate was around league average, having thrown out 12 of the 57 runners attempting to steal on him.

Looking at runs saved via the strike zone and FanGraphs’ version of framing, the two values agree Stallings is above average in this department. The Marlins have historically struggled to find good framing catchers. 2021 was, coincidentally, an outlier.

When asked about his approach to receiving pitches last year, Stallings told MLB Network’s Carlos Peña that he aims to have good body position, keep the angle of his glove horizontal while catching the ball, and consistently bring pitches back to the middle of the plate.

Besides bringing proven success defensively, some say the best trait Stallings possesses is his ability to form relationships with his pitchers. This was clear in Pittsburgh, with Joe Musgrove acknowledging the various efforts the backstop made to connect with pitchers and gain their trust, and Chris Archer requesting Stallings be his personal catcher.

The Marlins have had a revolving door behind the plate with many catchers entering, but very few providing positive value. Miami’s young staff will benefit from working with Gold Glove catcher Jacob Stallings this season and beyond.