Frankie Cervelli and the backup catcher plight

No Bautista, no problem; Jays rout Yanks again
Game 91: Can we get a win?

Earlier this week, I posted a very unscientific/unofficial poll on Twitter. The question was simple. “If I say ‘Francisco Cervelli,’ the first thought that comes to your mind is….” RAB’s very own Ben Kabak responded with the only (sort of) positive response, “fist pumps” (hurray for enthusiasm!).  The rest of the answers were either equal to, or synonymous with, “awful” which is pretty much what one would expect.

All of the candid responses, of course, got me thinking. How does Cervelli actually compare to other backup catchers from around the American League.  And, is our collective angst really justified?  Note: the stats compiled below do not include the games played since the All-Star break.


Click to enlarge!

In terms of offense, clearly Cervelli doesn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence. His walk rate is lower and his strikeout rate higher than the average backup catcher in the AL.  Just let that thought resonate on your tongue for a second.  He doesn’t particularly hit for power or for contact either. Most importantly, our eyes — which are never biased in the least — tell us he is a supremely gifted rally-killer, right?

Well to be fair, Cervelli’s only had 77 plate appearances which is a pretty nominal sample size.  Obviously, his limited exposure at the plate is also by design. Now, I don’t want to come across as an apologist for Franky’s offensive contributions; they are what they are. However, my point here, is that most backup catchers are very mediocre at best (at least offensively), and Cervelli is only marginally below that mark in terms of individual production.

Roughly speaking, all Cervelli would really need is about five more hits than he currently has (20 hits instead of 15, out 70 at bats) and he’d have a .285 batting average with a wOBA hovering around .320 which for all intents and purposes, is right in line with the other backups of the AL East.

In other words, given the typically high octane offensive production being generated by the rest of the team, I think there’s a bit of wiggle room to be found here.  No one should expect Cervelli to match Victor’s production, and no one should be surprised when the results are less than stellar given his role on the team.


I think one can absolutely make the case though, that a backup catcher should be at the very least, proficient on defense.  After all, purely defense-oriented catchers are theoretically a dime a dozen.  Much to my chagrin, this aspect of the game is substantially harder to quantify though (especially when it comes to catchers).

If we utilize Fangraph’s FLD metric — which is UZR, or TZR prior to 2002 — Cervelli is definitely trailing his peers. Of course, the only catchers of the group to garner really solid ratings are Tampa Bay’s Kelly Shoppach and Cleveland’s Lou Marson. The rest of the group is average at best. Even former Yankee Jose Molina, who is often raved about defensively, comes across as very average according to the numbers.

The other stat being displayed in the chart above is Caught Stealing Percentage. Now Frankie is obviously doing himself a rather large disservice every time he elects to throw the ball to Curtis Granderson or Brett Gardner when the runners attempt to steal.  At this juncture, he’s only successfully stopped two runners out of the 21 attempts.  Opposing teams will continue to smell blood, and will continue to test him accordingly until he proves otherwise.

How much of that CS% is related to outside factors; I don’t really know. Some pitchers have naturally slower deliveries. Some pitchers offer less control (I’m looking at you AJ) which can distort the pickoff movement. Hell, some divisions could simply have more quality base runners than others.  On the flip side, if someone has a reputation for having an excellent pickoff move, runners will become deterred; if only the best base runners are attempting steals, the percentages can become skewed from that (i.e. – three successful steals out of eight total attempts).   Anecdotally speaking, I think Cervelli’s 10% CS rate is unacceptably low though.

Overall WAR:

For quick reference, let’s take a look at the old WAR rankings. It’s a pretty pathetic picture, which I think, is the point. The position is marred by mediocrity and Cervelli is on the lower end of that mediocre spectrum.  The larger point though is that the contributions gained or lost with Cervelli are not overly substantial.  In my eyes, his job first and foremost, is to simply be available to spell Russell Martin.  Secondly, he should provide some decent defense (whether or not he’s doing this is questionable), and any offense is merely gravy.  Are these needs being satisfied?  Perhaps.

The only guys really raising the averages in the list above are Kelly Shoppach, Victor Martinez, and Mike Napoli. Now, Shoppach and Napoli are not solely backup catchers; they also do some first base work and are occasionally slotted as designated hitters. Frankly, Victor is about as much of a backup catcher as I am; his value obviously stems from his bat which is why he’s given so much exposure at the plate.

Additionally, finding quality starting catchers is seemingly impossible as it is. Finding a second quality one is really just not overly realistic.  Perhaps the reason why our attitude about Cervelli is particularly soured is because we have one of the most hyped prospects of recent memory waiting in the pipeline, who supposedly could fill that need.  The only problem is, unless, the Yankees are willing to give Montero those additional at bats that would make him valuable, he wouldn’t be overly impacting on the team (I can’t account for the benefit of big league exposure at a developmental level).  Granted, it’s absolutely debatable whether or not the Yankees would be able to get Montero sufficient exposure for the remainder of the year, but as of now, it seems they are not intent on doing so.

No Bautista, no problem; Jays rout Yanks again
Game 91: Can we get a win?
  • Mike HC

    I don’t think Kabak’s response was even close to sort of positive.

    And pretty sad to see the analysis shows that Cervelli is a below average catcher both offensively and defensively even when compared only with backups.

    • Matt Warden

      Heh, yeah, when I said Ben’s response was positive it was a bit tongue-and-cheek.

      It is disappointing to see how Cervelli stacks up, but if there is silver lining to be found, it’s that their exposure is limited by design. More importantly, on a team as talented as the Yankees, a lousy backup catcher is not the end of the world.

      • Mike HC

        Yea, I did pick up on the tongue cheek part. Just thought it wouldn’t have been right to comment on a weekend writers article without criticizing something (when in Rome). ha

        But agreed. I never was that emotional about Cervelli either way. Don’t hate or love him.

    • Tom O

      Can we just play Granderson at second base when Cervelli catches? Then he’ll throw the ball right to him!

      • tom

        Russell is throwing a lot of balls into cf as

  • CMP

    Getting a better backup catcher isn’t gonna change much if anything in the won/loss column but his defense has been unacceptably poor even for a back up catcher and it could cost the Yankees in a big spot at some point.

  • Zach

    Welcome Matt. I like it.

    • Matt Warden

      Thanks, Zach. I really appreciate the feedback!

      • Wooderson

        you suuuuuuuuuuuuuck

  • Mike

    It’s interesting how he does nothing well, and is below average across the board.
    We are accustomed to the backup catcher being a hitter with poor catching skills, or a solid defensive/ game caller with a poor bat- and he fails at both.
    I suppose he does ” well enough” to back up a starter with only limited exposure, but I think I would use my trade chips better than to replace him with someone from outside- and I wouldn’t expose Montero to ML pitching until after the 7/31 deadline either

  • MikeD

    How does he compare over 2010-2011? I wouldn’t judge any player on less than 80 PAs and a few games in the field.

    • Matt Warden

      Heh, well I couldn’t say with certainty how he has done cumulatively speaking over the past season and a half in contrast to the others without doing a bit more data mining/compiling.

      Anecdotally speaking though, his isolated 2010 stats suggest that he was a little better, perhaps, than the average backup. Offensively, his BB%/SO% rates were higher as was his batting average (which benefited from an uptick in BABIP), although he still hit for no power. Defensively, he was still atrocious though in terms of CS%(14%).

      Remember though, Cervelli also had substantially more exposure last season than one might ideally prefer while Jorge spent some time on the DL.

    • Jared

      What’s the difference between 80 PAs and his current 77?

      • Oscar Gamble’s Fro


  • Stephen R.

    Really nice work Matt. Very thorough, love the graphs.

    • Matt Warden

      Thanks, dude! Appreciate the feed back!

  • Brandon

    Nice piece, Matt. Even the stats say Cervelli is not a competent back up catcher. This only fuels what I want and that is Jose Molina back! He may not hit, but he is a great defensive catcher with a great arm! If Martin goes down, Cervelli can not step in. Montero may be able to(we dont know about his defense). If Montero cant, what are we going to do, have Romine skip AAA and come right to the Bronx?

    • Pasqua

      And, by the criteria established in the article, Molina would actually be a helluva offensive upgrade…which is scary.

  • aspergers

    you’re better than that stephen douchebag fellow! congrats

  • Pasqua

    Nice article; interesting comparison. I keep thinking that Cervelli remains because he APPEARS to be the prototypical backup. He gets an occaional RBI, throws an occasional runner out, and pumps his fist like a madman (indicating, of course, his enthusiasm for the role). I wonder if his crappiness is overlooked because the Yankees are hesitant to make a better player (like Montero) a backup when Cervelli, to the naked eye, is so damn average.

  • YankeesJunkie

    Outside of Cervelli, every other level of catching for the Yankees is pretty stacked. Martin even with this horrendous stretch of hitting will still give the 2-3 WAR this year, and a cheap catcher next year. Montero as well noted can mash ball and when he is on compensate for his suggested poor defense and at this point is an upgrade of Cervelli in every conceivable way. Romine and Murphy have made huge strides this year on the offensive side of the ball and Murphy on the defensive side of the ball either of them could become solid catchers in the majors. Even at Low A Charleston Higgy is supposedly the best defender may end up as a very nice back up. The point being the Yankees are stacked at catcher and having Francisco Cervelli as the back is an atrocity to that roster spot. If he were to adequately play defense such as Molina in 09′ the complaint would be mostly subdued, but at this point it is time to send Cervelli down and call Montero up as he may actually provide positive value to the team.

  • Brandon W

    I wonder where Montero in the bigs would fall on these graphs. I know he hasn’t been lighting the word afire in AAA, but I would have to imagine it would be an improvement over below-replacement level. Cervelli himself doesn’t bother me as much as the fact that we have a highly-rated prospect who can likely do the job better and is (arguably, based on this years production) ready to go.

    The other part of the backup catcher situation which is more or less impossible to quantify is the relation between the backup and primary catcher. As seen by, say, Victor Martinez as an extreme example, a backup catcher who can contribute gets more playing time at C, which also helps keep the primary C healthy. Martin is a bit banged up, but you can infer based on Cervelli’s low PA that they don’t want to play Cervelli all the time. They might be more willing to play Montero, keeping Russ more productive (potentially).

  • KyleLitke

    I gotta be honest…last year I was feeling better about Montero’s defense. I heard a lot of “it still sucks but he’s improving”, and it gave me hope he could be a solid big league catcher, giving you a lot of offense and bad but acceptable defense.

    This year I have heard nothing good at all. I’ve heard some of those who said he was improving rip his defense this year, and I haven’t heard one good thing about it. Last year I thought he could stick at catcher…this year I’m not so sure.

  • chas

    Matt – what about Cervelli’s clutch production – lots of positives with men on base I think- check your stats – I’ll bet he’s a force in these situations- are you down on Italian emotions (fist pumps)? Maybe a button down team like the Yanks needs more “into it guys” and not so many too old over paid “pros” – or over done pie -in -the face throwers also for that matter.

  • pete

    cervelli is awful…..i don’t need stats or comparisons to other back-ups….i have eyes