The Importance of Frankie Cervelli

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(REUTERS/Joe Giza)

Pitching, pitching, and more pitching. That was the focus of the offseason, and it still is today given the continued A.J. Burnett trade talks. We haven’t paid too much attention to the other end of the battery though, mostly because the Yankees have some upper level catching depth and an above average big league backstop ready to handle the bulk of the workload in Russell Martin. The Jesus Montero trade took away some of that depth, but Austin Romine is still around as if Frankie Cervelli, the forgotten backstop.

Cervelli, who turns 26 next month, isn’t a terrible backup catcher even though we all seem to collectively loathe him. He’s got 560 big league plate appearances to his credit (roughly a full season), and he’s consistently put the ball in play with solid walk (7.9%) and strikeout (15.1%) rates. His .272 batting average and .316 BABIP are reasonable for a player with his batted ball profile, meaning few fly balls but lots of grounders and line drives. Of course the lack of fly balls means Frankie has next to no power (.082 ISO), but he did go on a rampage before getting hurt last September — three homers in five games across ten days, including at least one more ball knocked down by rain and wind in that ridiculous 11:30pm ET start against the Orioles. Offensively, a .272/.338/.354 line is pretty good compared to most backup catchers. With any luck, that power surge is something more than a fluke, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Despite a strong reputation, Frankie hasn’t been anything special on defense. He’s thrown out just 23 of 116 attempted basestealers in his career (19.8%), though it’s worth noting that runners are 26-for-29 against him when Burnett and his notoriously slow delivery is on the mound. Remove A.J. from the equation, and Cervelli’s been a more palatable 20-for-87 (23.0%) when it comes to throwing out runners. There aren’t any great (or even good) metrics for catcher defense, but I think we can all agree that Frankie isn’t the best receiver back there just from watching him over the last three seasons. He’s not the defensive-first backstop I’m sure Joe Girardi would like to have, but the total package is a viable big league backup catcher.

Cervelli has had some injury problems in the recent past, some fluky (Elliot Johnson breaking his wrist, a foul ball breaking his foot) and some not so fluky (four reported concussions in the last seven seasons). The last concussion came in September, when Nick Markakis bowled him over on a play at the plate. The Yankees take concussions very seriously (as they should), so the injury ended Frankie’s season and forced Romine to the big leagues. With Montero in Seattle, the Yankees need Cervelli to stay on the field this season to make sure Romine gets the couple hundred Triple-A at-bats he needs developmentally. Health is a skill but only to a certain extent, so there’s not much more anyone can do besides cross their fingers and hope he stays on the field.

Anecdotally, Martin seemed to play (or at least hit) better when getting regular rest last season, which is another factor to consider. A healthy and productive Cervelli allows the club to take it easy on their starting catcher during the hot summer months, theoretically keeping him fresher for a potential playoff drive. With all due respect to Gus Molina, Frankie is the guy you want filling in on Martin’s off days so that Romine can keep doing his thing in Triple-A. The backup catcher won’t sink the season no matter who it is, but having a healthy and reasonably productive Cervelli will have a positive impact on Romine, Martin, and the team’s overall chances.

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  • The Oberamtmann

    Martin definitely hit better when getting a lot of rest. I’m not sure why Girardi, who loves him some Cervelli, continued to pay Martin nonstop after he fell into a slump. He’s obviously not a Posada-type, play-me-every-day-of-the-season catcher, which is fine. Keep him fresh and productive!

    How does Cervelli compare to *starting* catchers? I ask because I think, given the weakness of the position, he’s not just a fine backup, he’s an exceptional backup and would be no worse than a slightly below average starter.

    • Soriano Is A Liar

      He had a .324 wOBA in 2011 (.338 career). While it would probably fall a bit in full time duty, .324 would have been 15th in 2011 out of catchers with over 200 PA’s. So its certainly possibly he could be a viable starter on a lower division team.

    • Soriano Is A Liar

      If he could keep up a .315 wOBA in everyday player, that would put him in line with 2011 Saltalamachia, Soto, and Piersinski. None of them are great players, but they’re all viable starters on the right team.

  • Chad Gaudin the Friendly Ghost

    I really started paying attention to this blog sometime last year, probably around the trading deadline, and was surprised to see all the dislike of Cervelli. He’s not terrific, but he seems to be a servicable backup.

    It’s not like watching Sal Fasano back there or anything.

    • Chuck M

      Except that Fasano has that glorious moustache that made the awful offense a little more palatable.

      • Matt DiBari

        Fasano could also throw people out, frame pitches and block balls in the dirt

    • MannyGeee

      careful there, pal. we still love us some Fasano

      • Robinson Tilapia

        Why go with Fasano when Kelly Stinnett is standing right over there?

        • Chad Gaudin the Friendly Ghost


          • jsbrendog

            chad moeller could easily be coaxed out of retirement id bet

            • Robinson Tilapia

              Hey, I like Chad Moeller.

    • fin

      Frankie is fine in small doses. I think the hate came when Posada got hurt a couple years ago and Cervelli recieved a ton of playing time. He was atrocious at the plate and behind the plate in bascially full time duty. As long as Martin stays healthy, I dont think too many people have an issue with Cervelli as the backup.

    • RetroRob

      Don’t confuse volume of postings by a few people with general sentiment. Most fans could care less about Cervelli, who overall is a more than acceptable backup, who also happens to be cheap.

  • Robinson Tilapia

    I wonder if people suddenly become more tolerable of Cervelli now that there’s not Jesus Montero sitting in AAA.

    Homegrown backup catcher who doesn’t embarrass himself anywhere. What’s not to like.

  • Save a ‘Stache

    He’s fine for what he is – a placeholder for someone better.

    The real problem is Martin. He shouldn’t be playing any more than 100 games given how brittle and ineffective he’s been when playing more.

  • Staten Island

    Is Romine really doing much better in the minors? I’m not sure he’s much better than Frankie.

    • Save a ‘Stache

      He’s not. He’s very likely worse which is why Cervelli has a role.

    • Tom Zig

      He’s probably better defensively.

      • Save a ‘Stache

        Who says? Not his mL numbers.

        • Ted Nelson

          Which numbers? Caught stealing and passed balls?

        • Havok9120

          Yeah, all those great defensive metrics that made up the backbone of this Cervelli post.


    • MannyGeee

      He has a whopping 15 PAs in Scranton. Lets get him a few hundred more before we decide hes better or worse than Frankie.

      • MannyGeee

        thats 15 PAs in 4 games, by the way. so its hard to tell offensively OR defensively

        • Save a ‘Stache

          The question is about Cervelli for this season. He has a clear role. Now, maybe Romine gets better on both sides. I’m doubtful.

          • Havok9120

            You’ve made that clear. You haven’t really said WHY however.

            In fact, you haven’t really said why you like Cervelli so much, beyond that “he has a role,” while bashing Martin and Romine.

  • mike_h

    Enter Gustavo Molina if Cervelli gets hurt, can’t see how they would bring up Romine unless its Sept. Romine might be the backup in 2013 and ease him in to the starter role depending on if we extend Martin’s contract

  • Nick

    I think CS doesn’t really tell the whole story of how horrible Frankie is on defense. He constantly airmails throws, misses balls, misses catches, you name it. He’s godawful and deserves every bit of hate he gets.

    I’d rather ship him out and keep Burnett.

    • Rainbow Connection

      Are you talking about Cervelli or Nunez?
      $200 million spent and they don’t have a backup IF that can catch or throw a ball. Amazing.

      • Jesse

        I laughed. Certainly a head scratcher for sure.

  •!/joshfortunatus joshfortunatus

    Nothing against the guys and lady at RAB, but Cervelli posts only remind me we’re still several weeks away from Opening Day and anything important. For all his shortcomings, I actually do appreciate his energy in a Ronny Turiaf kind of way.

  • Plank

    That picture is great. He looks like he’s at a revival.

  • Johnny

    I’ve never had any problem with Cervelli. To what end? He never did anything to anybody. In fact, I only really have good memories, like when he hit that grand slam in Arlington on Mother’s Day. (I think it was a grand slam if I’m remembering correctly.)

    • jayd808

      Hey Mambo, mambo italiano. I remember that Mother’s Day game, a fine Italian boy that Franco. Shame on you who look down on the wonnerful job he doin’. And that Sal Fasano, that was a helluva catcher too. Hey Mambo, mambo italiano…