2014 Midseason Grades: The Catchers

Even though it is not technically the halfway point of the season — the Yankees are 58% of the way through the 2014 season, in case you’re wondering — there is no better time to review the first half than the All-Star break. Over the next few days we’re going to hand out some real simple and straightforward grades, A through F, for the catchers, infielders, outfielders, rotation, and bullpen. These grades are totally subjective. Let’s start with the backstops.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

Brian McCann — Grade D

If the Yankees wanted a defensively sound catcher with a .294 OBP and an 83 wRC+, they could have simply played on of their young upper-level guys everyday instead of signing McCann to a five-year, $85M contract. His first half was a colossal disappointment overall, especially offensively. McCann’s glovework and apparent leadership guiding the pitching staff are the reasons I’m giving him a D rather than a straight F.

From 2010-13, McCann posted either a 122 or a 123 wRC+. The one exception was the 2012 season, when he managed an 87 wRC+ while battling a right shoulder labrum injury that required offseason surgery. When healthy, he (very) consistently produced at the plate in recent years. This year though, McCann comes into the break with a .239/.294/.377 (83 wRC+) batting line, which ranks him ninth out of the ten catchers qualified for the batting title (only Dioner Navarro has been worse). Even with his strong first half-ending road trip, he’s been that bad overall.

Unlike offense, catcher defense is a very thing to quantify even with all these fancy stats we have today. StatCorner says McCann has one again been an excellent pitch-framer, and he rates right in the middle of the pack when it comes to allowing wild pitches and passed balls. I don’t think that’s been a problem. I mean, we watched Jorge Posada for a very long time, we know what it looks like when a catcher struggles to keep the ball in front of him. Considering all the nasty breaking and offspeed pitches on the staff — Masahiro Tanaka‘s and Hiroki Kuroda‘s splitters, David Robertson‘s and Dellin Betances‘ curveballs, Shawn Kelley‘s slider, etc. — I have no complaints about McCann’s receiving work at all. He’s been solid, as expected.

One thing we can measure is the rate at which a catcher throws out attempted base-stealers, and McCann has gunned down 21 of 48 runners, or 43.8%. That’s outstanding. It’s fifth among catchers with at least 300 innings behind the plate and second only to (who else?) Yadier Molina among the 16 guys who have caught at least 500 innings. McCann came into the season with a below-average career 23.8% throw-out rate. Is this a fluke? I don’t think so. I think this is Joe Girardi‘s and Tony Pena’s work. They have helped some others improve their throwing in the past (Frankie Cervelli, most notably) and it appears they helped McCann this year. He might not sustain a 43.8% throw-out rate, that’s pretty high, but I don’t think the improvement is dumb luck.

Overall, McCann has undeniably been a disappointment this season. He was expected to provide not just more offense than he’s given, but a lot more. He has not been able to fully take advantage of the short porch in right, perhaps because he’s been focused on hitting to the opposite field to beat the shift — his 20 opposite field hits are already more than his total from 2011 (14), 2012 (15), and 2013 (19). Given his overall lack of production, maybe it’s best for McCann to be himself and focus on ripping the ball to right. Trying to beat the shift seems to be dragging down his offense overall. The Yankees need more from McCann in the second half. There’s zero doubt about it.

(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)
(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)

Francisco Cervelli — Grade C

The first half was a typical first half for Cervelli. He showed enough to keep you interested with the bat, hitting .273/.333/.364 (95 wRC+) in 48 plate appearances. He also threw out some attempted base-stealers, four of twelve (33.3%) to be exact. And he got hurt, missing two months with a Grade II hamstring strain. Cervelli actually played more games before getting hurt last April (17) than he did in the first half this year (16). I can’t possibly go any higher than a C because of the injury and missing so much time. Cervelli is a perfectly cromulent backup catcher for a team with a clear number one (in theory) like McCann. I feel he has performed exactly as expected when healthy.

John Ryan Murphy — Grade C

When Cervelli got hurt, Murphy got the call and showed flashes of why he’s expected to one day be an everyday catcher. He started off very well with that bat before slowing down and finishing his cameo with a .286/.308/.365 (85 wRC+) batting line in 63 plate appearances. Murphy threw out two of ten attempted base-stealers and did allow eight passed pitches in 159.2 defensive innings, so the superficial defensive stats aren’t all that impressive. He looked very much like a young catcher getting his first extended taste of the show. There’s a decent chance Murphy will be traded in the coming weeks, but right now he is a capable backup catcher stashed in Triple-A.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Austin Romine — incomplete

Yes, Romine did actually spend some time with the big league team this season. The Yankees called him up and briefly carried three catchers when Mark Teixeira landed on the 15-day disabled list with his hamstring injury in April. Romine spent four days with the team, played two innings behind the plate in a blowout and struck out on seven pitches in his lone plate appearance. That’s it. Romine’s prospect shine has dimmed considerably over the last year or two, and he is currently a part-time first baseman/Murphy’s backup in Triple-A.

* * *

The bar behind the plate is rather low these days, so even with McCann being such a big disappointment, Yankees’ catchers still rank only 19th out of the 30 teams with an 85 wRC+ this year. I thought it would be worse. They have collectively been very good defensively, throwing out 38.6% of attempted base-stealers (third best) while allowed one passed pitch every 22.2 innings (15th). StatCorner says McCann, Cervelli, and Murphy have all been better than average pitch-framers as well and I buy it based on the eye test.

The Yankees just need McCann to hit more, that’s it. Cervelli staying healthy would be nice too, if for no other reason than possibly upping his trade value. On paper, this should be one of the best and most productive two-way catching units in baseball. They’ve gotten the defensive value in the first half. Now they need to offense to catch up in the second half.

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Yankees send down Austin Romine, call up Shane Greene

The Yankees have called up right-hander Shane Greene, the team announced. Third catcher Austin Romine was sent to Triple-A Scranton in a corresponding move. The club is now carrying an eight-man bullpen and three bench players, but I assume that is only temporary. No 40-man roster move was required.

Greene, 25, has never pitched above Double-A. He was with Scranton to start the minor league season but had not yet pitched. Greene gives the team some long relief protection with Vidal Nuno down for a few days following his extended outing yesterday. I ranked him as the team’s 26th best prospect before the season. His two-seamer does this.

Update: Yankees call up Romine, place Teixeira on 15-day DL

11:07am: As expected, Teixeira has been placed on the 15-day DL. Joe Girardi confirmed it isn’t a bad strain, but enough that they don’t want to play shorthanded.

11:05am: The Yankees have called up Austin Romine, meaning Mark Teixeira and his stained right hamstring are likely headed to the DL. Frankie Cervelli will reportedly work out at first base along with Kelly Johnson.

King: Nationals not interested in Murphy or Romine

Via George King: The Nationals do not have interest in either John Ryan Murphy or Austin Romine in the wake of Wilson Ramos’ injury. Ramos had surgery to remove the hamate bone from his left wrist and will be out 4-5 weeks. Former Rays backstop Jose Lobaton will handle starting duties in the meantime.

Since Ramos is coming back relatively soon, Frankie Cervelli doesn’t make much sense for Washington. He is out of options and can’t go to the minors, and they already have two quality catchers in Ramos and Lobaton. The Nationals don’t have any spare infielders to move for a catcher anyway. They insist they’re going to hold onto Danny Espinosa. Oh well.

Austin Romine, the catcher without an obvious role

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The 2011-12 seasons were not particularly kind to Austin Romine, who was limited to only 108 games due to concussion and back problems. Sure, he made his big league debut in September 2011, but it wasn’t until last April that he returned to the show, and that was only because a foul pitch broke Frankie Cervelli‘s hand. Romine spent last season as Chris Stewart‘s backup and, aside from a few weeks in July, he wasn’t very impressive.

Stewart was traded away this winter but the Yankees replaced him in a big way, committing $85M to free agent Brian McCann. Cervelli’s hand (and elbow) is healed and his 50-game Biogenesis suspension is over, plus J.R. Murphy jumped up the organizational depth chart with a breakout season. Romine was arguably the best catcher in the organization for much of last year, but now, just an offseason later, he is widely considered no better than the fourth best backstop on the team.

“First of all, it’s a business. Second of all, I thought it was awesome,” said Romine to Adam Berry earlier this week when asked about the McCann signing. “I get a chance to study and be under a guy that’s been an All-Star forever. You’d be stupid not to pick his brain and learn something. I see it as a great opportunity to learn more about this game from a guy that’s been around for a long time. I’m actually really excited.”

There’s no doubt Romine can learn a lot from a veteran guy like McCann, but he might not get that opportunity. At least not after Spring Training. Cervelli, who is out of options and can’t go to the minors without passing through waivers, is expected to backup McCann with Romine and Murphy opening the year in Triple-A. Considering that the 25-year-old Romine has hit .258/.321/.355 with 12 homers combined over the last three years, the 22-year-old Murphy figures to get playing time priority with the RailRiders.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Now, there is no such thing as too much catching depth, but right now Romine is in a weird spot. It wasn’t all that long ago that he was the best catching prospect in the organization yet now he’s an afterthought behind McCann, Murphy, and Cervelli. All it takes is one injury to move him up the pecking order and catchers sure do get hurt a lot, but there is no obvious place for him at the moment. Romine will essentially be the Triple-A backup this coming year because he hasn’t forced the Yankees to consider him anything more.

“Anyone that told you that they didn’t want to be a starting catcher is lying to you,” he added. “That’s my goal. That’s been my goal since I was a little kid. Everybody wants to be a starting catcher. Right now, the backup job’s open, so that’s what you focus on. You get to be behind a guy that’s done it all and learn some stuff, and maybe they’ll give you a chance … I feel like I’m in the best shape I’ve been in in a while. I’m just looking for some time to show them I can still do it. It’s going to be a fight.”

I’m inclined to think this situation will work itself out. Someone will get hurt somewhere along the line and Romine will assume a more important role, even if that role is nothing more than the starter with Triple-A Scranton. Trading him is always an option but his stock isn’t all that high and I don’t think the return would be great. Having the extra young catcher around would be more beneficial than whatever he could fetch in a trade. Romine’s long-term role with the Yankees may not be clear now, but that doesnt’t mean he isn’t worth keeping around.