2013 Season Preview: The Catchers

Starting today and continuing through the end of the Spring Training, we’re going to preview the Yankees position-by-position and on a couple of different levels.

Chris Stewart got ejected for arguing a bang-bang play at first. Seriously. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)
(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

The Yankees made a lot of moves (and non-moves) this winter, but I don’t think any was quite as curious as letting catcher Russell Martin depart via free agency. The club offered him a three-year contract worth $20M+ a year ago, but something changed and they didn’t even bother making an offer this time around. I don’t think we’re ever going to know what happened behind the scenes there. Martin now plies his trade with the Pirates after taking a two-year pact worth $17M.

Since New York never bothered to find a replacement starting catcher, they’re left with a hodgepodge of has-beens and never-wases behind the plate. The Yankees are very likely to receive their worst offensive output from the position since before Jorge Posada broke into the league in the late-90s. Brian Cashman & Co. have preached defense defense defense at the position since Martin left for Pittsburgh, which is fine. Punting a position offensively is no way to win the AL East, however.

The Starter
The actual starting catcher is still to be determined, but based on the way the team’s decision makers talk about things, it sure sounds like Chris Stewart is the favorite. The 31-year-old was a zero at the plate — .241/.292/.319 (65 wRC+) in 157 plate appearances — as Martin’s backup last summer, and there’s nothing in his track record to suggest more offensive is coming. Pretty much the only thing Stewart has going for him offensively is his ability to make contact (career 12.2 K%), so maybe he’ll fluke into a .350 BABIP or something.

The defensive side of the ball is where Stewart earns his money. The various catcher defense rankings (2010, 2011, 2012) consistently rate him as average or better, plus those newfangled pitch framing studies say he’s one of the game’s best at turning would-be called balls into strikes. Whether that defensive value is enough to overcome his offensive shortcomings remains to be seen, but the Yankees have painted themselves into a corner and must hope that’s the case.


The Backup
With Stewart the likely starter, Frankie Cervelli is the odds on favorite to serve as his backup. Those two roles could easily be switched, but you know that already. Both guys are out of minor league options and Cashman has all but confirmed that ensures they will open the season in the big leagues.

Cervelli, 26, is another poor offensive player, but he is slightly better than Stewart — career .271/.339/.353 (88 wRC+) — and a bit more likely to surprisingly turn in a league-average performance. Despite coming up with a strong defensive reputation, Frankie’s defense was pretty awful from 2010-2011 and was part of the reason the team replaced him last year. The club had him work on some stuff in Triple-A last summer and the early returns are positive, especially with his throwing. That has been demonstrably better in camp.

Knocking on the Door
As they tend to do, the Yankees are faking a competition this year. The three “candidates” for the starting catching spot are Stewart, Cervelli, and 24-year-old Austin Romine, who has missed much of the last two years with back problems. He can hit a little and has a good defensive reputation, but he’s unrefined and in need of regular at-bats. Romine has the best long-term potential of the three catching options, but he’s very likely to open the year with Triple-A Scranton. Given all the lost time, playing everyday in the minors instead of playing half-time in the big leagues is the best thing for his development at this point. He’s miss a lot of at-bats since the close of 2010.


The Top Prospect
New York’s top prospect behind the plate also happens to be their top prospect overall, 20-year-old Gary Sanchez. He hit .290/.344/.485 (~125 wRC+) in 474 plate appearances split between Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa last summer, and his 18 homers led all minor league catchers. Sanchez doesn’t have the innate hitting ability of Jesus Montero, but he does have a bit more power — career minor league ISOs: .193 vs. .210 in favor of Sanchez — and a far better chance of remaining behind the plate long-term. Give the catching situation at the upper levels, that’s pretty good news. Sanchez is expected to return to Tampa to start 2013 and should receive a midseason promotion to Double-A Trenton, meaning the only way he will be a factor at the big league level this summer is as trade bait.

The Deep Sleeper
The good news is that the Yankees are blessed with quite a bit of catching depth, which is absolutely intentional. J.R. Murphy will start the year back with Double-A Trenton, sandwiched between Romine in Scranton and Sanchez in Tampa. Further down the later is 16-year-old Luis Torrens, who signed out of Venezuela for $1.3M last July 2nd. Despite converting from third base to catcher within the last year or so, the Yankees are expected to bring Torrens to the United States with one of their two Rookie Level Gulf Coast League affiliates this summer. His defense lags behind his offense at this point (duh), but he still has breakout potential because he has an advanced approach at the plate and can hit to all fields.

* * *

The 2013 outlook behind the plate at the big league level is pretty grim at the moment, and it will almost certainly be New York’s least productive position this summer. That isn’t surprising in and of itself, but the possibility of the catching tandem being several standard deviations below average is. Say what you want about Martin and his low batting averages, but he was close to a league average hitter with the Yankees (98 wRC+) while being above-average defensively and even on the bases. That’s an above-average player and the team will go into this season with a clear downgrade.

Update: Cashman confirms Cervelli doesn’t have an option remaining

February 24th: Cashman misspoke and confirmed to Jack Curry that Cervelli does not have an option remaining. He also indicated the guys who can’t be sent to the minors without passing through waivers (Cervelli and Stewart) have a leg up in the catching competition. That’s not terribly surprising.

February 9th: Via Chad Jennings: Brian Cashman confirmed that Frankie Cervelli has a minor league option remaining. I was under the assumption that he burned his final option last season, but that wasn’t the case. The Yankees will be able to send Cervelli to Triple-A this year without having to pass him through waivers, which is kinda big considering the wide open catching race. The internal options all stink, but it would be nice to keep everyone around just in case.

Cashman also confirmed that Cody Eppley, Eduardo Nunez, and Ivan Nova have an option left as well. Chris Stewart and Clay Rapada do not, but both are expected to make the team anyway. Both Juan Rivera and Matt Diaz can opt out of their minor league contracts if they don’t make the team out of Spring Training while Dan Johnson’s opt-out date is later in the summer. Unlike the Ivan Nova-David Phelps competition for the fifth starter’s spot, the Yankees will only be able to keep the winner of the Rivera-Diaz competition for the right-handed bench bat role. The loser figures to look for a big league job elsewhere.

Notes from Girardi’s press conference

Not from today, but basically the same thing. (Seth Wenig / AP Photo)

All 30 managers meet with the media for 30-ish minutes during the Winter Meetings, and Joe Girardi held his Q&A session late this afternoon. It’s pretty typical of Yankees people to speak a lot of words but not actually say much, and this was no different. I don’t have the audio to share because the quality is awful, but here’s a recap…

On Alex Rodriguez‘s injury

  • Girardi confirmed what Brian Cashman said yesterday, that A-Rod didn’t say anything about his hip until being pinch-hit for in Game Three of the ALCS. “His hips weren’t firing right. It wasn’t pain but he felt it was not the explosiveness … I was somewhat worried because he’d been through it on his right hip and you’d think he’d know what the feeling was like. It wasn’t firing the way he thought.”
  • A-Rod went for an MRI on his right hip after the game, and when it came back clean Girardi kept playing him. He did acknowledge Alex “did look different than he did before he got hurt.” The team doesn’t know exactly when the injury happened.
  • On losing A-Rod for the first half of next year: “It’s big. You go into an offseason and you feel you have to address certain areas and all of a sudden you get a little bit of a surprise. It’s a pretty big hole to fill, and it may not necessarily be (filled) with one person.”
  • “I’m not sure,” said the skipper when asked about any tension in his relationship with A-Rod. “It probably answers a lot of questions — he wasn’t the Alex we saw before the injury. Now we have a reason, possibly why.”

[Read more…]

Poll: The Starting Catcher

(Mike Ashmore)

Whether they want to admit it, the Yankees were dealt a significant blow when Russell Martin spurned their non-offer for a two-year pact with the Pirates. By no means is Martin a star behind the plate, but he’s a league average hitter who can play above-average defense at the catcher position. He’ll be close to impossible to replace in this market if you’re willing to look beyond the meager batting average.

“We do have placeholders there,” said Brian Cashman the other day when asked about his catching situation going forward, which sounds like something straight out of the “Bubba Crosby will be our center fielder” playbook. “We have people that can handle and run the game. The offense is an area that, currently with what our roster provides, will be a downgrade from what we’re used to. But the most important aspect of those games is (defense).”

The Yankees have more than two months left in the offseason to scour the free agent and trade markets for a replacement catcher, but right now their internal solutions consist of some has-beens and never-wases. Each has some kind of strength and many negatives, so let’s quickly review.

Frankie Cervelli
Cervelli, 26, is easily the most accomplished big league hitter of the team’s internal options. He’s produced a .271/.339/.353 batting line in 562 plate appearances while providing mostly below-average defense. Cervelli always seemed to have a knack for the poorly-times passed ball. The Yankees obviously don’t think much of him, otherwise they wouldn’t have sent him to the traveling circus known as Triple-A Scranton for all of last summer.

Austin Romine
Of the four players in this post, the 24-year-old Romine is the only one with a real chance to be a long-term piece for the Yankees. He missed the start of last season with a back problem and only has 106 unimpressive plate appearances above Double-A to his credit. In 870 plate appearances at the Double-A level, he’s a .276/.336/.392 hitter. Romine is a generally considered a solid defender.

Chris Stewart
Last year’s backup, Stewart is a .217/.281/.302 hitter in 394 big league plate appearances. He’s considered a very good defender by the Yankees but I was a little underwhelmed last year. Poor hitting has a tendency to inflate a catcher’s defensive reputation, and that’s sorta what happened with the 30-year-old Stewart. That doesn’t mean he’s bad, but he’s not elite.

Eli Whiteside
The new-comer to the group, Whiteside is a .215/.273/.335 career hitter in 537 plate appearances. The 33-year-old is another defense-first type, but I have no idea how true that is because I haven’t seem him play much. The Yankees have already removed him from the 40-man roster, so I guess he’s at the bottom of their internal catching totem pole.

* * *

Let’s face it, there is no good solution here, especially if you’re looking for any kind of offense. The Yankees will take a very big hit in backstop production if any of these four gets regular playing time next year. Is one better than the rest? Maybe.

If the season started today, who should be the starting catcher?
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What Went Wrong: Romine, Stewart & Cervelli


The Yankees came into this season knowing Russell Martin was going to be their full-time catcher, but the backup job was up for grabs. Frankie Cervelli was the incumbent and Austin Romine was the high-ish profile prospect who broke into the show as a September call-up a year ago, so the best man in Spring Training was going to win. As it turned out, neither had what it took.

Austin Romine
Romine, 23, wound up with taking exactly zero plate appearances in Spring Training. He dealt with back inflammation — an injury that caused him to miss time last summer as well — in camp and suffered a setback towards the end of March. Romine didn’t get into minor league rehab games until July and it wasn’t until late-August that the Yankees activated him off the DL and send him down to Triple-A. He wasn’t brought back for a September call-up.

All told, Romine batted just 195 times between the minor league regular season and the Arizona Fall League in 2012. Instead of possibly spending the year cutting his teeth as the big league backup, it was a lost season in which the Yankees were unable to find out anything about Romine at the Major League level. Pretty much the only good news was that they never actually burned a minor league option this year, so he still has all three left. Some consolation prize.

(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Chris Stewart
The Yankees were concerned about their upper level catching depth in the wake of Romine’s back injury, so at the end of Spring Training they swung a somewhat surprising move, sending right-hander George Kontos to the Giants for the 30-year-old Stewart. Just like that, the team had a new backup catcher and the competition in camp was rendered moot.

Stewart, true to his reputation, didn’t hit a lick this year. He got on everyone’s good side with a handful of timely RBI singles in April, but overall he produced just a .241/.292/.319 (65 wRC+) batting line in 157 plate appearances. I thought his defense was solid but not as good as advertised — he threw out only eight of 35 attempted base-stealers (22.9%), for example — so Stewart struck me as a classic Nichols’ Law catcher. Considering the team’s midseason bullpen woes, Kontos (2.47 ERA and 2.80 FIP in 43.2 innings for the Giants) would have been a nice piece to have around.

(The Star-Ledger)

Frankie Cervelli
There was no more room left at the inn after acquiring Stewart, so the Yankees demoted Cervelli to Triple-A at the end of Spring Training. As if that wasn’t bad enough — Cervelli hadn’t spent extended time in the minors since 2009 — the Triple-A squad had to play on the road all season due to extensive renovations at PNC Field in Scranton. Frankie went from being the team’s backup catcher to a full season’s worth of bus rides in about five minutes.

Cervelli, 26, was supposed to go down and show the team what a huge mistake they had made, but instead he hit just .246/.341/.316 (89 wRC+) in 417 plate appearances. The Yankees recalled him  as the third catcher in September but only got him into three games due to the tight race with the Orioles. To Cervelli’s credit, he worked a hard-fought two-out, six-pitch walk in his first of two big league plate appearances, coming around to score the game-winning run in the 12th inning against the Red Sox in Game 161. Nice moment, but hardly a season worth remembering.

Estimated 2012 runs saved due to pitch framing

Quite a stir was made last offseason when former Baseball Prospectus-er and current Astros employee Mike Fast published a study quantifying the number of runs catchers saved with his pitch framing skills. That is making a borderline pitch look like a strike to the umpire and getting the call. Russell Martin rated very well in Fast’s study, as in second only to Jose Molina. Here’s a great example of Russ stealing a strike for CC Sabathia in ALDS Game One on Sunday…

At FanGraphs yesterday, Jeff Sullivan used PitchFX data to estimate how many extra strikes each team enjoyed this season, and the Yankees placed fourth in baseball (and first in the AL) at +5 strikes per 1,000 pitches. The league average is actually -5 strikes, not zero. Blame the umps. New York’s pitching staff threw 23,181 total pitches this season, so the pitching staff received approximately 232 more strikes than the league average. That doesn’t sound like much across 162 games, but it is. Past studies have calculated the difference in value between a called ball and a called strike at 0.13 runs, so Martin’s (and Chris Stewart’s) pitch framing helped save the team a touch more than 30 runs this season. Roughly 9.5 runs equaled a win in 2012’s scoring environment, so those extra strikes were (theoretically) the difference between an AL East title and a wildcard play-in game.

It’s important to note that Sullivan’s estimations ares just that, estimations. Fast’s study was much more precise and comprehensive, and we shouldn’t attribute every single extra strike to the catcher and his pitch framing anyway. Sometimes the umpire was going to the call the pitch a strike without the catcher’s help. Even if that 30 runs saved number is off by as much as 50%, it’s still a lot of runs to save with a simple skill. Catcher defense is a very tough thing to quantify, but analysts have gotten better at it and pitch framing is one of those things that seems to impact the game much more than originally expected.

Mailbag: Phelps, Wildcard, Catchers, Cano

Got five questions this week but two of them got short answers, so it’s more like 4.5 questions this week. Please use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send up mailbag questions, links, or anything else.

(Jared Wickerham/Getty)

Rich asks: I have an irrational love for David Phelps. To me he’s been both durable and productive. From what I see, it seems like a lot of the damage done against him in starts is during the first inning (perhaps rookie jitters?). Any way you can find out his line in starts less that dreaded 1st? I really think he will go on to do great things for the team.

This question was sent in a few days ago, and sure enough Phelps went on to allow two runs in the first inning of Tuesday’s start before settling down and firing off zeroes the rest of the way. Here are his inning by inning splits…

1st inning 11 11.0 8.18 53 10 13 2 0 2 7 9 .295 .396 .477 .873 1 .324 156 131
2nd inning 11 11.0 4.09 46 5 8 1 0 3 5 13 .211 .333 .474 .807 2 .227 135 126
3rd inning 13 12.2 1.42 49 3 9 0 0 0 1 14 .205 .265 .205 .470 3 .290 41 34
4th inning 16 15.2 2.87 61 5 11 2 0 3 6 14 .204 .283 .407 .691 0 .216 101 80
5th inning 15 13.0 4.85 55 7 10 3 1 4 7 8 .213 .315 .574 .889 0 .171 156 136
6th inning 16 11.0 2.45 47 6 13 1 0 1 3 13 .302 .348 .395 .743 0 .414 119 101
7th inning 14 11.0 2.45 50 3 9 1 0 1 6 8 .205 .300 .295 .595 0 .229 77 71
8th inning 11 9.1 0.00 34 1 4 0 0 0 3 10 .133 .206 .133 .339 0 .190 3 1
9th inning 5 3.1 5.40 14 1 4 2 0 0 0 4 .286 .286 .429 .714 0 .400 108 112
Ext inning 1 1.2 0.00 5 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 .000 -100 -100
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/4/2012.

Phelps completed six innings of work only three times in those eleven starts, due in part to pitch limits as he bounced between the rotation and bullpen. Joe Girardi also seemed to have a quick hook at times as well. Opponents did hit Phelps harder during the first inning than every inning other than the fifth, which has a lot to do with him tiring later in starts as well as some sketchy relief appearances. This is the quick and dirty method — I just don’t have the time to go through the game logs manually to pull up his stats as a starter by inning — but it does provide some evidence suggesting that the first inning is usually his worst.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t all that uncommon. More runs are scored in the first inning than any other throughout the league because it’s the inning in which the best hitters are guaranteed to bat. The fifth inning results in the second most offense league-wide as the starter begins to tire and mediocre middle relievers take over. Here is the AL inning-by-inning splits data for reference. Phelps is not unique when it comes to first inning struggles.

Tarik asks: This isn’t strictly a Yankees question, but doesn’t the extra wildcard team really highlight the problem of awarding postseason berths on winning the division? The Orioles and Rangers have better records than the Tigers, yet they have to play a one game wildcard play-in game. Not to mention the fact that the Rays and Angels have better records than the Tigers and they’re going home.

Yeah, that’s one big problem with the current playoff system. We had the same problem with the other system as well, but it really seems to stick out this year because the Tigers clinched the division so early despite having the worst record among all (AL and NL) playoff teams. The only way to completely eliminate this is by balancing the schedule and giving the teams with the top three records a “bye” to the ALDS while the clubs with the fourth and fifth best records meet in the wildcard play-in game. That isn’t practical due to travel and some other stuff, unfortunately. Hopefully the results and seeding are a little more fair going forward, because Detroit got a free pass thanks to the rest of their division being terrible.

Winter asks: What’s the catching situation looking like for next year? Russell Martin asking for too much doesn’t seem like as much of an issue anymore. Also will Chris Stewart be re-signed?

Despite being 30, Stewart is still in his pre-arbitration years and will remain under team control through 2016 (!) unless the Yankees decide to non-tender him at some point. They seem to like him, so I expect Stewart to return as the backup next season. He’ll only be paid something close to the league minimum as well.

Martin played his way out of the team’s 2013 plans … unless he played his way back into them in the second half. I still don’t think he’ll get anything close to the three-year, $24M-ish contract he turned down before the season, but re-signing with the Yankees seems more and more likely by the day. Maybe a one-year deal at $7-8M works? Two years at $15M? It’s a weird and unpredictable situation because we know the team loves him, yet for most of the season he didn’t perform at all.

(Al Bello/Getty)

Chip asks: How is Robinson Cano not getting any mention in the MVP race? He’s put up a nearly 150 wRC+ (148 to be exact) as a second baseman with outstanding defense. Is it just the lack of RBIs?

Yeah, probably. That and the fact that he kinda disappeared for a few weeks in April and August, I think. Plus Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera were so insanely good this year that they’re stealing all of the attention, so some of it isn’t even Robbie’s fault. Cano will definitely get MVP votes though, he was the team’s best player this year after all, though I suspect he’ll finish behind Derek Jeter on the ballot. I’d have him no lower than fourth behind Trout, Miggy, and Adrian Beltre if I had a vote, and you can very easily make an argument that Robbie should be third. He was absolutely one of the best players in the league this year, there’s no question.

Daniel asks: Since we all know he’s going to cost a fortune, what fictional trade would be acceptable for the Yankees to trade Robinson Cano?

We’re talking about the best second baseman in the world right smack in the prime of his career, so obviously a lot. The problem is that Cano will be a free agent after next season, so his trade value is somewhat limited by his contract status. The number of true cornerstone-type players who are traded one year prior to free agency is unsurprisingly small, so we don’t have many deals to reference.

The best recent comparable trade is probably the one that sent Adrian Gonzalez from the Padres to the Red Sox two years ago. Cano is a better player now than Gonzalez was then, plus he plays a more premium position, but this is the best comparison we’ve got. Boston forked over a pair of Baseball America top 100 prospects in Casey Kelly (#31) and Anthony Rizzo (#75), plus their first round pick from one year prior in Reymond Fuentes. Two high-end prospects plus a solid third piece seem to be going rate for one year of a superstar.

If the Yankees were to trade Cano, they would almost certainly seek a big league ready outfielder in return. That’s a glaring need. Pitching is always on the agenda as well. I don’t think the Cardinals would give up Oscar Taveras for Cano, which would sorta be the best case scenario for New York. Taveras is a left-handed hitting outfielder and arguably the best offensive prospect in the game, plus he should be ready for the show by like, next May. St. Louis has had trade interest in Robbie in the past, but that was a long time ago. Taveras plus RHP Trevor Rosenthal plus a throw-in? That’s what I would ask for and along the lines of what it should take to pry Cano from pinstripes.