We here at Bleacher Nation value statistical analysis, even when it doesn’t always tell us what we want or expect to see (indeed, that’s kind of the point). But that doesn’t mean we follow data blindly. Ten years ago, organizations fell behind the curve when they ignored what the data was telling them. Today, as Theo Epstein might put it, organizations fall behind when they follow the data too closely. There is still room for narrative analysis, logical thought, and the plain old art of scouting in processing these things. If you lean too hard on the stats without the rest, you can wind up with some silly conclusions.
Even after a lengthy – (and well written, Rian!) – preamble about the difficulty in projecting catchers in an evolving era of analysis during a shortened season with as many qualifiers as one could imagine, I have a hard time believing the catching tandem of Willson Contreras and Victor Caratini is going to rank …. 18th in all of MLB?!
Come on now.
To be fair, I’m not particularly surprised by the Cubs landing spot here – FanGraphs recently updated their advanced defensive metrics to better include pitch framing, a skill for which Willson Contreras has been frequently maligned – but this still strikes as preposterous.
To illustrate the absurdity without using numbers, let’s frame these results in the form of a question: How many other catching tandems in baseball would you trade straight up with the Cubs for 2020?
For me, there are two that are obviously in the conversation – Yasmani Grandal (and it doesn’t matter who his backup is) and J.T. Realmuto (and it doesn’t matter who his backup is). But frankly, those might be the only two starting catchers in baseball I’d definitely take over Willson Contreras. And then, when we consider the impact of a switch-hitting, multi-position catcher like Victor Caratini, and his value in a shortened season with the universal designated hitter, I just can’t land anywhere near the conclusion that there are *17* better catching tandems in baseball.
Willson Contreras’s framing is legitimately concerning, perhaps worse than almost every other starting catcher in baseball, but I’d argue his offensive potential is higher than the vast majority of starting catchers in baseball. And in a shortened season, where maybe the full strength of framing numbers don’t have as much time to make an impact – and when you have such a capable backup catcher covering you’re most difficult to catch starter (Yu Darvish) – I’ll take the guy with the MVP caliber upside bat and his better-than-average sidekick, thankyouverymuch.
Not that the projections exactly see it that way:
Through his first 154 plate appearances in 2019, Contreras slashed .320/.422/.633 (167 wRC+), and while I don’t expect him to repeat what were effectively MVP-conversation caliber numbers for a catcher, I do think it’s fair to wonder if he might be able to sustain a higher level of offensive performance in a shortened season, with the DH, with less travel, and where maybe the effects of catching don’t hit as strongly over the course of the year. And that’s particularly true in the power department.
Last season, Contreras recorded a .261 ISO by the end of the year. This season, the projections are calling for .204 ISO, which Contreras has beaten every year besides 2018, when injuries bogged him down near the end of the season (it was .313 at the end of 154 PAs in 2020, by the way). Obviously, projections are conservative in nature, but I suspect Contreras will beat these forecasts, and probably wind up as one of the two or three best-hitting catchers in baseball.
As for Caratini, only FOUR catchers are projected to have a higher OBP than the Cubs backup (Grandal, Omar Narvaez, Carson Kelly, Alex Avila) with two others projected to tie (Tony Wolters and Francisco Cervelli). Throw in his switch-hitting and ability to cover first base? And come on. What are we doing here? We’re tying ourselves in a knot with these numbers, when there seems to be so much more context available.
Basically, we’re left with an argument that the Cubs may have a top three offensive catcher in baseball, with a backup who’s in consideration as one of the top-10/15 offensive catchers in baseball. You can discount for the defense/framing, but then add a bonus for the switch-hitting, multi-positional back-up and I’m left with only one conclusion: you’d be a fool to pick 17 other catching tandems before the Cubs in 2020.