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2018 Phillies in review: Catchers

What are we thinking about this year’s backstops?

San Diego Padres v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images

The players

Jorge Alfaro: .262/.324/.407, 377 PA, 10 HR, 37 RBI, 138/18 K/BB, 1.2 bWAR
Andrew Knapp: .198/.294/.316, 215 PA, 4 HR, 15 RBI, 75/24 K/BB, -0.3 bWAR
Wilson Ramos: .337/.396/.483, 101 PA, 1 HR, 17 RBI, 19/10 K/BB, 0.8 bWAR

With the catching position, the team went with two inexperienced backstops to start the season. Manager Gabe Kapler started out by having a sort of timeshare between Alfaro and Knapp, but it became quite obvious early in the season to those watching the games which of the two was the better option behind the plate and Alfaro began receiving the lion’s share of the starts. As the season wore on, the two catchers began to have their weaknesses shown at the plate, leading Matt Klentak to search for an offensive upgrade behind the dish. That led him to acquiring Wilson Ramos, who in limited plate appearances, provided a jolt of offense the team desired. Ramos’ performance presents the team with an interesting question heading into the offseason.

The good

J. Alfaro: pitch framing - 12.3. What does this number stand for? This is the final total of framing runs Alfaro accounted for 2018. It is a staggering amount that I discussed earlier in the year. Whatever changes the team made to how Alfaro presents pitches to the umpire were incredibly effective. He finished fifth among all MLB catchers in Baseball Prospectus’s framing runs, as well as fifth in FRAA, BP’s statistic that attempts to measure defense. Are there areas that he can clean up? Absolutely. He is one of the worst catchers in the game at blocking pitches, mostly due to his habit of dropping to one knee on seemingly every pitch. However, that is something that can be improved on through practice and repetition, something that he demonstrated he is able to do with his improvement in framing. If he can get better there as well as continue to improve at throwing out runners, we’re looking at a player that can challenge for Gold Gloves in the near future.

W. Ramos: offense from the catcher’s spot in the order - Ramos’ wRC+ came in at 131. Where did that rank among catchers this past season? Remember, this list includes J.T. Realmuto and Yasmani Grandal.

Give up?

Try first overall. With as good a season as someone like Realmuto had, it’s kind of hard to believe that Ramos led baseball in that statistic. He was every bit the offensive upgrade this team was looking for from the catcher’s position.

A. Knapp: cheering - I mean, do you have anything else to go on?

The bad

J. Alfaro: strikeouts - Among all non-pitchers in the game with at least 350 plate appearances, only Chris Davis (36.8%) and Mike Zunino (37%) struck out in a higher percentage of their PA’s than Alfaro did. It is something that simply cannot be duplicated in 2019. It is the other thing, to go along with blocking pitches, that he needs to work on heading into the offseason, having better pitch recognition. However, if there is a small silver lining, it’s this: among rookies who had fewer than 400 plate appearance, there has only been one who has struck out as many times as Alfaro did (138) and still posted an OPS+ above 90 (95). Get that strikeout rate down below, say, 27%, and the Phillies have a guy who will be their representative at the All-Star game with great regularity.

W. Ramos: durability - Over the years, Ramos hasn’t been healthy. While these days, catchers rarely catch more than 130 games anymore unless they are a Molina or Salvador Perez, Ramos hasn’t been the paragon of health in his career. He’s only had more than 500 plate appearances in his career twice. When he was traded to Philadelphia, he came here while still on the disabled list, so the team knew what they were getting. The problem was that the injury he had were bad hamstrings, which for a catcher, is a very difficult injury to have. The team tried their best to nurse him along in his time here, but as August dragged on, it was obvious he couldn’t be counted on to catch much more than one or two days in a row, depriving the team of a bat the lineup sorely needed. Once rosters expanded to 40 and a third catcher was on the roster, even substituting Ramos late in the game became a fairly common occurrence.

A. Knapp: using a bat - In 2018, there were 61 catchers who had at least 140 plate appearances. Knapp ranked 43rd among them with a 68 wRC+. To say he was “anemic” with the bat isn’t really doing the word justice. While he did provide the team with one of its top moments of the season when he hit a game winning home run in the 13th inning against Washington in July, he never really gave the team the bat it needed to go along with Alfaro. His weak bat was what precipitated the trade for Ramos in the first place. If this is all he is, fine. Every team needs a backup catcher. It would help if the backup was better than Knapp.

The future

What does the catching position look like for this team in 2019? It’s a question the team probably didn’t anticipate having to answer when the season began. It’s quite clear that they value Alfaro’s pitch framing and prodigious raw power, but it’s also clear that they wanted something a little more for their playoff push, hence the acquisition of Ramos. When Ramos’ offense won at least one game and gave them, on some nights, the only accounted for offense the team had, it has to have them thinking about the possibilities of re-signing him.

Of course, as I noted earlier this offseason, the terms of such a deal are what can be questioned, as a majority of us here believe Ramos should return. It wouldn’t be an admission of lost faith in Alfaro, but rather a realization that an Alfaro/Ramos combination could be one of the better platoons in the game. Knapp can start the year in Lehigh Valley and be that experience veteran than can be called on in case of an injury while helping along those prized arms in AAA at the same time. Having three catchers that have the ability to be on a major league roster is a good problem to have, something that re-signing Ramos would provide to the Phillies.