After Tuesday night’s game against the Diamondbacks, catcher Jorge Alfaro is now sitting on a .170/.250/.234 line with only a single extra base hit to his name. He’s striking out at an absurd (and frankly unsustainable) 46.2% rate while only drawing two unintentional walks. He’s been hitting the ball hard, with 82.6% of his batted balls rated as either “medium” or “hard” contact and an average exit velocity of 93.4 MPH, 7th among catchers. However, there hasn’t been much to show for it. Overall, his offensive profile has not looked impressive at all.
This type of production has led to calls for his demotion to the minor leagues, with a lot of Twitter getting caught up in the “Alfaro to the minors” discussion. We know, of course, that sending him to the minor leagues would be impossible since he would have to clear waivers first and you can be absolutely sure that a team with a losing record would snatch him up in a heartbeat. So while he may not be producing quite as much right now, he’s also not going anywhere any time soon.
AND THAT’S NOT A BAD THING RIGHT NOW!
When fans look at catchers, they must take in to consideration all that comes with the position. He must adjust his offense, yes, but he also has the entire pitching staff to worry about. Not only must a catcher learn all of the starters, but he must know how to handle the relief corps as well. He must know the movement of pitches from thirteen different hurlers, play dugout psychologist with a struggling pitcher, watch video of that day’s opponents to formulate a game plan, review with those pitchers and the pitching coach how the day’s plan will be implemented, and so on. There is a tremendous amount of additional work that a catcher needs to put in along with figuring out his own offensive game plan.
Now, imagine doing this as a rookie.
I’m not in any way excusing his offensive start to season, but before we start calling for his losing more playing time, we have to take into consideration that he is still a rookie in this league. Being a catcher is probably the hardest position for that rookie to learn entering the major leagues. Sure he has caught a number of these pitchers in the minor leagues before, which helps acclimate him to their styles, but he has to learn an entire league’s worth of opposing batters to help this team succeed. It’s a daunting task and worth considering when discussing his season thus far.
Yet while he may not be hitting well, his glove is another story. Look at how well he is doing behind the plate. Baseball Prospectus has individual advanced catching statistics that attempt to show how well a catcher does at the things he can handle: throwing runners out, framing pitches, and other aspects like blocking balls in the dirt. According to these statistics, Alfaro is having a great season so far.
From this table, we can see that Alfaro has improved on his ability to present pitches to umpires as strikes rather than outside of the zone. These numbers are pretty reliable since he has had over 700 framing chances, which means the small sample size argument can be put to be bed. He’s “struggled” throwing out runners (only 17%), but let us also recall that the starters the Phillies have are not very good at holding runners, meaning Alfaro and the howitzer he has attached his body only has so much time to throw runners out.
Yet in all the other advanced catching statistics you see, Alfaro is rating near the top of the league. With the amount of work he has put in in the minor leagues into his defensive ability, it is very encouraging to see the results of this paying off. Is it possible that these numbers level off during the year? Sure, we always have to be aware of regression of any kind, especially at the catching positions where players can be word down throughout the season. But this kind of start to the season bodes well for Alfaro as the season does move along.
It’s easy to see that Alfaro needs to work on his plate approach. It’s more than likely that as the strikeouts pile up, Andrew Knapp and his career 14.6% walk rate will find himself in the starting lineup more and more. Before we bury Alfaro though, remind yourself that he actually has been having a good season behind the plate. Hopefully, we’ll begin seeing that success carry over into the batter’s box.