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Upgrading the backup catcher spot

Should the team go with a better glove, or someone more offensive in their approach?

Philadelphia Phillies v San Diego Padres Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

The other day, I wrote usual links for the day when one of the comments struck me as interesting.

There is a cheaper former Astro FA than Dallas Keuchel

the Phillies might want to consider signing. Evan Gattis could be the backup catcher to Alfaro, replacing Knapp. Gattis would probably only cost a few million $ and provide a good 50 RBI or so assuming he caught around 60 games and got pinch hitting duties on days when he isn’t catching. Knapp is projected to only drive in around 20 runs next year, so swapping him for Gattis probably adds at least 30 runs to the season run differential.

Gattis has hit extremely well at Citizens Park Stadium. In 37 career PAs there, he’s swatted 5 HRs. Signing Gattis wouldn’t be as glitzy as getting Realmuto, but acquiring him wouldn’t dent the farm and it probably gets the team a couple extra wins on the season.

I find it interesting because the backup catcher is not usually one that we consider a place to upgrade. When we think of backup catchers, we usually think of the “glove first, bat second” guys who are either a personal catcher to someone on the staff or a guy who can frame like nobody’s business. We never really consider what kind of offense the backup catcher can provide because of what we know about hitting. Being a successful hitter requires rhythm, timing and study. If you are a player who plays once, maybe twice, a week, two of those three things are not things you will have large amounts of. So, we as fans simply throw our hands up and say “Hopefully he’s good at throwing guys out!”

But what if it didn’t have to be that way? Why can’t the Phillies upgrade their second catcher spot to include someone with a higher offensive profile?

The first thing I think we can all agree on is that Andrew Knapp is ripe for an upgrade. His bat was abysmal and defense wasn’t much higher than that. The possibility to upgrade at his spot is just too tempting to dismiss it out of hand. A quick look at MLB Trade Rumors and their remaining free agents shows the number of catchers still out there waiting to be employed:

Drew Butera (35)
A.J. Ellis (38)
Yasmani Grandal (30)
Nick Hundley (35)
Caleb Joseph (33)
Martin Maldonado (32)
Devin Mesoraco (31)
Rene Rivera (35)
Stephen Vogt (34)
Matt Wieters (33)

If we want to be generous with the “catcher” label, we can lump Gattis (32) in there too, even though his ability as a defensive catcher is, in a nice way, lacking. One name you can cross off right away if we are talking about backup catchers is Grandal. He’s on Milwaukee now. That leaves us with a lot of players who are in the decline phase of their careers. This is what each catcher’s 2018 looked like:

Available catchers hitting in 2018

Catcher PA HR RBI DRC+ BB% K%
Catcher PA HR RBI DRC+ BB% K%
D. Butera 182 3 21 80 8.2% 21.4%
N. Hundley 305 10 31 88 7.2% 27.9%
A. Ellis 183 1 15 98 14.2% 20.2%
C. Joseph 280 3 17 69 3.6% 24.7%
M. Maldonado 404 9 44 73 4.0% 24.3%
D. Mesoraco 274 11 33 99 9.1% 19.0%
R. Rivera 91 4 11 75 4.4% 38.5%
S. Vogt (2017) 303 12 40 95 6.9% 18.5%
M. Wieters 271 8 30 111 11.1% 16.6%
E. Gattis 451 25 78 109 7.3% 22.4%

Looking at everything involved, the offensive standout was Gattis. That, though, is influenced by the fact that he was given regular plate appearances as the team’s designated hitter, a position that gave him double the amount of what the nearest player received. That’s natural since backup catchers rarely, if ever, pinch hit or gain extra playing time outside of the occasional start or injury to the team’s primary catcher. You can see that all of these catchers are pretty much lumped together as a meager contributor to their team’s offensive success. Where the difference makers are are in the defensive categories.

Ideally, you’d want a catcher who can hit and play good defense. That’s what makes players like J.T. Realmuto and Yasmani Grandal so valuable since they can do both. It’s what makes us salivate over what Jorge Alfaro has the potential to do. However, if a catcher can’t help with the bat, he’d better help with his glove. Several of these catcher do stand out defensive wizards.

Available catchers defense in 2018

Catcher Framing runs Blocking runs CS% fWAR
Catcher Framing runs Blocking runs CS% fWAR
D. Butera -7.1 -0.1 17% -0.3
N. Hundley -13.2 -0.5 21% 0.8
A. Ellis -9.3 -0.5 30% 0.8
C. Joseph -4.6 -0.4 33% 0
M. Maldonado 5.9 -1.1 49% 0.9
D. Mesoraco -7.4 0.6 21% 0.7
R. Rivera 1.7 -1.4 28% 0.3
S. Vogt (2017) 9.5 1.7 27% -0.4
M. Wieters -3.7 1.1 37% 0.9
E.Gattis (2017) 3.8 -0.7 10% 0

Judging from all of this information, it basically comes down to a numbers game and the preferences of Gabe Kapler. Does the team want more offense out of the backup spot, eschewing the usual defensive prowess? If so, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to go ahead and sign Gattis. Does the team want someone who not only has the reputation of being a good player to work with pitchers, but also has a decent glove to boot? A.J. Ellis is probably your guy. However, if the team was looking at decent combination of both offensive and defensive skills, the guy I’d be looking at is Martin Maldonado.

Maldonado started last year with the Angels, becoming their starter before moving to Houston to help out until Brian McCann came back from injury. By that point, Houston was already well in front of the rest of the division and were looking for upgrades to help with their playoff roster. Enter Maldonado and his cannon right arm. It was thought that Maldonado would help control the running game of teams like the Indians and Red Sox if ever they were to meet with more on the line.

You can see that his game is mostly about his defense more than his bat. He had some thunder in his bat (28 XBH in 404 PA), but was allergic to taking walks as a means of getting on base. It’s been a staple in his career and one that will probably take him to the end of his playing days. What he’s known for is being an above average pitch framer and controller of the running game. That’s what the team would need him for the most. Normally, you’d love to have someone batting the opposite hand as your starter, but in this case, the team would have two right-handed hitting catchers.

So why not Gattis? He is clearly the best offensive weapon were the team to choose offense over defense as a backup catcher. Well, it’s kind of twofold.

One, he’s just not that good of a defensive catcher if you even want to call him a catcher at all. If they have someone who is going to play only once or twice a week, he cannot be a black hole with the glove. At best, he’d had to be serviceable. That would be a stretch for what Gattis is with the glove. Second, his biggest weapon is his bat, something he wouldn’t have regular time here to use. Since the Phillies are not in the American League, there is no DH, the position Gattis is best suited for. His powerful bat would be languishing off of the bench, since using the backup catcher as a pinch hitter would be an invitation to getting caught with their pants down later in a game. So in essence, signing Gattis to a guaranteed contract for him to provide offense would be a waste of resources based on how the backup catcher is used.

Another player who might be pretty good would be Matt Wieters. His defense last year was better than I had anticipated while as a hitter, he wasn’t a complete zero. The problem with Wieters is that he probably still wants a starting position, or at the very least, the possibility of having a timeshare with another catcher on the roster.

If the team rides with Knapp, I don’t really blame them. He is most familiar with the pitchers and the clubhouse. He understands how the manager works, something that isn’t insignificant in Philadelphia. Anyone new would have to learn a whole new staff to learn, idiosyncrasies to adapt to, routines to keep track. That’s what spring training is for so there is still time. So if the team truly wants to upgrade their backup catcher spot, players are available to help them do just that.