Friday, November 22, 2013

The do-nothing solution at catcher

If the Red Sox miss out on Brian McCann and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the presumed solution is to go after Dioner Navarro. Despite playing only half a season, Navarro had the 2nd best season of his career (by wins above replacement) and set career highs for batting average, OBP, and slugging (.300/.365/.492). For comparison, those numbers actually top expected $100 million dollar man Brian McCann's .256/.336/.461 line across the board. Granted, no one is expecting Navarro to top McCann in 2014. Despite that, the Red Sox would do well to avoid Navarro.

Why? For starters, his career line is just .254/.313/.371, 17% below the average major league hitter. Second, he's already 30 and this is the first time in five years that he's been a significant contributor at the major league level. Finally, Navarro's skills are redundant to those of David Ross - both hit lefties much better than righties. Having two catchers who ought to be in the skinny part of a platoon doesn't really make any sense.

So if Navarro isn't the cheap solution, who is? Old friend George Kottaras. You might wonder why I'm advocating the Red Sox sign someone who the Royals decided wasn't worth keeping on the roster and is coming off a season where he hit .180 and struck out in a third of his at bats. The first reason is simple - Kottaras is going to be cheap, probably signing for between the major league minimum and $1 million. He might even be able to be signed to a minor league deal with a spring training invitation, which means the Red Sox would be able to hang on to the 40 man roster spot, for the time being. It also means the Red Sox can devote more resources to filling holes in the outfield and at first base. Kottaras would also be well positioned to contribute to the 2014 club - he hits righties better than lefties so he could split time with Ross; is a solid defender who was a bit better than Salty at catching opposing runners; and finally, all those walks and a bit of pop. Kottaras walked in 19% of his plate appearances, so his .180 batting average actually came with a respectable (for a backup catcher) slugging of .370 and a .346 OBP, which was better than Salatamacchia's. Steamer (a projection system, and one of the few that have released 2014 projections), has their 2014 offensive lines to be extremely similar, with Kottaras actually having a slight edge.

There are some worrying trends in Kottaras' underlying numbers, since Kottaras doesn't swing at anything at all and I'm not sure that is a sustainable strategy. If he qualified, he'd have the lowest swing rate on pitches out of the zone (12.9%, Votto next lowest at 20%), pitches in the zone (43.9%, Prado next lowest at 52.2%), and, unsurprisingly, swing rate overall (30.6%, Carpenter next lowest at 37.3%). There are some signs that pitchers are challenging him, as he's seeing a lot of pitches in the zone (50.5%, 2nd highest if he qualified, behind only Marco Scutaro), so so perhaps the high walk rate is a touch more sustainable than I initially though. Whoever signs him ought to check his eyesight, though, since his swing rate at pitches in the zone has dropped from 57% to 44% in the last three years.

Finally, the Red Sox have the depth in the minors to deal with catching issues both short and long term. Ryan Lavarnway and Dan Butler are in the upper minors, and both are essentially MLB ready if Kottaras falls flat on his face. If Lavarnway is going to be the major league player he was poised to become following his dominant minor league career, 2014 is likely his last chance to do it. If neither Lavarnway nor Kottaras work out, Butler is a safe, defensive oriented catcher who can chip in with a bit of pop and a few walks. Farther down the depth chart, but with more upside, Christian Vazquez  spent most of 2013 in AA, could also be ready sometime in 2014 as well. Finally, Blake Swihart, a first round pick in 2011, has the potential to develop into an excellent all around catcher following his .298/. 366/.428 showing in the high A Carolina league. That line is even more impressive, as at 21 he was almost two years younger than the average player there. The Sox have loads of depth at catcher. Spending a good chunk of their free agent budget to address the position just isn't a good use of resources.


  1. Going cheap at catcher makes a lot of sense. With the sheer number of catching prospects in the system, going short term with Ross and Kottaras allows them to evaluate the prospects during the season, give a shot to anyone who merits it, and still be OK at the position if none of the minor leaguers work out. Is Kottaras any good defensively? On a more general note, what are some of the best metrics for catcher defense? I've seen arguments of late that catcher throwing arm is over rated simply because it's easy to measure, but beyond that, I really don't know.

  2. Kottaras is generally considered to be defensively solid. His caught stealing rate (admittedly, a coarse estimate of defense, given a pitcher's role in it) was about league average and he rates well per Fangraphs assessments. He is slightly below average in pitch framing (which Fangraphs does not include in their defense), ~3 runs per year. All in all, he's probably a 0.5-1 win player, maybe more if a team can figure out why he's seeing the ball so poorly of late.

    As far as what makes a good defensive catcher, I think the stats may not have caught up to scouting reports. Until we get reliable measurements of time from receiving a ball to throwing to second and the value of pitch framing (which seems CRAZY high according to some studies - more than 2 or 3 wins a season!), I think it is pretty unreliable.

  3. I guess Theo reads the blog - Cubs just acquired Kottaras in exchange for cash considerations.