As I was scrolling through Twitter on Saturday night, something interesting caught my eye in my feed:
Morgan Ensberg (@MorganEnsberg) October 31, 2015
Since you said I could quote you, Morgan, I will. Thank you very much.
For the moment, I'm going to ignore whether Roberto Pena is, in fact, better than Salvador Perez. We'll come back to that in a while.
More importantly to me, this hyping-up of Pena speaks to the Houston Astros' inability to develop a legitimate catching prospect under the Jeff Luhnow regime - that is, outside of Jacob Nottingham, who was dealt to the Oakland Athletics earlier this year as part of the Scott Kazmir trade.
I like Morgan Ensberg quite a bit. I was a fan when he was recently given the title of "Mindset Coach," the duties of which he describes as "1) Make MLB All Stars who win Championships. 2) Get our Minor League Coaches Big League Jobs." I appreciate his willingness to go to bat for his team, despite all the negativity that gets thrown his way as a result of it. And he's around these players a lot, so his opinion shouldn't be dismissed quite so hastily.
Still, the inability to develop a catcher looks - on the surface - like a weakness for the Astros front office. And on the surface, Pena doesn't look like the antidote. As a 23-year-old in Double-A, the Puerto Rican backstop had just a 60 wRC+, and he made up for it with a good (but not earth-shattering) 49% caught-stealing rate.
What's interesting to me is how consistent the Astros have been at drafting catchers during the Luhnow era. Every year since 2012, they have drafted exactly three catchers from four-year colleges:
- 2012: Tyler Heineman, M.P. Cokinos, Ricky Gingras
- 2013: Brett Booth, Jake Rodriguez, Brian Holberton
- 2014: Richard Gonzalez, Trent Woodward, Jamie Ritchie
- 2015: Kevin Martir, Garrett Stubbs, Anthony Hermelyn
Every year, they've also selected exactly one high school catcher:
- 2012: James Sinatro
- 2013: Jacob Nottingham
- 2014: Ruben Castro
- 2015: Jorge Martinez
Sinatro didn't sign, and Nottingham was traded away. Rodriguez, Cokinos, and Gingras are out of baseball. Of the remaining eleven (plus Pena for comparison), here are their season stats in 2015:
Of course, there are many ways to rate a catcher's defense, and CS% isn't the end-all be-all of catcher evaluation. But we'll use it here as a placeholder. On this list, not one player had an OPS of .700 or greater while catching at least 40% of their baserunners... but two of them deserve mention:
Before being promoted to full-season ball, eighth-round pick Garrett Stubbs was hitting .674 at Tri-City, with an astonishing 78% caught stealing rate.
In Double-A, Heineman had a .783 OPS and caught 54% of his baserunners. He spent twice as long at Triple-A, where runners had an absolute field day against him, but it's worth noting, particularly because he and Pena were teammates at Corpus Christi.
Also of note: Nottingham, who the Astros traded away, was a twenty-year-old in High-A ball, with a .877 OPS and a 38% caught-stealing rate.
One might ask themselves: How much do you really need a catcher to be able to hit, though? The scientific answer is: I don't know but, like, probably some would be nice.
Now, to address Pena-versus-Perez directly, here are their age-23 seasons (it's worth noting that Perez was not only already in the majors at age 23, but that he was both an All-Star and a Gold Glove winner that season):
Ignoring Perez's hitting, which is clearly better, Pena has the edge in caught-stealing rate (Perez has a 42% career minor league caught-stealing rate, compared to Pena's 45% career rate). But they're close enough that Perez's bat really makes him easily the front-runner here.
Still, Ensberg mentioned in a later tweet that he doesn't care what a catcher hits - that his comparison is predicated entirely on Pena's defense, which is indeed impressive. Perhaps, even, more impressive than Perez's. In that regard, it's hard to entirely dispute Ensberg's claim, though it's still too early to de-throne a multiple Gold Glove winner in favor of a guy who spent the year in the Texas League.
But as a complete player, none of the current Astros minor league catchers looks prime to catch Jason Castro on the depth chart any time soon. After all, Castro is a Gold Glove finalist with a .648 OPS in 2015. If you're looking for someone in the system now that Nottingham is gone, you may be better served to look to Heineman and Stubbs than to Perez.