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Astros MiLB Discussion: Catcher Development

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Brian takes a question on catcher development and owns the discussion

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Brooks

I want to discuss catcher development since that seems to be a weakness in the system that has gotten worse now that Jacob Nottingham has been traded away.


It's no secret that pitch framing and defense has been a focus for catcher development in the Astros philosophy. Offense appears to have taken a back seat. Recent player development at the position has been poor on that end. Players like J.R. Towles (previous management), Jason Castro, and Max Stassi all have hit well in the minors and then crumble. Tyler Heinemann hit very well early on and now has gone power-less.

Is it the players targeted? Or is it the focus on defense? Are you concerned about how they develop as they all seem to fit the mold of back-up catchers since they are defense types?

Spenser

The way I look at it, developing a catcher who can cut it on both sides of the ball is a damn near impossible task. The Astros aren’t alone in failing to do so by any stretch.

Brian

Agreed. Of the catchers who have a 120 or better wRC+ this year so far, only two (Buster Posey, who is on a Hall of Fame pace, and Russell Martin) are the only two who have done it previously. This might get a tad tangential, but bear with me.

One thing that becomes clear when looking back historically; guys who are good offensively at catchers rarely play their whole careers there. I just sorted for the last ten seasons (2006-2015) on Fangraphs for catchers with at least 3,500 plate appearances over that time. I got 10 results, and of them, only one, Brian McCann, has a career wRC+ of 110 or better and is still catching regularly. Joe Mauer leads the pack offensively (131 wRC+), but he moved from behind the plate a couple of years ago, and hadn't been the everyday catcher for Minnesota since 2010 anyway. Mike Napoli (125 wRC+) hasn't caught an inning since 2012, and Victor Martinez (also 125 wRC+) has caught a grand total of five games over the last four seasons, and both of those guys get crushed by some defensive metrics for their defense. Yadier Molina has been slightly above-average on offense and elite defensively, and the numbers say Russell Martin has been about the same (though with significantly less fanfare), and some other guys like Carlos Ruiz and Miguel Montero who will be remembered as rock-solid MLB regulars, but nothing spectacular.

Point is, finding a guy who will be even league average with the bat and a good, consistent backstop who can stick to the position is still extremely rare. In terms of WAR, if you get a guy who is above-average as a defensive catcher and even just about 5% above-average with the bat, you've likely got one of the top ten catchers of the decade. Of these guys who are above-average with the stick and glove both, and who are still catchers, only McCann, Martin, and Molina, have 30+ WAR over the last ten years, which means they've averaged about 3 WAR per season, roughly. Castro's last four seasons (this included) are right around three full seasons worth of playing time total, and he has 7.9 WAR in that time, or about 2.6 per season. So really, Castro has been solid. He's showing decline, but if you keep developing guys like Jason Castro, you'll be just fine at the catcher position.

So all that said, back strictly on-topic, is it a weakness? We don't have anyone in the system who projects to be the next big thing as a catcher, but do we have guys who can be well-above-average receivers/game-callers and league-average hitters? I would say so. Miguel Montero has a 100 wRC+ this season...by hitting .230/.337/.392. Do I think we have some prospects who can be good defensive catchers and manage that with the stick? Yes. I don't know if they will, but it's easy to forget that the bar isn't really that high when you're talking catcher offense. Hank Conger has a 117 wRC+ this season...despite a .257 BAbip. If you got that production from a full-time, good defensive catcher, you'd have a top 10 catcher nationally.

So to finally get around to answering the question, I'm fine with what they're doing. Tyler Heineman is hitting .299 in the upper levels of the system. Alfredo Gonzalez is in AA hitting .322/.422/.412. Jamie Ritchie is down in Lancaster drawing walks like he's Nolan Fontana. The Astros drafted four more catchers just this year. Then there are the international guys we may not even be aware of yet. And if not internally, then elsewhere. Chris Iannetta is currently the second-best framer in baseball by both RAA and +Calls according to Stat Corner. He's also got a 110 wRC+ over the last five seasons. He's currently making just $5 million this year and is a free agent this off-season.

I have confidence they'll continue to figure it out.

Brooks

Well that's pretty much an article in itself. Can't really refute that at all.

All rec's go to Brian on this one. Wrote an article in itself with his discussion.