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Options at the backup catcher job

In a position where much playing time isn’t expected, the market is thin.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Happy Thursday, all. Thanks for spending some of your morning (or afternoon, depending on where you are) with me.

At the press conference for the acquisition of Paul Goldschmidt, John Mozeliak said the Cardinals may very well already have their starting eight position players headed into the year.

The tasks left on the outward-facing to-do list were to improve the bullpen and add a left-handed bench bat.

With the trade of Patrick Wisdom for Drew Robinson, that second specified need was met. The only other left-handed bat officially on the radar for St. Louis was Daniel Descalso, who is now a Cub.

I—and several others here at VEB—have made no attempt to disguise the desire for Bryce Harper in right field. There are some intriguing low-risk bounce-back candidates on the market, as well. With reports of Cody Bellinger possibly being available for the right price, A.E. Schafer outlined the makings of a potential trade, if the Cardinals showed interest.

Beyond those options and the possibility of moving someone like José Martínez, the position player side of the 2019 Cardinal roster could very well be set before the end of this year.

Well, all but one spot.

The ever-exciting “Backup to Yadier Molina” position is still open.

Carson Kelly now wears Sedona Red. The front office has said Andrew Knizner is set to play all of 2019 at Triple-A, which puts him in line to get his first taste of MLB action in 2020, the last year of Molina’s contract. That means the Cardinals have one last roster spot to fill regarding position players before we could feasibly be looking at the finished product.

The problem lies in the playing time.

Battling injuries at times during the season, Molina played 123 games last year—his lowest total since 2014. Even missing that much playing time, Cardinals backup catchers totaled just 184 PA on the season.

That lack of playing time is undesirable to most catchers on the market, with many trying to capture at least a timeshare behind the plate.

Derrick Goold confirmed as much in a mailbag piece, with the question featured at the end of this article, where he listed three catching candidates who would seemingly be okay getting well acquainted with the bench: Francisco Peña, Jesus Sucre and René Rivera.

The Market

It seems very likely the job will come down to one of these three players.

Peña is already acquainted with both the role and the organization. Rivera played in a support role for most of 2018, outside of injury, where he didn’t reach the 100-PA mark. Sucre traditionally played more of a timeshare, but his terrible performance at the plate last season points to a clear backup spot being more in his favor.

We’ll cover offensive performance in the individual looks, but here are the Baseball Prospectus catching metrics for these players in 2018, with Molina’s numbers for reference. All these stats are “above average,” accounting for volume. League-wide ranks are in parentheses.

Catching Metrics, 2018

René Rivera 0.007 (31) 0.005 (109) -0.011 (12) 0.3 (56)
Jesus Sucre -0.009 (94) -0.001 (44) -0.003 (43) -3.8 (97)
Francisco Peña -0.011 (100) 0.003 (98) 0.005 (84) -5.2 (102)
Yadier Molina 0.002 (46) -0.001 (47) -0.009 (19) 3.5 (25)

If you haven’t looked at many catching metrics, the Baseball Prospectus glossary can give more detailed explanations of the statistics. As a quick explanation:

  • CSAA — Called Strikes Above Average — Attempts to isolate pitches on the corners where the call was almost exclusively determined by the umpire; a valuation of framing
  • EPAA — Errant Pitches Above Average — A measure of a catcher’s blocking ability, with lower numbers being better
  • SRAA — Swipe Rate Above Average — Looks to remove pitcher times to the plate from the equation and isolate a catcher’s pop time, arm and awareness to show the catcher’s ability to limit stolen bases. Lower numbers are better
  • FRAA_ADJ — Fielding Runs Above Average, adjusted — The Baseball Prospectus fielding metric, with the catching metrics baked in to give an overall measure of defensive ability

At first glance, there are only two catchers on the list who provided positive value behind the plate in 2018: Yadier Molina and René Rivera.

Francisco Peña — 29 y, 2 m, 8 d

2018: 142 PA, .203/.239/.271, 4.2% BB, 30.3% K, 32 wRC+

Peña gets points off the bat for starting the conga line home run celebration of 2018, a flash of fun and personality in the dugout that hadn’t been seen on that scale for a while in St. Louis.

That’s really where the positives end, though.

As shown in the above table, Peña was more of a liability with the glove than anything else. When Molina was injured, he had opportunities for uninterrupted playtime. He still comes out the lowest of the three options in nearly every category, worth -5.2 FRAA_ADJ and ranking 102 among 117 catchers last season.

The bat was similarly rough, putting up 32 wRC+ and a .510 OPS throughout the season. His performance in 58 games had him worth -0.7 fWAR in 2018.

The benefit for Peña comes through his familiarity with the organization, a year’s experience handling the young pitching staff and how cheap he would be compared to others. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Cardinals bring him back on board over everyone else on the list, but Peña isn’t the best option available.

Jesus Sucre — 30 y, 7 m, 20 d

2018: 198 PA, .209/.247/.253, 4.5% BB, 14.6% K, 35 wRC+

Sucre is another example of a dreadful bat. Catchers aren’t typically the greatest at the dish, but another wRC+ in the 30s shows up when looking at his numbers.

It isn’t that uncharacteristic, either; Sucre’s career wRC+ is just 53.

His 2017 seemed to be a bit of a turnaround from previous years, putting up a .297 wOBA and building on the end of a 2016 season where he was electric with the bat in a very short sample size, but that clearly wasn’t the case.

His 0.8 fWAR in 2017 was mirrored by his -0.8 in 2018.

Sucre also ranks negatively on the defensive side compared to his peers, though he was better than Peña. He’s within the top 100 on both framing and overall defensive performance, with both his blocking ability and stolen base limitation falling inside the top 50.

Still, in a perfect world, one would want their backup catcher to fall inside the top 60 in overall performance, given 30 teams in the league and two catchers on the roster, on average.

René Rivera — 35 y, 4 m, 20 d

2018: 142 PA, .233/.275/.419, 4.4% BB, 38.5% K, 90 wRC+

Rivera is definitely the oldest on the list and carries some potential injury worries—he was out for a chunk of 2018 after suffering a torn meniscus in his right knee.

Catchers and knee injuries, especially with older catchers, aren’t really the words you want to hear put together.

The thing is, Rivera was doing very well to start the season before his injury in late May. Through 22 games, he had an .804 OPS and three home runs. He finished the season below average and struck out a ton, but his .694 OPS in 91 PA was much, much better than the others on this list and probably positions him to more closely resemble the workload required from the position.

Moreover, he falls inside that top 60-area I referenced earlier, ranked 56 overall by FRAA_ADJ last season. Both his framing and steal limitation ranked above Molina, according to the above metrics.

Rivera carries some risks with him regarding age, but the Cardinals can afford to take that risk with Molina starting nearly every day. Rivera looks to provide the most value when the workhorse is finally convinced to take a day off.