When I wrote about Ivan Herrera last week, essentially making the case for him when nobody is really arguing against him, there was an outside but not likely chance that Herrera was traded for a starting pitching upgrade. I’d venture to say the chances of that happening are pretty close to 0% now that two pitchers have been acquired. They don’t really need to trade Herrera to get that last pitcher, assuming they do get one more pitcher. My hypothetical was a situation where they effectively would have to.
Nonetheless it got me thinking about what the Cardinals’ plan for backup catcher would be if he were traded. Pedro Pages is on the 40 man roster, but didn’t play in AAA at all in 2023, and though he does have AAA experience, he was clearly not ready when he played 37 games at that level in 2022. The plan would not have been Pages.
But what if it was? What if the Cardinals decided that they were so confident in Pages’ defense that they liked him as the backup right now? Some commentators feel that way, so it wouldn’t be crazy if the Cardinals did. They certainly didn’t add him to the 40 man for his bat, so presumably they believed some team would give him a backup spot next year if they didn’t protect him.
I wanted to see what Pages as the backup catcher could look like right now. Obviously, his offense would be a big question mark and to some extent, his defense would be a question. by virtue of having virtually no reliable data. Because frankly there’s a big difference between an elite elite defensive catcher and a merely good one and what the offensive standards are for each.
First, let’s assume he’s an elite defensive catcher. Let’s assume he’s good at controlling the basepaths, managing a pitching staff, and framing. One of those is basically impossible to accurately estimate, though there is a stat on Fangraphs that tries: catcher ERA. Which yes, is an actual stat that appears to be incorporated into their values. Did not know that. The other two are much easier to estimate.
Let’s start with framing. If Pages is an elite framer, what does that look like? First, I looked at the league leaders for framing on Statcast and at the head of the pack was Patrick Bailey at +16 runs. Bailey was a pretty bad hitter and yet was a 2.8 fWAR player in only 97 games because of his framing. But I don’t trust his numbers. The sample size is not great. So I don’t think +16 is the number we’re going to use.
What makes an elite framer? It appears to be stealing a “shadow” pitch 50% of the time, more or less. I went back to 2015, the first year Statcast used framing, and looked at highest strike rates, and then made the sample at least 7,500 pitches, which is roughly three seasons. I included Kyle Higashioka, who was like 30 pitches off, and that gave me 10 catchers in the last 9 seasons. On average, this group was +8 for framing over 2,500 pitches. This feels like a reasonable benchmark. +8 hasn’t been the best ever, but it has been 4 or 5 in the last three seasons.
Moving onto the other measurable stat, stolen bases, Fangraphs also has a stat for this and I don’t really think I need a sample size on this one so much. Or at least, I’m not working with a fair sample. In 2023, the bases were lengthened and the pitch clock added, making it easier to steal. So data before 2023 is not useful.
In fact, the stolen base data is really exciting. In 2023, using the same rules as the major leagues but admittedly less experienced stealers, Pages caught 47 bases runners on 123 attempts, or 38.2% of the time. Among qualified catchers, Shea Langeliers led baseball with 38 caught stealing on 122 tries. I don’t know if you can do math really quickly, but that’s a 31.1% success rate. For his professional career, he has a 32.4% success rate, with only one weird anomaly year in High A where he was under 30% (and he was way under).
So what I’m saying is that Pages has a chance to actually be among the best, if not the best, at catching runners stealing. Interestingly stolen bases saved above average does... not appear to be a 1:1 correlation with rSB, which I don’t understand. The leaders in rSB are Jonah Heim, with a 29.2% success rate on 82 tries, and Cal Raleigh, with a 25.7% success rate on 105 tries. Shea meanwhile was 5th with a 31.1% success rate on 122 tries. I assumed the lack of attempts was to blame for Heim, but then you have Raleigh who wasn’t super successful and had a lot of stolen base attempts. So I don’t know. Anyway, the leader of this category was a +5, so I just went with +3 for Pages.
Lastly, catcher ERA which yes is a stat, but as you can see by the following results, does not have a large impact. This time I did look again since 2015 (just to remain consistent with the framing numbers), and I again took the top 10 in catcher ERA, and averaged what they did over about 800 innings, which as it turns out is a little more than +2. So 2 runs added via “game calling.” We’ll all just acknowledge it could be more than that, but this is the best I got.
So all in all, if Pages is elite at these three aspects of catcher defense, he’s a +13 on defense in about 800 innings of catching. So we are operating as if Pages is a +13 defender right now even though there’s no way to know this and it’s asking too much of him. What does his offense need to be for him to be playable?
Well, first off, we are going for playable, not starter. So the standard is not 2 WAR. And technically replacement level is playable for a backup catcher, especially with some unseen things to fill in the value, but I am going to aim for 1 WAR per 600 PAs. That’d be a pretty good backup catcher. At least I think. The Cardinals have not had that.... in my lifetime I don’t think. They’ve barely had above replacement catchers, so 1 WAR would be a welcome delight.
Let’s work backwards. Let’s assume Pages is adding zero value on the basepaths and with the bat. He is also not subtracting any value. Given 350 PAs (and 800 innings), his defense would be +13, his positional adjustment would be +7, and replacement level would be +14, and that would make him a 3.2 WAR player.
But of course, we know he’s not an average hitter and baserunner. Being a catcher, he’s pretty much guaranteed to be a negative on the basepaths. He also has 20 grade speed on Fangraphs. I’ll jot him down as -3 on the basepaths. Okay, now down to the offense. He’s currently a 2.9 WAR player and in order for him to be “playable,” he simply needs 0.6 WAR over 350 PAs. This means his bat needs to better than -25 batting runs, which is quite bad.
Just two hitters managed -25 or worse, and both had considerably more than 350 PAs so it’s not easy to get that many plate appearances anad be that bad. The only catcher on that list, Eric Haase, had a 42 wRC+ in 293 PAs and was worth -23.2 batting runs. Given 350 PAs, that number would be worse, so we at least know he needs to be better than a 42 wRC+. Jacob Stallings is at -20 in 276 PAs and his partner in crime Nick Fortes is at -20 in 323 PAs. For some reason, Stallings is worse despite a better wRC+ in less PAs. Stallings is at a 57 wRC+ and Fortes at 53 wRC+. They are on the same team so it’s not a park thing.
Basically, what I’m saying is that the benchmark for Pages if he is truly an elite defender to be a capable backup catcher in the major leagues is a 60 wRC+. And if you think that’s crazy, Austin Hedges had a 24 wRC+ this past season and was worth 0.8 fWAR. So he probably would have actually been picked in the Rule 5 if even one team was high on his defense.