While most of the talk surrounding the Diamondbacks has to do with one of many fiascos, there’s still some reason to discuss the team’s roster. Sure, it’s had it’s share of injuries and trades take their toll, leaving the team with some sub-optimal situations; one’s that seem they were unprepared to deal with, generally. Not having a backup centerfielder was shortsighted and came to light the minute A.J. Pollock went down. Losing David Peralta has been a big blow to the team, as has the loss of Ender Inciarte. All three of the team’s best outfielders from 2015 have essentially evaporated this year. And while that’s a trouble spot clouded with uncertainty next season (Pollock has missed rehab time with oblique issues, Peralta’s wrist surgery wipes out the rest of ’16 and could still have a bearing on him in ’17), there’s another area the team could stand to upgrade: catcher.
We’ve oft-lamented here the lack of awareness around pitch framing and advanced catcher defensive evaluation by this team. For the longest time, it seemed as if there was simply no awareness around the impact that things like pitch framing could have upon a pitching staff. Just by stealing a few well-timed strikes, you can impact the entire outcome of a game. And because a starting catcher receives so many pitches over the course of the season, there are literally thousands of chances to impact the game, either positively or negatively. It’s a double-edged sword – you can either be a huge boon for your team or an utter black hole for them to throw into.
For the longest time, it’s seemed like Welington Castillo was the latter. Baseball Prospectus’ advanced catching statistics tell us that in 2015, Castillo gave away over 11 runs more than average (0 runs) with his poor framing, which equates to just over a full win. He cost his team a single win because of poor pitch framing without accounting for context. Depending on the timing of his mistakes with the glove when receiving pitches, it could be more than that. Meanwhile, Yasmani Grandal saved the Dodgers 25 runs with his pitch framing, gaining them an extra 2.5 wins. That’s a 3.5-win gap, just based upon the team’s primary catcher’s ability to frame pitches. And, as Ryan shared on our latest episode of the The Pool Shot, new data about game calling (or pitch sequencing, if you will) revealed that Castillo was the worst regular catcher at calling a game in 2015. Put it together and you have a bottom-of-the-stack framer and a bottom-of-the-stack game caller, which could have cost his team anywhere from 3-4 wins last season.
So you might wonder why the Diamondbacks are considering extending Castillo. Or, you might not, considering that they’ve turned a blind eye to these kinds of numbers plenty of times in the past. Either way, with 2015 under review, you’d be hard-pressed to assume that keeping Castillo behind the plate is a good idea, especially with a struggling pitching staff throwing baseballs in a hitter’s park more often than not. Lest we forget, however, that skills are not static. Players can get better. That’s a real thing. And if we look at Castillo’s work behind the plate this year, well, even I’m surprised to report that he’s been far better at pitch framing. Through last night’s game, Castillo has been just one framing run below average and is on pace to be essentially a full win better in that department than he was a year ago. That moves him from among the league’s worst to league average – a big jump indeed. The vast majority of league leaders from last season are all above average again this year, suggesting that the stat is pretty stable over a full season, giving us confidence to believe that this isn’t some blip, it’s likely real.
Since joining the Diamondbacks, Welington Castillo has hit, hit, and hit some more. Offensively, Castillo has hit for as much power as any catcher in the game in that time frame. While guys like Buster Posey and Jonathan Lucroy are truly better hitters (and defenders), Castillo has made pitchers pay by routinely hitting for power. Since the start of 2015, even taking his horrendous time in Chicago and Seattle into account, Castillo is 7th in home runs (31), 10th in doubles (32) and 2nd isolated slugging (.198). He leaves plenty to be desired in terms of walk rate and other offensive areas, but overall, he’s been about a league average hitter. Considering the bar offensively for catchers is so low, he’s been better than the average catcher by a fair margin at the dish.
So we’ve got a catcher who’s offense-first, which isn’t ideal at Chase Field, but can do enough with the bat to be a small asset so long as the framing numbers don’t back up on us. He has shown an ability to throw out runners at a roughly league average clip (34% in 2016), and while he’s not the best at blocking pitches, he’s not a total liability either. If the team wishes to extend him, then fine, extend him, but the merits of that extension need to take very mediocre defense into account and not solely pay him like one of the game’s best slugging catchers. He’ll turn 30 next April and it’s not like he’s about to get any more athletic. He has, however, built a rapport with this pitching staff to some degree, and perhaps that’s aided his ability to frame. Just getting comfortable with the staff should help as he develops a better understanding of what’s coming out of the pitchers’ hands.
After earning $3.7 million this winter in his second pass through arbitration, he should be on schedule to earn something like $6 million this winter in his third arbitration year. The Diamondbacks could look to buy out a free agent year with an option of a second one, keeping the deal somewhat team-friendly. Two years and $11 million would work from the team’s perspective, and they could kick in a team option for 2018 worth $7 million including a $1 million buy-out. That would guarantee Castillo $12 million through 2017 with the full value being $18 million through 2018. If those are the terms, that’s something we can probably live with. For the record, getting a defensive “ace” behind the plate would be more ideal and absolutely should be the team’s prerogative, but those guys are far and few between. As defense has harmed the team so much in 2016, signing Castillo won’t help, but the team could then turn it’s attention to the corner outfield to shore up it’s weaknesses, including a trade of Yasmany Tomas.
If an extension gets done at team-friendly prices, you can squint and maybe see it as acceptable. It’s not a clear win for the Diamondbacks, but it’s not an unmitigated disaster either. Of course, that could change depending on the financial details. Either way, defense has to be a priority, and while it looks like Castillo has improved to a degree, he’s not a defensive asset. They’ll need to look for defensive upgrades elsewhere to support a pitching staff that’s going to return mostly intact next season.
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