Let’s say you took over a baseball club with a recent history of some severe struggles. The main culprit, it appears, is pitching—only a handful of pitchers have broken through for the team in recent memory, and most have done quite a bit worse than expected. The fact that many pitchers have struggled at the same time has caused a cascade of other issues because starters don’t get far into games: the vulnerable underbelly of the bullpen has been exposed, and shuttles to and from the minors became commonplace. Not only were pitchers faring unexpectedly poorly, but the club has had to rely on its worst pitchers more often than other clubs—and those worst pitchers have fared unexpectedly poorly, too.

That’s the situation in which GM Mike Hazen and his new staff have landed in Arizona, and by trading for Taijuan Walker last week—who may be particularly well positioned to handle a transition to the D-backs staff—Hazen sent a strong signal that he was aware of the problem and the need to address it. In opting not to tender a contract to Welington Castillo last night and in signing the erstwhile Jeff Mathis to a free agent deal, Hazen sent another strong signal: that he does not believe this pitching problem can be solved merely by changing up the staff, or by changing current pitchers’ approaches.

There’s no reason to assume that Mathis will be the D-backs’ primary catcher next season, but say for the sake of comparison that either could have played 120 games for the team in 2017. Castillo has been just a bit below average at the plate in recent seasons, but that’s a fairly rare find at the catcher position; over 120 games, you might guess he’d add about 55 runs (as in, weighted Runs Created) to the D-backs’ effort, a far cry from the 35 to 40 runs you might expect from Mathis in the same span.

Behind the dish, though, the story is a bit different. Castillo has steadily improved from a nightmarish 2013, but even with that improvement, he cost the D-backs 9.8 runs relative to the average catcher, just with framing, in a little under 120 games played. He added some value back with his arm, finishing at -7.3 Fielding Runs Above Average in 2016, per Baseball Prospectus. Call it -7.5 for our comparison. Mathis was worth 7.5 FRAA last season, after adding 7.5 runs with framing skill and rating average in other defensive skills —but that was in just 41 games, many of which he shared time. Back of the envelope, that’s something in the order of 22 runs better than the average catcher, and just about 30 runs better than Castillo.

A downgrade offensively of 15 or 20 runs, but an upgrade defensively by 30. Sounds like a good trade, especially considering Castillo was due something like $5.9M in arbitration for 2017, and Mathis was inked at $4M total for 2017 and 2018. As a swap, this doesn’t even account for the catchers’ relative skills in pitch-calling or handling of pitchers, something I’m not equipped to value. It seems to me, though, that after working in Boston, Hazen is somewhat equipped to do that, and it seems to me that Castillo probably wasn’t an amazing catcher in that way. Chances are, it only widens the Mathis-favoring gap, rather than narrowing it.

You don’t need to believe me that Mathis is probably worth 0.1 runs per game more than Castillo (although you should) to get behind this exchange, though. To believe the team has done something smart here, you only need to return to that hypothetical that we started with.

For Arizona, hitters who have fared differently than expected have tended to do better than expected, from Paul Goldschmidt to Ender Inciarte to Luis Gonzalez. It’s not a stretch to connect better hitting with consistently underwhelming pitching efforts, and yet, because the pitching problems “cascade,” it’s likely that improving the D-backs defensively is more important than improving the D-backs offensively. That would cause you to consider changes that would affect all pitchers, even if they also affected all hitters.

All ballparks are different, but Chase Field is strange in a way that only Coors Field is also strange. Usually, a large outfield will lead to more hits (and more hits being doubles or triples), but fewer home runs; a small outfield will lead to more home runs, but fewer hits overall with outfielders asked to cover less territory. Like Coors, Chase defies this general rule. Chase Field is neutral in terms of home runs, but hitters still get the hits- and doubles-promoting benefits of large dimensions. That’s why a hitter who bails for home runs like Mark Trumbo isn’t a good fit at Chase—he’s not making use of any special Chase benefit, but he’s also failing to cash in on the large outfield dimensions with a low contact rate. That’s why line drive hitters like Goldschmidt and Jake Lamb should be expected to do well—they’ll cash in on the large outfield with doubles and triples, but without costing themselves home runs, necessarily.

That’s also why Chase Field is a pitching hellhole, particularly with Coors in the same division. If the priority is to help the pitching, even at an equal offensive cost, what are the options? There’s always the humidor possibility. You could also change the Chase Field dimensions, although the only way that would work would be by raising outfield fences, and that wouldn’t help very much. Is there anything else that would combat the oddity that is Chase Field?

Just catching. Opting for a glove-first catcher would shift some offense to defense, theoretically taking pressure off of the pitching staff, and theoretically going some way toward stopping that “cascade” in which pitching problems have multiplied. Even if the tradeoff were negative overall, you’d still have to consider it. Mike Hazen’s first and most important task is to determine whether Arizona can be a vaguely hospitable place to pitch, after so many experiments and so many pitchers have failed. Compared to using a humidor (a process that probably could not be reversed) and raising fences (expensive, not especially effective and hard to reverse), switching catcher personnel seems pretty easy, right?

Mathis over Castillo is a serious downgrade at the plate, but an even more serious upgrade behind it. On top of that, helping the pitching staff to the maximum extent possible is wise, particularly when that can be done without compromising the success of most of the batting lineup. What’s not to like? As surprising as the Castillo non-tender and Mathis singing were, it sure looks like Hazen has exactly the right priorities, and this is almost a no-lose proposition. If Mathis performs as expected, he may represent an upgrade over Castillo on a game-per-game basis; but even if he falls short, chances are he will help the team get more, better innings from its better pitchers.

Tagged with:

17 Responses to Welington Castillo Out, Jeff Mathis In: Fighting the D-backs’ Biggest Problem

  1. Rick D. says:

    Honestly, my first thought on hearing the news was that Hazen must have began his tenure here by reading all of the “Inside the Zona” posts. Actually, I’m sure he’s way ahead of us. There will surely be many more moves to come (moving Tomas?).

    • Lamar Jimmerson says:

      One can dream. I’d be shocked if he isn’t aggressive in shopping Tomas, although I could see them wait folks out until all the major 1B/DH guys are off the board. Hazen says he wants to add a left-handed bat. Where else is there to do that besides one of the outfield corners?

      Do it, Mike!

      • Best left handed bats available on the FA market are Michael Saunders and Colby Rasmus, both are corner OF (Rasmus can play a bit of CF). Given those options, I think that need is coming via trade.

  2. Jim Ellis says:

    I’d be interested in different metrics with catchers who have, say 50+ games played at catcher specifically in Phoenix. Who’s at the top defensively and what can we make of it? How would that help rate this move and handicap the odds that this move will pan out.

    I absolutely see where this move and article is coming from and I’m decently optimistic.

    I’m also wondering what type of pitcher with what kind of stuff is best benefitted from good pitch framing? I’d have to take a guess and say hard throwers for a few reasons: when they miss close, it came in hard, fast and direct. The thinking being that the umps eye might struggle to pick up the location but he knows it was fast, bear the zone and on a direct path. The carchers glove sells the location like bier to a thirsty man.

    Robby Ray may benefit the most…

    • Phil F says:

      Just from the naked eye watching last years game’s I think Miller will benefit the most from a more defensive minded and pitch framing friendly catcher. Many times Miller was working down in the zone and simply not getting the border line calls, forcing his location up a tad, and then…well the rest is history.

      I noticed this watching his starts and went back to see if my memory was correct and it seems to be. There were instances of frustration and body language from miller and the catcher at not getting calls and I really think he will perform substantially better if he is able to get some of those borderline calls.

      • Pretty much the only two pitchers that don’t live down in the strike zone are Ray and Walker, although Walker pitches low in the zone more frequently than Ray does (Ray’s explosive 4-seam fastball is more effective up in the zone than down).

    • Ryan P. Morrison says:

      Jim — other catchers are worth looking at, will try to give that a roll. Montero always rated well, etc. One of the big things, though, might be very hard to measure: the extent to which one guy can help cause “cascade” problems when he’s not in the game, from his time in the game.

      You might really enjoy Mark Simon’s piece: http://www.espn.com/blog/sweetspot/post/_/id/76760/d-backs-bring-framing-into-focus-with-catching-switch

      Domination at the bottom of the zone is a good thing (though if that’s really where Mathis does his best work, Ray might not see a bigger benefit than some other guys). How about Archie Bradley? Remember how he came out of the gate in 2015 pitching down and to his arm side over and over and over again? Maybe he can do that with a BB/9 under 5 if pitching to Mathis. Zack Godley’s usefulness just got upgraded, probably. Chafin and Marshall maybe get new leases on life. Corbin might go back to being the rare lefty to have sinker success against RHP, dropping them in the back door over and over. And I’m with Phil, too: this could be a huge thing for Miller, who needs hitters trying to make contact down there.

      Also, let’s just say Greinke knows how to take advantage of a good framer. That would be pretty great to watch.

      • Problem with getting Montero is his offense has significantly declined beyond the point in Arizona that got him traded to the Cubs. I wouldn’t mind a potential re-union if the Cubs eat a large part of that contract unless they outright release him.

        • Ryan P. Morrison says:

          I meant, worth looking at as a research project, not as an acquisition for the team. Response to Jim’s suggestion.

          Agree that he could be a potential fit, there are shockingly few MLB catchers available, and the teams that have a spot to fill might pay more than you think, given the strong defense numbers and the fact he could enjoy a platoon advantage most of the time as a backup for most teams.

  3. Aarom says:

    Forgive my ignorance here, but I don’t understand why they didn’t tender a contract, and try to trade him, or sign him in arbitration and trade him before the deadline. Does an above avg offensive catcher making 6-7 mil not have value?? Or is there some CBA rule? Or something else I’m missing?

    • Ryan P. Morrison says:

      You’re not wrong, it’s a surprise that the ability to control Beef for one year at about $6M wasn’t worth something to someone. I guess you just have to trust that the FO actually made calls and assessed value, and determined they couldn’t even get a fringy pitcher like the team did with Hellickson a year ago.

      Fwiw, in conjunction with the forthcoming offseason plan, we identified a handful of teams worth calling or worth us thinking about more: BAL, COL, TBR, and even CLE and CWS. Sounds like Tampa is interested, but I guess we can’t be sure that means they didn’t make the phone call. Talking it over with Jeff, our guess is that the Rays would be interested in Castillo largely as a DH option (and a good partner there for Dickerson, if not in an actual platoon).

      I dunno if he really has much value as a catcher — Seattle got him for a song, and in some sense, the D-backs did, too. I think his value is probably in his bat, but really only his bat. There might only be a few teams at this point that would play him at catcher, and under Hazen, that number shrunk by one.

  4. Aaron says:

    Any thoughts are appreciated. Love what you do here

  5. Anonymous says:

    miggy’s most likely available as he criticized Maddon after the world series on his usage. cub’s would definitely pick up most of his contract. framing is important, but there’s also a lot of funny stuff that goes on with framing. Mathis is alright pick up, he’s not really not that much different from tuffy abilities, for the money. but another solid move, he’s a handler with tremendous foot work and release.

    • Ryan P. Morrison says:

      Mathis is a lot different from Tuffy, who was only ever about average behind the dish.

      Fifteen runs over a season is a lot of runs. Saying they’re not much different would be a lot like saying a 30 HR hitter is not much different from a 20 HR hitter (maybe just a touch smaller gap than that), or that a .300 hitter is not much different from a .267 hitter, all other things being equal. In the scheme of things, not that big — but the only way to upgrade most of the time is in dribs and drabs.

      There’s also the entire point of the above written piece — that in this instance, Mathis’s value is probably multiplied, because the way things have been going, pitching problems have been multiplying themselves.

      • Anonymous says:

        well, my take on tuffy is, yes he’s a back up, and so is Mathis but, tuffy was cheap, and hopefully he just maybe he might be back in Reno this year. He’s a good guy to have on the 40 man regardless, since he knows these guys, and is catch/handle first. Oscar is still intriguing though too. I like Mathis a lot, for same reasons as Tuffy. Now i disagree with your analogy about mathis, 20-30 hr. the reason why I preferred Tuffy for this team for portions of the season just because he’s handled most of the arms and he could be sent downn back and forth too. More than that but im busy.

        • Ok — but that wasn’t an analogy, it was expressing the run value of their difference in defense as if it were home runs, and then as if it were singles instead of groundouts (the .033 difference in batting average). Not off the top of my head.

          Agree as to Tuffy’s value being wrapped up in being able to be optioned, and being cheap (although he’s starting on the arb ladder now). A win and half difference on defense is just a really big difference IMHO.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Yeah i get that, but at the margin i disagree on the 1.5 talent level in defense and I know how good Mathis is. But again im fine with mathis. Lot of variables here, i can live with lack of offensive production from ss cf and especially c, those being primary defense handling position.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.