Since the heyday of Miguel Montero, the Diamondbacks have struggled to field a quality catcher. Tuffy Gosewisch clearly wasn’t a solid option as he can’t hit and wasn’t great defensively, especially in the framing department. I still shake my head when I think of Josh Collmenter throwing to Gosewisch on Opening Day of 2015. Welington Castillo was one of the better hitting catchers in baseball during his time in the desert, but hemorrhaged strikes behind the plate. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Gerald Laird and Jordan Pacheco were even worse. Catching is routinely the thinnest position in the majors as there are very, very few that can hit even league average offensively and can be an asset when receiving. For every Buster Posey and Francisco Cervelli, there are ten Tuffy Gosewischs. The good ones are unicorns, essentially, and if you’ve got one, you’re not letting it go.
Dave Stewart and company never seemed to place much emphasis on the nuances of catching, namely receiving (aka “framing”), either out of ignorance or blatant disregard. It takes a proper set up, soft, quiet hands, and a clear goal of nabbing extra strikes for a catcher to succeed in terms of receiving in today’s game. While the gap between the top and bottom receivers has shrunken over the last few seasons, a sizable one still remains. While a catcher may get 450 plate appearances, he’ll receive something like 5,000-6,000 pitches while receiving. Stealing a couple of extra strikes per game has the potential to really add up, and given our knowledge of how balls and strikes effect at-bats, every extra strike is a blessing. Mike Hazen understands this and the Diamondbacks have clearly turned a corner in their approach to the position. With that in mind, let’s see who’ll make the Opening Day roster, who’s on the bubble, and who the next man up.
It’s a Stone-Cold Lock
Jeff Mathis, 34
Mathis was signed to a two-year deal for one reason and one reason alone: he can frame the hell out of pitches. In just 41 games last season in Miami, his receiving was worth nearly a full win. He won’t hit much (he never has), but that’s not a big concern as he was brought in for one reason alone and it wasn’t his bat. He’s expected to catch something like 60 games this season, or roughly 37.0370370r% of the time. It wouldn’t be a shock to see him worth 1.5 wins over the course of 2017, mostly on the back of those framing skills. I’ve heard that he’ll likely serve as Zack Greinke‘s personal catcher, which would account for about half of his projected starts. While you could argue that Greinke needs the least amount of help, you could also argue that he can benefit the most from Mathis’ skills. Giving Greinke a couple of extra strikes may do a great deal to help him rebound. Mathis will catch others, too, but don’t expect him to take the lion’s share of the catching duties, as those may go to…
Chris Iannetta, 33
The veteran Iannetta comes to the desert on a one-year deal that is puzzling in some ways, but understandable in others. An historically poor framer, he seemed to turn things around in 2015 when he was rather valuable behind the dish. He spent the spring of 2015 actively trying to improve in that area and it paid dividends. But last year, in Seattle, he regressed back to where he’d been before 2015, and along with a bat that has slowed into Iannetta’s early-30’s, he was a below replacement level player when the dust settled. Will the D-backs help him get back on track with his framing? That remains to be seen but fits with the front office’s priorities. At the plate, he can still run into the occasional home run as he’s always been able to launch a few with impressive authority. He has always been willing to take a free pass and walks over 10% of the time, helping his OBP in light of a batting average that’s projected to hover around .230. The on-base skills are useful, but he’ll likely be hitting well down in the batting order. The key to his value will come down to his ability to get back into the black in the receiving department as he is what he is at the plate — a below average hitter with some pop and good on-base skills.
Well, It Depends…
Chris Herrmann, 29
When the D-backs acquired Herrmann before Spring Training in 2016, the main question was “why?” In parts of four seasons in Minnesota he’d been a terrible hitter and a poor receiver when catching. Arizona made some changes to his swing and the bat promptly took off, but did so in a small sample. We’re now tasked with wondering if his .284/.352/.493 line from 2016 was just a mirage or something sustainable. He does hit left-handed, which is a bonus, and he can at least lineup in the outfield in a pinch. But make no mistake — he’s not a good catcher or a good outfielder. Perhaps the D-backs think they can help him improve his receiving, and if so, he could become marginally valuable. The pressure will always be on his glove, but his bat is a concern, too. Without knowing how much offense will carry over from mid-2016 when he went down with an injury, there are a bunch of questions with Herrmann. We also have no idea if Torey Lovullo will want three catchers on the Opening Day roster. Herrmann is squarely on the bubble here.
On the Periphery
Josh Thole, 30
After serving as the Mets’ primary catcher in 2011 and 2012, Thole has found himself in a backup role with the Blue Jays over the last four seasons. He joins the D-backs on a minor league deal with an invite to Spring Training where he’ll try to latch on. Thole has been a consistently above average framer during his major league time, though not by an overwhelming margin. Offensively, he’s slowed down and is coming off his worst season at the plate. He appears to be little more than a depth stash at this point.
Hank Conger, 29
You can copy/paste damn near everything from Thole to Conger. He’s been valuable defensively, but his offense lags. He’ll also join the team on a minor league deal with an invite to Spring Training. With near-elite framing numbers in Anaheim in 2013 and 2014, it’ll be interesting to see if he can make enough of an impression this spring to jump into the fray.
Oscar Hernandez, 23
The lone youngster on this list, Hernandez survived his Rule 5 season in 2015 and even got a cup of coffee in 2016 where he hit his first big league homer at just 22. He struggled offensively after a mid-season promotion to AA and should open the year back at that level, now in Jackson, MS (the D-backs moved their AA operation from Mobile to Jackson over the winter). Hernandez has some skills in the receiving department, but profiles as a below average hitter, even for a catcher. While he’s available in a pinch, the team would prefer that he continue to develop in the minors where he’ll have to hit more to even become a serviceable MLB backup.
The Biggest of Questions
Thole, Conger and Hernandez are surely on the outside looking in after reporting to Spring Training yesterday. While Hernandez is on the 40-man roster, Thole and Conger would have to force someone off if they were to make the team at any point this season. This leaves Mathis, Iannetta and Herrmann as the main options, with the first two clearly having a leg up on the third. Enlisting three catchers on the roster places stress on other positions, taking away an extra infielder, outfielder, or even reliever (depending on the bullpen plan). Space is at a premium and perhaps no one has a bigger Spring Training ahead of them than Chris Herrmann. Can he force the team’s hand and make the Opening Day roster? Mathis is a better receiver, Iannetta is a more established bat and both have guaranteed deals in place. Herrmann has no remaining minor league options, so if he is sent down, he’ll have to be DFA’d and exposed to waivers where he could get scooped up by another team. If Arizona thinks they can make Herrmann a passable defensive catcher, they’ll have to keep him in the majors at the expense of someone else (potentially Jeremy Hazelbaker). Harder yet, they’ll have to carve out catching opportunities for him at the expense of guys they actually paid for this winter who may be superior options. Herrmann’s in a tricky spot and if he doesn’t impress this spring, he may find himself in another uniform in a hurry.
2017 Spring Previews
In case you missed any of the other installments in this series, you can find links to each preview piece below:
- Sequencing Matters: Which D-backs Pitches are Fooling Hitters?
- Which D-backs Pitches Work Well Together?
- Taijuan Walker’s Hot Spring Has a New Look
- Zack Greinke’s Velocity is Trending in a Predictable Direction, Sadly
- Statcast and a New Era for Evaluation
- 2017 Spring Preview: A Wide Open Bullpen
- How the Diamondbacks Landed in Baseball’s Toughest Situation and Don’t Have a Clear Way Out
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Previously on The Pool Shot, the guys explained some of their favorite advanced stats. Hitting, including wRC+, HHAV and batted ball; pitching (38:00), including FIP, xFIP and SIERA; and baserunning and defense, including UBR, UZR and DRS (58:00).