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  • What Can We Learn From the Playoff Catchers?

    Matt Braun

    The World Series remains in motion, at least for a time, so what better thing to do than to analyze postseason catchers? You know it will be fun. 

    Image courtesy of Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

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    I looked at the playoff catchers—no need to thank me, it’s all in a day’s work—and one glaring, obvious, apparent, unmistakable, overt trend exists: framing wins ballgames. This isn’t news. At least, it shouldn’t be. Through a combo platter of decreased stealing, increased stuff, and the realization that those extra strikes actually do matter, the catching position has evolved to fit the framing niche. MLB has shifted towards a homogenized framing aesthetic so dominant that the Houston Astros actively happily stomach watching Martin Maldonado hit just to enjoy his defense rewards. 

    If you’ve stumbled onto a broadcast, any broadcast over the last few seasons, you’ve likely noticed the catcher kneeling in a position that would give Sparky Anderson a heart attack. Even with a man on first base, the catcher will remain touching the ground, utterly unphased by whatever threat the runner poses while focusing on receiving the ball with masterful precision. A stolen base is palatable; a missed strike is not. 

    It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that eight of the top nine catchers by Baseball Prospectus’ framing stat belong to playoff teams. The tenth was a 27-year-old rookie in Colorado named Brian Serven. Hi, Brian. In contrast, only two of the worst 10 framers—Austin Nola and Francisco Mejia —started for a playoff team. 

    The other fascinating trend had to do with playing time: almost no team relies on a singular catcher anymore. Outside of J.T. Realmuto, a true athletic freak who can do everything well, Alejandro Kirk, a well-rounded youngster in Toronto, and Cal Raleigh, the big dumper, playoff teams rely on a tandem of framers, eschewing ideas of one star in favor of a two-headed team. Although, the star-catcher approach may have returned somewhat amongst the MLB landscape as a whole; there were five primary catchers with more than 500 plate appearances in 2022, the highest total in a full season since 2018. 

    That’s great and all, but what can the Twins glean from this? They may already have one of their pieces in Ryan Jeffers. He can frame with the best of them (24th out of 120 catchers, according to Baseball Prospectus), and his .208/.285/.363 slash line in 2022 is in the ballpark of your average major league catcher, as backstops collectively hit .226/.295/.363. He may have more in his bat; Baseball Savant thinks he underperformed his batted-ball data, and his top-end exit velocity is elite. Still, he’s just one player—one not nearly good enough to carry a team like Realmuto. The Twins need a sidekick.

    There are a few names available at the peak—Omar Narvaez, Christian Vazquez , Sean Murphy if they’re feeling spicy—who can provide varying degrees of batting prowess, but the middle of the free-agent pack provides defensive gurus like Tucker Barnhart and Austin Hedges. Although, offensive capabilities in this group drop from “acceptable” to “Lovecraftian horror.”

    Of course, there’s a wrench that MLB will toss into this: new rule changes next season will encourage and likely boost the run game. With bigger bases and a pitch clock entering the fold, players might release their inner Vince Coleman, pushing teams to find a happy medium between hyper-focused framing and stolen base watchdogging. Or maybe stolen bases remain stagnant. Baseball moves like that sometimes. If the steal does return, the Twins may be wise to anticipate the trend and sign a gun-slinger to catch beside Jeffers.

    Really, this entire article could read as “Gary Sanchez was not the answer.” Backstops with offensive upside—and only offensive upside—must reach some sort of Willson Contreras plateau before serious playoff teams consider them a legitimate option. That’s just the game these days. Sanchez was a potentially explosive addition—ushering him away from the New York media seemed wise—but the move didn’t work, and the team should learn that lesson. The Twins will probably need to find Jason Castro 2.0 if they want to play meaningful baseball beyond September.



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    IMO pitch framing will become obsolete in the next 1-3 years. Next year will start to provide the answer if base stealing will increase, I think it will. Between new rule about pitchers throwing over, pitch clock, larger bases, and move of 2nd I can't see how they won't. In the mean time, the teams that anticipate and react will have the advantage.

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    Note that Vasquez had a single to drive in runs in the game clincher for the Astros - the bat does matter.  I do not see Houston letting him go.  

    Pitch framing or not - those Astros pitchers were dealing this series and they should get the credit for their control and their quality pitches.  You can't frame pitches that are going to the backstop.

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    I think too many people are expecting too much offense from a catcher.  Very few catchers are good at both offense and defense, similar to SS.  When you find one that is good at both, they are worth a ton of money because they are super rare.  You need to decide your balance between the two.  

    Jeffers and Sanchez slash line is about equal.  I do not know how much better Jeffers is to Sanchez, but to be set on Jeffers, he better be much better than Sanchez as it comes to defense, including pitch framing, to draw the conclusion that Sanchez is not the right one, but Jeffers is fine.  Hopefully Jeffers can upgrade is offense, because if not, in the next few years his pitch framing will be pointless when the electronic zone finally gets put in. 

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    Hedges hits like me, and I bat sixth on our softball team.  He cannot be an option.

    Find someone who can pretty much play both ways but don't insist on outstanding in either.  Jeffers is OK doing what he does well and we need someone who can cover for what he doesn't do well. That means find someone who can hit RH pitching and control the running game a little. These people exist: Murphy, Jansen, Vasquez to name a few. Just go get one, and don't dilly dally or they'll all be gone. 


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