It’s no secret that the Seattle Mariners are in the market to improve their catching situation during this offseason – their backstops collectively ranked last in the majors in every major offensive category in 2015. In order to contend next year, the team must get better value from the position.
There’s one area where the team’s catchers actually excelled – they were really good at sacrifice bunting. Mike Zunino and Jesus Sucre each laid down sacrifice bunts 10 times and were successful 85-percent of the time. I think that everyone can agree that having your catcher position give themselves up 20 times doesn’t bode well for a team’s offense, especially when one of them – Zunino – possess above-average power. Further proof that the team needs to upgrade at catcher.
Just yesterday, Tacoma News Tribune beat writer Bob Dutton reported that free agent catcher Chris Ianetta and the Mariners were closing in on a deal. It’s fair to say that the social media reaction to this news trended towards being negative. Fans generally viewed Ianetta’s offensive numbers to be as bad or even worse than Zunino’s, which isn’t true.
What exactly is a fair expectation from the catcher position in 2016? Where should the bar be set for catchers when it comes to offensive output? The short answer is lower than many fans realize.
It’s important to note that major league catchers had a combined .240 batting average last season, which is lower than any field position other than pitcher and 16 points lower than the next lowest position – left field.
Of the 24 catchers who played in more than 100 games last season, only seven were above league-average for the catcher position in all three triple-slash categories – batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage. Six were below league-average in all three. Buster Posey should be considered the exception – not the expectation.
It’s not just standard offensive statistics where catchers lag behind. When you look at value of catchers – using the baseball-reference.com version of wins above replacement (WAR) – you’ll see that only nine catchers provided starter-level value, which is generally viewed as two or more WAR.
Every other fielding position – other than pitcher – had 14-18 players with starter-level value. The position with the highest number of starter level players was third base at 18. All-star level value is normally viewed as five WAR or higher and Posey was the only catcher to provide that much value last season. Again, he should be considered the exception – not the expectation.
It’s not just starter-level value that differentiates catcher from the other positions. According to baseballprospectus.com, the average annual salary for a major league catcher in 2015 was $1.78 million, which is the lowest for any non-pitching position on the field. The highest-ever contract awarded to a catcher was to Joe Mauer. His eight-year/$184 million deal is followed by Posey’s nine-year/$164 million contract.
Mauer no longer plays catcher though. After suffering a concussion in 2013, the Minnesota Twins moved the then 30-year-old to first base. The San Francisco Giants appear to be going in the same direction with Posey, who turns 29 in March. During each of the last three seasons, he’s incrementally played fewer games behind the plate and more at first base.
Who can blame the Giants? The likelihood of injury is higher behind the plate, plus the grind of catching affects a player’s ability to hit. Having banged up hands/wrists and crouching for 900-plus innings annually has to impact a catcher’s offensive tools. Although Posey is an outstanding backstop, it’s a lot easier to find a defensive-oriented catcher than it is to find a hitter like Posey.
Another scenario that can occur is moving the advanced hit tool catcher to another position in the minors, so that they’ll reach the majors sooner. It generally takes a catcher longer to develop as a game caller, thereby they take longer to reach the big leagues.
Okay, so it’s clearly apparent that finding a plus-hitter to wear the tools of ignorance isn’t easy. Let’s turn our attention to potential and realistic options for Seattle. Prospect Insider Executive Editor Jason A. Churchill recently discussed catchers who are free agents, plus potential trade targets who could help fill the Mariners’ gaping hole at backstop.
Multiple sports reporting agencies are reporting that Matt Weiters will accept that the qualifying offer from the Baltimore Orioles. So, that’s one less option for teams in need of a catcher.
As you can see, Ianetta sits in the middle of the pack. Adding the 10-year veteran would provide the Mariners with a good pitch framer who has a .344 on-base percentage over the last three seasons. Granted, his 2015 was sub-par, but he’s only 32-years-old. So, it’s plausible that he could bounce back next season.
Among the players on the list, only Oakland’s Stephen Vogt provided starter-level value in 2015. But, most of his value came during the first half of the season. Dealing for him would be costly. I’m not saying that the deal won’t happen. Just that Vogt won’t be easily pried away from the Athletics.
Lake Washington High School grad Nick Hundley was the only other player to approach starter-level value, although it’s important to note that he played half his games in Colorado.
The ideal strategy would be for the Mariners to add two catchers from the above list or acquire similar players who can mesh together and provide depth, defense, and value. These three elements have been in short demand for the Mariners at many positions during the last half-decade.
Whether Zunino fits into the Mariners’ plans depends largely on how GM Jerry Dipoto views the 24-year-old and the progress he’s made in overhauling his swing under the supervision of hitting coach Edgar Martinez. Even if Dipoto decides to retain the former first-round draft pick, the cautious approach would be to still add two other catchers.
Regardless of Dipoto’s strategy, I’d caution fans to keep the offensive statistics of any new catcher in perspective. Unless the new GM pulls off a miracle blockbuster deal for Posey or can wrangle Vogt away from the Oakland Athletics, the Mariners will likely end up with two catchers who provide reserve-level value individually. That’s not a bad thing provided that the duo’s combined value is at or near starter-level.
Maybe Ianetta will sign with Seattle today, maybe tomorrow. Maybe he’ll sign elsewhere. Regardless of what happens, adding two players with a similar skill set to Ianetta’s would be a wise move for Seattle. Reading my last comment may infuriate some fans who are sick and tired of the recent dismal offensive performance by Mariner catchers. But, it’s a common sense strategy for a team that wants to contend next year.