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Prior to the MLB lockout, Jerry Dipoto made moves designed to transform his team into a 2022 postseason contender. But when normal baseball business resumes in July, don’t expect the Seattle Mariners GM to make an upgrade at catcher. As Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times notes, Dipoto expects to stick with the current stable of backstops.

For some Mariners fans, not improving at a position that ranked near the bottom of the league in multiple offensive categories is unfathomable. But despite the underwhelming numbers, Dipoto and his staff appear content with 2021 holdovers Tom Murphy, Cal Raleigh, and Luis Torrens.

Seattle’s Catchers Struggled At The Plate
BB%
K%
AVG
OBP
SLG
wOBA
wRC+
SEA
8.9
31.3
.190
.266
.329
.262
68
Rank
14
28
28
27
25
26
25

As baffling as Seattle’s approach may seem to some fans, we should more closely assess the Mariners catching situation before judging the team’s strategy. Let’s begin by recalibrating expectations for catcher offense.

We’re Not Talking About First Basemen

When we compare the on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) of each non-pitching position group, we learn that catcher was the only position below the .700 mark in MLB last year. In fact, backstops trailed first basemen by nearly 100 points.

OPS Rankings By Position In 2021
1B (.792)
RF (.774)
DH (.750)
3B (.741)
LF (737)
SS (.736)
2B (731)
MLB average (.728)
CF (.721)
C (.697)

It turns out that catchers bringing up the rear has been the trend for nearly a decade. Since 2014, backstops have posted the lowest OPS in every season with the exception of a COVID-shortened 2020.

Taking Offense

Now that we’ve established that catcher isn’t a strong offensive position across MLB, let’s focus our attention on the production stats for the Mariners’ three projected receivers – Murphy, Raleigh, and Torrens.

Mariners Catcher Offense
PA
HR
K%
BB%
AVG
OBP
SLG
OPS
Torrens
377
15
26.3
7.2
.243
.299
.431
.730
Murphy
325
11
30.5
12.3
.202
.304
.350
.655
Raleigh
148
2
35.1
4.7
.180
.223
.309
.532
MLB*
25.2
8.7
.228
.305
.391
.697
* MLB average for catchers

The preceding numbers represent Torrens’ entire season, but it’s worth noting that he didn’t play catcher after July 9. Not so coincidentally, Raleigh made his MLB debut in Seattle on July 11. Murphy, who missed all of 2020 with an injury, was Seattle’s main catcher last year. The right-handed hitter posted extreme platoon splits just as he did during his first season with Seattle in 2019.

Please tell me I’m not the only nerd to notice Murphy’s identical number of plate appearances against righties and lefties in 2019-21. Putting this statistical quirk aside, it’s obvious the 30-year-old has thrived when facing southpaws and struggled considerably against right-handed pitching.

Tom Murphy's Platoon Splits (2019-21)
PA
HR
BB%
K%
AVG
OBP
SLG
OPS
LHP
303
19
12.2
28.7
.285
.379
.554
.793
RHP
303
10
7.3
32.7
.191
.248
.332
.580

After making the Opening Day roster, Torrens struggled during the first six weeks of the season. So much so, the Mariners shipped the 25-year-old to Class-AAA Tacoma in mid-May to help him get back on track. When he returned to Seattle about a month later, his bat regained the pop it displayed last year.

Luis Torrens’ Stats & MLB Rankings (June 15-Oct 3)
13 HR (94)
.266 AVG (100)
.326 OBP (135)
.477 SLG (82)
.803 OPS (89)
.341 wOBA (99)
121 wRC+ (77)

Based on wRC+, Torrens was a top-100 run producer among hitters with over 250 plate appearances from June 15 until season’s end. Yes, this is a small sample, but consider this. The Mariners had just two other players in that top-100 – Ty France (145 wRC+) and Mitch Haniger (117 wRC+).

Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) quantities how a hitter’s total offensive value compares with the league average after adjusting for park effects. League-average is always 100. Therefore, a wRC+ of 150 means a hitter was 50-percent more productive than the average player. An 80 wRC+ would be 20-percent below average.

When we expand our view to Mariners with 200-plus plate appearances from mid-June through October, the importance of Torrens’ production to the team becomes readily apparent.

M's Offense (June 15- Oct 3)
HR
AVG
OBP
SLG
OPS
wRC+
Ty France
15
.316
.382
.493
.875
145
Luis Torrens
13
.266
.326
.477
.803
121
Mitch Haniger
23
.249
.324
.463
.787
117
J.P. Crawford
6
.273
.336
.374
.710
102
Kyle Seager
22
.210
.287
.440
.726
100
Abraham Toro
6
.252
.328
.367
.695
99
Jarred Kelenic
12
.209
.291
.402
.693
94
Dylan Moore
5
.180
.274
.295
.569
65

That brings us to Raleigh, owner of a .985 OPS with Tacoma that fueled unrealistic fan expectations. That said, the impatient should recognize the fact that the former Florida State Seminole appeared in just 47 games spread over the final 10 weeks of the season. Realistically, it takes time and experience for most rookies to adjust to the major leagues. Especially for a switch-hitter, like Raleigh, who must adjust to big-league pitching from both sides of the plate.

And, oh yeah, Raleigh is a catcher. His main tasking was to learn and guide an unfamiliar pitching staff during a postseason race. In that regard, he performed well.

Defensive Measures

While getting offense from the catcher position is always welcome, what really matters is productivity from behind the plate. For the Mariners, the numbers suggest there was a noticeable gap between the defensive acumen of Torrens and his fellow Seattle backstops.

The following illustrates the number of innings each catcher spent behind the plate, defensive runs saved (DRS), fielding runs above average (FRAA), passed balls (PB), wild pitches (WP), caught stealing percentage (CS%), and the average of the framing scores found at FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, and Baseball Prospectus. Like I said, the difference between Torrens and the others is hard to miss.

Mariners Catcher Defensive Metrics
Inn
DRS
FRAA
PB
WP
CS%
Framing
Raleigh
333.0
-1
3.2
5
9
21
2.9
Murphy
727.2
1
2.3
6
28
17
-0.6
Torrens
284.2
-4
-4.5
1
17
12
-4.2

According to the stats, Murphy was an average-ish defender in 2021. But it’s important to note that the same measurements rated the Buffalo alum as above-average in 2019. Furthermore, Divish notes the Mariners value Murphy’s “leadership, game preparation, and in-game decision making.”

The defensive metrics liked Raleigh during his brief stint. Conversely, the same stats suggest Torrens didn’t perform well. Perhaps Raleigh’s arrival wasn’t the only reason the Mariners opted to use the Venezuelan as a designated hitter following the All-Star break.

Performance Through A Different Lens

Having said all that, Divish commented in a recent Mariners mail bag that the team believes Torrens’ defense can improve, although scouts Divish talked to disagree. This difference of opinion prompted me to use an offbeat approach to assess behind-the-plate performance. I turned to my go-to stat – xwOBA.

Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should’ve happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) doesn’t influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing. MLB league-average xwOBA = .316

Since xwOBA also factors in walks and strikeouts along with quality of contact, we may be able to ascertain whether a particular catcher was able to elicit better results from the pitching staff than his battery-mates. With the makeup of the Mariners’ starting rotation varying so greatly between the periods Torrens and Raleigh served as catchers, I focused on the opponent xwOBA of the bullpen. Also illustrated below, several conventional stats for anyone allergic to sabermetrics.

Reliever Production By Catcher
PA
HR%
K%
BB%
AVG
SLG
xwOBA
Murphy
1248
2.6
23.6
7.7
.229
.366
.296
Raleigh
639
2.5
24.3
8.1
.237
.388
.293
Torrens
533
2.3
23.8
7.1
.233
.367
.295

Opponents essentially had the same xwOBA against Seattle relievers regardless of catcher. This suggests to me that Torrens’ defensive flaws didn’t negatively affect the outcomes of opponent plate appearances any more than his fellow Mariner catchers. Perhaps the team recognizes this and that’s why it remains optimistic about Torrens. Then again, maybe my hare-brained analysis is completely out to lunch.

Seeking Help?

For the fan wanting the Mariners to upgrade at catcher, the team won’t find help in the free agent market. Here’s the age and the FanGraphs version of wins above replacement (fWAR) of available free agents.

Free Agent Catchers (Age / fWAR)
Robinson Chirinos (37 / 0.5)
Luke Maile (30 / 0.3)
Grayson Greiner (29 / 0.2)
Stephen Vogt (37 / 0.1)
Joseph Odom (30 / 0)
Ryan Lavarnway (34 / 0)
Jose Lobaton (37 / -0.3)
Austin Romine (33 / -0.4)
Wilson Ramos (34 / -0.4)
Kurt Suzuki (38 / -0.4)
Chance Sisco (26 / -0.6)
Sandy León (32 / -0.6)
Drew Butera (38 / -0.7)
Willians Astudillo (30 / -0.8)
Austin Wynns (31 / -0.9)

If the Mariners were looking to bolster the catcher position with a new face, the trade market would be the only route. Notable candidates often mentioned in the blogosphere include Willson Contreras (Cubs), Mitch Garver (Twins), Danny Jansen (Blue Jays), and Carson Kelly (Diamondbacks).

Assuming the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) doesn’t alter the service time required to reach free agency, Contreras is a free agent after the 2022 season, while Garver has two years of club control remaining. The other two receivers aren’t free agents for three more seasons.

Looking Forward

Assuming the Mariners don’t trade for an established catcher, fans should expect to see some combination of Murphy, Raleigh, and Torrens donning the tools of ignorance in 2022. This approach makes sense to me for several reasons.

First, the Mariners aren’t going to give up on Raleigh, who is a relatively inexperienced professional. The North Carolina native has played in 47 MLB games, which is just three more than his AAA experience. All told, he’s appeared in 203 MiLB games – just nine more than he played with Florida State. Perhaps Raleigh begins the season in Tacoma. But the kid certainly deserves a much longer audition in the majors before anyone assesses his outlook.

Murphy’s overall offensive numbers may not be appealing to demanding fans. However, his slash line wasn’t that far below league-average for a catcher. Moreover, the New Yorker has performed well against southpaws. And let’s not overlook the value the Mariners place on his influence on the pitching staff.

Whether Torrens has a long-term future behind the plate with Seattle or a different team is a matter to be determined in the future. That said, I believe he can help the Mariners as a catcher in 2022.

Sure, there are legitimate concerns regarding Torrens’ work behind the plate. But I’m a believer in his hit tool. If the Venezuelan produces at the plate, he’ll play. It’s amazing how tolerable a player’s questionable defense becomes when his bat is delivering results.

Finally

As I see it, the Mariners can contend with their current catcher rotation. If time proves me wrong, Dipoto likely adjusts course with an in-season trade. Perhaps for one of the names we’ve discussed. After all, JeDi does have the reputation of being an aggressive dealmaker.

That said, I don’t think I’m wrong. 

My Oh My…

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up as a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. In 2014, Luke joined the Prospect Insider team. During baseball season, he can often be found observing the local team at T-Mobile Park. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins

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