How much did Hahn actually upgrade the catching for 2016?

How much did Hahn actually upgrade the catching for 2016?
White Sox new catcher Dioner Navarro.

By the time Matt Wieters joined the exclusive brotherhood of “those who accepted the qualifying offer,” it seemed like many White Sox fans had already resigned themselves to another season of mediocre production behind the plate. There just weren’t any obviously good solutions available; Wieters was the only notable free agent candidate, and the best options on the trade market (Lucroy, Castro) came with too many red flags to justify their costs. The refrain from the fans began to sound like an official news bulletin in North Korea: “Yes, things look very ugly, but trust us that they’re just as ugly everywhere else.”

But lo, Rick Hahn struck quickly and when least expected. The surprising non-tender of Tyler Flowers was followed immediately by the announcement of a pair of one-year free agent deals: the left-handed Alex Avila at $2.5mm and the switch-hitting Dioner Navarro at $4mm. The combined cost is just a few million bucks more than what Tyler Flowers was expected to make in arbitration alone, and the cost of each just a touch more than the total guarantee he was ultimately able to get with Atlanta. In one fell swoop, the catching corp was completely overhauled, and the White Sox found themselves with a shiny new (old) platoon behind the plate. Everywhere, Sox fans collectively nodded and shrugged with tempered, moderate satisfaction.

All thought of the catching platoon was quickly and unsurprisingly swept under the rug as news began to surface of much bigger upgrade targets at third base and the outfield. Now that the acquisition of Todd Frazier has officially signaled another push toward contention, we fans are in the mood to take stock of our team’s chances as a whole, and I think we owe that catching platoon a closer look. What do we really have now? Is it just a bandage on a bleeding wound, or something more? Something less, even?

Until the full yearly suite of performance projections are released (ZiPS, Steamer/600, Marcel, etc.), WAR projections aren’t very helpful for us here – because WAR is a counting stat, and Steamer has some troubling playing-time figures baked in. For example, Avila and Navarro are projected for 584 PA between them, while Flowers and Brantly have just 224.

So let’s break this down a little more, and measure the impact of each part of the game individually:

Offense

Since counting stat projections aren’t helpful yet, let’s look at each platoon by their projected rate stats:

2016 Projected Offense by Steamer:

Player BA OBP SLG wRC+
Tyler Flowers .219 .273 .350 71
Rob Brantly .242 .284 .360 73
Alex Avila .211 .358 .353 90
Dioner Navarro .258 .316 .397 94

That, my friends, is a substantial improvement – and one that’s easy to underappreciate until it’s laid out just so. The projected production from our new Avila/Navarro combo still falls safely short of an impact bat, but the difference from the Flowers/Brantly projection is drool-worthy nonetheless. The Flowers/Brantly platoon looks like it’ll hit like a sub-par middle infielder; the Avila/Navarro platoon looks more like a respectable fourth outfielder.

The bulk of the projected improvement is in the category of on-base percentage, a category in which the White Sox have been sorely lacking, but there’s also a forecasted bump in slugging percentage that shouldn’t be overlooked. The OBP increase is somewhat mitigated by the fact that these guys will give some value back on the basepaths, but they will provide some run-producing extra-base hits along the way and help turn the lineup over to give the big bats more chances.

Defense

Defense is always the tougher side of the game to evaluate – and catcher defense especially so. In terms of runs and wins, I’m not convinced we even understand the magnitude of difference between the best and the worst catchers each year, let alone how to accurately compare each players. With offense, we have very good scales for performance and can thus place players confidently on a continuum, but I think the best way to evaluate catcher defense – as a layman in 2015 – is to identify key indicators of different performance aspects and try to build a consensus. We have some very strong data points from which to start, but a good amount of subjectivity is necessary to form an overall conclusion.

I identified three key metrics to measure the most important quantifiable aspects of catcher defense: caught stealing percentage (CS%) to measure the effectiveness of the arm, passed balls per 9 innings (PB/9) to measure the reliability of the glove, and strikes added per game (ExStr/G) to measure ability in pitch framing. In the table below, I took a two-year average of each metric for all four catchers, including minor league numbers since Brantly spent most of his time there and Avila had a negligible rehab stint in 2014.

Why only two years of data? Catcher skills have weird aging curves and we have a lot of different ages represented in our group. Since I’m only interested in what these guys will provide next year, I don’t want career numbers to give anyone credit for better throwing when they were young nor penalize them for poor framing that may still be developing. I’m not sure that it’s the best method of sampling, but it makes the most sense to my intuition for now; I’ll note interesting sample-related caveats in the paragraph that follows. All data comes from StatCorner, FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, and ESPN.

Two-year Catching Averages (2014-2015):

Player CS% PB/9 ExStr/G
Tyler Flowers 27.6% 0.111 0.58
Rob Brantly 28.6% 0.161 -2.44
Alex Avila 33.8% 0.032 -0.61
Dioner Navarro 25.0% 0.065 -1.35

Tons of interesting stuff here:

  1. Just in case you wondered, StatCorner data is based on an average of 78 called pitches per game. So that’s how many pitches a batter does not swing at in an average game.
  2. I’m less convinced that a two-year sample is best after viewing the results, because each catcher’s career is littered with “outlier seasons” in many categories, which I’ll note as we come to them.
  3. Alex Avila is pretty clearly the superior thrower based on the data above. It’s worthy to note, however, that his CS% in 2013 (the year just outside my sample) was absolutely horrible – so bad, in fact, that a three year sample would have put him right in line with Flowers. I’m not too worried about the result because Avila’s career numbers are in line with him being the best of the bunch, but it’s yet another example of how limited data sets can paint very different pictures.
  4. Wow, look at those passed balls. I’ve got to admit to being excited at being able to expect to see much fewer of those in 2016. Based on those numbers, we could see roughly 10 – 12 fewer passed balls this year.
  5. In terms of extra strikes per game, Tyler Flowers barely edged out Francisco Cervelli as the best pitch framer in all of MLB in 2015 (though Cervelli blew Flowers out of the water in terms of total value, having caught ~1500 more pitches). It turns out, however, that Tyler Flowers was a bad framer in 2014, so much so that he actually provided negative value. The two-year sample still paints him as clearly the best of this bunch, but it’s another example of weird sampling. If you believe that pitch framing is something that always improves with practice, you might give Flowers more credit for what he’ll do going forward – however, you’d also have to explain why Avila and Navarro both used to provide positive framing value earlier in their careers.
  6. The fact that nearly all of Brantly’s time came in the minors makes those mediocre numbers look even worse.

Despite the weird extremes of these catcher’s individual seasons, the results of two-year sample data are actually pretty consistent with how each player compares with one another on the basis of their respective career numbers. It appears that we can expect that our new platoon will throw out more runners and block substantially more pitches, but will lose the advantage of pitch framing. How much emphasis you place on each of those elements is up for debate, and I expect each of us will come away with a slightly different conclusion as to how our team catcher defense will change.

For me, it looks like a clear upgrade for one primary reason: both pitch framing and CS% are heavily influenced by the pitchers on the mound, with some evidence even pointing to the idea that both numbers are even more in control of the pitcher than the catcher. I expect we’ll see both of those numbers regress toward what we’ve seen in the past few years, barring any substantial shift in the starting rotation. The pitch blocking, however, should feel like night and day. Watching ten or fifteen fewer runners trot to the next base will make a noticeable positive impact in 2016.

Conclusion

I think we all had a sense that Hahn made a shrewd, low-cost upgrade at catcher just as the offseason began, but closer inspection reveals that the magnitude of that upgrade might be greater than the sum of the parts. It won’t be flashy, but a substantial bump in offense coupled with a smaller but noticeable bump in defense should certainly plug the “black hole” that existed before – assuming everyone stays healthy. Yes, projections are only projections and there’s certainly more health risk with this platoon than the old one, but if things go as Hahn and the front office envision, this upgrade may end up having more impact than the addition of Brett Lawrie at second base.

In summary, here's what we "got" from Hahn's whirlwind catching overhaul:

PROS

  • Substantial increase in OBP
  • Substantial improvement in pitch blocking
  • Likely noticeable improvement in runners caught stealing
  • Slight increase in SLG

CONS

  • Substantial downgrade in pitch framing
  • Much higher health/injury risk
  • Short-term solution

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