Offseason Dreaming: A Starting Catcher
In the last two segments of this on again, off again series I took a look at a couple of trade targets that were probably a little bit unrealistic. The Rays probably aren’t going to trade what it takes to get Adam Eaton, and I don’t know that San Diego is even looking to move Derek Norris. In this installment I want to stay on the position of catcher. As usual, the position was a complete disaster for the team this past season. Outside of the first two Jose Molina years the Rays have struggled to have anything approaching competence on the position. This year saw Curt Casali accrue the most WARP according to Baseball Prospectus at 0.29. Then Luke Maile put up a gigantic 0.20. Bobby Wilson was replacement level and Hank Conger was worse than that. That’s not good.
I get it. It’s hard to find a catcher that can play a lot, and contribute at the plate while making his pitchers look good. It’s a big ask. When a guy comes along that fills the bill the team should do what it takes to get him. There are a number of decent catchers that you have heard of in free agency this year. There was even a stud until Wilson Ramos succumbed to an ACL tear, his second. His injury clouds the market a bit as now there is no standout, but still some clear stratification between non-option and good get. Let’s look at what they have done over the last three years:
I prefer the way Fangraphs presents their hitter data so I’m using that for the offensive side, but Baseball Prospectus is light years ahead with regards to catcher defense so I’m using that, and their total WARP figures on the right side. The aforementioned Ramos is the head of the class, but not all that far behind is one of my personal favorites, Jason Castro. Castro isn’t without weakness. He isn’t going to do anything against a lefty, and he’s a little below average throwing runners out. The positives vastly outweigh the negatives, however. He can hit a righty at nearly league average, which would be well above for a catcher. Additionally, his greatest strength is his roguish ability to pilfer and save strikes with aplomb. He is really good at making his pitchers look good.
The above heatmap shows his Strikes Looking Above Average while Castro was behind the plate in 2016. He has strengths and weaknesses when a lefty is up, but when a righty is batting you can see that he is able to gain a massive amount of calls on pitches away. Those pitches are really tough to do anything with, and nearly impossible to hit for any amount of power so you can imagine how frustrated batters must get to continuously have to defend that pitch before getting busted upstairs or inside. All of the pitchers on the staff would benefit tremendously, but perhaps none more than Drew Smyly who I’m sure the team is going to do everything in their power to make him look as good as possible this year so that they can trade him next offseason (or deadline).
If I haven’t sold you yet on how tremendous he is as a defender then it’s not going to happen so let’s move along to his offensive profile. He’s not going to touch a lefty, but that is a great weakness to have as a catcher since pretty much everyone else hits right-handed, and the demands of the position warrant many an offday, anyway. With that in mind let’s focus on what he does against just right-handers.
With over 36% of his plate appearances in his career ending up without a ball in play you could say that Jason Castro is showing two of the three legs that comprise the Three True Outcomes stool. Looking at the contours of his slash-line, and Isolate Power (ISO) tell me that the third leg is probably pretty prominent, as well. He looks like a low batting average guy that keeps his on base percentage strong via the walk, and has plenty of power to make the whole thing work. To me, he looks like the prototypical nine-hole hitter that can either run into one or hand it off to the top of the order, and if you have an above-average hitter batting last odds are you’ve got yourself a heck of a lineup.
Switching over to his batted balls you can see a fairly even mix of grounders and outfield flyballs with a good amount of liners, too. He doesn’t pop the ball up a whole lot, and when he does get it in the air it’s leaving the yard at an above average rate for his career. I think that backs up the notion that he has some pop in his bat when he can make contact. He is heavy to the pull side, but can shoot a ball oppo from time to time. He doesn’t make a ton of soft contact most likely due to the high strikeout percentage. When he misses, he misses big league.
Speaking of misses here is his whiff percentage heatmap against righties over the last three seasons. He gets blown away by the fastball up and especially up-and-away, and it looks like he is prone to chasing below the zone, as well. You can get a good idea of where his swing plane is in that bluish area, which shows me that he can only really cover about half of the plate. This is pretty much confirmed when including the In Play% heatmap. He likes the ball in and/or down with a massive hole up-and-away.
He can hit for a decent enough average throughout the zone, but he does his real damage on those middle-middle meatballs. It looks like he is a batter that can really punish a mistake, which again, is pretty fine for a bottom of the order hitter whose best attribute is his defense behind the plate. Lastly, I wanted to show his spray chart, because there is one thing that gets me a little hot and bothered:
Look at all those opposite field homers. I never realized what a big stick power hitter Jason Castro was, but those are some big boy shots. His doubles are mostly down the lines, and occasionally in the alleys. Like most batters he pulls his grounders and hits cans of corn to opposite field, but his liners fall in at a nice rate, and he can really get the ball out of the yard.
So now it comes down to what it would take to sign the man. To me, he looks an awful lot like Brian McCann who is similarly a low batting average, good OBP, good power catcher that frames well, albeit reaching free agency at a year younger. They walk at a similar rate, though Castro does strike out more often. A few offseasons ago the Yankees guaranteed him $17M a year for the next four, and already seem to be regretting it. The thing is, he has been worth the deal so far putting up roughly four and a half wins over the first two years.
Castro flies much lower under the radar. Also, there are other options in free agency as mentioned above, which could see a few more decent names added to the pool depending how team options shake out. I would project Castro to put up something like 5-6 WARP over the next three years and would be absolutely fine giving him up to a three-year, $30M contract as I think he is easily worth that deal. It would seem that his skillset is easy to underrate, and that with the supply on the market he may be had for much less than that. I hope that is the case, but would not be afraid to go the extra dollar on a good player at a position of dire need for the Rays.