Raising Questions

If the Phillies seek a veteran catcher, whom should they target?



Currently the Phillies have three catchers listed on the 40-man roster; conveniently, they’re the three catchers who received all of the playing time last season.

There’s Cameron Rupp, who opened 2017 as starter but lost that label sometime around mid-May. His .217/.299/.417 line was in every way a regression from his league-average 2016 line, and while the 29-year-old still has low major league mileage, he is 29 and was never thought of as a plus-level hitter or receiver. His future as a starter remains questionable.

There’s Andrew Knapp, who turned his above-average command of the strike zone into a timeshare with Rupp by mid-May. The 26-year-old hit .257/.368/368, and while it wasn’t quite league-average, it showed he had a solid major league baseline with which to work. As a receiver he still has plenty of work ahead of him.

There’s Jorge Alfaro, who was promoted to Philadelphia in August, following a Knapp injury. He almost immediately forced a timeshare, and by September he was starting the majority of games, even with Knapp returning. Alfaro’s .318/.360/.514 line, with five home runs and six doubles in 114 plate appearances, was outstanding. His 11:1 strikeout to walk ratio was not. Like Knapp, there’s a lot of room to grow behind the dish.

Without any further context, we believe Alfaro is the everyday starter in 2018. That means one of Rupp or Knapp could be dealt, though it’s also possible one of them could be demoted to Lehigh Valley (both players have minor league options). Of the two, Knapp is much more likely to be demoted, but it’s not in the best interest of the team to keep Rupp with Alfaro. A clear decision should be made.

Once that is settled, there’s another matter: Should we just assume Alfaro and Rupp or Knapp is the catching situation in the majors?

If Alfaro is in fact the future of catching in Philadelphia, it would be more beneficial to the Phillies to bring in a proven veteran who can teach Alfaro and help stabilize the pitching staff.

To this day grading catcher defense remains elusive at worst, tenuous at best. Catcher ERA is out there, but a lot that is just as dependent on the pitchers (along with fielders since ERA isn’t independent of fielded ball). To wit, Rupp’s catcher ERA in 2017 was 4.42, while Alfaro’s was 4.51 and Knapp’s was 4.80. The discrepancy between Rupp and Knapp is enough to hold merit, but it isn’t definitive.

StatCorner’s Catcher Report does a fine job of capturing the best and worst pitch framers in baseball. Last year, Rupp was found to be 20.4 runs below average, meaning his pitch framing saved 20 fewer runs than the average catcher. Among catchers seeing at least 6,000 pitches, Rupp was sixth worst in baseball. In 2016 he saved 1.2 fewer runs than average, and in 2015 it was 0.7 runs fewer. So this statistic can be noisy from one year to another, but Rupp has never been a good framer by these measurements.

Knapp, in his first season, wasn’t much better, saving 9.2 runs fewer than average (Alfaro scored a -5.3, also not good considering his smaller sample).

So the Phils have bad pitch framing, which is something Andy MacPhail explicitly spoke about when the season ended. That alone says something – there is a problem with grooming and developing good behind-the-plate catchers. You can work it on it with Alfaro, but it’s probably a good idea to not have to work on it with other guys at the same time. It’s best to have one good framer behind the plate, someone consistently good across multiple organizations.

So let’s look at the free agent market for good pitch framers, counting down best options for the Phillies (including fit), with RAA noted in 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014 and 2013, and number of pitches seen in parenthesis.

14. Alex Avila
2017 – CHC: -3.2 (1851)
2017 – DET: -16.0 (3548)
2016 – CWS: -9.5 (3907)
2015 – DET: -5.5 (3081)
2014 – DET: -7.0 (8971)
2013 – DET: 4.7 (7260)

Avila is probably still more a starter than a backup; that said, the numbers paint him as decidedly below average at framing.

13. Jonathan Lucroy
2017 – TEX: -21.0 (5170)
2016 – TEX: -1.5 (2978)
2016 – MIL: 5.5 (6265)
2015 – MIL: 7.3 (6329)
2014 – MIL: 22.1 (10064)
2013 – MIL: 29.7 (9445)

Wild. Lucroy was the best in the game, but since coming to Texas he’s slowly become one of the worst. He still is very good defensively, at least by metrics. Anyway, he commands starter money and time. So nope.

12. Carlos Ruiz
2017 – SEA: -14.1 (3015)
2016 – LAD: -2.0 (660)
2016 – PHI: -7.7 (3716)
2015 – PHI: -15.6 (6252)
2014 – PHI: -10.3 (8290)
2013 – PHI: -6.6 (6569)

I love Chooch. You love Chooch. Everyone loves Chooch. But those numbers are bad. It’s not the best idea to bring him back.

11. AJ Ellis
2017 – MIA: -10.4 (2796)
2016 – PHI: 0.5 (711)
2016 – LAD: -2.0 (3195)
2015 – LAD: -8.8 (3657)
2014 – LAD: -14.8 (6158)
2013 – LAD: -7.9 (8145)

Ellis felt like a great veteran presence for the 2016 Phils, but that masked what is ultimately a bad pitch framer. Sorry, AJ, facts only. Let’s find someone else.

10. Nick Hundley
2017 – SF: -11.1 (5191)
2016 – COL: -12.8 (6042)
2015 – COL: -14.8 (7740)
2014 – BAL: -2.5 (3490)
2014 – SD: 1.9 (717)
2013 – SD: -4.3 (8253)

Across the board Hundley has never been the best at framing. No thanks.

9. Chris Iannetta
2017 – ARI: 0.0 (5609)
2016 – SEA: -12.3 (6656)
2015 – LAA: 14.4 (6157)
2014 – LAA: -5.3 (7616)
2013 – LAA: -15.3 (8102)

Lots of noise with Iannetta. Can’t trust it.

8. Brayan Pena
2017 – N/A
2016 – STL: -0.2 (130)
2015 – CIN: -10.1 (6320)
2014 – CIN: 2.9 (3063)
2013 – DET: 3.3 (4610)

He spent all of last season in triple-A. Not extremely confident in that.

7. Hank Conger
2017 – N/A
2016 – TB: -2.8 (2920)
2015 – HOU: 8.2 (4426)
2014 – LAA: 21.3 (5666)
2013 – LAA: 18.1 (4990)

Conger spent all of last season in the minors and would be a real risk. Too much of one for a team likely to start a relative rookie.

6. Geovany Soto
2017 – CWS: -3.7 (904)
2016 – LAA: -1.0 (1606)
2015 – CWS: 5.6 (4041)
2014 – OAK: -2.9 (880)
2014 – TEX: -1.9 (762)
2013 – TEX: 1.4 (3726)

Elbow surgery in 2017. Too risky.

5. Miguel Montero
2017 – TOR: 0.1 (1827)
2017 – CHC: -0.7 (1908)
2016 – CHC: 16.1 (4599)
2015 – CHC: 13.3 (6679)
2014 – ARI: 24.0 (9535)
2013 – ARI: -2.3 (8335)

Is he very good at framing? Maybe, but he’s also, from the eye test and metrics, not a good defender, and his Cubs tenure ended poorly: a spat with Jake Arrietta over stolen bases allowed. That kind of stuff probably wouldn’t be good in the clubhouse.

4. Ryan Hanigan
2017 – COL: -12.8 (2408)
2016 – BOS: -4.6 (2474)
2015 – BOS: 5.9 (4155)
2014 – TB: 2.2 (5558)
2013 – CIN: 8.1 (4783)

At 37, Hanigan is definitely in the veteran-leader portion of his career. Some noise here, but is the framing trending poorly? Call him Plan D.

3. Jose Lobaton
2017 – WAS: -1.7 (3413)
2016 – WAS: 5.4 (2386)
2015 – WAS: 7.1 (2859)
2014 – WAS: 0.2 (4442)
2013 – TB: 0.0 (6350)

Career .218/.295/.324 … yummy. Decent at framing, obviously, and has been to the postseason a bit. A good Plan C.

2. Chris Stewart
2017 – PIT: 3.9 (3082)
2016 – PIT: -3.8 (2145)
2015 – PIT: 4.0 (2932)
2014 – PIT: 4.4 (3017)
2013 – NYY: 21.7 (7455)

Interesting. He’s not a good hitter (.230/.298/.293 career) but is very solid at framing. He’d be inexpensive. A good Plan B.

1. Rene Rivera
2017 – CHC: -1.4 (1087)
2016 – NYM: 6.1 (3883)
2015 – TB: 5.7 (6656)
2014 – SD: 18.3 (6135)
2013 – SD: 8.3 (1504)

OK. Rivera is a career .220/.271/.349 hitter but a very good pitch framer, and across multiple organizations. He also donating toys to kids in his native Puerto Rico as part of the hurricane relief effort, which is cool. Anyway, I like Rivera a lot as a backup option. Plan A.

So there it is. If I’m the Phillies and I’m secure with Jorge Alfaro as the future at catcher, I’m thinking about Rene Rivera playing behind him in 2018.

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