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Arizona Diamondbacks Spring Training Questions, #5: Catching on

Who’ll end up behind the plate?

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MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The next three spring questions were all ranked very similarly by respondents, so you can feel free re-arrange #3-5 however you see fit. When you have to go to the second decimal point to separate them. the difference is not statistically significant.

The catching situation: SnakePit concern level 3.20 out of 5.

The decision to non-tender Welington Castillo this winter was one of the more surprising ones made by Mike Hazen. However, the market seemed to shrug at the decision, Beef eventually signing a contract worth $6 million this season with the Orioles - likely very close to what he’d have made in arbitration. This did leave the team with a gap, and they picked up Jeff Mathis and Chris Iannetta, as free-agents, to go along with Chris Herrmann, as well as a slew of non-roster and other options. Let’s see what we’ve got.

Jeff Mathis

Mathis was first to arrive, the 33-year-old signing to a two-year, $4m contract in early December. GM Mike Hazen said, "We’re getting a plus defender, game-caller and teammate. His veteran leadership on and off the field will be very valuable to the development of the young core of our club." It will be Mathis’s 13th season in the majors, but he has never played full-time, averaging 52 starts behind the dish per year, and only 39 over the last three seasons. He is very much defense first, with a career batting average not even at the Uecker Line (.197). But he still has positive value, due to his glove: over those 12 years, his offensive WAR is -3.3, but his defensive WAR +9.2.

And that doesn’t even include his pitch framing, where Mathis is highly regarded. He explained his approach shortly after signing: “I let the ball travel the best I can, I try not to snag or jerk the pitch... Those are the things I think about when I’m back there trying to get a strike. One thing you see nowadays is a lot of guys that yank the ball back to the strike zone. To me, that’s not a way to get strikes called, cause you’re moving so much, your mitts are moving so much.” I’m hoping he’ll not only be able to put that into practice, but perhaps also help educate our other catchers on the skill; if he can, his cost would be money well spent.

Chris Iannetta

For the other members of the rotation, Iannetta is potentially going to see most of the starts, even though this free-agent signing is earning less than Mathis. He’ll earn a guaranteed $1.5 million; I believe there are incentives, but I haven’t been able to find details. He used to be a good hitter; as recently as 2014, he had a 123 OPS+ over 107 games with Anaheim. But his offense has dipped sharply since then, managing figures of only 78 and 75, for the Angels and Mariners respectively, over the last two years. However, he remains a walk machine, posting a BB% of at least 11% every year for the past decade; David Ortiz is the only other player (200+ PA per season) with that.

That on-base skill appears part of the reason for the signing. Hazen said, “It’s in there; he knows how to do that. He has a really good eye and good knowledge of the strike zone. That can really be a good complement to our team.” The Diamondbacks’ GM also stressed the importance (as with Mathis) of Iannetta’s fielding and receiving skills. “He took a big step forward in 2015 defensively. We talked, he and I, and we really want to focus on getting back to that. He’s always been a good defensive catcher, but he was a really, really good defender that year. We talked about that being sort of the goal.”

Chris Herrmann

Returning to the fray for Arizona will be Herrmann, although he started not only behind the plate in 2016, but at all three outfield positions. Chris enjoyed a breakout season at the plate, his OPS of .845 trailing only Paul Goldschmidt and Jean Segura among all Diamondbacks’ hitters. This positional flexibility, as well as being a left-handed hitter (though, obviously, a right-handed thrower!) makes it seem likely the team will carry three catchers on the Opening Day roster, Herrmann operating also as a fifth outfielder.

Dividing up the playing time

"Starting catchers start 100 games now, 110 games. That's the new normal. But where that falls for our guys has yet to be determined. We'll kind of be defining that as things unfold. It might start to show itself during the season." — Torey Lovullo

If the three men above are (health willing) the leaders as we head into the opening of spring play, exactly how the starts will be divided is still in doubt. Lovullo isn’t far wrong in his assessment: there were 15 catchers who started a hundred or more games last season, though the number was about the same (16) in 2011. While past history makes it highly questionable he’ll play every day, Mathis will likely be Zack Greinke’s personal catcher. Grienke has already thrown to Mathis this spring, with the two talking at length afterward. Iannetta will likely get the bulk of the balance, with Herrmann filling in on occasion, probably against a right-handed opposing starter.

However, the projections apparently tend to regard this as re-arranging deck-chairs, viewing the D-backs at the position as among the weakest in the league. Over at Baseball Prospectus, PECOTA has the trio (plus a garnish of Oscar Hernandez) as worth -0.2 WARP. Fangraphs is a little more bullish, but even the 1.3 fWAR figure projected there still ranks Arizona 28th in the majors for production at catcher - although, as noted above, that does not take any pitch-framing into account. I think it is clear that we will be taking a hit on offense with the loss of Castillo: fans need to be tolerant of that, as positives like rapport with the pitching staff and framing will be less obvious.

And the field...

There will be an additional three catchers also present in camp this week, though it would be a surprise if any of them were to make the roster for any reason other than injury. The best known was already mentioned: Oscar Hernandez, who has accumulated over a year of service time already, despite having fewer than fifty plate appearances. He is still only 23, but shoewizard mentioned the other day that new management is perhaps less impressed with him than the previous front-office. The signings this winter would tend to support this, or at the very least, the view that Hernandez is not yet ready for the majors. But will he ever be? Despite his youth, I’m increasingly doubtful.

We already have our first injury issue of spring, with the news that Hank Conger will be out for an indefinite period, suffering from a strained right oblique muscle. Manager Torey Lovullo said, “It’s unfortunate for Hank, trying to come in here and make an impression as a non-roster player. Those things aren’t well-timed, but the first thing we need to do is get him healthy and see where we can evaluate him.” Finally, there’s Josh Thole, who used to be R.A. Dickey’s personal catcher in Toronto, and about whom we already wrote. Unless there’s a late signing of, or trade for, a knuckleballer (as per Makakilo’s suggestion!), he seems a long shot to find work closer than Reno.