Heading into camp this spring, almost all of the starting spots in the Milwaukee Brewers’ lineup are already spoken for. The one position on the diamond where there figures to be the most competition is behind the plate. After dealing away both Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado in the past year, Milwaukee is essentially starting from scratch at the catcher position with three players who each have yet to make even 300 big league plate appearances.
Of that trio of backstops, 27 year olds Andrew Susac and Jett Bandy have been the most talked about this winter and spring. Susac, a former top-100 prospect, came over last summer in a trade from San Francisco while Bandy arrived in a swap with the Angels in December. The forgotten man out of the bunch, however, has been minor league veteran Manny Pina. Given the fact that Pina is out of minor league options, it’s likely that he will make the team this spring while one of Susac or Bandy gets optioned to AAA. But even moving beyond the bureaucracy of roster crunches, Pina is an intriguing candidate to seize the starting catcher role in his own right.
Pina, who will turn 30 next season, began his career after being signed as an international free agent by the Rangers back in 2004. He’s spent the last 12 years bouncing around five different organizations, including brief cups of coffee with the Royals in 2011 and 2012. He came to the Brewers in December of 2015 from as the PTBNL from Detroit (with whom he spent parts of 2014-15 playing in AAA) in the Francisco Rodriguez trade.
Coming up through the minors, Pina was described as a “good-field/no-hit catcher” by Baseball Prospectus (2010) with a future as a major league backup. “No-hit” was an apt description for the Venezuelan native, who managed to post a full-season minor league OPS over .750 just once (2012) through his first 10 seasons as a professional. The tide began to turn, however, once Manny arrived in the Tigers’ organization. Pina enjoyed his finest season as a professional in 2015, batting an outstanding .305/.379/.461 with 7 home runs (147 wRC+) in 292 plate appearances with Toledo. He was a 28 year old playing in AAA, of course, but he was named an organizational All-Star and after that season Tigers’ Director of Player Development Dave Owen had this to say:
"He's a very good catcher -- he's a catch and throw guy -- so the bat coming along at the end of the season, it was nice to see," said Owen. "You just never know when things might click. He got with Leon Durham, the hitting coach there in Toledo, and maybe they figured something out. It worked, so hopefully it continues for Manny."
After getting dealt to the Brewers, Pina began the 2016 season back in AAA Colorado Springs and continued to be an offensive force. Security Service Field is known as a launching pad for hitters, but even with that in mind Manny’s .329/.371/.506 slash and 5 home runs in 262 plate appearances (127 wRC+) was quite an impressive feat. Pina earned a call-up to the big leagues in August (after the Lucroy trade) and finished out the season in Milwaukee, showing rather well with the bat in the process. In an albeit limited sample of 81 plate appearances, Pina put together a .254/.346/.394 batting line (98 wRC+) and slugged his first two major league home runs.
As described in the quote from Dave Owen above, it appears as though some noticeable mechanical changes have helped drive Pina’s late-career surge at the plate. First, let’s take a look at his swing from his days as a Royals farmhand back in 2010:
Back then, Pina stood in a bit of a crouch at the plate. His hands were held rather low with his bat pointing sort of behind him, and he had a rather pronounced leg kick from his open stance.
Now here is an at-bat from his brief tenure with the Mariners organization, back in 2014:
By that time, Pina had started to stand more upright at the plate and raised his hand position a bit, winding the bat up behind his head more so than pointing it back towards the stands as in the earlier video.
And finally, here is Pina’s first career major league home run from last August as a member of the Brewers:
By the time Pina arrived in Milwaukee, he had shifted from an open stance to more of a closed one. His hands are held even higher than they were in the 2014 video, and he’s not quite as upright as he was back then with a bit of bend in the waist. The leg kick has been subdued quite a bit, and Pina’s bat speed appears to have ticked up a notch.
The results of Pina’s work on his swing have been palpable. MLBFarm’s batted ball data (which dates back to 2013) tells the story quite well. During the 2013-14 seasons, Pina made 580 plate appearances and hit .248/.299/.369 (83 wRC+) with 12 home runs and 28 doubles. His BABIP during those two seasons was just .263 thanks in part to an anemic 13.7% line drive rate.
Since the 2015 season began and Pina was able to spend a full season working with Durham (who has since been promoted to assistant hitting coach with the Tigers), Pina’s taken 554 turns at the plate in AAA and posted a sensational .316/.375/.483 slash line (138 wRC+) with 12 long balls and 40 doubles. His .348 BABIP during that time is obviously a bit higher than we should expect going forward, but that can be partially explained by the near doubling of his line drive rate to 25.1% after he was able to institute the mechanical changes that lead to the swing we saw Pina brandishing in Milwaukee last season. More line drives generally means better, harder contact with the ball, which will help drive a higher batting average on balls in play.
The fact that Pina was able to translate his minor league performances into solid production during his major league trial last season could portend to more success in 2017. Even if Pina can prove to be roughly a league average bat, that would be a boon to have at catcher, which averaged an 87 wRC+ as a position league-wide in 2016.
There are limitations to Manny’s game, of course. Despite a strong defensive reputation and solid throwing and blocking performances, his pitch framing numbers from Baseball Prospectus have been well below-average in each of the last three seasons. He doesn’t walk very much, just 7.4% during his last two years in AAA, but he also puts the ball in play relatively consistently and struck out in only 13.2% of his plate appearances in the same time frame. He’s nearing the end of his prime-age years and is still an unproven commodity at the big league level.
Still, there was a reason that David Stearns acquired Pina in the first place and a reason that he stayed on the 40 man roster all winter long while the organization cycled through a myriad of waiver claims. He appears to have made some real offensive improvements and unless something unexpected happens this spring, he should get a shot at some big league playing time. Manny Pina may not be generating as much chatter as his two counterparts in the catching battle in the early going this spring, but he is perhaps as interesting a potential breakout candidate as the Brewers’ have heading into 2017.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, Baseball Prospectus, and MLBFarm