After dealing away both Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado in the past year, the Milwaukee Brewers entered the 2017 campaign starting from scratch at the catching position. When the unheralded duo of Manny Pina and Jett Bandy emerged as Milwaukee’s catching corps coming out of spring training, most were hoping for even just a replacement-level performance from the position. After all, neither were ever very highly touted prospects and this was the first time either had made an Opening Day roster. The 27 year old Bandy entered the year having taken only 233 plate appearances in the big leagues, while the 29 year old Pina had even less experience than that, racking up just 98 MLB plate appearances during his 11 professional seasons.
It therefore qualifies as a pretty major surprise that Milwaukee’s catching duo has been, by far, the most productive pairing of backstops in the MLB. The plate appearances have been split about as evenly as possible (Pina taking 47 turns at the plate while Bandy has gone to bat 46 times) and the two hitters have united to bat a robust .384/.430/.663. Their combined 187 wRC+ ranks first among all the catching combinations around the big leagues, and the five home runs between Bandy and Pina ranks t-3rd among all catching crews. Early season WAR is far from the most reliable barometer, but for what it’s worth, the combined 1.6 fWAR that Pina and Bandy have produced is a half-win better than any other catching combination in the big leagues to this point in the season.
While Bandy has provided a bit more home run thump, batting .349/.391/.698 with four round-trippers on the season, it has been Pina that has shone as the better all-around backstop. If you’ll recall, I pegged Pina as a potential breakout candidate back in February based on the mechanical adjustments he’d made at the plate in recent seasons. He’s making my prediction look rather sage thus far, putting together a dazzling .419/.468/.628 batting line with a homer through the season’s first month while at one point putting together a 10-game hitting streak. He’s also taken the opportunity to showcase his strong throwing arm on several occasions behind the plate, nailing 38% of attempted base thieves so far this year.
The most surprising development, however, has been Pina’s vastly improved framing ability. My chief complaint about Manny had been how poorly his pitch framing had graded out in recent years, with Baseball Prospectus valuing his work at in the minors at -15.5 framing runs since 2014 and -0.6 runs during his brief MLB stint last season. In 2017, however, Pina has so far produced +1.7 framing runs by BP’s metric, tying him for 4th-best among all MLB catchers (with the players ahead of him having anywhere between 99-332 more framing opportunities than Pina). StatCorner generally agrees with BP’s assessment of Pina’s ability to steal strikes this season, grading him out at +1.1 framing runs so far.
Bandy, meanwhile, has been much less impressive on defense than his catching counterpart. He’s nabbed only 2 of 11 potential base stealers thus far and has been charged with three passed balls behind the plate. His pitch framing grades out among the worst catchers in baseball, with StatCorner valuing him at -1.3 framing runs and BP at -1.1, ranking 61st among the 69 (nice) recorded catchers this season. Bandy’s total defensive contributions by DRS (-4) and FRAA (-1.0) aren’t even in the same ballpark as his catching cohort (+4 DRS, +2.1 FRAA).
As the season wears on, it will be important to keep an eye on how these numbers continue to develop. Each catcher has a sample size of only a shade more than 100 innings behind the dish, and defensive statistics are notoriously noisy in small samples. Should the trends continue, however, look for Manny Pina to start garnering a bit more playing time behind the plate than his counterpart Jett Bandy. It’s doesn’t appear as though we’ll see a true “starter/backup” scenario take shape, especially if Jett can continue clubbing balls over the fence when he gets his opportunities. But Manny has been tearing the cover off the ball, too, and his defensive prowess appears to provide much more value on the field and to the pitching staff than Bandy’s does. If Craig Counsell is going to continue with the current timeshare behind the plate, his ball club would benefit by seeing Pina get 4 starts per week while Bandy receives the other 2-3 games. We shouldn’t expect the duo to keep up their current offensive pace, of course, but it appears as though David Stearns deserves a pat on the back for finding a stellar corps of catchers to replace to the long-term duo of Luc and Maldy.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs, and Baseball Prospectus