There’s no doubt that David Stearns is one of the top General Managers in baseball. He has himself a pretty convincing case for executive of the year after building up the Milwaukee Brewers to be 96-game winners and NL Central Champions in 2018. But even the best front office execs can’t bat 1.000 on every single one of their transactions, and looking back now, it’s safe to say that the Jett Bandy trade is one of the few Stearns moves that didn’t work out.
During Stearns’ second winter at the helm in the Cream City, he shipped long-time backup Martin Maldonado to the Angels (along with minor leaguer Drew Gagnon) in exchange for Bandy and his five years of club control. Maldy went on to win the Gold Glove at catcher for Anaheim in 2017 and was dealt to the Astros during this past summer, where has been regularly catching games since.
Bandy, on the other hand, could muster only a .202/.282/.326 slash line in 259 plate appearances during two seasons in Milwaukee while also rating poorly on defense. He was the Opening Day catcher in 2017 but quickly fell out of favor and spent most of the year in the minors. He won the backup spot out of camp this season, but after compiling a .533 OPS in 24 games, Bandy was outrighted off the 40 man roster and assigned to the minor leagues. On May 25th, Stearns and company acquired veteran Erik Kratz, who had been playing with AAA Scranton, in a minor trade with the Yankees for a player to be named later (the club sent Wendell Rijo to New York to complete the deal a few weeks later).
Kratz already had one of the most interesting back stories in baseball. He didn’t make his high school varsity team until he was a junior, and he only started catching because the varsity starter got suspended for smoking a cigarette at school. He paid his way through college at Division III Eastern Mennonite University and became the first player in the school’s history to be selected in the MLB Draft when the Blue Jays chose him in the 29th round in 2002. He didn’t make it to the big leagues until his ninth year as a pro, debuting with the Pirates as a 30 year old in 2010.
He eventually found himself playing for his hometown Phillies, and starred in a memorable series of meat commercials while also getting consistent playing time as Carlos Ruiz’s backup. Later he was on Kansas City’s roster during their back-to-back World Series appearances in 2014-15 but never appeared in a postseason contest. He bounced around some more, spending most of his time in AAA before landing in Milwaukee during his age-38 season.
Kratz hit a home run in first game for the Menomonee Valley Nine, taking AJ Ramos deep during a 17-6 drubbing of the New York Mets. He famously got into an argument with Joey Votto over the value of the Canadian Dollar. He’s provided a steady presence as the grizzled veteran journeyman of the clubhouse, and has been called the club’s “secret weapon” by some of his teammates. Last night, Kratz finally made his postseason debut, starting behind the plate in game two of the NLDS to receive pitches from Jhoulys Chacin. He became the oldest player to make their first appearance in the playoffs since Milwaukee native Lave Cross did so at age 39 for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1905, and while doing so Kratz delivered arguably the most important hit of his 17-year career:
Erik’s eighth-inning single off Chris Rusin plated two crucial Badger Mutual Insurance Runs, giving Milwaukee a 4-0 cushion to work with on their way to building a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series against Colorado. “I hit a home run in the AAA playoffs before, that was pretty cool,” said the always-humble Kratz after the game, when asked if it was the biggest hit of his career.
More than just a novelty or a great story, Erik Kratz has indeed been an incredibly valuable and criminally underrated addition to our local nine this season. It’s easy to overlook his contributions when taking a glance at his .236/.280/.355 slash and six homers across a career-high 219 plate appearances, which translates to only a 70 wRC+. No, where Kratz has truly thrived is his work behind the plate and with the pitching staff.
According to Baseball Prospectus’ metric Adjusted Fielding Runs Above Average, only seven catchers in the entire league have provided more value on defense than Kratz’s +11.1 runs in 2018. Even more impressive is the fact that he started only 54 games behind the plate for the Brewers. Kratz rates positively as a blocker and threw out 30% of attempted base thieves (league average was 28%), but his greatest skill is his ability to help pitchers get strike calls when they otherwise would not.
BP credits Erik with +9.9 framing runs in 2018, which ranks as the 10th-best total in all of baseball. On a per-pitch basis, Called Strikes Above Average rates Kratz as the MLB’s ninth-best pitch framer this season. The soft-tossing composition of Milwaukee’s starting staff means that it’s imperative for each hurler to be able to work the corners and edges of the strike zone with confidence, and there are very few catchers in the game who have done a better job of helping out their counterparts on the mound than Erik Kratz.
Baseball Prospectus’ Wins Above Replacement Player metric is the only major WAR calculation that accounts for catcher framing, and WARP believes that this is the most value Kratz has generated in a single season since he posted an .809 OPS and contributed +10 FRAA in 50 games for the Phillies in 2012. Erik’s offerings on offense and defense have netted the Brewers 1.4 WARP in 2018 and have no doubt played a major role in the unexpected success of Milwaukee’s no-name pitching rotation.
Though they may not put up big numbers with their bats, Erik Kratz and Manny Pina have worked together to form one of the more valuable catching tandems in the league, combining for 3.1 WARP and +17.4 adjusted FRAA this season. Kratz probably wasn’t someone that most fans were familiar with when Slingin’ Stearns added him to the fold in late May, but there’s no doubting now that his contributions have been integral to the team’s success. He’s been an unsung hero for this squad and if Milwaukee can continue their stunning success deep into the postseason, Kratz will become inevitably become etched in the franchise’s lore for all time.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus