Catcher is arguably the most demanding position on the diamond. A backstop needs to have a working relationship with each member of the pitching staff, keep everyone’s strategy and arsenal straight, play psychiatrist when his pitcher is struggling, know the opposing hitters’ tendencies, he needs to help control the run game, and he needs to squat behind home plate to call, receive, and frame more than a hundred pitches each night. Oh yeah, and he has to be able to hit worth a lick, too.
It was that last part that turned out to be a bit of an issue for the Milwaukee Brewers last season. The duo got the Brewers through most of 2018 - Manny Pina and Erik Kratz - thrived defensively and with the pitching staff. Together they totaled +10 Defensive Runs Saved, nabbed greater than 35% of would-be base thieves, and each ranked among the game’s top catchers in terms of pitch framing. But at the plate, the pair could not even meet the rather low bar that has been set for offense from the catcher position in today’s game. Brewers’ backstops combined for a .238/.294/.363 slash line last season, which translated to a 75 wRC+ that ranked 23rd among the 30 MLB teams.
GM David Stearns probably would have been content with entering 2019 with a reprisal of the Pina/Kratz pairing behind the plate; the two did combine for 3.6 WARP last season based mostly on their defensive prowess. But coming off a 96-win season with few obvious holes to fill allowed the young GM to wait back and give himself the chance to be opportunistic in free agency. When a unique set of circumstances arose around one of the top catchers in baseball, Slingin’ Stearns didn’t miss out.
Yasmani Grandal was not finding any offers to his liking on the open market. One of the top two-way backstops in the games for the past five seasons was looking to get paid a commensurate amount and seeking a long-term guarantee at the outset of the offseason. While Grandal did receive some enticing multi-year offers that would have given him a lifetime of security going forward, they included lower average annual values than the deals received by the free agent catchers who came before him like Molina, Martin, McCann, and so on. Grandal felt a duty to his brothers donning the tools of ignorance to set a new bar for AAV for the next big free agent catcher to beat, and became amenable to one-year deals in order to accomplish that goal.
Thus the Brewers were able to snap up Grandal for a one-year guarantee of $18.25 mil ($16 mil base plus a $2.25 mil buyout of a $16 mil mutual option for 2020) and add to their lineup a player with a legitimate case as the best catcher in baseball. Since debuting in the big leagues back with the Padres back in 2012, the switch-hitting former first-round pick has produced a .240/.341/.441 slash line with 113 home runs across 2,660 plate appearances for a wRC+ of 117. He has never posted a wRC+ lower than 100 in the MLB, whereas the league-average catcher has hovered in between an 84 wRC+ and 93 wRC+ over the last seven seasons. Among catchers with at least 1,500 plate appearances since the start of 2014, Grandal’s first season as a full-time player, he ranks second behind only Buster Posey in terms of wRC+ from the catching position. Only Evan Gattis and Salvador Perez have launched more dingers within that group and time frame.
Grandal is no slouch on defense, either. His +44 Defensive Runs Saved ranks fourth-most among catchers over the last five years. He routinely grades out among the game’s elite pitch framers, finishing seventh, first, second, fourth, and first again in the last five years when it comes to total runs added via framing according to Baseball Prospectus. He has matched or exceeded the league average caught-stealing rate in each year since 2015, and he also usually receives solid grades when it comes to his blocking. Sure, he allows an above-average amount of passed balls (which was especially glaring in the playoffs), but in terms of Wins Above Replacement, Grandal has generated 26.7 WARP over his career when factoring in his pitch framing, as Baseball Prospectus’ calculation does.
Last season was Grandal’s finest at the plate as he set a full-season career-high with a 125 wRC+ after hitting .241/.349/.466 with 24 homers in 518 plate appearances. And there’s reason for optimism that he’ll produce at an even greater rate in 2019. Grandal was exuberant upon learning that he’ll get to leave the NL West, where he had to play a good chunk of his game in pitcher-friendly venues like Petco Park, Oracle Park, and his former home field of Dodger Stadium. Few places in baseball are more friendly to hitters, especially from the left side, than Miller Park. The switch-hitting Grandal does most of his damage as a southpaw swinger, and the favorable conditions at his home field could help Grandal pass the 30-homer threshold for the first time in his career.
New @Brewers catcher Yasmani Grandal's spray chart overlayed on Miller Park. I count 43 home runs. But remember, he will still have to play games elsewhere in 2019. #trade #mlb #MLBHotStove pic.twitter.com/1MFdK1B7v0— Justin Paradis (@FreshMeatComm) January 10, 2019
Grandal’s presence likely displaces Kratz, who became a fan favorite and playoff hero last season before signing a non-guaranteed deal in arbitration this past winter. But the signing undoubtedly makes the team stronger in 2019 as they seek to get over that final hump and into their first World Series since 1982. The lineup looks an awful lot more formidable with Grandal batting somewhere in spots five through seven.
In the Minors
Jacob Nottingham finally broke through with the bat against upper-level pitching last season, though injuries shortened his campaign to 50 games in Triple-A and a nine game cup of coffee in the big leagues. His defense has come far enough along that there is now little doubt he’ll stick behind the plate and his 126 wRC+ in Colorado Springs last season offers some hope that he’ll be able to hit enough against big league pitching, though the strikeouts remain a concern.
Tuffy Gosewich will also serve as catching depth in Triple-A after inking a minor league deal, but it would take a lot going wrong for the 35 year old with a career 29 wRC+ in 137 games to see the big leagues this year. The top catching prospect in the org is now Payton Henry, who figures to start the year in Class A-Advanced. Mario Feliciano could also start at that level, looking to bounce back after an injury-plagued season in 2018. Other organizational depth behind the plate includes Max McDowell, Skyler Ewing, Robie Rojas, and David Fry.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus