The Miami Marlins have a dilemma now, the same one that Boston Red Sox had last year, Jarrod Saltalamacchia is the team’s starting catcher. As the Red Sox advanced deeper into October, David Ross got more and more playing time behind the plate.
Red Sox manager John Farrell recognized that Saltalamacchia was at least below average if not a true liability. David Ross was such a good defensive catcher compared to Saltalamacchia that his defensive value outweighed his questionable offensive production. During the 2014 postseason Ross slashed .240/.269/.360 with no home runs but was getting starts at catcher in the Red Sox’ deciding games against the Cardinals.
Matthew Carruth at StatCorner has developed a tool to display catcher pitch framing metric. StatCorner uses RAA (runs above average) with a baseline of 0 to calculate how much impact a catcher’s pitch framing skills had on run prevention.
In 2013 Saltalamacchia was -2.9 RAA and was a poor framer in both making balls outside of the zone into strikes (oStr%, good) and pitches inside the zone into balls (zBall%, bad). Ross was much better at 7.9 RAA and 60 pitches framed successfully. Saltalamacchia is not a bad pitch framer but he certainly is a mediocre one. The 2013 Red Sox did better at pitch framing with David Ross behind the dish.
Jeff Mathis has effectively been a scratch pitch framer this year at 0.7 RAA in ~3000 pitches seen. But so far in 2014 Saltalamacchia’ framing skills habe regressed to -17.6 RAA and an awful 17.4% zBall. As a matter of fact 2014 has been Saltalamacchia’s worst year as a pitch framer. Since breaking into the league in 2007 Salty has never been a great pitch framer but has always contributed runs with his pitch framing.
2014 might be an outlier for many reasons, unfamiliarity with the pitching staff, age or umpires but it does not speak well for Saltalamacchia that this has been his worst year as a pitch framer.
Saltalamacchia is a god offensive catcher although he has regressed from his 2013 numbers. In 2013 Salty had a ridiculous .372 BABIP and 12.6% HR/FB rate in 2014 he has regressed to a .311 BABIP, 32.7% strikeout rate and a 14.1% HR/FB. Although one would expect his BABIP to come down without the Green Monster in left field to collect so many 300 foot doubles.
Nevertheless a catcher with a .316 wOBA, 10 HR and a .158 ISO and 1.4 WAR has been 3 wins better than the black hole that Jeff Mathis, Rob Brantly and Miguel Olivo were at backstop last year. He is doubtless an upgrade as a hitter but his defense has been a liability for the Marlins so far this year.
Saltalamacchia’s -0.4 dWAR, 20% caught stealing percentage, -8 DRS are all bad especially when compared to Jeff Mathis who in half the innings played has 0.6 dWAR, a 31% caught stealing percentage and 3 DRS. A 31.0 CS% compares favorably to Posey, Hector Sanchez, Mike Zunino and Carlos Ruiz. One step above at 33-35 CS% good defensive catchers Yan Gomes, Tyler Flowers and Alex Avila are featured.
WAR is an imperfect stat but it’s as good as we have at the moment to estimate a player’s contribution to a team. It isn’t very good at parsing small differences of half wins on either offense or defense. What it does is capture a snapshot of a player’s contribution to his team’s success.
Saltalamacchia has cost his team runs with his defense and Mathis has contributed to winning with his work behind the plate.
Mathis is a better receiver, a better thrower, has caught more runners stealing and passes the eye test. It is clear that Mathis is a better defensive catcher than Saltalamacchia, it is the only reason he has a spot on a Major League roster to begin with. What derails his case is a .206/.276/.287 slash line with a 34.2% strikeout rate and 55 wRC+.
It is a problem without a solution, the Marlins have two catchers, one that can hit but is a liability behind the plate another is a great defensive catcher but is barely a replacement level hitter. Together they are eighteenth best catching tandem in MLB with 8.5 runs in Fangraph’s defensive metric which measures “ total runs above or below average based on defensive contributions “ compared to the Indians league leading 14.4 runs above average.
Marlins catchers have not been very much batter at the plate ranking nineteenth with a -10.1 offensive runs although this isn’t as bad because two thirds of major league teams produce negative run creation.
Together Salty and Mathis are around the twentieth best catcher in baseball. This weakness along with a lack of production both offensively and defensively from the rest of the infield. Instability on the back end of the rotation and a fluid situation in the bullpen has brought the Marlins to a record around .500 that will prove hard to improve much upon.
This team isn’t perfect and the situation at catcher illustrates it well. Anything is an upgrade over a dumpster fire but realistically the Marlins infield and pitching has very little to offer that convinces me that it can make a legitimate playoff run in the season’s last six weeks.