Baseball doesn’t use a clock to determine the beginning and end of a game, but unlike individual games, the regular season begins and more importantly for the 2013 Phillies, ends at on specific dates. The end of the 2013 season cannot come soon enough for the Phillies. It’s been a rough season, one filled with entrances, exits, losing streaks, and injuries. With that said, the clock continues to tick and even when the 2013 season ends, it merely means that the planning for the 2014 season has begun.
One position that Phillies GM Ruben Amaro has already deemed of great importance in 2013 is catcher. The Phillies have in the recent past, and should continue to build their team around a dominant starting rotation. While many fans may lament the team’s recent inability to score enough runs to consistently win even well pitched games, the fact remains that the Phillies offensive woes have been due more so to poor player personnel decisions and injuries amongst their position players, not a focus on starting pitching. For example, signing Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels to expensive long-term deals, didn’t preclude the team from going after some more expensive free agent hitters that would have provided their starters an offense that could back up the stellar pitching.
So, where exactly does catching fit into this? In the last year or two, the idea of catcher framing has boomed across the baseball landscape. Catcher framing is a fancier way of referring to one major aspect of a catcher’s responsibilities behind the plate. It refers to the art of receiving pitches. Often we forget just how important the act of catching a pitch can be towards the given pitch, at bat, and game. Now that we have PITCHf/x data, we can measure how well specific catchers frame pitches over the course of a specific period of time. Essentially, studying catcher framing involves looking at how many borderline pitches an umpire calls strikes and balls. Catchers who exhibit little movement of their bodies, other than their glove hands, when receiving a pitch, and angle themselves in a manner that provides the umpire the best view of a pitch can often save or lose their team up to 20 or more runs per season.
20 runs may not seem like a lot, but every 10 runs is equal to about 1 win, making a team with catchers who frame well one that will win more games. With the Phillies already putting a premium on improving their catching situation, the ability to find a catcher who both impedes the opposing team’s running game, blocks pitches well, strikes a solid rapport with the pitching staff, and who frames pitches well should constitute the goal.
Interestingly, the Phillies already sport one catcher with many of those needed skills. Erik Kratz, or our good old neighborhood turkey bacon lover, has proved himself a solid receiver. Kratz, who even at age 33 won’t become a free agent until the 2019 season, may not provide the club with incredible hitting prowess, but according to StatsCorner.com’s catcher framing report, he has saved the Phillies 7.1 runs this season with his above-average framing abilities. Those 7.1 runs saved places him 10th in the majors that category, between superstar catcher Buster Posey and impending free agent catcher Brian McCann. This isn’t the first season Kratz has proved to be a solid receiver, in 2012 he put up similar numbers, saving almost 9 runs in fewer innings caught.
Add in that Kratz has continually improved his ability to block pitches in the dirt, having been worth just over 2 runs just from catcher blocks this season, and Kratz becomes a decent option to consider as a starting catcher, and definitely a great candidate to play the backup role. While defense makes up a major portion of a catcher’s responsibilities, the catcher still makes up one ninth of the batting order, and thus must provide some value at the plate, not just behind it. In a minimal number of career plate appearances (387), Kratz has posted a fairly weak .297 wOBA. Interestingly though, when broken down into platoon splits, it seems that Kratz has hit right-handed pitchers much better than lefties, an oddity for a right-handed hitter.
Kratz’s ability to at least hit right-handed pitching at close to league average (89 wRC+), above-average defensive abilities, and incredibly low projected salary for the next 4+ seasons, leads me to believe that the Phillies should make Kratz a significant part of their future. The normal dynamic of catchers on major league teams has one catcher as the starter, and the other as the backup. This paradigm works most of the time as finding a catcher worth playing on an everyday basis isn’t that easy, but in the Phillies’ case, the model may need to shift a bit. Given Kratz’s overall repertoire, I think that the team should consider Kratz a semi-starter.
The Phillies don’t have great catching options in the minor leagues, at least none who are currently ready to play in the majors, and are projected by scouts to become everyday players. More importantly, other than Brian McCann, A.J. Pierzynski, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the 2014 list of free agent catchers leaves a lot to be desired. Those three backstops represent the only legitimate first-string catchers, players worth playing 4 out of every 5 games, but the Phillies don’t need to go after such a player because Kratz provides them a catcher with the ability to catch and produce closer to every third game. So, if the Phillies can find a slightly more offensive oriented catcher who isn’t completely defensively deficient at a reasonable price tag, the combination of that catcher and Kratz should solidify the role for the Phillies in 2014.
Between Carlos Ruiz and Erik Kratz, the Phillies paid their catchers $5.5 million in 2013. At that price, if the two catchers provided just one win above replacement level, they would prove worthy of their salaries. Since he is pre-arbitration eligible, Kratz will make a very similar salary in 2014, providing the Phillies with some flexibility to find a second catcher. Looking at the list of free agent catchers, the best options for the Phillies would be either Bryan Pena or Geovany Soto. Soto won the NL rookie of the year with the Cubs in 2008, and has shown a power stroke in the past. He also ranks as an above average pitch framer, just over 2 runs this season in a backup role with the Rangers.
Brayan Pena, the current backup catcher in Detroit, is a switch hitter who also profiles as a solid framer, and would constitute a cheap option. If the Phillies truly want to add some offensive ability to the catching position and don’t mind ponying up a little more money to improve that aspect of the team, looking at A.J. Pierzynski might be the best option, but even in Texas this season, his hitting hasn’t been so much better as to title him an offensively minded catcher.
The Phillies may want to work hard to improve their catching situation for the 2014 season, but it may be that the solution to the problem is to have the catcher they already control, Kratz, play more games. Catcher’s provide value in many aspects of the game, as well as in numerous ways we cannot even quantify. Kratz seems to provide the club with a number of those necessities, which could, and should, provide Ruben Amaro more flexibility when making the final roster decisions prior to the 2014 season. Carlos Ruiz has provided the Phillies some great moments, but his tenure has all but come to an end. Giving Kratz a larger bulk of the innings to catch in 2014 may provide the Phillies the most efficient way to improve their catching situation. Sometimes the simplest solution actually is the best one.