There can’t be much good to say when a team’s catchers only escape being exactly replacement level because Jacob Stallings has two good games at the end of the year. And fWAR doesn’t include pitch framing, an area where Francisco Cervelli and Elias Diaz were both below average. I didn’t see a choice except to give them a “D” in the poll.
There were two aspects of the team’s catching that seemed the most significant to me.
One, obviously, was Cervelli’s inability to stay healthy. The list of his troubles is pretty daunting:
Foot injury in spring training that was a problem all year.
Illness in June.
Concussion in June.
Lingering illness that required a “battery of tests” in June.
Recurring concussion symptoms later in June.
Groin injury in August.
Lingering wrist problem from 2016 hamate surgery that required DL drip in August.
Season-ending quad injury in first game back from DL.
How much this affected Cervelli, I don’t know. His ISO did bounce back to his 2015 level, actually a little better, after his power evaporated in 2016. His hitting overall didn’t. His problems with framing, an area where in which he’d always been excellent before, may have resulted from the wrist problem; Cervelli said it hampered his receiving.
The second troublesome aspect of the catchers’ season was Elias Diaz’ collapse at the plate. Diaz hit well in the minors in 2013-14 and decently in 2015, then missed most of 2016 due to injury. His offense went south in 2017, both in AAA and in the majors, as he stopped drawing walks and his modest power turned into no power. Added to his troubles in pitch framing and he’s gone from a borderline possible starter to a borderline possible backup. (I should add that the pitch framing data is very limited for Diaz at this point. I don’t know what sort of sample size is needed for the data to be predictive. With UZR, it’s two full years, but it might be completely different with pitch framing.) The one positive sign was Diaz’ ability to control the running game, which is the best of the team’s four catchers.
The one positive development was Jacob Stallings, who suddenly started to hit in AAA. If it’s for real — and we’re talking about 243 plate appearances out of a mostly weak-hitting career covering 1662 PAs — he’s suddenly an interesting backup candidate, maybe more so than Diaz. Whether the Pirates will consider giving him a shot remains to be seen. Of course, if they go into next year with Stallings as the #3 catcher behind Cervelli and Diaz, Stallings will get playing time because Cervelli will get hurt. But the Pirates may already have Stallings permanently pegged as strictly an emergency sort of guy, which could lead them to bring in another Eric Fryer, no-upside type to slot ahead of Stallings on the depth chart.
Going forward, I think the team is pretty much stuck. If they can find another undervalued (Yankee) catcher, great, but that’s going to work only so many times. They’re not going to move Cervelli without picking up a large portion of his salary, which would defeat the purpose of moving him. At best, they’d free up far too little money to find a replacement who’s better than the typical half-season of Cervelli. The Pirates’ best course at this point is probably just to hope Cervelli is healthier next year. I suppose that could happen, but the problem with his wrist, especially, is ominous, as is his penchant for concussions.