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Is Jacob Stallings a viable starting option at catcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2020?

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MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to the catcher position, 2019 has been a train wreck for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

What a difference a year makes.

Last season, the Pirates were great at catcher. They ranked fourth in the majors in fWAR at the position (4.2). Francisco Cervelli had a career year offensively in the 104 games he played while still providing solid defense. When he wasn’t playing, Elias Diaz did wonderful job of seamlessly filling in. So much so, that it seemed like he could be the everyday catcher of the near future.

2019 has been way different.

Cervelli started the season extremely slow before suffering another concussion near the end of May. Upon his return a few weeks ago, he was let go by the Pirates and has since provided a boost to the Atlanta Braves as their backup behind the plate.

Diaz has been a complete disaster this season. After posting a 1.8 fWAR last year, he’s been worth -1.1 wins in 2019, second worst in the majors among catchers. Not only is he not hitting (67 wRC+), but he’s been awful defensively as well. According to Baseball Prospectus, Diaz ranks towards the bottom of the league in framing and throwing out runners. His blocking has been average.

Cue up Jacob Stallings. After being nothing more than a September call up and afterthought for years, he is now the guy. He’s more or less been the primary catcher since the beginning of July, starting 31 of the last 40 games for the Pirates.

And he’s been fine.

Stallings won’t get people out of their seats with his bat by any means. In 168 plate appearances this season, he’s hitting .267/.341/.373 with four home runs, four doubles and a wRC+ of 83. He’s basically a below average hitter. His value doesn’t come from hitting though. It comes from defense.

Baseball Prospectus has Stallings 23rd among 106 catchers in framing runs (3.4), 9th in blocking runs (2.1), and 17th in throwing runs (0.4). It should be noted that these are counting stats so Stallings’ rise in limited action speaks for itself. Overall, his Fielding Runs Above Average adjusted, a metric used to analyze a defender on a play-by-play basis, is 15th among catchers.

The moral of the story is that Stallings is pretty good defensively. He has definitely held his own and has been a major upgrade from the previous Pirate catchers this season. Does that mean he should be the Pirates’ primary starter in 2020?

I mean probably not. He’s a marginally better hitting Chris Stewart.

At best, Stallings is a fringe starter but solid backup. The Pirates will need to make an outside move in 2020 unless they expect a complete 180 from Diaz next season. Which, why would they? We’ve seen the Pirates add catchers in the recent past with the additions of Cervelli in 2015 and Russell Martin in 2013. That needs to be a priority going into the offseason. A tandem of Stallings and Diaz next year would provide another season of bottom of the league production at the catcher position (although that probably speaks more to Diaz than it does Stallings).

I like what I’ve seen from Stallings this season and think that he’s earned his keep as a major league ballplayer. I just wouldn’t want him as my everyday catcher.