Halfway through a season might be a bit too early to evaluate the results of a trade, but at this point, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ return on the Jacob Stallings deal doesn’t look half bad.
And if not for a couple outings on April 23 – and a couple of injury issues — it would look even better.
Stallings was a fan favorite, but he never did anything for me, and I endorsed the trade wholeheartedly immediately after it was consummated last November. His value would never be higher, and although it would have been nice to have a steady veteran around to hold the fort until Henry Davis was ready to take over, the Pirates were wise to move him when they did.
In return for Stallings, the Pirates received pitchers Zach Thompson and Kyle Nicolas and outfield prospect Connor Scott. Nicolas, 23, was ranked as the Marlins’ No. 16 prospect, while the 22-year-old Scott was slotted at No. 23 at the time the trade was made, and both were ticketed for Double-A Altoona in 2022.
Thompson, who was drafted by the Pirates coming out of high school in 2011 but chose to go to UT-Arlington, had spent most of the 2021 season with the Marlins, making 26 appearances, 14 of which were starts. The 28-year-old right-hander went only 3-7 but had a solid 3.24 ERA, yielding 63 hits in 75 innings while walking 28 and striking out 66 for a WHIP of 1.213.
Nicolas was a competitive balance round B pick for the Marlins — 61st pick overall — in the 2020 amateur draft out of Ball State, where he struck out 174 batters over 135 1/3 innings. Scott was taken 13th overall by the Marlins in the 2018 draft out of high school in Tampa, Fla.
Thompson had a bit of a rough start for his new team; in four starts in April, he logged 14 1/3 innings and gave up 23 hits, 16 earned runs and nine walks while striking out 12 for a 10.05 ERA. Opponents had compiled a .983 OPS during that stretch.
The worst of those outings came on the aforementioned April 23, when he gave up nine hits and nine runs (although only four were earned) in just two innings against the Cubs. That came on the heels of a four-inning start against Milwaukee in which he was touched for six hits and six earned runs while walking four and striking out three.
Safe to say that by the end of April, the deal was not looking so hot.
But after starting the month of May with a one-inning scoreless relief appearance against the Tigers, Thompson turned things around. From that point until going on the injured list June 20 with right forearm inflammation, Thompson made eight starts and gave up 30 hits and 13 walks while striking out 28 in 39 innings for an ERA of 2.54. His OPS-against figure dropped to .669.
Thompson came off the injured list Saturday and gave the Bucs a decent start, going four and two-thirds innings and giving up four hits and two runs – both earned – while walking one and striking out two.
Meanwhile, down on the farm, Nicolas had a rough go of it on April 23 as well. In a two-inning nightmare of a start against New Hampshire, Nicolas gave up nine hits and eight runs – all earned – while walking one and striking out one. Four of the nine hits he gave up left the yard; he’s given up only three home runs in his other 10 starts combined.
So far on the season, Nicolas is 0-2 with a 4.27 ERA in 12 appearances, including 11 starts. In his first 10 starts other than the April 23 outing against New Hampshire, Nicolas pitched 25 2/3 innings and allowed 20 hits and six walks while giving up seven earned runs and striking out 19 batters. Like Thompson, Nicolas was slowed by injury, as he was placed on the seven-day injured list with a shoulder issue early last month, and he wound up missing three weeks.
Since his return, he has made two appearances and worked five and two-thirds innings, giving up six hits and four earned runs while walking three and striking out six.
Nicolas was highly regarded – at least by the Marlins – while learning his craft at Ball State. According to an article on MILB.com, some scouts were concerned about Nicolas’ control but not his ability to bring the heat, as he touched triple digits with his fastball. At the time, D.J. Svihlik, the Marlins’ director of amateur scouting, said it wasn’t just velocity that attracted the club to Nicolas. Rather, it was the overall package – the fastball, the curveball and the slider.
Svihlik said when he saw Nicolas pitching in the Cape Cod League, he thought, “’Wow, this was a big-time arm.’ The slider was crazy good. And I thought to myself like, ‘Wow, this is a late bloomer.’”
Scott, meanwhile, has been holding his own as a 22-year-old at the Double-A level. The left-handed hitting outfielder, who was the 13th pick in the 2018 June draft, is hitting .254/.693 in 226 plate appearances for Altoona with two home runs and 21 RBIs. He owns a 22 percent strikeout rate and an 8 percent walk rate. However, Scott has tailed off recently, as he’s batting just .192 with a .579 OPS in 90 plate appearances since June 1.
So what has become of Stallings? The 32-year-old veteran has scuffled in his first year in Miami, hitting just .199 with a .520 OPS in 199 plate appearances over 61 games heading into Tuesday’s action. He finished the 2021 season with a .246 batting average and a .704 OPS for the Pirates. Since June 1, things have gone even worse for Stallings; in 19 games, he’s batting just .169 with a .444 OPS.
Behind the plate is where Stallings made his bones; he won the Gold Glove in the National League in 2021 and was second in the league in defensive WAR. But his caught-stealing percentage is down to 15 percent from 21 percent a year ago – and that was down from 33 percent the year before that and 40 percent in 2019.
In addition, Stallings ranks next-to-last among 59 catchers listed on Baseball Savant’s catcher framing leaderboard, as provided by Statcast. The site defines catcher framing as “the art of a catcher receiving a pitching a way that makes it more likely for an umpire to call it a strike.”
The site also has a ranking for catcher framing runs, which the site states “converts strikes to runs saved on a .125 run/strike basis, and includes park and pitcher adjustments.” Jose Trevino of the Yankees led all 59 backstops listed with seven catcher framing runs; Stallings was tied for next-to-last with MJ Melendez of Kansas City with minus-five.
So how do we grade the Stallings deal? As mentioned earlier, it’s only halfway way through the season. But so far, I like what I see.
What grade would you give the Stallings deal at this point?
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