What's up, Angels fans? Actually, I'm guessing not much since there's no Angels baseball going on and we're stuck watching the young, talented corps of teams like the Astros, Yankees, Cubs, and Dodgers. This is the worst time of the year if you're not a playoff team. No baseball, the offseason still doesn't officially start for a few more weeks, and even then, it takes another month or so for the offseason activity to heat up.
So we've got some free time. There's been plenty of debate and ideas tossed around about the current state of the franchise. Second base, third base, left field if Justin Upton leaves, the pitching staff. We all know the glaring issues and we all have our own opinion on how to fix those spots. But these posts are not necessarily about those positions, this takes the Angels roster (from the 25-man to the full 40-man roster) and places it under a microscope. The truth is, we're not sure what Eppler and co. will do, and chances are, neither do they. Expect the unexpected in the offseason, much like with a trade the Angels made that surprised everyone last winter, the acquisition of Martin Maldonado.
Most of us headed into the 2017 season being okay, or maybe even ambivalent, about the catching situation of the Angels. Jett Bandy and Carlos Perez seemed like a pretty sure bet to share time behind the plate. The problem? Mike Scioscia's the manager. It shouldn't come as a shock that a former catcher would care so much about one single position, but fans who lived through the Jeff Mathis/Mike Napoli days will tell you it's more of an obsession than a preference to have a glove-first catcher. Offense would have to take a backseat if a catcher had all of the intangibles Scioscia looked for in a backstop and to this point, it has.
Enter the trade with Milwaukee last winter. Maldonado was a backup for the entirety of his career with the Brewers, but he was always lauded for his defense behind the plate. Coming into the 2017 season, Maldonado's career high in plate appearances was 256 (twice achieved in 78 and 79 games during the 2012 and 2015 seasons). This season, he had 471 plate appearances in 133 games started and 137 total games played in. The second most games started at the position only behind Yadier Molina.
What did this all equate to? A total slashline of .221/.276/.368 with a 74 OPS+, with an unsightly 3.2% BB% and 25.3% K%. The defense would have to be on an Andrelton Simmons level, and even then that would be pretty hard to live with.
While Maldonado's not quite an elite defensive player who can transcend the game with his glove alone, he was pretty darn good in this department. In 1146.1 innings behind the plate, Martin was second in defensive runs saved (DRS) in baseball with 10 only behind Reds phenom Tucker Barnhart. He had a godly 39% caught stealing rate while the league average was 27% with 3 pickoffs. According to Baseball Prospectus, Maldonado was ranked 13th in baseball in pitch framing, but this doesn't tell the whole story. Martin had 8,063 framing opportunities, nearly 1,500 more chances than the next closest guy in the top 10 (Austin Hedges with 6,952). In framing runs, Martin was 4th in framing runs with 15.6. For a little more insight to framing runs, here's a quick excerpt from FanGraphs.
It is challenging to isolate the effect of the pitcher, umpire, batter, and catcher so that we can properly value the catcher. BP’s stats attempt to do this, but they use a modeling strategy that doesn’t totally capture the underlying process at work. For example, there is no way to distinguish whether the catcher received the ball well or if the umpire is calling an unusually large strike zone during that specific game.
Framing pitches is a very important part of catching, and we have an idea that the best catchers are worth 15 to 25 runs above average per season, but the numbers you see are definitely estimates.
Maldonado was terrific in just about every defensive measure behind the plate which only supports the eye test. If you watched a lot of Angels games this year, you could see the impact Maldonado had behind the dish. Enough to earn Scioscia’s trust (make of that what you will). He was good enough to be considered the favorite for the Gold Glove at catcher in the American League. Now Gold Glove’s aren’t everything (hello, Derek Jeter), but they can still paint a pretty good picture since the addition of statistics and defensive metrics in 2013 to the voting process. Martin wasn’t just good behind the plate, he was the best in the league and one of the best in the game.
I know what you’re probably thinking at this point, “but that slashline and offensive output!” Yes, I am aware Maldonado was basically unbearable to watch as the season dragged on, but that’s exactly my next point. He got worse as the season continued and continued to slump as his career highs in games and plate appearances skyrocketed. I would assume there’s a correlation here.
In the first half of the season, 72 games started, Maldonado had a respectable .251/.313/.412/.725 line (96 wRC+) with 11 of his 15 walks, 9 of his 14 home runs, and a 0.17 BB/K ratio. Basically, he was a roughly average Major League hitter, something Jeff Mathis could only dream about. League average offense is fine when you consider two things: you're a premium (there it is) defense player at that position and when it's at a light-hitting position like catcher. Just for some perspective, the Major League average production from the catcher spot was .245/.315/.406/.721, good for an 89 wRC+ (where 100 is average). That's nearly identical to Maldonado's first-half line.
But then the second half occurred. Maldonado plummeted to a .183/.227/.312/.539 line (43 wRC+), with 4 walks, 5 home runs, and an abysmal .007 BB/K ratio in 59 games started. Our own Mike Scioscia seems to agree that the spike in playing time had to do with Maldonado’s second half woes.
"It's the most at-bats Martin has ever had in his career, most games," Scioscia said earlier this month. "So you can point and say there was some fatigue. I think as far as where he was in the batter's box, it's natural. It's one position I've played where you're catching that many games, it's no doubt the first that suffers is going to be your hitting, especially when you're out there playing against everybody."
We really need to hope that was the case, because it sure sounds like Maldonado will again be the everyday guy next year.
"Next year, nothing to say that Martin is not going to go out there and catch 130 games and be more proficient offensively," Scioscia said. "It's the first go-around he had. ... I think we believe [he] has a more consistent offensive year in him than we saw in the second half of the season."
So if there are any of you hoping for a Jonathan Lucroy, Welington Castillo, or Alex Avila signing this winter, I'd put those hopes to bed real quick. This regime seems to place quite a bit of emphasis on defense from key defensive positions. I expect Maldonado to again be the everyday guy behind the plate in 2018, but the front office wouldn't be doing their jobs if they weren't looking at ways to improve the club any way they can. So what about the depth behind Martin? What if Maldonado gets hurt? Could they at least lessen the workload on Maldonado by acquiring a better backup catcher? So what are we left with after asking these questions? I hope they have a plan to get an upgrade over Juan Graterol.
Whenever Martin wasn’t the catcher, which wasn’t often, that honor belonged to Graterol. The problem? Graterol hit .202/.207/.250 (16 wRC+ which doesn't even seem possible), 0 home runs, and 1 walk in 48 games. Can you imagine if something happens to Maldonado and this guy becomes the everyday catcher? While Juan had some positive marks on his defense, mostly his pitch framing, 18th in baseball, anything he did provide defensively was mitigated by his bat (as evidenced by his -0.4 fWAR).
Carlos Perez has been relegated to the doghouse, after looking like part of the catching plans in his rookie season in 2015, Perez has only played in 98 games since (only 11 this year). The minor leagues don’t inspire much hope either. At AAA Salt Lake City, the everyday guy there this season, Tony Sanchez, was sent to Atlanta in the Brandon Phillips trade. The other AAA catcher, Francisco Arcia, is a 28-year old organizational filler. Down in AA Mobile, former 1st round pick, Taylor Ward, has made some nice strides with the stick, but he'll probably start out the year back in AA. We could very well see him in 2019 if everything breaks his way, but he won't be a factor in 2018.
So you're left with those three, Maldonado, Graterol, and Perez, on the 40-man roster with no help coming from the farm system in the immediate future. Much like a ton of other positions, they'll need reinforcements from outside of the organization. While the best guys in this free agent crop will go somewhere they can get everyday playing time, a seasoned vet like a Nick Hundley, Rene Rivera, or Carlos Ruiz would make me feel better about the position. A short-term commitment that's an improvement over Graterol is all this team really needs. My pick would probably be Rene Rivera, he's not flashy, but he still provides value by running into a few balls for home runs, he had 10 in 74 games, and playing solid defense.
As a franchise and fanbase, we’re left hoping Maldonado comes in ready to catch a lot of innings. If he can fight off the fatigue or the Angels acquire a better backup catcher, this position should be good enough for 2018. If we get even league average offensive production out of Maldonado + a guy brought in, the defense Martin brings would solidify this position. We’re not going to mix this group up with Buster Posey, but they don’t need a superstar to make it work. We probably need to hope Ward continues to improve his hitting, he might very well be the catcher of the future, and Martin would make a pretty good role model for him.
We can all agree, the front office doesn’t need to make a major move at catcher, they just need a better backup catcher. The main focus and allocation of resources should be spent at...well, almost every other position.