Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington knew something that we didn’t – ex-Yankee catchers are the new market inefficiency. After two years of service from Russell Martin which resulted in a combined 9.1 fWAR for the Pirates, Huntington turned his eyes to Martin’s one-time backup Francisco Cervelli for the 2015 season.
Cervelli was dealt by the Yankees to the Pirates for reliever Justin Wilson, and it’s safe to say that Pittsburgh has been the victor of that trade. While the Bronx Bombers have been getting along just fine with Brian McCann as their backstop ---- he has rebounded nicely after a rough first year in pinstripes ------ Cervelli has come into his own as a Pirate, and has been a key cog in the Buccos owning the second-best record in the National League.
After serving as a backup for most of his time in New York, Pittsburgh gave the 29-year-old Cervelli the opportunity to play every day and he has rewarded their faith by being the second-most valuable catcher in baseball by fWAR, behind only Buster Posey of the Giants. He has been extremely valuable to Pittsburgh at the plate as well: Cervelli’s .352 wOBA is third on the Pirates behind Andrew McCutchen and Jung-ho Kang.
While Cervelli so far this year has emerged as one of the best catchers in the game, this development is hardly out of nowhere. In the limited action he saw with the Yankees over the past two seasons, it was clear that if given the opportunity and provided good health, he could hold down a starting job. This season he is finally proving it.
His 2015 walk and strikeout rates are right in line with his career totals, as is nearly his entire batted ball profile. The only thing that is really out of line is that Cervelli’s BABIP is about 24 points higher than his career norm, and some of his flyballs have turned into groundballs. Other than that variation, there is barely anything different about Cervelli this year than in the first six years of his career.
His effectiveness and steadiness goes beyond just the hitting and extends to his defense as well, where he has rated as a good pitch framer throughout his career. In total, Cervelli has helped his pitchers to the tune of 10.5 runs per 7,000 pitches framed in his career, and is right on that pace in 2015 at 10.8, according to Baseball Prospectus data.
Cervelli never got the chance to fully prove himself while he was a member of the Yankees. He was on their postseason roster in 2009 when they won the World Series as the backup to Jorge Posada, and split time with Posada behind the dish in 2010. He performed well for a 24-year-old catcher, hitting .271/.359/.335 in 93 games, accumulating 1.0 fWAR. Despite this performance, the Yankees brought in Martin for the 2011 season and kept Cervelli in a backup role. Hard to blame the Yankees for being the Yankees.
Cervelli would end up breaking his foot in early March and miss most of the first month of the season, and would struggle offensively only playing in 43 games while seeing his walk rate decrease from 10.4 percent to 6.6 percent and his strikeout rate spike from 13.2 percent to 21.2 percent . The 2012 season would be even more trying, as Cervelli found himself demoted to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to start the year as Chris Stewart became Martin's backup. He didn't exactly tear the cover off the ball, but he did return as a September call-up.
2013 was a new year for Cervelli, and while he won the starting catcher job out of spring training, he couldn't hold it for long, as a Rajai Davis foul tip fractured his right hand. That along with a 50-game suspension for his involvement with the Biogenesis Clinic ended his season on April 26. At that point it appeared as if Cervelli was on his way to a great year, hitting .269/.377/.500 in a super small sample size of 61 plate appearances. He was also on an absurd 7.1 fWAR/150 pace, which he almost assuredly wouldn't have been able to keep up, but would have likely had a productive season nevertheless.
When the calendar turned to 2014, Cervelli found himself once again relegated to the bench, as the Yankees again acted like themselves and signed McCann to a five-year, $85 million contract. Including missing two months with a hamstring injury, Cervelli turned in a fine, albeit .408-BABIP-fueled performance, batting .301/.370/.432 in 49 games. Cervelli's fWAR/150 in 2014 was a hair under 4.0.
It's hard to blame Brian Cashman and the Yankees for severing ties with Cervelli this offseason after all the injuries, but they parted with an incredibly valuable piece. The Pirates were willing to gamble that his health would hold up, and at least thus far in 2015 it has.
When the book is closed on Cervelli’s career, 2015 will likely be looked back at as his ‘breakout’ year, but he has always been talented, and has been this good for a while. Now that he has had the opportunity to prove his value for a playoff-contending team, he should start to see more of the recognition he deserves.
Joe Vasile is the Assistant GM and Radio Broadcaster for the Fayetteville SwampDogs of the Coastal Plain League. For motivational quotes, New York Mets-related rants, amateur bodybuilding and low-carb dieting advice, UNC-Pembroke football and basketball notes, and to keep up on Joe's quest to make it to the big leagues in the radio booth, follow Joe on Twitter at @JoeVasilePBP.