We’re creeping towards legitimacy in the 2018 season, and the Pittsburgh Pirates being half a game out of first place has to be one of the larger surprises of the early season. Maybe not as mindblowing as the Phillies or Braves being in the same position, but when a team trades away the face of the franchise and it’s assumed ace, you kind of expect a step back. Nope. They seem good. Their offense is seventh in baseball with a .329 wOBA, and obviously led by catcher Francisco Cervelli.
That is not a sentence anyone expected to write, ever. Cervelli has been a great catcher for the Yankees and Pirates, but in the literal catching sense. He’s been worth 53.8 Fielding Runs Above Average according to Baseball Prospectus, and in 2015 and ’16 he was plus 23.2 and 10.3 FRAA, respectively. He’s just had a bit of a problem staying healthy lately, only playing 182 games the last two years due to some injuries, and he’s never been anything more than a decent hitter. Before this year he rated a 103 wRC+ for his career. Not dreadful by any stretch, but certainly not someone you expect to suddenly leap into the elite of baseball at 32 years old.
He is also hitting at an elite rate. His 168 wRC+ is ninth in the game, ahead of JD Martinez and Nolan Arenado. His .415 OBP is twelfth, ahead of Joey Votto and Bryce Harper. His .267 Isolated Slugging is tied with Martinez and ahead of Freddie Freeman. He’s hit two triples. This early in the season, you expect middling players to be on outsized streaks that are sure to come crashing down sooner or later. We see it every year, but there’s a chance this is real for Cervelli.
Looking at his career stats, Cervelli has always been a bit of an anomaly. You usually expect catchers to have a lower-than-normal BABIP simply because they’re usually slower than average, so they don’t get that infield hit boost that more fleet-of-foot hitters do. But for his career, Cervelli’s batted balls fall for a hit at a .334 rate. This year that number is .329, actually slightly below what you’d expect. That by itself is heartening that this outburst by him is more real than not. But, as Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs noted the other day, Cervelli has made a drastic change to how he attacks the ball.
Traditionally a big ground ball guy with a career 1.62 GB/FB ratio, this year he’s hitting a fly ball 48.8 percent of the time, that ratio dropping to 0.93. His average launch angle has shot up to0, going from 6 degrees between 2016 and ’17 to 19.2 degrees this year. At first glance I thought he was pulling a Yonder Alonso, but Cervelli is actually going opposite field more than ever (35.3 percent of the time against 26 percent for his career) and where Alonso saw his strikeout rate climb as he chased power, Cervelli’s 17.1 percent K rate is 1.2 points below his career rate. He’s more composed at the plate, while also delivering mounds more damage.
A change in launch angle like that doesn’t just come from saying “I’m gonna add more scoop to my swing”. There’s adjustments to be made; notably, his pre-swing prep, load, and timing methods are drastically different. Here’s an RBI single he hit last year:
This is basically what he did most of his career. A couple of toe-taps, a flat swing, and a decent cut. Now, here’s a booming opposite field home run from this season:
Note, because it’s so damn obvious—the massive leg kick. Note also just how crouched down he was a year ago:
Compare that to this year, where he seems almost leaning back:
That’s not by accident, and it would seem that it allows him to time the ball better, get under it, and get more of his legs into the swing. It’s swiftly bearing fruit. Between his new upright stance and his high leg kick he can load more heavily and has less moving parts, meaning more damage, more often.
Changes like this aren’t mind-blowing anymore. We saw it most notably in Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Yonder Alonso, and more quietly in a lot of players across baseball. If anything you start wondering after a while why more bad players don’t try something this drastic. Unlike those guys though, Cervelli had forged a niche for himself as a good defensive catcher that won’t take anything away from you at the plate. He got a good contract out of it. He didn’t really need to find a way to stay in the game. But if this sticks he’s suddenly something resembling a superstar. The Pirates just lost the guy who was that for them, so it’s a nice, lucky break for an assumed rebuild candidate to have that kind of development out of nowhere.