The 2018 season hasn’t necessarily been a good one for catchers around the league, offensively speaking. Catchers being subpar hitters isn’t anything new (they have yet to post a season at or above a 100 wRC+ in the 21st century), but 2018 has been worse, as their mark of 84 wRC+ as a group is the fourth worst since the strike, second worst if you break it down to American League backstops.
Around the cesspool of offensive talent, which team would you guess is posting the highest wRC+ at catcher this year? I’d assume most of the guesses would go to the Giants with Buster Posey, the Dodgers with Yasmani Grandal, or the Marlins with J.T. Realmuto.
Nope, nope, and nope! It’s the Pirates backstops that are leading the way. And they aren’t just in first place, they’re sitting 11 points ahead of the second place White Sox with a collective 121 wRC+. Finding how they got here may seem initially confusing, running out the likes of Francisco Cervelli and Elias Diaz (who had respective 93 and 52 wRC+’s in 2017). The tandem has suddenly broke out though, with Cervelli having a rejuvenation with the bat and Elias Diaz suddenly injecting a burst of offensive production into his game.
The simple answer here is they are running out a platoon and a quite successful one. Implementing catcher platoons are harder than other positions, causing a rarity of the occurrence. Let’s check out how they got here.
Elias Diaz may be one of the most underrated players of the 2018 season. More of a glove first guy in previous years, Diaz has is running a breakout season with the bat off a reworked approach.
Added FB% in 2018
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This change in swing plane seems to be working great for Diaz too, as he’s cut his K-rate and added to his hard hit-rate at an unprecedented level this year.
Most of the jump in Diaz’s numbers are due to the fact that he’s crushing lefties. Minor league stats and his first extended taste of the big leagues suggested he wasn’t really a guy you’d want hitting vs lefties. But with the aforementioned swing plane change (Diaz has lifted his launch angle against lefties from two degrees to 17), his lefty splits have gone through the roof. Last season, he ranked 283rd out of 529 hitters against lefties in xwOBA (minimum 50 results). This season, he ranks 47th out of 502 hitters.
So with a 149 wRC+ against left-handers combined with plus-skills behind the plate, the Pirates have themselves a great platoon option.
You also may have not realized this one, but Francisco Cervelli is quietly having the best season of his career, pacing to post the highest wRC+ and fWAR out of any full-season he’s had in the majors.
Cervelli doesn’t scream platoon guy, as he more than holds his own against lefties (114 wRC+ vs them this year). But then again, he absolutely has crushed righties this season, hitting for a .273/.390/.478 line. But hitting for a 95 wRC+ vs righties last year suggests improvement for Cervelli. The reason for this may draw back to where it drew back for Diaz... elevating the ball.
Last season, minimum 200 results, Cervelli ranked 177th out of 474 batters in xwOBA against righties. This season, he ranks 71st out of 442.
The Pirates are getting production out of the catcher’s position in a unique way. With the team essentially out of postseason contention and Cervelli getting up there in age, especially for a catcher, the meaningful affect and sustainability of this may be questionable. But right now, it couldn’t be working out any more efficiently.
Patrick Brennan loves to research pitchers and minor leaguers with data. You can find additional work of his at Royals Review and Royals Farm Report. You can also find him on Twitter @paintingcorner.