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Resetting the free agent catcher market post-Grandal

With the biggest prize claimed, who remains?

Divisional Series - Houston Astros v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Four Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

We often think of the free agent market as one big smorgasbord of ballplayers, but that’s not necessarily true. Usually it behaves more like multiple, loosely connected markets.

For example, if a team needs a shortstop and misses out on the best available, they probably won’t pivot to signing a left fielder instead. Most likely, they’ll pursue other means of addressing their shortstop need via trade or the next best available free agent. As such, the shortstop and left fielder markets don’t impact each other.

There are exceptions of course, especially with regard to the absolute top players on the market. Similar positions, such as shortstop and second base, might also have more of an impact on each other. It’s not an ironclad rule, but in general each positional market is mostly independent.

Catcher is as close to an independent market as there is in baseball free agency. There’s no other position like it. If you need a backstop you can’t just slide someone over from another position, like moving an outfielder from right to left. You either need to sign one, trade for one, or promote from within.

Yasmani Grandal was far and away the best catcher available this offseason, and maybe the best in baseball, full stop. The White Sox made the biggest move of the offseason so far when they signed him to a four year deal. This will cause a domino effect on the catcher market, and now that the biggest domino has fallen the others could move quickly, and Travis d’Arnaud just signed with the Braves yesterday.

The Top Three Catchers

NOTE: The rest of this article was written before the d’Arnaud signing. Rather than remove all mention of him, we’ll leave him in to serve as a comparison with other catchers.

There are three remaining catchers on MLB Trade Rumors’ Top 50 Free Agents: Travis d’Arnaud (#26), Robinson Chirinos (#33), and Jason Castro (#34). All three were basically average contributors with the bat in 2019. D’Arnaud posted a 102 DRC+ while both Chirinos and Castro landed on 100 exactly. Of course, average is actually above average when we’re discussing catchers. The position as a whole featured an 85 wRC+ last season, so these three catchers out-hit their position by a decent margin.

Using Baseball Prospectus’ catcher defensive adjustment (CDA), we can see that their defense separates them much more than their offense:

Catcher Defense

Player CDA CSAA Chances CDA/5k Chances
Player CDA CSAA Chances CDA/5k Chances
Travis d'Arnaud -0.6 4445 -0.7
Robinson Chirinos 1.9 6599 1.4
Jason Castro 3.8 4517 4.2

D’Arnaud was slightly below average defensively, Chirinos slightly above, and Castro best of all (at least in this group). This is evident in their 2019 WARP.

Catcher WARP

Player WARP PA WARP/400 PA
Player WARP PA WARP/400 PA
Travis d'Arnaud 1.5 391 1.5
Robinson Chirinos 2.6 437 2.4
Jason Castro 1.9 275 2.8

Chirinos had a better season in terms of total value, but only because he played a lot more than the other two. Castro ceded playing time to breakout star Mitch Garver, but on a rate basis was better than any other available free agent catcher. (For the record, Grandal was third in baseball with 20.9 CDA, and posted 6.1 WARP, or 3.9 WARP/400 PA.)

Free agency is about the future, not the past, and other factors deserve consideration. Chirinos will be 36 years-old, and is traditionally a poor defender. His pitch framing has been negative every year of his career— including last season— but he overcame this deficit in 2019 thanks to excellent pitch blocking. D’Arnaud is 31 and has an extensive injury history.

Castro, on the other hand, is entering his age-33 season. As a left-handed hitter, he makes for an easy platoon with a right-handed hitting backup. This is already baked into his value, but imagine how much better your backup catcher would be if he almost exclusively faced left-handed pitching. Castro’s got his own injury history, as most catchers do, but given that he already appeared to be the best of the three, the softer factors help him stand out that much more.

The Second Tier

D’Arnaud, Chirinos, and Castro are not the only available backstops though. There are four other catchers available who rated at least as good as d’Arnaud in WARP/400:

Even More Catchers!

Player CDA/5k Chances DRC+ WARP WARP/400 PA
Player CDA/5k Chances DRC+ WARP WARP/400 PA
Stephen Vogt -5.6 106 1.4 2.0
Alex Avila 4.7 96 1.0 2.0
Russell Martin 6.7 85 1.2 1.9
Yan Gomes -0.9 91 1.3 1.5

Stephen Vogt, Alex Avila, Russell Martin, and Yan Gomes comprise a clear secondary market that isn’t too far down from the first tier. Age will be a factor, as Martin (37 next year) and Vogt (35) cannot expect multiyear contracts. Avila (33) and Gomes (32) have been pretty reliable for much of their careers, and could try to land a starting job or at least a timeshare somewhere.

The third tier includes decent hitter/terrible defender Matt Wieters, great defender/terrible hitter Martín Maldonado, plus Austin Romine and Francisco Cervelli, who are kind of bland on both offense and defense. There’s also newly deposed White Sox catcher James McCann via trade, though his defensive work was among the worst in baseball last year.

There’s only one Yasmani Grandal however, and he’s no longer available. Any other team looking to upgrade the catcher position will have to act fast before the next group of backstops gets snatched up as well.

Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. Tweets @depstein1983.