2015 Catcher Recap: Pirates Found a Steal in Francisco Cervelli

At the end of last year’s summary, my view on the catching situation in Pittsburgh was that Elias Diaz wasn’t ready for the majors, putting the Pirates in the following situation:

“The Pirates will need to find a one-year option if they can’t bring Martin back, and it’s unlikely that this option will be able to replicate the numbers that Martin put up defensively over the last two years.”

It didn’t exactly turn out that way. They traded for Francisco Cervelli before Martin signed elsewhere, and he ended up putting up better results than Martin in 2015. The best part of the deal? Cervelli is under team control through the 2016 season, and is projected to make $2.5 M in arbitration. That means the Pirates will end up spending about $3.5 M on Cervelli over two years, rather than spending $82.5 M on Martin over five years.

Cervelli’s season was a surprise, although maybe it wasn’t a huge surprise when considering his previous success at the plate. Last year with the Yankees, he had a .301/.370/.432 line in 162 plate appearances. At the start of the year there were questions about whether he could repeat those numbers over a full season. He ended up almost duplicating them, with a .295/.370/.401 line in 510 plate appearances in 2015. The power was down a bit, which probably had something to do with leaving Yankee Stadium for PNC Park, but the overall offensive numbers were solid. Cervelli finished with a 3.8 WAR, which ranked second in baseball behind Buster Posey, and ahead of Martin’s 3.5 WAR.

Another big question heading into the year was whether Cervelli could handle a starting workload. He had never caught more than 90 games, never started more than 80 games, and never caught more than 724 innings in a season. He also never had more than 317 plate appearances, so the idea that he could be a full-time starter was in question. He ended up catching 128 games and making 124 starts, while catching 1099.2 innings. The games started and innings totals were higher than any two seasons of his in the past.

Cervelli wasn’t as strong defensively as Martin, which was highlighted in the stolen base numbers. Martin threw out 44% of base stealers this year, while Cervelli was at 22%. Part of that for Cervelli was due to the Pirates’ pitching approach, especially with two outs. They focused more on the guy at the plate, and less on the running game with two outs, which led to some horrible numbers. That said, Martin is one of the best in the game, and even with stronger results from Cervelli, he wouldn’t be able to put up the success rate that Martin saw.

The one defensive area where Cervelli did excel was his framing. He ranked third in baseball in framing runs added, with 16.2 runs. By comparison, Martin had 12.3 framing runs added. Cervelli also did better at blocking pitches, as he had 10 passed balls compared to 19 for Martin, and those results are impressive when you consider how much the Pirates like throwing breaking pitches low in the zone and in the dirt.

For at least one year, the Pirates pulled off what seemed to be impossible by finding a replacement who could match Martin’s production, all while saving a ton of money in the process, which they put to good use by signing A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, and Jung-ho Kang.

Behind Cervelli, the Pirates had Chris Stewart, who had a fantastic year as a backup, being worth 0.6 WAR. He put up a .289/.320/.340 line, which is pretty good for a guy who was supposed to be a defensive-only option. I wrote about what led to Stewart’s sudden turnaround offensively the last two years, with the key thing being a change in approach that led to more opposite field shots, more balls on the ground, and more soft line drives.

The reduced focus on hitting for power led to more singles, a much higher average, and overall better production. Stewart is under control for one more season, and still has the defense to go with that added offense. He’ll be a great backup catcher for 2016, maintaining the depth in Pittsburgh, with Elias Diaz in Triple-A ready to take over as the starter if needed.

The irony here is that the Yankees lost Russell Martin in 2013, and decided to go with a combo of Cervelli and Stewart to replace him. Two years later, the Pirates took the exact same approach, and saw much better results. I guess this can only mean we’ll see Brian McCann behind the plate in Pittsburgh in a few years.

The Future

The Pirates have Cervelli for one more season, and there’s little reason to believe he won’t repeat his 2015 numbers at the plate. He had a .359 BABIP, which isn’t far off from his career .341 mark. He had a 9.0% walk rate, which is slightly above his 8.5% career mark. And his .106 ISO was slightly higher than his career .104 ISO. Basically, he should keep in line with his triple slash numbers from 2015, with the chance to go above those numbers with a career year.

The one concern would still be his health. Even though he caught a career high in games and innings in 2015, he still doesn’t have a track record of being a durable catcher. A lot of his injuries in the past have been freak accidents, rather than issues of durability. The Pirates also stress keeping players healthy by keeping them fresh, which seemed to work with Martin, and worked with Cervelli this year.

If Cervelli does go down, the Pirates are in good position with Elias Diaz in Triple-A. Diaz was called up in September, and while he didn’t get much time in games, he did spend a lot of time learning from Cervelli and working with all of the pitchers in the bullpen. That should help ease his transition to the majors when he eventually does start catching games at the big league level.

Diaz is the catcher of the future in the short-term, and will be the replacement for Cervelli after the 2016 season. He fits a similar mold as Cervelli and Martin in that he is a strong defensive catcher first, with great framing and blocking skills, and a strong relationship with his pitching staff. He can also provide some offense, and while he might not be a big home run hitter, he’s got the gap power, the plate patience, and the contact skills to provide enough offensive value to be a starting catcher.

In the long-term, Reese McGuire projects to be the starting catcher in Pittsburgh. McGuire is the best defensive catcher in the system, and excels at throwing out runners, with incredible arm strength that allowed him to throw out some of the fastest runners in the Florida State League in 2015 with a perfect strike down to second without leaving his knees. He’s very athletic, giving him good blocking skills, and he receives the ball well. He also gets a lot of praise from his pitchers, including the upper level guys who haven’t seen him often.

The current downside for McGuire is that he hasn’t shown the offensive numbers needed to move quickly through the system. He’s got some great tools offensively, with excellent contact skills, great plate patience, and the ability to barrel up to the ball and drive to the gaps. He needs to learn to be more selective when finding his pitch to drive. He can make contact with a lot of pitches, but his numbers will improve when he decides to make contact with only the pitches he can drive.

The Pirates are set up well for 2016 with Cervelli and Stewart. They are also set up well for the long-term with Diaz and McGuire. The focus the last few years has been defense first, with some offensive performance that comes as a bonus. That seems like it will be a focus for the long-term in Pittsburgh.

  • “The Pirates have Cervelli for one more season, and there’s little reason to believe he won’t repeat his 2015 numbers at the plate.”

    There is *absolutely* reason to believe Cervelli won’t repeat his 2015 numbers at the plate, and that reason is because he’s almost certainly not a true talent ~.350 BABIP hitter. That certainty is based in the fact that almost *nobody* is a true talent .350 BABIP hitter.

    Guys here argued with me last winter that projections for Starling Marte were low because they *only* had him around a .345 BABIP while his previous seasons were over .350. The projections regressed those numbers because literally nobody is actually that good at turning contact into hits. Marte’s actual BABIP? .333. Oops.

    Cervelli isn’t particularly fast, doesn’t hit the ball particularly hard, and doesn’t hit a high percentage of line drives. That’s simply not the profile of a true talent high BABIP hitter. No reason not to expect league average or better, but the difference between .300-.320 and >.350 is significant.

  • Slightly off topic, but is anyone besides me rooting for the Blue Jays to win it all now that the Bucs are out of it?

  • I was certainly surprised by Cervellis stick. One of the few patient hitters we have. As Tim mentioned, I wasn’t thrilled with the running game numbers, but as many have pointed out, there’s more to it than just him.

    I think NH will be in Cashman’s head next time the haggle over a receiver. Certainly don’t miss the Barajas/Doumit era.

  • Good article. When comparing Cervelli and Martin this year, doesn’t Martin catching RA Dickey every fifth day have something to do with his inflated PB #? Also, while I really do like Cervelli, it seemed at times he needed to focus on catching the ball – the phantom foul tips come to mind. That being said, given his production, age and compensation in comparison to Martin, I don’t think the Pirates could do better and I think that many other teams would be happy to have him.

  • We also have Jacob Stalling (probably in AAA next year). I like him as an emergency back up.

  • I agree with everything you said here. And finally, we have moved on from Tony Sanchez… you didn’t mention him once, which is proportional to how much he should figure into the Pirates’ plans.

  • Extend Cervelli- I love hearing Dino at the ballpark.