Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be recapping every position from the 2019 Pittsburgh Pirates. The focus of these articles will be to identify individual strengths and weaknesses from each position, along with a specific way the Pirates can upgrade the 2020 team.
Here are the recaps so far:
The next position in the series is the catcher position.
2019 Catcher Recap
The Pirates accomplished a pretty impressive feat this year with their catching position. They went from having a top five catching fWAR in 2018 to a bottom five catching fWAR in 2019, largely with the same catchers.
I don’t know how often teams have gone from the top of the majors to the bottom of the majors in the span of one year with the same players. Elias Sports Bureau is probably working on the research. But I’ve got to tell you, it feels rare.
To have that kind of scenario, you’d need a boom or bust catching duo, capable of being the best in the game when healthy and productive, and also capable of making you wish you had a Major League ready starting catcher as your number three guy in Triple-A.
The Pirates went boom in 2018, thanks to a healthy Francisco Cervelli and an impressive performance from Elias Diaz when Cervelli wasn’t healthy. Cervelli hit for an .809 OPS in 2018, with good defense, and played in 104 games with 404 plate appearances.
Diaz got enough time to look like a potential catcher of the future. He played in 82 games with 277 plate appearances, hitting for a .791 OPS and showing good defense as well.
The combination gave hope for the 2019 team, even if there were some reservations. Cervelli had an injury history, so there was no guarantee that he’d stay healthy, and no guarantee that he’d perform well when healthy. Diaz didn’t have a lot of MLB experience, but was showing some hope for the future, and a good backup if Cervelli went down.
They also had a decent backup in Jacob Stallings, who probably wasn’t more than a number three catcher, and would be out of options the following year. That raised the question of how the Pirates could keep Stallings while still having Cervelli and Diaz on the roster.
What went so wrong that made the Pirates go bust in 2019?
Cervelli did have injury issues, limiting him to 123 plate appearances. He wasn’t productive when healthy, with a .527 OPS, although he did grade well defensively. Diaz did not come close to following up on his great 2018 performance. His offense struggled with a .603 OPS and his defense also took a massive dive.
When I say “everything” went wrong, I’m just talking about Cervelli and Diaz. That doesn’t apply to Jacob Stallings, who picked up the slack with solid defense and decent offensive numbers (.707 OPS in 210 PA).
The Pirates are now left with more questions about their catching position than they had heading into the 2019 season, and with fewer reasons for optimism. Let’s get to those questions and few reasons with a look to the future.
Improving the 2020 Squad
Cervelli was traded away, and was in the final year of his contract. That leaves Diaz and Stallings as the top two catchers in the organization.
You definitely can’t trust Diaz as the starter after his performance in 2019 and with limited success in his career. He did have a mystery virus prior to the season, and the theory that this impacted his performance has been brought up to me every time I mention his performance.
I don’t buy into this theory. First of all, it’s fueled by hope. Hope that some mystery virus was the reason for the struggles from Diaz. Hope that the 2018 season was the real deal. Hope that the characteristics of this virus led to delayed struggles, as Diaz got worse as the year went on. And hope that this virus will somehow release it’s hold on the struggles from Diaz in time for him to repeat his 2018 season in 2020.
I’ve followed Diaz throughout his entire career. I’ve seen the tools that could make him a starting catcher with value on both sides of the ball. Other teams have seen this as well, with Diaz being included in trade rumors not too long ago. But the other thing Diaz has displayed is a total lack of consistency in applying those tools to the point where they will be reflected in the stats.
I have a dream theory about Diaz getting better. It involves him being yet another toolsy guy who showed MLB potential, but who the Pirates couldn’t get MLB production from. It involves some missing piece of the development process for the Pirates to develop a MLB starting catcher, even though they’ve had 12 seasons of drafts and international signings, used two first round picks on catchers who had strong MLB defensive projections, and also had Diaz with a similar profile.
The problem with that dream is that when you wake up, Diaz is still on the Pirates. And unless they figure out their upper level development issues in one offseason, and identify what is going wrong with Diaz, they’re not in a position to count on him in 2020.
And that’s what it’s really about, regardless of the theory you have on Diaz. How much are you willing to risk? I’m not ready to give up on Diaz, but there’s no way I’d go with him as the starting catcher in 2020. I also wouldn’t go with Stallings, since we only have a limited sample of success.
This raises the same three catcher issue that existed heading into this year, only with less hope for a top five finish again. Perhaps that could change with the right outside addition.
Hope For Beyond 2020
The catching position is pretty bare in the minors as far as future starters. The Pirates have guys with good defensive skills but poor offense. They have guys who have shown good offense, but don’t project to provide good defense. And no one has shown extended hope of breaking out beyond that “Maybe they could be a backup or at least get a cup of coffee” upside for the majors.
Jason Delay, Christian Kelley, and Arden Pabst all have the potential to be defensive backups in the majors. None of them have shown strong offensive numbers for an extended period. I would say all of them have the offensive potential to reach the majors, but there’s a narrow margin of chance for that happening, and the track record with Diaz and everyone before them doesn’t provide any hope.
Grant Koch is the latest catcher to be thrown into the mix, being drafted in the fifth round this year. He was touted as an offense first catcher, but struggled offensively in his first full season, and doesn’t immediately look like a guy who can be the answer.
Long-term, the Pirates just need to figure out why they can’t develop catchers.