This is the first in a series of articles that examines the merits of each of the Pirate’s starting position players and compares them to other players that may be available in the free agent or trade market. The goal is to ultimately answer the question “should the Pirates keep them or trade them?”
Offensive and defensive production will be examined as will clubhouse fit, injury inclination, age and financial considerations. Each position will be analyzed even if it seems like the Pirates are not interested in replacing that particular player. Catcher seems like a logical place to start.
Francisco Cervelli came to the Pirates for the 2015 season, replacing the popular Russell Martin. He had big shoes to fill, but he filled them and more during his breakout 2015 season. In 2016, he battled injuries, missing significant time and seemed frustrated for much of the year. This examination will start by taking a look at Cervelli’s offense, followed by his defense, clubhouse fit and injuries. This will be followed by a look at other available catchers and a keep or trade determination will be made.
On Base Machine
Cervelli has always been an on base machine, especially for a catcher. His slash line as a Pirate is .282/.373/.368 and is skewed a bit by an injury-riddled 2016 where he hit only one home run and 14 doubles. His career .280/.361/.374 slash line tells the story of a choosy hitter with good plate discipline and not a lot of power. That is what you get from Francisco Cervelli’s bat. When he stays healthy, it is likely that Cervelli will continue to produce at this level for at least a couple more years.
Cervelli has made a great living by getting on base. His walk percentage is around 10% while he strikes out less than 18% of the time. Since becoming a Pirate, he has not hit for much power. His slugging percentage is below his on-base percentage, which is going to keep him out of the middle of the batting order. He is not particularly fast, which means his high OBP can’t be used in the leadoff spot (yes, I think it was crazy to try that with John Jaso as well). When he is healthy, he hits for more power, but the important takeaway is even at less than 100%, he can still get on base. Many catchers who can still hit move to first base as a means to keep their bats in the lineup (Joe Mauer is a great example). However, this does not seem likely for Cervelli, who adopts a catcher-or-bust attitude. Overall, Cervelli’s bat is an asset, even when he is not hitting for extra bases.
the important takeaway is even at less than 100%, he can still get on base.
Cervelli is now age 30, and this is the point when many teams start to worry about a drop-off in their catchers’ defensive prowess. The fact is defensive performance for a catcher tends to peak at age 25 or 26 and starts to drop off at age 31-32, (FanGraphs has an excellent analysis of this phenomenon that argues against keeping a catcher beyond age 34). As a catcher, Cervelli does make his fair share of errors, logging 7 in both of his seasons with the Pirates. However, 11 of those 14 errors were on throws, which is not unusual for the catcher position. Yadier Molina, the best catcher in the NL in my opinion, averages 5-6 errors per season almost all of them on throws. Cervelli’s arm is not his best weapon, which probably contributes to his sub-par career caught-stealing percentage of 21%.
Cervelli is highly regarded for his pitch framing ability, and it is this skill that initially caught the attention of the Pirates front office. Statcorner ranked him the best in baseball in 2015 and 6th overall in 2016. If there is a weakness in Cervelli’s receiving, it is that he will trade an occasional passed ball for an increased called strike rate. In an effort to get a marginal pitch called a strike, he tries to hold the glove over the plate and catch the ball in the outer edge of his glove. Sometimes it tips out of the webbing and, if a runner is on base, this is costly. Overall, a few passed balls is a small price to pay for delivering some of the best pitch framing in baseball.
Cervelli is highly regarded for his pitch framing ability, and it is this skill that initially caught the attention of the Pirates front office.
It is often overlooked, but Cervelli is comfortable managing a game in both Spanish and English. Many of the pitchers in today’s game use Spanish as their first language which makes Cervelli quite valuable as a game manager. Not only is he multi-lingual, but he appears to do a good job relating to all his pitchers (with the possible exception of the prickly Gerrit Cole), earning their trust and convincing them to throw the pitch he calls for in any given situation.
Intangibles and Injuries
Cervelli is a vocal clubhouse leader who cares passionately about his work, which increases his value beyond what he can do on the field. His injuries have been the major detractor to an otherwise glowing resume. He has injured practically every part of his body. He hasn’t had concussion problems with the Pirates, but he has a history of them with the Yankees and was once out indefinitely for this reason. This has to be a risk factor for the Pirates to consider. The worst case scenario of Cervelli out for the season does not seem that far fetched. Cervelli just turned 30, so even though the Pirates recently signed Cervelli to a three year, $31M extension, they are probably weighing their options.
The Pirates place a heavy premium on pitch framing and there were only five catchers better than Cervelli in 2016. The top two, Buster Posey and Yasmani Grandal aren’t going anywhere. Jason Castro of the Houston Astros is a superb defensive catcher, but severely lacking on the offensive side. This leaves two remaining options – Tyler Flowers and Miguel Montero.
At age 30, Tyler Flowers is heading into the last year of a 2-year, $5.3M deal with the Atlanta Braves, although the Braves do have a $4M option for 2018. Given Flowers’ resurgence at the plate in 2016 (.270/.357/.420 slash line) since returning to the National League, he should be an intriguing option for the Pirates to explore. He doesn’t appear to speak Spanish, which may be a deal breaker for the Pirates, but he would likely cost the Pirates less than Cervelli and is under team control for at least two years.
Miguel Montero is in the last year of a six-year, $65M deal with the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs look to be moving away from him as Wilson Contreras leapt him on the catching depth chart. Montero is 33 years old, which puts him on the edge of what is acceptable for a catcher, however, he has been incredibly dependable behind the plate. Before he was replaced in the starting lineup, he has logged only one season with less than 400 at-bats since 2009. Even though he struggled in 2016 at the plate, his career slash line of .259/.342/.416 would provide a lot more pop from the catcher position. Montero has hit double digit home runs in all but two of his pro seasons. Due to his age, the Pirates would be wise to only sign him for a year as a bridge to Elias Diaz.
Conclusion: Keep Cervelli
Given that the Pirates strongly favor pitch framers and the only upgrades in this area each have issues, they should stick with Francisco Cervelli for 2017. Cervelli is not going to drive in a lot of runs or throw out many would-be base stealers, but he will give the Pirates a top ten performance in pitch framing. As the seventh or eighth hitter in the lineup, he will regularly get on base and hopefully score a lot of runs. Really the biggest issue with Francisco Cervelli is his long history with injuries. Given Cervelli’s propensity for injury, the Pirates should strongly consider carrying three catchers on the roster. They have already committed to Chris Stewart for 2017 and if they cannot bring up Elias Diaz, they will need to find another young backstop to round out the catching corps for 2017.