At the start of the season, we examined each of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ starting position players with an eye towards keeping them or trading them.  We revisit these recommendations as the trade deadline draws nearer. 

Today we will take a look at the Pittsburgh Pirates’ starting catcher Francisco Cervelli

Bullish on Cervelli

We noted at the start of the 2017 season that Cervelli’s slash line as a Pirate was .282/.373/.368 and told the story of a choosy hitter with good plate discipline and not a lot of power. As of the end of last season, his walk percentage was less than 10% and he struck out less than 18% of the time.  With a career slugging percentage less than .380, he was never going to be a middle of the order bat.  In addition, he is not particularly fast, which means his high OBP can’t be used in the leadoff spot.  However, his bat plays very nicely as a 7 or 8 hitter.

At age 30, Cervelli was still showing defensive prowess.  We noted that Cervelli made more than his fair share of errors but his pitch framing ability more than made up for it.  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 is not the best at throwing out would-be base stealers.  His career caught-stealing percentage is only 21%, ranking him in the lower half of all MLB catchers.

Overall, we recognized that Cervelli has had more than his fair share of injuries, but his ability to get on base and his pitch framing skills more than made up for it.  We strongly recommended that the Pirates keep the catcher even though other options were available at the time.

Fast Forward

As we head towards the trade deadline, our bullish recommendation on Cervelli is holding up – but barely.  He is slashing .268/.353/.402 so far in 2017, which is short of his career OBP of .360.  He does have a fair increase in extra base hits, already logging more this season (18) than he did all last season (14).  With 5 home runs so far, he is on pace to hit more long balls in 2017 than he did in his breakout 2015 season.  As a result, he already has 28 RBIs and should easily surpass his 2015 RBI total of 43.  His offense has rebounded from an injury-riddled 2016 season.

If there was a metric for “clubhouse leader runs above replacement”, Cervelli might be at the top of the list.

However, Cervelli’s defense is falling off slowly but surely.  He was never an elite blocker or thrower, but his pitch framing skills made up for these deficiencies.  However, after ranking in the top 6 pitch framers for 2015 and 2016, Cervelli now ranks 51st on Baseball Prospectus’ list for 2017 with -2.2 framing runs.  Cervelli isn’t getting the calls like he used to and he is arguing with the umpires more and more as a result.

Cervelli is still one of the more vocal leaders in the Pirates clubhouse and this makes a big difference for a team that has missed two key players for most of the year.  If there was a metric for “clubhouse leader runs above replacement”, Cervelli might be at the top of the list.  For this reason alone, the Pittsburgh Pirates desperately need their starting catcher.

Other Options

Cervelli is not a great option to move at the trade deadline.  His value would probably be higher with a rebuilding team that needs a veteran catcher than with a team making a run to the 2017 playoffs.  This tends to favor an off season trade versus a deadline trade.  He is signed through 2019 so a team that gets Cervelli will be getting him for at least two seasons.

Elias Diaz has become a real option for the Pittsburgh Pirates this year.  The well-traveled rookie has shown he can swing the bat in the major leagues going 21 for 79 in extended action this season.  Diaz also has superior blocking and throwing tools to go along with average pitch framing ability.  Overall, Diaz is probably worth more defensive runs saved than Cervelli.

Conclusion: Keep Cervelli

In the final analysis, Cervelli’s OBP and his passable defense make him the best option at catcher for the Pirates.  His durability is a big question mark, and with Chris Stewart having problems staying on the field, the Pittsburgh Pirates would be smart to find a way to get Elias Diaz back up to the major leagues.

If Cervelli can get hot at the plate and move his OBP nearer to his career level of .360, he will contribute greatly to the Pirates’ second half campaign.  He doesn’t need to hit a lot of home runs to help the team generate wins, he just needs to get on base more often.

Sean Riley

Sean Riley is a lifelong Pirates fan who now resides in Portland, OR. He is a former executive of several major companies and a published author. His current passion is balancing statistics and good old-fashioned “feel” to provide insight into the game of baseball. Sean is married to a great gal and the father of two amazing boys.