In replacing four-time All-Star Matt Wieters, the Orioles seem to be searching for a more complete catcher than the offensive-minded one that will likely sign elsewhere in free agency. And in the eyes of some, that means relying on the traditional scouting methods as well as some defensive pitch-framing metrics that have become more mainstream.
Already this offseason, free agent Jason Castro signed a three-year, $24.5 million contact with the Minnesota Twins based on the strength of his ability to present balls outside the strike zone as strikes and keep strikes inside the zone for umpires to properly call. Likewise, the Arizona Diamondbacks nontendered Welington Castillo, who they just traded for in 2015, in order to sign Jeff Mathis for the same reason.
“The evaluation that some folks make, and some folks recently made, is to invest in the framing metrics and to invest in a meaningful way for the framing metrics,” executive vice president Dan Duquette said. “I think that discussion is going to continue.”
Do the Orioles share that belief?
“I think a catcher is a very, very important part in the team and we look very carefully at all aspects of the catcher and how he impacts the game both defensively and offensively, from the human resource in terms of managing the game,” Duquette said. “It’s an important position.”
In Caleb Joseph, the Orioles already have one half of a major league catching tandem on their roster. If they don’t sign an experienced major league catcher, Francisco Pena or Audry Perez could be in line for a job until prospect Chance Sisco is ready.
But in pairing a veteran with Joseph, the Orioles will hope for someone as highly rated as Joseph at pitch framing — or as he calls it, presentation.
In 2016, Joseph ranked 26th in baseball in framing, stealing an average of 0.47 strikes per game, a number worth 2.7 runs above average (RAA), according to StatCorner’s pitch-framing data.
The site uses two factors — the number of pitches called strikes that cross the plate outside the strike zone, and the number of pitches called balls that cross inside the strike zone. The difference is then computed into a per-game average, and RAA.
When Joseph was spelling Wieters for parts of 2014 and 2015, the numbers were much stronger for him. He was 17th in RAA (6.9) with 0.60 calls per game in 2015, and 12th with 10.7 RAA and 1.10 calls per game in 2014. Wieters, by contrast, was worth minus-7.3 RAA in 2016. He was rightfully credited with keeping pitchers comfortable by providing a big target, but wasn't the defensive catcher in 2016 that he had been early in his career.
Which brings us to now. With Wieters seemingly outside the Orioles’ range in both average salary and years sought, and Wilson Ramos dealing with a knee injury that will keep him out for the beginning of the season, there’s no real offensive threat the Orioles can bring in who also fits the bill as a compete catcher.
Castillo, recently let go by Arizona, was one of the five worst framers in baseball in 2015, and only improved some since. Only two free agent catchers were rated positively by StatCorner’s metrics in 2015 and 2016 -- Bobby Wilson and Chris Gimenez. Wilson hit seven of his 16 career home runs in 2016 while batting .231 for Tampa Bay, Texas, and Detroit last year. Gimenez is a career .216 hitter who has played both corner infield and both corner outfield positions in addition to catching.
Catchers who might bring more offense while offering less in framing metrics include Kurt Suzuki, Castillo, Geovany Soto, Chris Ianetta, and Nick Hundley. Finding someone who encompasses both might prove a fruitless search.