Monday, October 26, 2015

By Robert Cunningham, Staff Writer - 

Author’s Note – Player data displayed was pulled on September 20th, 2015.

The departure of Chris Iannetta into free agency this year leaves the Angels catching situation up in the air.

Carlos Perez, acquired in the Hank Conger trade, is the lone remnant and certainly has the inside track to earn the strong or weak side of the backstop platoon in 2016.

Fortunately the Angels do have some decent internal options to compete for the two primary roster spots in Spring Training including Jett Bandy (RHH), Charlie Cutler (LHH), Stephen McGee (RHH), and Rafael Lopez (LHH).

To understand and better compare each of these player’s offensive contributions, let’s take a look at four different statistical categories starting with Isolated Power (ISO):

Here Bandy shines through with a pretty consistent power history. Lopez and Perez are certainly no slouches and Cutler does well generating base hits. McGee is still developing but power isn’t a major part of his skill set.

To further understand the difference in their respective games the graph below shows Walk-to-Strikeout ratio (BB/K):

This graph shows why Bandy, hitting-wise, is more like a Mark Trumbo version of a catcher. In fact as this article was being polished up the Twins-Angels game was on and Bandy had his first career hit for a home run!

Cutler, Lopez, and even McGee, to a lesser degree, shine through in their ability to work walks and limit strikeouts. Perez is somewhere in between but it is his defense, arm, and game-calling that are currently driving his future.

Since we are talking catchers here, it would be nice to compare their Caught Stealing Percentage, shown in the graph below:

This is one aspect of Perez’s game that shines through. Bandy and Lopez are pretty consistent too while the data on McGee is limited but shows potential. Cutler’s arm, unfortunately, has been on the decline.

Every one of these catchers, except Cutler, is considered above average defensively with Bandy and McGee having superior defensive reputations.

As a side note, speaking of catcher defense, it really looks like the Angels have targeted catchers with some combination of good on-base ability and strong throwing arms.

Thinking in a logical manner about catcher decline, backstops generally lose speed and power primarily due to the amount of crouching they do on a regular basis that impacts their lower half.

The two things that aren’t impacted by a catcher’s lower half is their batting eye and throwing arm. Both of these characteristics are more likely to extend a catcher’s usefulness over a prolonged period of time which some teams may deem more desirable.

Also, the Angels move to acquire more strong-armed catchers might be in anticipation of a future where strike-calling is eventually computerized but that is speculation on the author’s part.

However some evidence of this trend is seen when the Angels selected catcher Taylor Ward with their 1st draft pick in 2015. Ward, in his first season, has a 35.7% CS% and .456 OBP across Rookie and A ball and is considered a quality defensive backstop.

If a computerized system were used, pitch-framing would quickly become a dead art and the focus would be on game calling and catch and throw ability although, as Dave Cameron pointed out, stolen bases aren’t necessarily back on the rise.

So calling a good game and, as Eno Sarris wrote, playing the poker game might be the most desirable quality of a catcher moving forward.

Finally, to close out the statistical discussion, let’s examine the comprehensive offensive statistic Weighted Runs Created (wRC+), below:

When you examine the graph it is pretty clear that Charlie Cutler has some serious potential to impact team offense with his superior contact and on-base skills. In fact FanGraphs highlighted his potential in mid-November 2014, prior to the 2015 season.

Rafael Lopez also looks like he could be above average in the batter’s box especially vs. RHP. In combination with his above average defensive skill set he becomes an intriguing option for the 2016 Angels squad.

McGee has a shorter playing history (less data) but his game is similar to Cutler in terms of his on-base skills.

This is not to knock Perez or Bandy and with Carlos you have to consider that his 2015 season has been spent in the Majors and he is the youngest of the group which is, in part, why the Angels are so excited by his progress and potential.

In fact he has been working hard on his defensive game and it shows based on recent comments from Mike Scioscia.

Outside of the in-house choices the free agent market should have more than a sufficient supply of catchers to choose from including Matt Wieters, Chris Iannetta, Alex Avila, Dioner Navarro, A.J. Pierzynski, Jeff Mathis (Ha!), Geovany Soto, and Brayan Pena among others.

To get a better idea of how some of these players compare to our internal options (and keep the Majors vs. Minors comparison in mind here) their ISO, BB/K, CS%, and wRC+ graphs for the last five years are presented below:

Looking at these graphs you begin to realize how consistently good Chris Iannetta was, offensively, from 2011-2014.

It also makes you stop and question the value of investing a large amount of cash in free agent Matt Wieters because his skill set isn’t really substantially better than Iannetta and Chris can be signed for a lot less.

Wieters is likely to command a free agent contract similar to Brian McCann, spanning 5-7 years for $75MM-100MM. Iannetta is much more likely to sign a 3-4 year contract for $30MM-40MM.

Additionally, when you consider that the Angels don’t have DH at-bats to give to Wieters, the investment in dollars for a part-time player just doesn’t make enough sense for the team and their needs.

As a final note about the free agents compared above, Alex Avila might actually be the best value as he is only 28, can hit RHP well, and has a good arm. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him sign a 4-6 year contract for $40MM-60MM if he doesn’t give the Tigers a hometown discount.

Beyond the internal and free agent choices the Angels could look to the trade market to fulfill their needs.

Names such as Ryan Lavarnway (Braves AAA), Gary Sanchez (Yankees AAA), Johnny Monell (Mets AAA), Taylor Davis (Cubs AA), and Chris O’Dowd (Braves AA) might hold varying degrees of interest to the Halos.

Currently the Angels have Perez, Lopez, and Bandy all on the 40-man roster which would indicate that solving the 2016 catching situation internally is the likely outcome.

However a free agent signing could allow the Angels to trade from their depth as Carlos Perez did attract a lot of inquiries after the Angels acquired him from the Astros and Jett Bandy has put himself on the radar with a strong 2015 season.

Also the Angels might have experience concerns with the in-house options, making the proverbial veteran backstop a more ideal choice to pair with one of our younger guys.

The bottom line is that this is a need that could be met in multiple ways which gives the Angels flexibility in the offseason to possibly pursue bargain contracts with a free agent knowing they have in-house depth if they fail to sign one.

Educated Guess – The Angels will explore re-signing Chris Iannetta or signing Alex Avila but will likely promote from within.

If they re-sign Chris it would very likely mean that Carlos Perez would be traded for help in another area of need. However, if they sign Avila he would provide a more appropriate platoon mate for Perez.

Barring bargain deals on Iannetta or Avila, the Angels save money here and run Lopez, Bandy, or Cutler out on the weak side of the platoon with Perez.

Whomever doesn’t make the platoon (Cutler seems very likely since he’s not currently on the 40-man) would act as quality depth.

Author’s Choice – Carlos Perez (90-120 games) and Rafael Lopez (40-70 games).

In the next section we’ll discuss First Base.
Love to hear what you think!

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