Wednesday, February 22, 2017

How much of an upgrade at Catcher did the Astros make?

So I'm late on this. Here's to a lot of time passing before having a decent reflection. It's the hottest cold take. Whatever.

I was perusing FanGraphs' Depth Charts at lunch today, alone at my desk, because from 4:45am-6:15am and 12:10pm-12:40pm are my times to just sit and be quiet, like a serial killer, when something struck me. As much as the Rangers are heralded for the Jonathan Lucroy trade and upgrading at catcher, what do the projections say regarding the Astros swapping out Castro for McCann/Gattis?

First, let's look at the Ramgers. Lucroy is projected for a 3.4 WAR season, with a .277/.345/.439 slash line. His primary backups are slated - again, by FanGraphs - to get 120-130 Plate Appearances at a combined 0.4 WAR. This amounts to a 3.8 WAR for the Ramgers behind the plate.

Second, Jason Castro is projected to enjoy a 1.4 WAR season, hitting .222/.301/.374 for the Twins. Meanwhile, Brian McCann - whom FanGraphs says will get about 60% of the catching duties for the 2017 Astros - is projected to hit .235/.315/.412. While that's better than Jason Castro, that's not as good as Jonathan Lucroy. But does that really sound like Brian McCann?

Well let's see. For his career McCann is a .266/.340/.459 hitter. But that's a little misleading because in the six seasons from 2006-2011 McCann hit .287/.359/.491. Over that span only Joe Mauer was a more valuable player who happened to catch than McCann. Cool, right? In the five seasons since, McCann hit .238/.314/.421 - an OPS drop of 115 points. But that's...okay? Because the 11.0 fWAR he posted over that span ranks 7th among catchers, so McCann went from Phenomenal to Pretty Okay/Moderately Good. But as much of a drop as that is, if we compare a declining McCann to Jason Castro's full-time experience in the Majors (2013-2016), it looks like this:

Brian McCann: .240/.318/.427, 9.5 fWAR.
Jason Castro: .232/.308/.401, .8.5 fWAR.

And that *includes* Castro's career 2013 season, in which he hit .276/.350/.485, earning an All-Star nod and his first - and only - OPS+ season over 100 (it was a 130 OPS+).

So if we isolate the last three seasons, both catchers in the AL, from 2014-2016, it looks like this:

Brian McCann: .235/.313/.418, 6.7 fWAR.
Jason Castro: .215/.291/.369, 4.2 fWAR.

But here's the rub: Over that same span, you have Evan Gattis hitting .252/.305/.486. And Gattis is the key to why the Rangers are projected to have the 2nd-best Catcher Depth for 2017 at 3.8 fWAR and the Astros have the 5th-best Catcher Depth for 2017 at 3.1 fWAR.

McCann is declining, that's just a fact. His OPS from 2008-2016 looks as such: .896, .834, .828, .817, .698, .796, .692, .756, .748. What happened in 2012 and 2014 is another topic for another time. After four straight seasons of an OPS+ over 119, he's had just two seasons with more than a 105 OPS+ in his last five.

That's okay. Part of McCann's value lies in his (hushed whisper) Veteran Presence. Neither McCann nor Gattis are very good full-time catchers. But together they're very good part-time catchers. And that makes a big difference, as far as the projections are concerned. Because together they are projected for a 3.0 fWAR - just a touch behind the Rangers' 3.8 fWAR.

If you want to put Castro + Gattis together (again, relying - for better or worse - on FanGraphs' projections) you get a 2.6 fWAR. Is the 0.5 fWAR difference between McCann/Gattis and Castro/Gattis significant? We'll see. Is that satisfactory? Maybe not. But the Astros have put themselves in a better position with the addition of McCann, with seven All-Star selections (with all the caveats that come with it), six Silver Sluggers - his last in 2015 when he hit .232, for real - and all his *lights candle* Veteran Presence.

Are two part-time Pretty Good Catchers better than a Very Good Catcher and nothing behind him? McCann just turned 33. Gattis is two months younger than Lucroy. Can both of them eclipse Lucroy? Is that too narrow of a question? I don't think so, because in order to make the path to the Pennant easier, you have to beat the Rangers. The Astros at least closed the gap at that position.