The Cincinnati Reds were long rumored to be interested in catcher Yasmani Grandal. They were interested in signing him last offseason and it didn’t work out. He wound up signing a 1-year deal with Milwaukee and performed well with the Brewers. This offseason is only a few weeks old, but the Reds were once again linked to the catcher. And once again it wasn’t to be. Today saw Grandal sign a 4-year, $73M deal with the Chicago White Sox. To quote the great Rachel Phelps, “Cross him off, then.”
While the Reds were clearly interested in Yasmani Grandal, he’s not the only catcher that they’ve been linked to on the market – he was just their top target. The other catcher that Cincinnati has been linked to is Robinson Chirinos. The most recent link was reported by Mark Feinsand of MLB.com last night.
There are some big differences between Grandal and Chirinos. Age is a big one. Grandal will be 31 in 2020, while Chirinos will be 36. That can be both good or bad, depending on how you want to look at it. One one hand, older players typically see their production drop year over year. And at 36, that should be expected, even if you hope for the opposite. But on the other hand, that also means a longer term deal shouldn’t be expected. Grandal got four years. That probably isn’t on the table for Chirinos given that he’s 36. So from the Reds perspective, there’s lesser risk in terms of years – and probably money per year, too.
From a Cincinnati perspective, a shorter term deal on a catcher could also make plenty of sense because Tyler Stephenson could be ready to help in the Major Leagues soon, too. The third rated prospect in the organization is coming off of a good season in Double-A in 2019, played well in the Arizona Fall League following the regular season, and should head to Triple-A to start 2020.
But for now, let’s get back to Robinson Chirinos. Last season he made $5,575,000 on a 1-year deal with the Houston Astros. He played in 114 games for Houston, hitting .238/.347/.443 – good for a 105 OPS+. That’s pretty much been what he’s produced at the plate dating back to 2015. In 2019 he posted a 3.8 bWAR, but his fWAR was only 2.3. WAR for catchers can be questionable, though, because it just misses so much of what a catcher brings to the game defensively. As with all WAR – use it as a general guide, not a hardened in steel number of fact.
At the plate, Robinson Chirinos has some good and bad working with him. He has plenty of power. And he walks plenty, allowing him to get on base at a good clip. But he also swings and misses a lot. In 2018 he struck out 33% of the time. In 2019 he struck out 29% of the time. He’s been a productive hitter overall, but he’s got some offensive flaws that could be concerning. He’s never hit for much average, and his strikeout rate has jumped up significantly over the last two seasons.
As noted above in the WAR discussion, there’s a lot of stuff going on defensively with catchers. They’ve got to call a game, adjust the plan on the fly in a game based on the pitcher and the hitter and what’s happening that day. They have to try to control the running game, and they’ve got to work on framing pitches to buy strikes for the staff. It’s not an easy gig.
We can’t assign numbers to the calling of a game – and that may not even be too much in control of the specific catcher. He’s going to be working off of a scouting report given to him by the team and have to adjust from there. And while we’ve grown to learn that more bases are stolen on pitchers than catchers, it is worth noting that since 2015, Chirinos has been below-average at throwing out runners.
Pitch framing, while always a thing in Major League Baseball, has really caught on as a thing to pay attention to in the last five years. Teams have started teaching techniques on how to improve this. Even in Cincinnati we’ve been able to see Tucker Barnhart go from one of the worse rated pitch framing catchers earlier in his career to a guy who has rated out above-average this past season.
For Robinson Chirinos, though, it’s not a strong point of his game – at least according to the framing numbers at Fangraphs. In 2019 he graded out at -5.7, which rated out as 27th in baseball. Yasmani Grandal, for example, rated 2nd in the game at 17.0. Don’t take these numbers as finite, though – there’s wiggle room within there. It’s not an exact science. That said, he has been below-average throughout his career according to the numbers, so it’s likely that he actually is below-average – it’s just a matter of how accurate the actual number assigned to him is, not as much where he falls among his counterparts.
Bringing in a catcher like Robinson Chirinos would seem to be a move made more in line to improve the offense than to improve the defense. That power and on-base ability will play. And the Reds certainly need to find ways to improve the offense. Unlike a deal with Grandal, there’s not nearly as much upside, but it also keeps Tyler Stephenson’s path to the Majors a bit more clear.
What the Reds would do with regards to their current catching situation is still unknown. Tucker Barnhart put together a strong second half of the season at the plate. And as noted, his pitch framing improved big time in 2019. Perhaps a platoon-like situation could work there. That would leave Curt Casali on the outside looking in. Kyle Farmer’s ability to play behind the plate, but also around the field nearly everywhere else would likely make him the 3rd catcher who doesn’t get used behind the dish too often. But that brings tons of value in how the catchers could be used on a daily basis. We’re getting a bit ahead of our skis with this one, though.
It seems Cincinnati’s front office is looking at catcher as one area to improve the 2020 roster. They could do worse than adding a Robinson Chirinos type of bat to an offense that struggled to score runs.