Remember the days when the Astros didn’t have a good catcher? Or much less two?
One way to circumvent the issue of an off day during Spring Training is to look up historical baseball statistics. This is actually a personal favorite of mine to pass the time. Yesterday was no different. For example, I started thinking about Astros catchers.
If you pop over to Fangraphs and sort by Astros catchers from 1962 to 2016, you see a variety of names. The fan favorites appear like Alan Ashby, Brad Ausmus and Tony Eusebio. Then the recent not-fondly-remembered like Mitch Meluskey and J.R. Towles. You also have the catchers that younger fans, like myself, never seen play or necessarily heard about. Milt May is one. Another is Hal King.
Anyway, the Astros do not have a rich history of good catchers. They have a history of catchers, but many of them were average at best. Odds are that Brian McCann and Evan Gattis will go down as the team’s best offensive catching duo in franchise history.
Of course, catchers are held to a slightly different standard than most baseball players.
You have the tangible statistics like batting average, on-base percentage, and fielding percentage. There are also intangibles like the ability to work cohesively with the pitching staff. Part of me yearns for historical pitch framing numbers going back to 1962. Alas, I realize that this is an impossible wish to fulfill.
In terms of WAR, the Astros best catchers were Ashby (9.7), Jason Castro (9.1), and Cliff Johnson (7.0). Oddly enough, Castro could’ve been the franchise’s best catcher in this category if he resigned this winter or didn’t miss the entire 2011 season with a torn ACL. And for those wondering at home, Ausmus had a 5.2 WAR during his two stints in Houston.
However, WAR does not capture the intangibles. And WAR is derived from offensive and defensive metrics so I would even argue that comparing defensive metrics in a decades-long span isn’t entirely infallible.
So let me concentrate on the area of a catcher’s game that is less controversial. By that I mean offensive metrics. And wRC+ is a good place to start.
The top hitting catcher by wRC+ in Astros history is none other than Cliff Johnson. His 141 wRC+ over 376 games is the best in team history. Joe Ferguson is next with a 125 wRC+. But his came in 183 games, which is just over a full seasons worth. Meluskey is next with a 112 wRC+. His game total though was 147, which is less than the current 162-game season. So the history is bare when it comes to solid hitting catchers.
Gattis and McCann though are both known for their hitting prowess. For example, Gattis posted an 163 wRC+ as a catcher last season. McCann posted an 103 wRC+ as a catcher. So both were above average hitters when catching the same day.
The looming question for the duo is whether they can privide the defense and pitch framing necessary. In terms of DRS for both players, McCann finished with a -7 and Gattis with a +2 DRS in 2016. That’s just part of the equation, but food for thought.
On the plus side, McCann was one of the better framers in baseball last season. He’s not at the same level of Castro, but he was a top-fifteen catcher in terms of RAA last season. And Gattis was in the top-twenty in RAA. So that’s something.
At the end of the day, the Astros catching situation has improved in overall balance since last Spring Training. Unlike past seasons, the offense should be there to help the lineup. And hopefully the defense and pitch framing remain solid. If so, this tandem of Gattis and McCann could go down as the best in franchise history.
**Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Statcorner**