The question as to whether or not Jacob Stallings is the answer at the catching position has been asked by Pittsburgh Pirates fans, bloggers, writers and media members on a regular basis for almost a year now; ever since Elias Diaz was non-tendered at the December 2nd deadline this past off-season. At the time this left Stallings as the only catcher left on the 40-man roster. This immediately led to calls for the Pirates to sign a free agent catcher to be the stopgap until the future backstop could be developed, traded for or signed. Names like Robinson Chirinos, Jason Castro, Austin Romine, Russell Martin and Martin Maldonado were discussed as possible options to fill this role, if even for a season.
As we are all fully aware now General Manager Ben Cherington did not choose any of these options, instead selecting the alternate route of a somewhat open competition between Luke Maile, John Ryan Murphy and to a lesser degree, Andrew Susac as they entered Spring Training. Prior to the restart of the season it appeared as if Maile had won the job, however, he was ultimately supplanted by Murphy having been placed on the IL with a broken finger.
In his absence, the defense first journeyman catcher’s work at the plate lead to a dismal .172 AVG, with a .433 OPS in 58 at bats. Behind the dish he was a serviceable back up to Stallings. Across 23 games and 159.1 innings he earned a 1 DRS and a .8 FRM. In spite of this Murphy now finds himself as a potential non-tender candidate in the off-season.
As for the Pirates Team MVP, Stallings slashed .248/.326/.376 with 3 homers. Although, it was really his work behind the plate that made him stand out. He finished the season with 7 DRS and a 2.3 FRM, which was good enough for 5th place in overall defensive fWAR at 6.3. Throughout the shortened season, just as he had the year before, Stallings remained a favorite of the Pittsburgh pitching staff; a point was driven home by Steven Brault, who when questioned, told the media he skipped the scouting report in his complete game, two hit, eight strikeout performance against the Cardinals. In the same postgame session he was quoted as saying, “We decided before the game that I wasn’t going to shake. I wasn’t going to think. I was just going to be a freaking throwing machine, so it worked out.”
Stallings has also started to receive some accolades on the national level by being nominated for a 2020 Gold Glove; an honor that, if he wins, would put him in a select group with former Pirates backstops Tony Pena and Mike LaValliere.
So, after all this why hasn’t the universal narrative changed? Why are there still some people clamoring for that veteran stopgap?
In my honest opinion there a few reasons as to how these doubts continue to exist within the Pirates faithful and beyond at times. First is the offense production or lack thereof, which is a fair criticism to a degree; simply a little overblown. While a wRC+ of 93 is not ideal, it is only slightly below average. Sure it’s not the 125 of a JT Realmuto, 117 of a Yasmini Grandal or even 109 of a Wilson Contreras, but it was actually an improvement over the 82 he posted the year before. He is also pretty reliable in the clutch; slashing .276/.436/.379 with runners in scoring position and adding 13 RBIs along the way. These numbers got even better as the number of outs piled up, if you want to check it out.
Next would be the downplay of defensive metrics and their importance to a player’s overall value, especially as pertains to framing or as it is called by many, “stealing strikes”. Sure there are a lot of other skills; such as blocking, regular fielding and stolen base prevention. However, they rarely receive the same amount of disapproval from the naysayers; most of which should actually fall on the umpires for the reliability of their calls, if you are going to blame anyone. Nevertheless, until the rules change and/or Robo-Umps become a reality, this is still a very useful tool in measuring a catcher’s worth.
Finally there is the overwhelming fact that, as it stands right now, there is no clear successor to the position in the system. Having addressed this issue many times, and at great length on occasion, even I have become moderately optimistic on this front; mostly due to the injection of youth into the system. 19 year-old Geovanny Planchart, who is currently participating in the Instructional League, slashed .368/.433/.406 in 32 games and 106 at bats in 2019 for the DSL Pirates2. 2019 12th Round Draft Pick Kyle Wilkie from Clemson University is also there. Wilkie was one of the Tigers best hitters as their everyday catcher in 2018 and 2019, ending his career as a. 307 hitter with a .431 slugging percentage and .400 on-base percentage. So is 2020 UDFA Joe Jimenez from Chapman University. Jimenez was not only the battery mate of Pirates 3rd Round Pick Nick Garcia, he also batted .325 with 4 homers in his final 61 games. Are these guys as highly touted as an Adley Rutschman? Of course not. Could they be a part of the future? I am not going to rule that out just yet.
With all that being said, I realized I still hadn’t officially addressed the original question of whether or not Stallings is the answer. Simply put, for right now he is; and if he isn’t a long term one, he might just be part of the eventual equation. Currently Stallings is set to enter his 1st Year of Arbitration; estimated to make between $1 and $1.4 million in 2021. After this he has 3 more arbitration years before he reaches free agency in 2025, so there is no real rush in making any decisions. The Pirates will obviously have to at some point, I just don’t see as an immediate need and probably near the bottom of concerns that I have moving through the current off-season and possibly the next.