Don’t look now, but the Twins may just have the best group of catchers in Major League Baseball. The combination of Jason Castro, Mitch Garver, and Willians Astudillo has made for a potent attack at the plate, and excellent signal callers behind it. Today’s baseball is quite polarizing, with either highly offensive minded catchers (Gary Sanchez or Willson Contreras) or defensive wizards who can sometimes hold their own at the plate (these days Buster Posey or Yadier Molina). Of course there is the all-around super star J.T. Realmuto, but he’s really in his own tier of catcher. Now, neither of the three listed Twins catchers are J.T. Realmuto, not yet at least, but together, they make up arguably the best catching group on any Major League team. According to Fangraphs (as of 5/10), the Twins catchers have a wOBA of .432 (2nd in the league) and a defensive value of 4.7 (8th in the league), giving the Twins 2.6 WAR at the catching position, leading all other teams.
Having elite catchers is nothing new for Twins fans. Well, one hometown catcher in particular. During his 10 seasons as a catcher, Mauer was consistently one of the top players in all facets of the game at the position. Below is a summary of Mauer’s 162 game average statistics offensively throughout his career, and his season average defensive metrics from 2004-2013.
|Career 162 Game AVG||604||12||80||.306||.388||.439||.827||0.91||34.3%||.358||3.4|
|Joe Mauer (as C)||Innings||DRS||FRM||Def||WAR|
|Season Average (2004-2013)||788.1||1.4||2.3||5.5||4.5|
Unfortunately, we haven’t quite had the Mauer-like production behind the plate since he transitioned from catcher to first base in 2014. Between 2014 and 2018, the Twins have had 12 different catchers. Let’s see how many of the names you remember: Castro, Garver, Astudillo, Chris Giminez, Bobby Wilson, Juan Graterol, Juan Centeno, John Ryan Murphy, Kurt Suzuki (who actually made the all star team in 2014), Eric Fryer, Chris Herrmann, and Josmil Pinto. That’s quite the list. It’s been a mix and match game for the past few years to try to find production anywhere, but this year appears to be different. This year the Twins have the positive problem of a mix and match game to get everyone in the lineup.
When you look at the Twins’ catchers this year when compared to last year, it’s astounding how much better they have been thus far. In a quarter of the number of at bats, Twins catchers have one less home run, more than one-third of the RBIs, TWICE as much WAR, and have rate statistics that are off the charts.
It’s not a hard argument to make that the Twins are better this year than they were last, but how do they compare to the rest of the league? Well, as mentioned before, the Twins catchers are second in the league at the position in wOBA (a statistic measuring a players entire offensive production, assigning the proper weight to each batting event), eighth in terms of defensive production, Def, and first overall in WAR, with 2.6. Below shows a table of statistics for the top three teams at the catcher position, along with the league average for a team’s catching group. Bolded indicate a league leader at the position.
The Twins catchers clearly belong in the conversation of the best group in the league based on offensive production alone, but what puts them over the edge is the defense they provide. The Cubs and Mariners have had incredible offensive production thus far, but they provide paltry defense value, whereas the Twins are above average defensively.
As a whole, the Twins’ catchers are clearly playing at an elite level this far into the season, but let’s take a look at the three catchers on the individual basis. We will start with the big free agent acquisition of the 2016 offseason, Jason Castro. Now in the final year of a three year deal, Castro is off to an abnormally hot start this season. This is especially encouraging to see as he missed the majority of last season due to a knee injury. In 19 games last year, Castro was an extremely ineffective hitter, with his only value provided coming from behind the plate. He equated to 0 WAR last season. Through Friday, Castro had only appeared in 16 games and has already been worth 0.8 WAR. According to Fangraphs, that is tied for 11th in the league at the position. In the table below, what initially stands out are the offensive numbers, likely due to a 11.5% increase in hard hit percentage. What I think Castro provides that is most valuable, though, is his defense.
Below is an image from BaseballSavant that illustrates catcher framing. This is the art of a catcher being able to receive a pitch in such a way that an umpire calls it a strike, when it likely isn’t. There are nine different zones, which make up the Shadow Zone, around the plate that a catcher can receive a non-swing pitch. Each zone has a percentage that the catcher converts this pitch into a strike. The higher the percentage, the more strikes called, and of course, this is better for your pitcher. The top row shows the league average for a catcher, and his strike conversion percentage. So far in 2019, Castro has converted 55 percent of non-swing pitches into called strikes in the “Shadow Zone”, the best rate of any catcher in baseball. Converting 7% more pitches into strikes than the average catcher is incredibly valuable to the Twins’ pitching staff, and I believe this is one reason as to why their pitching has done so well this season.
Along with Castro’s number, you can also see the bottom row show Garver’s strike conversion rates so far in 2019. Garver has not had the same reputation for converting strikes this year, as he has converted only 46.4 percent of non-swing pitches into called strikes in the “Shadow Zone”, 2.2% below the league average. While this isn’t a great number, this is significantly higher than his conversion rate last year, when he only converted 42.0 percent of non-swing pitches into called strikes. That was the third worst percentage among qualified catchers last year. With a jump of 4.4% between last year and this year, Garver has certainly improved on his non-swing pitch strike converting.
While the improvement in converting strikes is beneficial for the Twins, Garver’s real value this year has come at the plate. Garver made significant strides to his offensive approach this offseason, deciding to be more selective while also shortening his swing. Garver has been able to go with a short, compact stroke this season because of his natural strength. He doesn’t need a long swing with a lot of moving parts, but instead simplify it and focus on making solid contact. This is led to big dividends as his offensive production is off the charts when compared to last year.
In roughly one-fifth of the number of at bats as last year, Garver already has one more home run in 2019. He’s averaging a home run every 8.25 at bats, which is an obscenely high number that can not be continued, but worth noting for the time being. Garver also has a wOBA of .502, which is first among catchers and second only to Cody Bellinger in the majors. I don’t foresee this as sustainable though, because Garver’s expected wOBA is only .361. Some regression is bound to occur as the season progresses, but even if he drops down to that .361 range, that is still well above the league average wOBA of .318.
Now, we couldn’t analyze the Twins catchers without bringing up La Tortuga, Willians Astudillo. This year Astudillo has played all over the diamond, most of which has not come behind the dish, but his ability to catch gives the Twins’ catching group more depth and makes it even better than with just Castro and Garver. Astudillo has been a good hitter this year, quite comparable to last year’s month of grand emergence. He continues to have elite bat to ball skills, with only one walk and one strikeout in 50 PA this season. As a catcher, the defense is nowhere near that of his teammate Castro, but it’s truly his versatility and batting skills that makes his a valuable asset to the catching crew.
After looking at the catchers individually and as a whole, I hope you can see that the Twins catchers look to be legit this year. While Garver simply can’t keep up an OPS of 1.228, if he continues to be patient at the plate and put good swings on the ball, his walk and home run numbers will continue to climb and he will be well on his way to his first All-Star Game appearance. Recently, the Twins have also begun to find ways to get him and Castro in the lineup at the same time, with Castro behind the plate and Garver at DH. While Nelson Cruz is a stalwart at the DH position, look for the Twins in the future to continue to get creative with the lineups, doing whatever it takes to get the most out of the catchers. With Astudillo and Castro playing well, the Twins should be able to continue to produce quality numbers from behind the dish without Garver’s hot bat in the lineup.