MLB catchers always need to be discussed & understood as a tandem for their teams. Even the very best need a day (or two) off per week, and all catchers suffer at the plate from the fatigue & grind of the position. An adequate back-up catcher is crucial to late-season success for any team. Conversely, if C is inadequately stocked, this critical defensive position will quickly become an Achilles heel for any team. Exhibit A are the 2016 Atlanta Braves.
The narrative fed to Braves fans for the 2016 season has been rebuilding, yet ATL GM John Coppolella [on 12-10-15] traded age-24 C Christian Bethancourt to the Padres, for age-26 righty reliever Casey Kelly (2016 thru 8/13: 0-3, 5.82 ERA, 21.2 IP, 1.708 WHIP) & an age-18 (highly-iffy) prospect. The Braves organization & their fans made it clear they were frustrated with Bethancourt’s lack of development, despite his great potential. ATL had seen enough, and they instead went into 2016 with a catching tandem of A.J. Pierzynski (age 39, .216/.233/.301) & Tyler Flowers (age-30, .253/.343/.425, 53G, currently on the DL). Braves as of this writing are 44-73, worst record in MLB. That’s not rebuilding, that’s being stupid and selling a future short.
C Christian Bethancourt
Season Age Team G PA AVG/OBP/SLG
2015 23 ATL 48 160 .200/.225/.290
2016 24 SDP 61 160 .243/.275/.414
The Padres, whom many ‘experts’ mocked as ‘directionless’ went with a catching tandem of Derek Norris & Christian Bethancourt (who is out of options); sending top-rookie catcher Austin Hedges to AAA. Hedges raked, then (unfortunately) broke his right hamate bone. Hedges had it surgically removed. He rehabilitated and returned to AAA El Paso, continuing to mash (65G .340/.373/.635). Austin Hedges always been rated as a top-level receiver. He’s being held at AAA by the Padres because; 1) El Paso Chihuahuas are in first place, and 2) arbitration clock management.
Derek Norris was the Padres starting C in 2016, and had a tough season– for all kinds of reasons, many not his fault. Now the trade deadline is past (contract pitchers sold-off), so Bethancourt is getting more starts behind the plate. Norris remains a solid catcher, which has value. Norris is now arbitration eligible, and will be free-agent eligible in 2019. At age 27, he earns $2.9M in 2016, which is fair, despite the replacement-level batting line of .191/.254/.347. Norris has some pop, but makes too many outs at the plate, to be a championship-level starting catcher. He’s a top-10 defensive catcher and handles pitchers very well. That’s why AJP didn’t just give him away at the 8/1 deadline. Derek Norris is undervalued, in a market that mostly doesn’t understand defense.
Defensive runs-saved is a huge inefficiency that has been corrected by leading organizations including the Tampa Bay Rays & 2015 World Series champion Kansas City Royals. For reference, the defensive spectrum runs C-SS-2B-CF-3B-RF-LF-1B-DH. Active catchers, getting extra strikes (and all the rest) for their pitchers are HUGE. C Jose Molina (15 seasons .233/.282/.327) made a career of it, helping good teams win year-after-year, in spite of his punchless bat.
A.J. Preller has a decision to make on catchers Derek Norris and Christian Bethancourt, as Austin Hedges will likely be the Padres Opening Day catcher in 2017. Bethancourt is still young, and has shown much improvement. He might profile more as a back-up catcher, with his rudimentary receivership skills. If he can continue to improve (especially defensively) at the MLB level, he could be just what the Padres need– a caddy for Hedges. Bethancourt’s chase rate (swinging at pitches outside the strike zone) is still too high, hence his low OBP (.275). The power has developed, but it needs to be tempered with a more-patient plate approach. He still swings himself into tough counts, and out of too many at-bats. Winter ball (or some other development league) is probably required for Christian Bethancourt.
Bethancourt can play OF some, which helps Andy Green, and he’s even mopped-up on the mound a few times during blow-outs. Right now with CF Jon Jay still on the DL, the Padres have only starting outfielders (Dickerson, Jankowski, Blash) on their active roster. Bethancourt can play corner OF, if needed. Adam Rosales works the same way, as Andy Green’s utility infielder, with some pop. Ben Zobrist is the championship-level version of this modern utility player. Ask Cubs manager Joe Maddon if this kind of flexibility is valuable?