Collectively, Major League Baseball’s catchers were the sport’s weakest hitting group of position players in 2018, producing a mere .304 on-base percentage. Only five teams received above-average offensive contributions from their catchers this year, and Angels backstops themselves have not had such a season since 2014.
However, defense behind the plate remains vital to team success, which means that clubs cannot neglect the position simply because they are unlikely to find an impact hitter.
The Angels, for their part, did fairly well in the catching department this year, with their catchers’ 1.7 Wins Above Replacement ranking 15th in the majors. Martin Maldonado, who the Angels acquired prior to the 2017 season, began the year as the Angels’ starting catcher. To play the role of Maldonado’s backup, the Angels inked then 34-year-old Rene Rivera to a one-year, $2.8 million contract.
The Angels did not have a capable backup catcher in 2017, so Maldonado was forced into a career-high 138 games, more than all but two catchers. Thus, the theory was that Rivera would give the Angels the ability to provide Maldonado with a proper amount of rest and prevent his production from declining as severely as it did down the stretch in 2017. Rivera, whose defensive pedigree is similar to that of Maldonado, would also provide his own offensive boost to the team, and the Angels would have a capable duo behind the plate.
The pair never truly had a chance to meet those modest expectations, however, as Rivera quickly went down with an injury that sidelined him for about three months. And before they knew it, Maldonado and Rivera were each shipped to contending teams and replaced in Anaheim by a couple of rookies.
2017 was Maldonado’s first season as a starting catcher. He had not appeared in more than 79 games or accumulated more than 256 plate appearances in any of his previous five seasons. Because of the situation outlined above, though, Maldonado was thrust into a nearly full-time role with the Angels, almost doubling his career-high in plate appearances in his first season in Anaheim.
Maldonado’s glove warranted the playing time, as he earned his first career Gold Glove award last year. He racked up 22 Defensive Runs Saved—the fourth-most of any position player—and rated as baseball’s best pitch framer. At the beginning of the season, he contributed offensively, too. Through the first three months of 2017, Maldonado was about a league-average hitter, slashing .252/.317/.414 (99 wRC+, where 100 is average).
That’s not a middle-of-the-order bat by any means, but, when coupled with his quality defense, a valuable one nonetheless. But Maldonado’s offensive production dipped in each of the three subsequent months. Ultimately, he ended the year with a .221/.276/.368 (73 wRC+) line, having only drawn four walks after the All-Star break. The excessive amount of playing time quite clearly caught up to Maldonado.
Fast forward to 2018, and, with Rivera, a backup catcher who manager Mike Scioscia could trust, on the roster, Maldonado was playing less often. Through the first 43 contests of the season, Maldonado had appeared in 29 games, or about 67% of his team’s games. In 2017, he played in around 85% of the Angels’ games.
If Maldonado and the Angels maintained that early 2018 pace throughout the season, Maldonado would have played in about 30 fewer games than the previous year, a significant change that could have gone a long way in preserving his bat. However, Maldonado and Rivera would not share the roster for any more than those 43 games, as a torn meniscus in his right knee sent Rivera, who was hitting a solid .259/.322/.481 (121 wRC+) at the time, to the disabled list in mid-May.
Maldonado then played in 50 of the Angels’ next 60 games, and his offense cratered. He batted just .200/.246/.314 (54 wRC+) in that span, and, with the postseason out of reach, the Angels traded Maldonado to the Astros for a pitching prospect on July 26. Rivera returned to the field a couple of weeks later, but, after going just 6-for-28 with 11 strikeouts in eight games, he was sent to the Braves, who claimed him off waivers.
The departures of the two catchers who formed the Angels’ Opening Day tandem cleared the way for a pair of rookies, both of whom had memorable starts to their respective careers. The 26-year-old Jose Briceno, who was called up to replace Rivera when he sustained his injury, homered in his big-league debut and again in his second start behind the plate.
When they traded Maldonado, the Angels called up Francisco Arcia, a now 29-year-old who had spent 12 minor-league seasons in three different organizations. Like Briceno, Arcia went deep in his first two starts as a major-league catcher, and he also became the first player in MLB history to total 10 runs batted in in his first two career games.
As one might expect, though, the duo’s performance was much more ordinary after that. Briceno, who the Angels acquired alongside Andrelton Simmons in 2015, finished the season with a .239/.299/.385 (91 wRC+) line across 128 plate appearances. That’s above average for a catcher, but he collected only five extra-base hits after those first two starts of his career.
Arcia, who signed a minor-league deal with the Angels prior to the 2017 season, managed to tap into more power than Briceno but fared slightly worse at the plate overall. In total, he slashed .204/.226/.427 (75 wRC+) with six home runs. However, the underlying numbers suggest that Arcia will have trouble replicating even that limited success in the future.
For one, he only drew one walk in his 106 plate appearances. Not only did that 0.9% walk rate place last among 448 players who accumulated at least 100 plate appearances in 2018, but only eight other players this century have drawn one or zero walks in a 100 plate-appearance season. To make matters worse, he also had a higher-than-average 25.5% strikeout rate and, in turn, carried the fourth-worst walk-to-strikeout ratio since 2000.
Furthermore, the power that salvaged Arcia’s offensive season does not appear sustainable. First, his slugging percentage, at .427, was higher than it was in all but one of his minor league seasons. In fact, he never hit more than five home runs in a single minor-league season, and he only reached a .400 slugging percentage once. Moreover, according to Statcast’s contact quality-based expected slugging percentage, Arcia’s batted-ball profile only merited a .323 slugging percentage, which suggests that much of Arcia’s production was simply a result of good fortune.
All in all, Briceno inspired more confidence in his future offensive value than Arcia, though neither had standout seasons. On defense, for what it’s worth, Briceno compiled 2 DRS and rated as an average pitch framer, while Arcia racked up -4 DRS and graded as a below-average pitch framer.
In 2018, neither Arcia nor Briceno necessarily proved capable of handling as much major-league playing time as they were forced into. However, in terms of impact talent, the catching position is the shallowest in baseball, which means that there is no easy fix for the Angels. Joe Hudson, who made a brief appearance with the Angels in September, is just about the only other major-league ready catcher in the organization, and he is probably not the answer, though he did have his best-hitting minor-league season this year.
The free-agent market will be headlined by Yasmani Grandal, who has spent the last four seasons with the Dodgers and established himself as one of baseball’s best catchers, both offensively and defensively. Wilson Ramos, who was the position’s best hitter in 2018, will also be available. Given the scarcity of catchers on the level of those two, they will almost certainly fetch high-priced contracts—and rightly so.
The Angels are focused on pitching upgrades this winter, but GM Billy Eppler did pinpoint the catching position as one that could receive external help. If the team does go this route, it will likely not be looking at Grandal or Ramos, as signing one of them would inhibit the club’s ability to seriously improve the pitching staff.
If the Angels decide to look for lower-priced free agents, their options will be limited to players like Jonathan Lucroy, Robinson Chirinos, and Kurt Suzuki. Both Maldonado and Rivera will also be free agents.
If none of the available free agents meet their qualifications, the Angels could turn to the trade market, where catchers on expiring contracts such as the Blue Jays’ Russell Martin, the White Sox’s Welington Castillo, and the Twins’ Jason Castro could make sense. If the Angels wish to find someone on the younger side who could help beyond 2019, players including the Padres’ Austin Hedges may be available, though the price would be higher.
Based on the performance of Arcia and Briceno in 2018, the Angels do not seem to have a big-league caliber starting catcher in the organization. However, Briceno performed well enough to warrant at least a backup role in 2019. Thus, paring him with a low-cost veteran catcher from outside of the organization appears to be the best and most probable scenario for the Angels next year.
Featured image via MLB.com.