Ah, the Twins. So often over the last few offseasons the Twins have been the club whose moves cause a scratching of the head and subdued “Oh, honey” under one’s breath. The franchise has long been stuck in the traditionalist mud. Until this season, at least. In the middle of another poor year, general manager Terry Ryan was finally dismissed, replaced by the dynamic duo of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, the sort of expensively educated types populating other front offices. The moved marked a time for change… and sweet, sweet analytics!
So, naturally, the Twins’ first move this winter was to sign a light-hitting catcher. Earlier today, the club agreed to a three-year, $24 million deal with Jason Castro. But Castro’s not like the other light-hitting catchers with whom the Twins have burdened themselves in recent years. Whereas Kurt Suzuki and his fellow Minnesota backstops have been bad both on offense and behind the plate, Castro is actually very good at being a catcher. Like, really good. Hence the three-year, $24.5, million contract.
“Nick!” you exclaim, bewildered. “That $24 million is a lot of money for a guy who’s been a below-average hitter for three seasons in a row!” And you have a point, reader. Castro posted a wonderful 129 wRC+ in 2013, and then quickly fell right off the table. Catcher isn’t exactly a premium offensive position, but you’d like to see that 129 again. It’s probably not coming back. That’s more than okay, given how much value Castro provides with his framing.
Yes, there it is: framing. That invisible dragon of catching value that we’re all chasing in our imaginary general manager’s office. Sure, it’s nice if your catcher can sock some dingers, but can he steal strikes? Castro steals them in bunches. Right around the same time as his offensive value tanked, Castro’s glove went bananas. Let’s take a look at Baseball Prospectus’ framing runs metric and compare Castro and Suzuki.
|Year||Castro Framing Runs||Suzuki Framing Runs|
Castro appears to have made some manner of adjustment to his game, and is now one of the better framing catchers in baseball. Suzuki’s own framing, meanwhile, has hurt his pitching staffs. The upgrade is immediately apparent. Paying out for framing is a relatively new concept. Hitters of Castro’s quality aren’t usually given roughly $8.2 million for three years straight. What Castro brings to the table is something that the Twins have sorely been lacking. It’s something that can help elevate their middling pitching staff to another level.
As things stand right now, Minnesota will bring a rotation of Ervin Santana, Hector Santiago, Kyle Gibson, Phil Hughes, and (insert some other pitcher here) into 2017. Santana is a fine enough starter, and the other three have had fits and starts of success at times in the past. It’s not a rotation that will instill fear into other teams, however. The benefit of playing in cavernous Target Field helps, yes, and life is always easier when Byron Buxton is roaming around in center field. But so does a good framer behind the plate. None of the Twins’ starters last year were big strikeout guys, and Minnesota will feel the effects of its organizational fascination with pitching to contact for years to come. Castro is an excellent first step in counteracting that.
Still, it’s $24.5 million for a guy who can’t really hit all that well, and who also has what appear to be the makings of a platoon issue, having slashed .190/.249/.287 against lefties over his career. That’s, err, not great. He’ll need to be platooned, likely with John Ryan Murphy, who struggled so badly that he spent most of the year in Rochester. Murphy hasn’t been that bad in the past, though, so the Twins may have something here.
Sure, they just threw $24 million at a guy who hasn’t topped two wins in three years. But our WAR metrics here at FanGraphs don’t incorporate pitch-framing, and that’s literally where Castro makes his money. The Twins aren’t a win-now team, and probably won’t be for some time. They’re a team in transition, from both a generational and philosophical standpoint. They’re likely going to lose their best player in Brian Dozier. The Twins aren’t trying to win a championship right now.
Even if they were, Castro would be a fine choice behind the plate. He gets the job done, and then some. And, not for nothing, he’s a slightly above-average hitter against right-handed pitchers. That’ll do more than fine for now. Sign me up.