The 2019 Pirates feature a stars-and-scrubs lineup, with Josh Bell and a surprisingly effective smorgasbord of outfielders trying to compensate for a total lack of production at other positions. It's not a total shock to see the Pirates getting little from the left side of the infield, as they wait for Ke'Bryan Hayes to arrive and for Cole Tucker to actually be MLB-ready. But the catcher spot -- which was a huge competitive advantage for the club last year and figured to be so again in 2019 -- has quickly turned into a black hole.
Francisco Cervelli, once again sidelined by concussion-like symptoms, and Elias Diaz, slowed this spring by a virus, have been one of the worst catching tandems in the game this year after combining for one of the franchise's best seasons behind the plate in 2018. Just how bad have the Pirates been at catcher this year? Why are they struggling so much? And, most important, will the Pirates get better production at catcher as they hold on for dear life in the NL Central and Wild Card races?
Last year, Cervelli and Diaz combined for 4.2 Wins Above Replacement (WAR). WAR measures a player's offensive, defensive and base running value compared to that of a waiver wire-caliber player (think Jacob Stallings). That WAR total ranked fourth among all MLB teams in 2018, and ranked among the Pirates' top 15 single-season performances behind the plate. In 2019, however, Bucs catchers have been even worse than replacement-level:
With -0.6 WAR, the Pirates rank 28th in the majors, ahead of only the Tigers and Rangers at the position. If they keep up this putrid pace, they'll "challenge" the team's 2009 (-2.7 WAR), 2010 (-2.1) and 2012 (-2..0) catchers for the least valuable single-season performance in franchise history.
The downturn at the plate has been especially glaring. In 2018, Cervelli had a batting line that was 23 percent above the overall MLB average, once you account for park factors and the league-wide offensive environment. Before his latest injury, Cervelli had a batting line that was 55 percent below average. His normally stellar plate discipline hasn't been there, with Cervelli swinging at more pitches thrown outside of the strike zone (26 percent, compared to 21 percent in 2018) and drawing fewer walks (7.3 percent of his plate appearances, down from 12.6 percent last year).
Cervelli's power has evaporated, too, with his slugging percentage declining by nearly 150 points between 2018 (.431) and 2019 (.248). After holding his own versus fastballs last year (he slugged .485, according to MLB Statcast), he has been overwhelmed by velocity this season (.208 slugging percentage).
Diaz, felled by a mysterious virus during spring training, has similarly struggled to build upon an outstanding offensive season in 2018. After posting an adjusted batting line that was 16 percent above the MLB average in 2018, Diaz has been 52 percent worse than average in 2019. He's pulling the ball far less often so far (30 percent, versus 38 percent in 2018), and he's producing weak contact when he does put the ball in play to left field (.316 slugging percentage, after slugging .813 in 2018). Diaz might be the victim of some bad luck, with his batting average on balls in play falling by 100 points between 2018 (.340) and 2019 (.240), but he's not exactly making scorching contact.
Cervelli and Diaz aren't just scuffling at the plate, but also behind it. Despite their divergent reputations, both guys have fared poorly when measured by more advanced defensive stats. According to Baseball Prospectus, Cervelli has been -0.5 runs worse than an average big league catcher in terms of framing pitches (getting strikes on borderline calls), -1 run worse in blocking pitches, and average in controlling the running game (+0.1 runs). In limited playing time, Diaz has been -3.7 runs below average in pitch framing. That washes away his good work in blocking pitches (+1 run) and his average arm.
So, Pirates catchers have been lousy so far. Will they improve? It's hard to know what to expect from Cervelli, given his injury situation. But the ZiPS projection system has Cervelli turning in a batting line that's 5 percent below the overall MLB average during the rest of the 2019 season. Diaz is projected to be 20 percent below the MLB average behind the plate. If Cervelli either can't play due to injury or struggles so much that he gets phased out during his free agent walk year, the Pirates could be in trouble. Stallings, 29, is projected for a batting line that's 31 percent below the MLB average. He has a solid defensive reputation, but there's a reason he is on the roster bubble.
Although the Pirates enjoyed a competitive advantage at catcher in 2018, the outlook is bleak right now. Cervelli's long-term well-being is the major concern, but the 33-year-old has also declined dramatically. Diaz still could be the long-term option and he didn't have a normal spring by any means, but he has to prove his 2018 power surge was more than a fluke. Stallings, while useful defensively, shouldn't carry the position. And, unlike at third base and shortstop, the Pirates don't have a touted prospect waiting to take over. Truthfully, the Pirates' long-term catcher could join the organization soon -- via trade or the MLB draft in June. As for the rest of 2019, expect some dead-cat-bounce improvement -- though nothing close to the heights of 2018.
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