Francisco Cervelli, Backup Catcher: No More, No Less

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One Yankees player who inspires some strong emotions among members of the fanbase is Francisco Cervelli. He started 2010 very hot, with a .387 wOBA in April fooling some into believing that he was an everyday player. With Jorge Posada’s defense continuing to deteriorate, a rapidly growing portion of the fanbase called for Cervelli to steal the starter’s job from Jorge. However, Frankie regressed terribly at the plate from June through August, and was not much better in the field. The bloom was off the rose, to the point where many called for him to be sent down to the minors.

This offseason, Cervelli was nearly traded for Russell Martin, and the Yankees have made it fairly clear that they do not trust Frankie in anything more than a backup capacity. Some Yankees fans have gone so far to say that he “sucks” and want him off the roster. However, a look at his numbers, and more importantly, the competition at backup catcher, shows that he is a solid backup and is a perfectly reasonable player to keep on the roster while he is cheap.

Cervelli finished 27th (min. 120 PA’s) among all catchers in wRC+ last season (94), and was 28th in WAR (min. 60 PA’s). Now, that does not mean he was the 28th best catcher, as WAR is a cumulative stat and his unfortunate amount of playing time helped him build value relative to some backup types who may be better than him. But wRC+ is a normalized rate statistic, and it suggests that Frankie was right on the fringe of starting quality as a hitter. MLB catchers as a group hit an atrocious .249/.319/.381, while Frankie turned in a .271/.359/.335. A lot of that line can be attributed to a high BABIP in April, May, and September (where he OPS’ed at least .768 in each month), but his struggles in the middle months (.548 OPS or below) saw some fairly hard luck as well. To put his season in perspective, since 2004 only one Yankees backup has had a better OPS+ than Cervelli (88) did this year (Jose Molina in ’07, and that was in 71 PA’s). Overall, it seems clear that if you were to make an evaluation based on 2010, Cervelli would be ahead of most backup catchers in terms of offense.

As for defense, Cervelli had a tough season, and most metrics have him near the bottom of the league defensively. However, it is important to note that he caught the incredibly wild AJ Burnett practically exclusively, which likely hurt him in terms of blocking pitches and throwing out potential base-stealers. Some, like our own Steve S., have contended that Frankie is actually a much better defensive player than we saw in 2010, but I do not think it is fair to make that assumption at this point without more evidence. The best we can do is mix some scouting into our evaluation and conclude that Cervelli is likely a bit better defensively and a bit worse offensively than he was in 2010, which would likely make him one of the 5 or 10 best backups in the sport.

Some would say that while it is fair to say that Frankie is better than most backups, the issue is that he was the starter in 2010. While this is absolutely true, it misses the point on how the Yankees should view him going forward. He is a poor starter, but the club has already made that determination and now must evaluate his ability in the right context, as a possible backup. When planning for 2011, the club needs to look at how his 2010 would position him among others who might fill the backup role. In a league where guys like Wil Nieves, Chris Widger, and Sal Fasano types are continually recycled due to a dearth of major league catching talent, Cervelli grades out as a bad player but an above average backup catcher.

Of course, it is fairly likely that this is all moot by midseason, assuming Russell Martin and Jesus Montero play well enough in Spring Training and early in the season to push Cervelli out of the catching rotation. If Montero looks ready in ST, it might make sense for the Yankees to trade Cervelli before his value dips due to being sent down. He could actually start for a few clubs, as there is a severe dropoff in talent after the first 20 catchers or so. However, if the Yankees decide to keep him, Cervelli should serve as a perfectly adequate backup catcher.

8 thoughts on “Francisco Cervelli, Backup Catcher: No More, No Less

  1. Just to clarify, I agree we need to see more. The point I made that I think you’re referring to is the wild swing in Cervelli’s CS% from 46% in 09 to 18% in 10. He wasn’t injured (as far as we know) so the fact that he threw out so many fewer baserunners year over year tells me that something else changed. Since base runners generally steal on the pitcher even more than the catcher, I’d suspect he was given the more difficult job in terms of who he caught since he’s younger and more athletic than Posada. That’s why the fact that Jorge threw out runners at a higher % last year means almost nothing to me. The smart move by the manager would be to have Cervelli catch the guys who are the most difficult, so it doesn’t surprise me his numbers suffered as a result.

    Just using common sense, lets just split up the time at catcher to make a point. Let’s say Posada has largely been Pettitte’s personal catcher (which he has) and Cervelli also caught most of Hughes’ starts. Andy is among the best in Baseball at holding base runners, and Phil does a good job holding runners and throws throws hard.

    By contrast, if Cervelli is catching AJ (who makes little to no effort to hold runners) CC (who’s big and slow to the plate) and Vazquez (who throws lots of slow breaking balls) then comparing the CS% of the two catchers is almost completely worthless because you’re comparing apples and oranges in terms of the pitchers they worked with. You’d have to normalize the numbers somehow, and even then it might not work because you also have to consider the opposition each player faced. Some teams run a lot and some don’t. This is why CS% tends to have wild swings from year to year with many players, which should tell you it’s an unreliable indicator.

    • Just to go a step further, let’s say that (regardless of pitcher) Jorge caught all games when the Yanks played the Oakland A’s, who are know for being slow footed and not believing in stolen bases being worth the risk. The smart move by the manager would be to get Jorge’s bat in the lineup, since they don’t run much anyway.

      By contrast, Cervelli might get all the workload facing a speedy team like the Rays AND have to handle the pitchers who do the poorest job of holding runners on. Again, the smart move by the manager would be to start Cervelli to keep the baserunners as honest as possible. The deck gets stacked against Cervelli, not because he’s a bad catcher but because he THE BETTER catcher.

      • I largely agree with everything you’ve said here. I’m not sure that its a slam dunk that playing Frankie against Tampa is the right move, but the idea that his stats are skewed rings true.

  2. While he is still pre-arb, one could make him part of a trade for Wandy Rodriguez or Mark Buehrle. He would instantly become one of the best OBP guys on the Astros and he could be a productive platoon mate for AJ Pierzynski.

  3. These aren’t your 2001 Billy Beane A’s.

    They were third in the AL in SB with 156 at an 80% clip. I also think they were third in attempts.

    Sorry for the nitpick, I just had to.

    Between Martin and Cervelli though we should see improvement in prevention of the running game, even if it still is not “good”. Teams will still steal against AJ and CC, but at least we’ll have some hope of preventing successful swipes now that Posada is out.

    Then again if Montero gets a decent chunk of PT this season, then it’ll just be another season of teams taking advantage of our catching situation. Oh well, I’ll take the offense.

    • Again, it was just a hypothetical. If there’s a site that breaks this stuff down the way I’m discussing, I would simply link to it. But there isn’t any that I’m aware of. Catching is generally considered the hardest position to nail down defensively, due to it’s two sided nature (Pitcher/Catcher).

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