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Braves 2016 Player Projections: Catchers

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There's three of them, and they'll likely be below average.

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Hello, and welcome to another installment of "let's push numbers into other numbers until a third set of numbers appears!"

Last year, I took a lengthy look at the player projections for the Braves, which I thought was pretty fun, but also useful in that it memorialized the preseason expectations for the individual players on the roster. When checking back on the performance of those projections last month, I found that they were generally okay at predicting performance, especially in aggregate, and also that my own largely-uninformed guesses didn't do that much worse than the esteemed (and Steamed) projection systems of the day. (Note: I'm not including Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections because as far as I can tell, the player projections are not publicly available, and also because I'm just plumb unfamiliar with the ways in which inputs and past performance combine to yield future estimates, which makes it hard to discuss.)

This year, I'm doing two things a little differently. First, I'm breaking up the posts by position to make them a little more digestible, but mostly to allow me to ramble on about individual players a bit more. Second, I've formalized my guessing system (which I call IWAG, for hopefully-obvious reasons) a bit more, in an attempt to shore up my performance deficit against Steamer and ZiPS from last year. (Which means I'll probably be even worse this year.)

At the moment, the Braves have three catchers who are expected to see at least some playing time in 2016: Tyler Flowers, Ryan Lavarnway, and AJ Pierzynski. Given his performance last year, Pierzynski might be the nominal starter, but he and Flowers might slide around and split time depending on health and recent performance. Ryan Lavarnway is the insurance policy in case either one gets hurt -- if they both get hurt, who knows what'll happen as far as needing another catcher to back up Lavarnway.

In any case, on to the projections.

Just as a quick refresher for what these things mean:

  • Name and position should hopefully be obvious.
  • wRC+ is a context-neutral offensive production stat. That's really just a fancy way of saying that it credits hitters for getting results at the plate (e.g., walks, singles, homers, etc.) without paying attention to the game situation, how many runs they drive in, or anything like that. It's park- and league-adjusted, so the same batting line at Coors Field will result in a lower wRC+ than at Dodger Stadium. A value of 100 indicates league average, and every point above/below that indicates offensive production that many percentage points above/below league average. So a 150% wRC+ indicates that a player produces 50% more on offense than a league-average hitter, while a 60 wRC+ indicates that a player produces 40% less. Good hitters tend to have wRC+s above 115, while poor hitters end up at 80 or below. A team's key offensive threats will be in the 140s or higher, and guys around/below 60 will generally be kicked off major league rosters for unacceptable levels of offensive production.
  • Def is Fangraphs' way of aggregating a player's defensive value and their positional adjustment. A positive Def score doesn't mean a player is an above average fielder at his position, because some positional adjustments are positive. The positional adjustment for a catcher is +12.5 runs over 600 PAs, but since full-time catchers will garner more like 450 PAs rather than 600, it's really close to +9.4 runs for practical purposes here. As you can see from the table above, the projection systems generally do not expect the Atlanta catching trio to be above-average catchers (except for ZiPS and Flowers), as their Def numbers, pro-rated to 450 PAs worth of playing time, are below 9.4.
  • WAR, well, it's hard to do it full justice here if you're seeing it for the first time. WAR is essentially a measure of a player's total value. A lot of the conventions are somewhat arbitrary and just made so that everyone can be compared on an even playing field, but the general rule of thumb is something like: 2 WAR over a full season means an average player, a smattering of the best players will generate 4-5 WAR, and bonafide stars will come in at over 5, or even put up insanely gaudy numbers like Mike Trout's 8 to 10 or Kershaw's 6 to 9 in recent years. On the flip side, guys who can only garner 1 WAR or less over a full season aren't very productive or valuable, and guys who consistently punch below 2 WAR might be best suited for backup or utility duty rather than a full-time starting gig.
As you can see from the above, there's a fairly consistent expectation that all three of the Braves' catchers will be somewhere between "below average" and "not sure if worth keeping on the roster" in 2016. Part of this is due to the deflation of assuming full playing time of only 450 PAs, which I think more accurately describes a "full-time" scenario for any one of the three, but even under a 600 PA assumption, the expectations are pretty meager, with only Flowers via ZiPS and Lavarnway via my own guesses being potentially average. (More on Lavarnway in a bit, those cells are shaded for a reason.)

Tyler Flowers

Tyler Flowers will be entering his sixth non-cup-of-coffee season in the majors in 2016, but his first as a major league Brave despite being drafted by the Braves (as the 1,007th overall pick, 33rd round!). To date, he's been a below average hitter (wRC+ of 83). Catcher defense is very hard to quantify, and DRS has him as decently above average, while UZR has him as pretty average over his career. Both systems recorded a bit of a dropoff for him in 2015, but given the volatility of defense, that's not necessarily indicative of any trend extending into 2016.

The biggest gnash of teeth as far as Flowers and his projections go probably has to do with his pitch framing. Flowers was one of the best pitch framers last season according to StatCorner. He's generally had above average pitch framing results (if not superb ones, like in 2015). As Def and WAR don't take into account pitch framing (because doing so would require a potential readjustment of the value earned by catchers versus pitchers), Flowers' value might be depressed relative to a catcher who may be worse at pitch framing but better at the other parts of being a catcher to make up for it.

In any case, Steamer thinks Flowers will be closer to abysmal offensively, while ZiPS expects something closer to his 2015 line. I mostly tend to agree with ZiPS here, as it seems like a hard sell that Flowers will get even worse from the .239/.295/.356 line he posted last year. His 2015 BABIP was in line with his career norms, and his HR/FB was lower, and he actually improved on his abysmal strikeout rate and got it under 30 percent for the first time since 2011. Catcher defense has been a bit of a black box to me forever, but I'm taking the under on his defense, based on below-average pitch blocking results in the past, as well as UZR's skepticism of his defense. Overall, on paper, I agree moreso with Steamer that he'll be of backup, rather than starter quality, at least on paper. His pitch framing may augment his value to the Braves, and I'd guess that that's something they're really counting on.

Ryan Lavarnway

Lavarnway is tough to project given that he's had fairly spotty playing time so far in his career. He's only 28 but has seemingly been around for a while, as he's made major league appearances for the Red Sox and Braves since 2011. He's been a dreadful hitter in the majors to date (career wRC+ of 53), but that also comes with a depressed BABIP over just 400 PAs, and expecting something in the 80s given that he's generally hit well at AAA seems reasonable.

Defense for Lavarnway is really hard to predict given his lack of major league exposure, and the fact that his defensive work as a catcher was maligned for a long time until it wasn't. Steamer seems to buy into the improvement more than ZiPS, which is projecting him to be a super-awful defensive catcher and thus essentially replacement level. Personally, I'm erring more towards the "eh he's potentially average until proven otherwise" side, even though I admit there's not much to base that on. That's what leads to the gray shading for his Def and WAR, as I really don't feel confident in those estimates. If he's an average defender and can hit at an 80 wRC+ clip, that's a somewhat below average to average starter; if he's a poor catcher, he's replacement level and warrants the Four-A status with which the Braves will likely treat him in 2016.

AJ Pierzynski

Pierzynski, the presumptive starter for the 2016 Braves at the dish, had a foun,tain of youth-fueled resurgence last season, topping 2 fWAR in 440 PAs and putting up his best batting line since 2012 (and his second best line overall). Overall, the improvement doesn't seem fluky: he made substantial gains in his strikeout and walk rates relative to recent seasons and changed some of his fly balls to line drives. His quality of contact and spray chart didn't change all that much, but Father Time is still wielding the Sword of Damocles over his his catcher's mask.

I'm slightly more optimistic than Steamer or ZiPS that he can carry through some chunk of that offensive resurgence forward another year, but not so much as to figure he'll put up a 112 wRC+ again. Still, I'm a little above the 80s for him, unlike Steamer or ZiPS.

Defensively, Pierzynski has a long track record of possessing underwhelming catcher defense by both UZR and DRS. I don't disagree, but I also don't think he'll be super-terrible like ZiPS, although he was really quite bad defensively in 2014. Pitch framing issues may further harm his value to the Braves' overall performance (he was really bad at it last year, and has varied across good and bad over his career).

Overall, each of the three catchers at Atlanta's disposal are flawed in one or more ways (and who isn't), and there's healthy skepticism about whether any of them will put up league average batting lines in 2016. There's definitely some room for debate and discussion about whether any given one of those players will be closer to an average starter or replacement level, but what that really means is that taking everything into consideration, each one is probably about a backup/role player in quality.

Given this and everything else, I'm curious -- who do you think will put up the best pro-rated value line in 2016 from the catcher position for the Braves?