Cam Gallagher has played in 53 games for the Cleveland Guardians this season and come to the plate 142 times. In those 142 plate appearances, he hasn’t exactly contributed nothing … but he’s come fairly close, to the extent that he has compiled a stat line that we thought had left the scene when MLB pitchers stopped hitting: a .132 batting average, and an OPS of .338.
Three other catchers have gotten more than 100 at bats this season while posting an OPS below .500: Austin Hedges, Austin Nola, and Austin Barnes (yes, that is weird). If you asked their managers, each would likely say that as catchers they provide so much value in managing a pitching staff that their offensive output is irrelevant.
But is it for MLB catchers when it comes to offense and defense?
Hedges, for example, has amassed almost two thousand at-bats since 2015 with a career OPS of .568. This will be his seventh consecutive season playing more than half of his team’s games, so he is essentially a starting catcher. His career offensive WAR is -3.5. His defensive WAR is 6.5, which means that in nine seasons he has been basically worth a total of three more wins than a guy you could sign off the waiver wire. Yet the Pittsburgh Pirates signed Hedges for $5 million this season, and the Texas Rangers traded for him at the deadline, obviously thinking he would bolster their playoff run.
The question is, can a catcher provide enough value behind the plate to compensate for the fact that one-ninth of your offense is basically useless? If so, WAR doesn’t capture it, at least in Hedges’ case. A lot of the narrative around catcher’s value centers around pitch framing. Baseball Savant has quantified the borderline strike calls that each catcher got this season and surmises that Hedges has saved his team 12 runs. Oddly enough, Baseball Reference says that Hedges has produced 12 fewer runs on offense than an average catcher, which means … what?
Here’s a few caveats. First, Baseball Savant also says that Hedges saved his teams a total of three runs combined in 2020-2022, which indicates that pitch framing might be more random than based on an actual skill. Second, let’s be clear that pitch framing is another way of saying that catchers are fooling umpires into calling strikes on pitches outside the strike zone. This means that better umpiring (or robot umps) would eliminate this advantage.
The other aspect of catchers’ intangible value is “handling” a pitching staff. My theory is that this idea goes back to the late 1970s when Steve Carlton was winning Cy Youngs with Tim McCarver (who had some amazing games) as his personal catcher. Now, managers talk about handling a staff as if it creates more value than Aaron Judge’s power and Gerrit Cole’s fastball combined. Some of that value is captured in pitch framing, but is managing a staff important enough to overlook a total lack of offensive production?
That brings us back to Cam Gallagher, and a handy chart.
with Gallagher without Gallagher
runs allowed/game 3.77 4.43
runs scored/game 3.58 4.36
won/loss record 22-31 50-50
Yes, it’s not a huge sample, but you can conclude that Gallagher helped the Guardians prevent runs, but having a black hole comprise one-ninth of the offense cost them more. You could almost conclude that if the Guardians had a serviceable hitter as their backup catcher, they would be at or slightly above .500 this season, which would put them close enough to the Minnesota Twins to make the rest of the season matter a little bit. But that would be letting the leaky bullpen and the other black holes in the lineup off the hook too easily.
Cleveland had a total of seven players catch at least one game this season. Of all those guys, Gallagher is one who has stuck around. Bo Naylor is likely to do the bulk of the catching next season, but there will still be a need for someone to assume a workload similar to what Gallagher saw this year. As the Guardians look to rebound back to contention next year, they can’t disregard offense when looking to fill that roster spot.