Arizona Diamondbacks: Do they need Alex Avila or Jonathan Lucroy?

The Arizona Diamondbacks completely retooled their Major League catching depth last season by bringing in Chris Iannetta and Jeff Mathis who started in 126 games in 2017. 70 of those starts came from Iannetta who recently signed with the Colorado Rockies. While he was a neutral pitch framer with a 0 RAA (runs above average), Iannetta’s impact came at the plate where he hit .254/.354/.511. Based on a converted WAR (2.2) from FanGraphs, he was worth 17.5 million dollars last year.

The positional WAR at catcher for the Diamondbacks was 23rd in the league though at -1.2. Jeff Mathis finished in the top 10 in the most important pitch-framing statistics (RAA & Ostrik%), but he only hit .215/.277/.323. What isn’t factored into the catcher’s WAR though is the impact they had on the pitching staff of the D-Backs.

The Diamondbacks finished with the 2nd best starting rotation and 4th best relief pitching according to positional WAR. In 2016, they were third to last in starting pitching and 2nd to last in relief pitching. Clearly, Mike Hazen’s decision to bring in pitch framers helped in a huge way for the pitching staff.

Chris Herrmann looks like the 2nd option at catcher right now, and he had a very bad year in 2017. He hit .181/.273/.345 with a career-high 10 home runs though. Herrmann may have been very lucky as his BABIP was .207. His BABIP history is:

2013 – .269 in 178 PA

2014 – .276 in 79 PA

2015 – .203 in 113 PA

2016 – .364 in 166 PA

2017 – .207 in 256 PA

In his largest sample size, he produced his worse year as a big leaguer in 2017. He has a history of producing a very bad BABIP now which must really scare the D-Backs front office. His K-rate in 2017 remained around the same as 2016, but his walk rate increased from 9.6% to 11.3%. His hard-hit contact went down 10% from ’16 to ’17, but his soft contact decreased by 2% and the medium contact went up by 13%.

The bottom line is that Chris Herrmann and Jeff Mathis aren’t enough for 2018. Herrmann is hit or miss, and Mathis is Greinke’s personal catcher who should start in 50 to 60 games like in 2017. Here are two free agent options who could help support Mathis in 2018.

Jonathan Lucroy

Entering his age 31 season, Lucroy has seen his offensive and defense numbers plummet in the past year. Lucroy saw his slugging percentage drop from .500 to .371 when he hit 18 fewer homers in 2017 compared to 2016. His contact rate increased significantly though as he struck out 18.4% of the time in 2016 compared to 10.6% in 2017.

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Clearly, his offensive numbers decreased because of a new approach that can be seen in his statistics. Not only does his strikeout numbers show he was more of a contact hitter, his groundball rate increased from 37.2% to 53.5%. This put him in the top 10 for groundball percentage for hitters. His line drive and fly ball rate plummeted because of this. His hard-hit rate was also in the bottom five of the league, and it was 8% lower than his career average (31.2%).

His pitch framing metrics have declined immensely as well. From 2011-2014, he was considered one of the best, if not the best, pitch framers in baseball. He was known for his ability to crouch down low and get lower pitches called for strikes. His 2016 and 2017 pitch framing metrics have been atrocious though, and a rise in his crouch height could be a reason why.

While his advanced metrics have shown a decline, he still receives the ball well and many factors could be influencing a decline. He has been on three different teams in two seasons after seven years with the Brewers. He was handling new pitchers and new atmospheres, and I believe this could play into his crazy decline from the best pitch framer to one of the worse.

There is a lot to be worried about with Lucroy, but he has been an All-Star twice and is only one year removed from a 24 homer season. Lucroy hit .242/.297/.338 with the Rangers in 77 games to start 2017. Once he was traded to the Rockies, he hit .310/.429/.437 in 46 games. Some may say that this could be due to the “Mile High Effect”, but Chase Field is also a very friendly park for hitters.

At the right price, this is a great get for the D-Backs who could tell him to focus more on his catching duties and let the hitting just come along. Lucroy is expected to get a two to three-year deal at about 10-12 million a year.

At two years for 16-20 million dollars, I would seriously consider signing Lucroy with the possibility of getting a couple seasons like 2014 & 2016.

Alex Avila

Unlike Lucroy, Avila had a very high strikeout rate that was in the top 20 worse in the league. His 31.9% strikeout rate was paired with a 16.5% walk rate which was 6th best in the league.Screen Shot 2018-01-03 at 12.03.00 PM.png

Even with his strikeout rate, Avila experienced a bounce-back year after a few mediocre years in a row. His hard hit and soft hit rates were the best they have ever been in his career at 48.7% and 6.7% respectively in 2017. The 6.7% soft hit rate was the lowest in the league, and his hard hit rate was the second highest only behind J.D. Martinez.

His BABIP was .382 which was the fourth highest in the league too. In his career, he has averaged a .325 BABIP, so this could be a concern for front offices looking for a catcher. While Avila put up some great numbers, his BABIP could show that Avila was lucky in 2017.

Either way, Avila showed two things in 2017 that should carry on into 2018 even without some luck. First, he had a line drive rate of 27.6% which was tied for 8th best in the league. Secondly, his groundball rate was extremely high in 2016 at 52.2%, but it fell to 38.5% in 2017. His line drive approach combined with hitting fewer groundballs led to a returning to near All-Star level play.

Another thing to mention is that while he had a very high strikeout rate in 2017, his 2016 rate was 5.4% higher than 2017. His 2016 campaign was ravaged by hamstring injuries, but his 2017 improvement shows his level of play is back or near to his first few years in the league.

Much like Lucroy, Avila was very successful in pitching framing metrics up until 2013. His numbers have slowly dropped just like Lucroy, and 2017 was his worse season in the bigs. Avila will come at a cheaper price than Lucroy though at around 6 million dollars a year, and he will probably demand a two-year deal after a great 2017 year. If the D-Backs trust his pitch framing abilities, adding Avila, a left-handed bat, over Lucroy could be more attractive coming off a better 2017 season with a cheaper price tag.

Prediction

Chris Iannetta’s bat was very important last year for the D-Backs, and I believe they need to replace him instead of using Herrmann or John Ryan Murphy. With that being said, I am not sure the Diamondbacks will spend more than 8 to 10 million dollars a year on a catcher. I believe Hazen and Lovullo would be more attracted to Lucroy though because of his contact orientated approached compared to Avila’s big strikeout numbers.

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