After letting Gerald Laird* walk in free agency this off-season it appeared that the Tigers were all set to start the season with rookie Bryan Holaday as their backup catcher. It looked even more like that was the case when they traded Andy Oliver to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Triple-A catcher Ramon Cabrera last week. But then the Tigers went off and signed Brayan Pena today in a move that certainly seems like a head scratcher.
Pena is nothing like a good bat — his career .635 OPS is underwhelming, to say the least — and that has made for some dodgy looking value numbers. As Chris pointed out earlier today:
"I’d say Pena is – overall – basically a replacement level catcher. According to Fangraphs he has been precisely at replacement level in what amounts to about two full seasons behind the dish. According to Baseball Reference he has been somewhat worse at -0.3 WAR over the same span."
The difficulty here, though, is in determining defensive run values for catchers. Sure, there’s the fielding of bunts and slow rollers, blocking pitches, and throwing out would-be base stealers, but that’s only a portion of a catchers’ defensive responsibility. We’re only beginning to understand the potential run-saving benefits of pitch framing (and by we, I mean the collective internet research genius with which I have very little to do), but evidence is surfacing that this previously non-measureable facet of the game can have a large run-value impact on the game.
"According to Mike Fast’s research at Baseball Prospectus, Pena also seems to have a skill for framing pitches. Between 2007-2011, he saved the Royals his team an estimated 19 runs with pitch framing which is pretty impressive for a catcher with limited playing time."
I’m sure we don’t have enough data here to make a for-sure claim on his true-talent pitch framing abilities, but according to the Mike Fast study referenced in the above quote, Pena was the fourth best catcher in all of baseball (with at least 10,000 called pitches received) at getting a called strike. If this 19 runs (in 226 games) is indicative of his true-talent level at all, then he’d probably be worth in the neighborhood of 0.3 wins in 40 games. So, even if he was an otherwise replacement level catcher, Pena would be worth about $1.5 million per season due to his pitch framing ability alone.
Terms of the deal have not yet been announced, but Pena earned $875,000 last year and figured to about $1.1 million this season as a third-year arbitration eligible player before the Kansas City Royals designated him for assignment, so he’s probably not going to make much more than $1 million with the Tigers. That’s not a crazy amount of surplus value, but it looks like it could be a decent value sign.
*It should be noted that Gerald Laird was one of the poorer rated catchers in Mike Fast’s study. His inability to turn borderline pitches into strikes costs his teams an estimated 52 runs over the five year study period. It should also be noted that the Bill James Projections project Pena to out-wOBA Laird .295 to .288 in 2013.