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Arrival of Russell Martin means Matt Wieters might not be the best AL East catcher any more

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The AL East added an elite catcher to the division this off season. Where does that leave Matt Wieters and the Orioles?

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

In the seemingly longer and longer days as we head into Opening Day our season previews move towards the backstops of the AL East. The AL East saw the addition of an elite catcher this off season.

The catcher position has been one that in recent years has been on the business end of reams of analysis. The influence a catcher can have on a game has come under review. The brunt of this analysis is in catcher framing. Baseball Prospectus has lead the charge and even revamped their own formulas this offseason. The basic idea here is that catchers who are better able to present a pitch to an umpire are able to steal strikes for their pitcher. This in turn flips an at bat as one pitch can make all the difference. On the other side, a catcher who presents a pitch poorly to the umpire turns strikes into balls. This in turn puts the batter ahead and makes the pitcher's job all that much harder.

Quantifying framing is still a work in progress as the analysis improves and the credit given to catchers continues to be refined. I personally have not fully bought in, but am willing to consider, the numbers on catcher framing. In point of fact, the AL East has five of the top twenty pitch framers from last year and all, save for one, are projected to be the starters.

I ranked the catchers from worst to first. All statistics and projections are from Fangraphs. I will provide both the ZIPS and Steamer projection system numbers so you can use whichever one tickles your fancy. All framing numbers come from Baseball Prospectus.

Tampa Bay Rays

Rene Rivera

Season G PA 2B HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+ fWAR FRABC*
2014 (SDP) 103 329 18 11 .252 .319 .432 114 3.0 26.2
2015 (ZIPS) 99 332 14 7 .224 .276 .345 78 1.7
2015 (Steamer) 88 348 15 8 .231 .285 .363 87 1.7

*FRABC stands for Framing Runs Added By Count. It gives an overall run value for all of the extra strikes the catcher adds over the course of the season.

The Rays acquired Rene Rivera from the San Diego Padres via trade over the winter. Rivera put up a career year in 2014 at the age of 30. Now, 31 soon to be 32 Rivera comes to the AL East after posting a career high in games played. The projection systems don't believe fully in his breakout offensive performance, but they have him being much more productive than his earlier seasons.

Rivera is older, switching leagues, and coming off of his best season at the plate ever. Not the greatest signs for a top flight player, but the one aspect of Rivera's game is intriguing. Rivera, in 103 games, posted the second best framing numbers in the league. Again, if you are sold on these numbers than you believe in his ability to affect the game. However, framing does age, and while the decline may not be steep, if the Rays are counting on his framing to provide value, a 32 year old may not be the best bet, even one that was so great as recently as last season.

Boston Red Sox

Christian Vazquez

Season G PA 2B HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+ fWAR FRABC*
2014 (BOS) 55 201 9 1 .240 .308 .309 77 0.7 14.6
2015 (ZIPS) 115 460 22 4 .246 .305 .328 76 1.8
2015 (Steamer) 86 331 15 8 .243 .308 .353 84 1.5

*FRABC stands for Framing Runs Added By Count. It gives an overall run value for all of the extra strikes the catcher adds over the course of the season.

Christian Vazquez gets the starting nod for the Red Sox with Ryan Hanigan as the backup. Vazquez figures to get the bulk of the playing time, but the projection systems vary greatly on how much that playing time might be. At 24, turns 25 in August, he is still young. A relatively respected prospect 2014 was Vazquez's first stint in the majors. He is known for his defense. He has a quick release and a strong arm posting a 52% caught stealing in 2014. The bat has been the question and in 2014 it was not great. The projection systems give him some credit for improvement, but not much.

As with Rivera, the interesting aspect to Vazquez is his framing numbers. In nearly half of the chances that the rest of the catchers in the league had in 2014, Vazquez was ranked 9th in gaining that extra strike for his pitcher. His arm behind the plate and his seemingly strong ability to frame give him an edge in my mind over the older Rivera.

New York Yankees

Brian McCann

Season G PA 2B HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+ fWAR FRABC*
2014 (NYY) 140 538 15 23 .232 .286 .406 92 2.3 10.6
2015 (ZIPS) 124 488 15 21 .249 .316 .431 107 3.1
2015 (Steamer) 117 500 17 23 .250 .314 .443 110 3.0

*FRABC stands for Framing Runs Added By Count. It gives an overall run value for all of the extra strikes the catcher adds over the course of the season.

In the second year of his five year $85 million dollar contract, the 31 year old Brian McCann looks to rebound from one of his worst seasons. McCann is likely to split some time between catcher and first base with Austin Romine or John Ryan Murphy filling in to rest the 31 year old's knees. McCann struggled last year at the plate with a career low walk rate. He also had a career low BABIP. Some positive regression may be due for McCann. On the other hand, being on the wrong side of 30 for a career catcher may be bad news for the Yankees. If McCann has to move to DH or 1B, he loses much of his value. His power at the plate remains intact and that puts him ahead of the other two, but just behind the top two catchers of the AL East.

McCann also represents himself well receiving the ball. McCann has long been lauded as an excellent framer and last year was no different. McCann was the 16th best catcher, out of 105, at grabbing extra stikes good for FRABC 10.6. His framing may keep his value up to the Yankees, but again, if he cannot stay behind the plate, his value will tumble.

Baltimore Orioles

Matt Wieters

Season G PA 2B HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+ fWAR FRABC*
2014 (BAL) 26 112 5 5 .308 .339 .500 134 0.9 -1.2
2015 (ZIPS) 96 385 18 15 .254 .314 .435 108 2.6
2015 (Steamer) 113 478 17 23 .244 .307 .410 100 2.9

*FRABC stands for Framing Runs Added By Count. It gives an overall run value for all of the extra strikes the catcher adds over the course of the season.

Coming off of Tommy John surgery Matt Wieters will look to continue the offensive success he had in his short 2014 season. Wieters looked good at the plate with a refined left handed swing. However, now Wieters is destined to start on the disabled list with no real timetable set for his return. Wieters and the team keep saying he'll play when he is ready, hopefully for the Orioles that will be sooner rather than later. Wieters has always shown an ability to hold runners, a career 33% Caught Stealing rate, and limit passed balls. Going into free agency Wieters will be as motivated as ever to have a great season both at the plate and behind it.

Backing up Wieters will definitely be Caleb Joseph, after that the catching situation is bit murkier. Joseph held his own last year putting up stellar defensive numbers and hitting just enough to not be totally unusable. After Joseph, the triad of Ryan Lavarnway, J.P. Arencibia, and Steve Clevenger all have a shot at making the Opening Day roster. Buck will chose one, it will not really matter which.

Again, if you believe in the worthiness of framing statistics, the Orioles catching situation may be a bit more muddled than one would think. Caleb Joseph posted 13.2 FRABC in 2014, good for 11th best among 105 candidates even in his limited playing time. Matt Wieters, in only 26 games, was 76th with -1.2 FRABC. Wieters posted solid framing numbers from 2010 to 2012, but has dipped the past two seasons. Maybe those seasons are abnormalities, or maybe his skills are declining. The decline in framing numbers seems sharper with taller catchers. At the very least, Joseph is a high quality backup.

Toronto Blue Jays

Russell Martin

Season G PA 2B HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+ fWAR FRABC*
2014 (PIT) 111 460 20 11 .290 .402 .430 140 4.9 16.5
2015 (ZIPS) 114 453 18 16 .237 .337 .407 110 3.7
2015 (Steamer) 101 414 17 13 .240 .338 .401 109 2.9

*FRABC stands for Framing Runs Added By Count. It gives an overall run value for all of the extra strikes the catcher adds over the course of the season.

Russell Martin enters the fray in the AL East once again by joining the Blue Jays on a five year $82 million for the 32 year old.  He posted his best season since 2008 last year with the Pirates. He has a good approach at the plate, a nice power stroke for a catcher, and can still play above average defense. He is also known as a team leader and a guy that stays in shape. For 32, Russell Martin still looks good. The backups right now are Dioner Navarro, who may get traded, and Josh Thole, who will exclusively catch R.A. Dickey.

Framing almost has to be mentioned when discussing Russell Martin. He is one of the poster boys of the movement to measure and quantify the ability to frame pitches. Martin has shown a great ability to frame pitches at a high level throughout his career. Even at 31, Martin was ranked as the 8th best catcher in majors last year in terms of FRABC.

***

Catchers have received a new focus over the last couple of years. While I am not completely sold on the framing metrics and the value they ascribe to catchers, I have no doubt that catchers are a crucial component to any team.

The AL East has some new blood and some old blood at the catching position. I ranked Martin above the rest because of his track record, health, and seemingly stellar all around play. Wieters nearly earned the top spot, but with injury concerns and some inconsistent work at plate, he fell to number two. The Yankees need to hope Brian McCann does not continue his decline. Meanwhile, the Rays and Red Sox catchers will either platoon or lose their spot if they cannot hold their own at the major league level.