Every time there is a contract extension for a player somewhere else in baseball, I find myself thinking about whether there's a comparable Orioles player and what that might mean for his future market. Tuesday afternoon, the Pirates got me thinking after they announced a three year, $31 million contract extension for catcher Francisco Cervelli, who was a pending free agent at season's end.
The Orioles, as you know, also have a catcher who is a free agent-to-be. That is Matt Wieters, playing out the one year, $15.8 million qualifying offer that he surprised people by accepting back in November.
If a catcher who batted .295/.370/.441 in the 2015 season, as Cervelli did, is getting "only" $31 million guaranteed, that makes Wieters taking half that much to play for just one year pretty much automatic, even if it might not have seemed that way at the time.
Last October, MLB Trade Rumors projected Wieters would get four years, $64 million even with the draft pick loss attached to him. You'd have to be a mighty big believer in him to offer that with the way he's looking now.
Career track record
Cervelli turned 30 earlier this year, while Wieters turns 30 on Saturday, so these are two guys who would seem to be at the same place on the age curve.
Each one got his first meaningful big league action in the 2009 season. Wieters immediately became the Orioles starting catcher and shouldered a heavy workload, starting 121 games at catcher in his first full season (2010), then going on to start 129, 132, and 134 games the next three years.
That's quite a demonstration of durability, though of course the durability argument for Wieters takes a huge hit from his 2014 Tommy John surgery, from which, based on the Orioles treatment of him early on, Wieters does not appear to have yet completely recovered.
Cervelli, on the other hand, doesn't have a whole lot of a track record to speak of, despite his career spanning as many big league seasons. A variety of things including injuries, being buried on the Yankees behind Russell Martin and later Brian McCann, and getting swept up in the Biogenesis suspension net, contributed to making sure Cervelli never played more than 100 games before last year.
There is much more consistent evidence of what Wieters was compared to what Cervelli is. Then again, it's an open question how much the current Wieters can return to some of his own past performance.
Recent track record
The O's have played 37 games, with Wieters the starter at catcher in 22 of those games. That's a long way from starting 75% or more of a team's games as he has done in the past. And it's not like he's lighting the world on fire in that limited playing time.
Ending up last season with about a half season's worth of plate appearances, Wieters performed right about at his career mark in batting .267/.319/.422. That's OK - a 101 OPS+, or just about league average. Things are not going so well this year, though, as he finished Tuesday's game with a .616 OPS.
The Pirates acquired Cervelli and gave him a shot as the full-time guy. He rewarded them with that .771 OPS, a number that's higher than all but one full season of Wieters' career. Cervelli caught 124 games last year, and so far this year has started 32 out of 38 Pirates games at catcher. If he maintains that pace, he'll start 136 games.
April was a good month for Cervelli as he batted .321/.438/.385. However, some of that may have been luck-fueled, as his BABIP was .385. Cervelli has maintained a high BABIP in his career (.341) but he was still due for a regression, and that's hit him in May. His batting line has fallen to .289/.393/.339.
That's a great on base percentage but sub-Markakian levels of power. Cervelli has four extra base hits all year, none of which are home runs. His ISO (isolated slugging - that is, SLG-BA) is only .050, which is 185th out of 188 qualified MLB batters. Markakis himself entered Tuesday in 168th with a .088 ISO.
For comparison, a player with excellent power is Manny Machado, 9th in the league in ISO with .320. Having 11 home runs and 15 doubles at this point in the season will do that.
By the way, Wieters isn't much better in the power department right now. He hasn't even had enough at-bats to be a qualified batter - but if he did, his .093 ISO would bring him in at 163rd out of 188. Wieters also only has four extra base hits, so does it matter much that he has two homers where Cervelli has none? Probably not.
Who are these idiots who keep walking Cervelli despite a non-existent power threat? It is hard to throw three strikes before you throw four balls, apparently. Still, whatever the reason, he's got nearly 100 points of OBP on Wieters right now. That's tough to ignore.
All of the actual catching stuff
Up until now, I've only been looking at offense. There is a whole other side to the game.
Most fashionable in baseball now is to talk about pitch framing when looking at catchers. This is another area where Cervelli has the edge on Wieters. Simply put, Cervelli is good at it and Wieters isn't.
The website StatCorner tracks pitch framing. On a rate basis, Cervelli gained his pitchers 1.79 strikes per game last season. Wieters lost his pitchers 1.25 strikes per game last year and he's slightly worse so far this year.
That's not all that goes into being a good catcher, though. Cervelli seems to have major struggles with other aspects of defense. He caught 1,099.2 innings last year and allowed 10 passed balls in that time, as well as 51 wild pitches. This year, he's already allowed four passed balls and 13 wild pitches in 282.1 innings.
Wieters, who has always been regarded as a good defender, peaked in the 2013 season with only five passed balls and 28 wild pitches allowed in 1,201 innings. A wild pitch can be out of the catcher's control, but in the aggregate, the guy with the more cat-like reflexes will block more pitches than the elephant.
Does Wieters still have this skill post-surgery? Maybe not as much. So far this year, he has allowed one passed ball and eight wild pitches in 191 innings caught. That would come out to about 46 wild pitches over Cervelli's 2015 workload, giving Wieters a little edge, but a far less pronounced one than when he was at his best.
And one more thing...
Do not run on Wieters
Even post-surgery, this still has held true. There were 26 poor fools who ran on Wieters last year in his 485.1 innings caught. He threw out eight of them - 31%. That's a good number. In the 2016 season, only seven have tested Wieters to date, and he has obliterated three of these.
Then there's Cervelli. Everyone runs on Cervelli. He had 130 runners trying to steal on him last season and he was only able to throw out 29 of those. That's only a 22% caught stealing rate. So far this year he's doing better, catching eight of 24 runners. That he has been tested so many times in so short a span is a sign they're still running on Cervelli even wilder than Hulkamania.
There is benefit to having Cervelli behind the plate for his framing, but it's clear that you will pay a price for having Cervelli back there as well.
At least as far as the various WAR metrics are concerned, Wieters shouldn't get Cervelli money - and Cervelli should have probably gotten more. Fangraphs WAR puts Cervelli at 0.7, Baseball Reference WAR has him at 0.5 Both measures have Wieters at 0.1. Cervelli last year was worth 3.8 or 3.5 WAR, while Wieters was worth 1.0 or 0.8 WAR.
WAR, it seems, isn't worried about Cervelli's poor pitch blocking and runner deterrence. It helps, too, that Cervelli is walking so much that he keeps an excellent on base percentage. At this moment, Cervelli would lead the Orioles in that category. He is down with OBP.
If a Wieters who's batting .233 with power numbers in the bottom 15% of baseball hits the free agent market, it's hard to imagine him getting any kind of significant paycheck, let alone one that gives him three years and more money than Cervelli will be getting. It's expected to be a weak free agent class - but right now Wieters is part of what makes it weak, not a guy who stands out.
That's probably not what Wieters and Boras had in mind when Wieters took that qualifying offer. This year was supposed to be the stepping stone to the multi-year contract. There's a lot of baseball left to play, but unless the situation changes drastically, it's not looking like that big contract will be waiting for Wieters.
Do you think Wieters will end up getting more guaranteed money than Cervelli? Would he have gotten more last year than Cervelli got now if he had explored the market at that time?
(Various statistics in this post collected from Baseball Reference and Fangraphs)