Following a disappointing 2014 season many Reds fans were hoping that management would make a splash in free agency or on the trade market. The Reds did ultimately make some moves, but they weren’t exactly the kind of moves everyone was hoping for. Alfredo Simon turned into Eugenio Suarez and Jonathon Crawford. Mat Latos became Anthony Desclafani and Chad Wallach. Marlon Byrd was signed to fill the gap in left field for at least one season. While these moves might end up helping the team, they weren’t the sexy moves that most fans hoped for.
If the Reds weren’t going to make a big move this off-season, then the next best thing that they could do is lock up some of their young talent. Todd Frazier, Aroldis Chapman, and Devin Mesoraco all played important roles on last year’s team. However, all three are arbitration-eligible as of this year. It remains to be seen what will become of Chapman and Frazier, but the Reds did make the decision to lock up Mesoraco this week with a four-year deal worth $28M. In effect, the Reds bought out all three of Mesoraco’s arbitration years and his first year of free agency.
In this article I want to look at three basic questions. How good was Mesoraco last season, how does this deal compare with comparable catchers, and ultimately how should Reds fans feel about this deal?
Offensively Mesoraco was good last season. Actually, he was really really good from a power perspective. He finished the season hitting .273/.359/.534 in 114 games at catcher. He also tallied 25 HR, 80 RBI, an ISO of .260, and a 149 OPS+. That ISO led the major leagues for all catchers who played more than 100 games. Not only that, but it was the 25th best ISO all-time for a catcher playing in at least 100 games. Numbers like this allowed Mesoraco to play in his first All-Star game and he also received a few down ballot MVP votes. For an offensively challenged Reds team, Mesoraco’s breakout was a breath of fresh air. Clearly Mesoraco was good offensively last season, but just how good was he?
According to Baseball-Reference, only forty other catchers in major league history had a season of 20+ HR, 80+ RBI, 100+OPS+, and a .500+ SLG. Of those forty catchers only six of them accomplished the feat more than once. Mike Piazza (who did it an incredible TEN times) and Johnny Bench (five times) have done it most often. Jorge Posada, Ted Simmons, Roy Campanella, and Bill Dickey all did it four times. Obviously Mesoraco has a ways to go to be mentioned in the same breath as these catchers, but I began to wonder if the trajectory of these players could shed light on the value of this deal for the Reds.
Piazza is clearly the gold standard of this group as he accomplished this type of season ten times. Piazza did this in his age 24-33 seasons, but his peak seasons during this stretch were from 26-28. This ten-year run was cut short when Piazza suffered a severe groin strain during the 2003 season. Upon his return he started putting in more time at first-base.
Johnny Bench had five such seasons. These occurred at ages 22, 24, 26, 27, and 29. His slugging percentage is the only thing that kept his age 23 and 25 seasons off of the list. Like Piazza, Bench produced offensively as a catcher into his early 30’s, but at that point, as expected, his offense began to decline.
The group that accomplished this type of season four times had similar results. Ted Simmons did it four straight years from ages 27-30. Bill Dickey did it from 29-32. Roy Campanella’s four seasons at this mark are found from ages 28-33. Of the group, Posada is a bit of an outlier as he only posted one season at this level prior to age thirty. In fact at age thirty-five he had his best offensive season and that year he still played 136 games behind the plate.
All of this is to say that outside of Posada, the catchers who have had the best offensive seasons from a power perspective typically do so from their late 20’s into their early 30’s. If this trajectory holds for Mesoraco then his best offensive seasons will occur over the next 4-7 years (he’s twenty-six now).
We looked at Mesoraco’s production offensively because that’s where most of his value is. He wasn’t great defensively last year, but he wasn’t terrible either. He finished with an 0.8 dWAR which was good for a tie for fifteenth in the league. However, his 2DRS (defensive runs saved) tied him for ninth in the league. Also, his 2.4RPP (catcher blocked pitches in runs above average) was good enough for fourth in the league. Mesoraco finished the season with 4.8 WAR, which was good enough for fourth best in baseball among full-time catchers. Again, the Reds are paying Mesoraco seven million a season over the next four years for this type of production. So how does his deal compare with catchers that made similar contributions?
Three catchers finished above Mesoraco in WAR last year. They were Jonathan Lucroy (6.7), Russell Martin (5.5), and Buster Posey (5.2). The two catchers directly below him were Yan Gomes (4.4) and Salvador Perez (3.3). How do the financial situations of these five players compare with the Reds and Mesoraco?
Lucroy was the best catcher in the league by WAR last year and his contract is also the most enviable on this list. Prior to his breakout season in 2012 the Brewers signed him to a five-year deal worth $10.28M. It’s almost criminal that the best catcher in baseball last year only got paid about $2M. Like Mesoraco, Lucroy will also be a free agent when he turns thirty. He didn’t have the power numbers that Devin did, but he had a better all around offensive season (as evidenced by his 5.5 oWAR). It was impossible that the Reds could have gotten as much value out of this signing as the Brewers did Lucroy. The Brewers paid Lucroy prior to his breakout while the Reds are now paying up after a season of production.
This off-season Russell Martin received a five-year deal worth $82M. Many believed that this substantial investment by the Blue Jays was driven by Martin’s reputation for defense, in particular pitch framing. His 4.2 oWAR was 0.4 behind Mesoraco’s total for the year. Unfortunately for Blue Jays fans, I don’t know if they should expect that level of offensive production from him throughout the length of his contract. This contract covers Martin’s age 32-36 seasons. Outside of Posada, the catchers that we looked at began declining (sometimes sharply) at this point. The move to the AL might offer Martin some opportunities to get out from behind the plate, but if the Jays signed him for defensive purposes then they’re going to want him to catch. 16.4M per season for a catcher who should begin declining seems like a steep overpay (although the market appeared to place a premium on framing this off-season).
Posey is the other high-priced player on this list. He’s in the midst of a nine year deal playing him $164M ($18.2M per season). This contract covers his age 26-34 seasons. Posey, who has had some well-publicized injury issues, spent 33 games at first base last season and it’s probable that he will start to spend less and less time behind the plate. While it’s not entirely his fault, this is likely much sooner than the Giants would have liked to transition him from a premium defensive position. Posey and Mesoraco compared favorably offensively. Mesoraco had a higher wRC+ last season (147 to 144), but Posey ended with the higher oWAR (5.5 to 4.6).
The two players below Mesoraco in WAR last season: Yan Gomes and Salvador Perez, are still making quite a bit less than him. However, both didn’t have nearly the offensive numbers that Mesoraco did a year ago. Gomes finished with an oWAR of 3.9 and wRC+ of 121. Perez had an oWAR of 2.2 and a wRC+ of 92. Admittedly Perez rates quite a bit higher than Mesoraco defensively. Gomes is locked up from ages 26-31 for 3.8M per season. It’s a little harder to compare Perez’s current deal (7M over 5 years) to Mesoraco’s new one. Salvador will be a free agent at age twenty-six, and should still have more than a few productive years in front of him.
So how should Reds fans feel when looking at Mesoraco’s new contract compared to the contracts of other comparable catchers? I don’t know how they can’t feel great about it. The Reds have locked up one of the best hitting catchers in baseball through some of his most productive seasons for only 7M per season. They’re not on the hook with Devin for an extended contract into his declining offensive years. Although, that’s not the case for everyone on the roster…you know who you are.
At the end of this contract the Reds should be in a good spot. If they want to resign Mesoraco they’ll be able to make that decision at a good point in his career. The contract should be great value for some of his best seasons, and if they sense that he’s declining they can let another team over pay for him without taking on an albatross-type contract. Fans may have grumbled at Jocketty’s earlier moves, but they can’t grumble about this one.Next post: The Best-ish Rotation of 2014
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