This might feel like an odd moment to publish a scouting report on Max Scherzer, whose free agency ended earlier this week when the starting pitcher signed a seven-year, $210-million contract with the Washington Nationals. If the mindful hosts of Effectively Wild have taught us anything, however, it’s that we can learn as much about baseball by examining the moves that don’t happen as we can by studying the ones that did. In that vein, now is the perfect time to review a Scherzer transaction that did not occur:
— Baseball Prospectus (@baseballpro) January 16, 2015
That the Texas Rangers weren’t interested in signing Scherzer as their backup catcher isn’t surprising. After all, the Rangers’ current roster already lists four catchers: Jorge Alfaro, Robinson Chirinos, Carlos Corporan, and Tomas Telis. Alfaro is considered the Rangers’ number-two overall prospect. Chirinos added 2.2 WARP (2.4 rWAR, 2.4 fWAR) as their starting catcher last season. They just brought Corporan over from Houston in a trade (perhaps as a reaction to missing out on Scherzer?). Telis filled the backup role last season, appearing in eighteen games.
Still, Texas obviously saw something in Scherzer that made them think he could be their backup catcher. What was it? Without a source inside the Rangers’ front office, all we can do is speculate. Fortunately, Scherzer’s seven-year MLB career provides plenty of clues:
- Experience: Scherzer has appeared in 207 major-league games, which can be divided into two categories: those in which he appeared as a pitcher (206), and those in which he appeared solely as a pinch runner (1). What might seem like a red flag– Scherzer has never played in even one major league game as a catcher– actually is not a red flag. First, even though he doesn’t have experience as a catcher, he has experience with catchers; specifically, he has thrown a pitch in the general direction of a catcher 20,954 times. Second, and more on this later, it probably is no small secret, but backup catchers technically don’t have to actually play catcher. That’s the starting catcher’s job, after all, and Texas wasn’t considering Scherzer for the starting job. Anyway, Max probably knows how to call a game.
- Stopping the running game: As a pitcher, Scherzer’s role in preventing stolen bases has been second only to his catchers. He has a career forty-one-percent caught-stealing rate, which is one point better than Chirino’s rate last season. In addition, with an average fastball speed of ninety-four miles per hour, we can expect him to make the home-to-second throw in about 1.1 seconds, exclusive of pop time (or “Coke time,” as the Rangers call it), with accuracy.
- Defense: Scherzer’s fielding ability grades below average in terms of Defensive Runs Saved, but it may be better to focus on the particular sort of fielding a catcher is most likely to handle. Baseball-Reference tracks bF20%, the percentage of bunts fielded that result in outs. Again, Scherzer’s career sixty-eight percent is below the MLB average mark (eighty percent). This is looking like a weak area for him, although it appears he has been working on a “punch” move that could serve him well behind the dish and make him the envy of burly catcher types like Evan Gattis:
Scherzer also is possessed of a unique vision skillset that may aid his ability to pick up and stay in front of pitches.
- Health: BP notes ten “injuries” at the major-league level for Scherzer, and a total of thirty games (not clear whether these are all starts, or merely games including games he may not have been scheduled to start). These injuries generally fall into the category of shoulder fatigue, although hamstring tightness and an ankle sprain due to celebrating are noted. While the hamstring tightness could be a concern for someone who may be called upon suddenly to sustain a crouching position, the celebration injury is properly viewed as a net positive for a backup catcher.
In addition to the foregoing traditional scouting rubric, we also need to consider Scherzer’s backup catcher intangibles:
- Being a backup: As noted above, backup catchers don’t actually have to play catcher. It’s right there in the job title. They just need to be ready to play catcher. Being a good backup catcher is at least as much about being a good backup as it is about being a good catcher. In his work as a starting pitcher, Scherzer is used to not playing baseball. While missing no games due to injuries in the past two regular seasons, Scherzer appeared in a mere sixty-five games (out of a possible 324). Being a good backup is about more than simply not playing baseball– it’s about how you don’t play baseball. Note Figures 1 and 2, below. Fig. 1 shows Scherzer helping his on-field teammates with a focused execution of the rally-cap position. In Fig. 2, we see Scherzer taking pressure off his playing teammates by volunteering to conduct an in-game interview and earning extra credit for a heightened degree of difficulty.
- Mentorship: Where a player hasn’t demonstrated the precise ability for which a team is considering hiring him, the team likes to see that the player has sought out a mentorship relationship in order to learn the necessary skills from an experienced elder. In Fig. 3, below, Scherzer is showing off his backup-catcher skills with established backup catcher Victor Martinez.
A close scouting analysis thus shows that the Rangers’ consideration of Scherzer as a backup catcher was not so far-flung, and the above study may prove to be valuable foreshadowing for Scherzer’s next contract in 2022.
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