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Do the Cincinnati Reds still need to improve behind the plate?

A closer look at the team’s catching performance.

Cincinnati Reds Photo Day Photo by Rob Tringali/Getty Images

I suppose that production at a certain position isn’t necessarily a problem if it ranks somewhere in the middle of the pack relative to its peers. In that regard, the Cincinnati Reds collective efforts at catcher this year are not the lone problem facing the club, and are certainly not the sole reason why they’re still mired 10 games under .500 with the season just about to wrap.

Per FanGraphs, the entirety of the Reds fWAR from the catching position ranks 17th among the 30 MLB clubs, more or less smack dab in the middle of the pack. At just 1.3 total fWAR, however, the club sits much, much closer to the bottom of the barrel in overall production than they do to the top tier clubs. Second on the list with 5.6 fWAR sit the Philadelphia Phillies, the club that eventually struck the deal to land All Star J.T. Realmuto from the hapless Miami Marlins last winter, doling out a package that was better than the one the Reds themselves put together in what became a pretty clear search for a significant catching upgrade.

Right now, the only club ahead of the Phillies on the fWAR rankings is the Milwaukee Brewers, home of none other than that dude in the picture atop the page, Yasmani Grandal. And coincidentally, Grandal is set to be a free agent at season’s end heading into a 2020 season in which the Reds have seemingly put most all of their eggs in one basket (see: Bauer, Trevor).

The question is this - do the Reds still need to be searching for the kind of massive catching upgrade that they sought prior to the 2019 season and never landed? Offensively, it’s hard to deny that there are probably better options than what the Reds roll out on a day to day basis. That said, so, so much of a catcher’s inherent value lies in aspects beyond what they produce at the plate, and often those are very, very hard to quantify.

Such a large portion of the argument prior to the start of the 2019 season was that the Reds had pretty consistently ranked among the worst clubs in all of baseball at the art of pitch framing, or the idea that good receivers of fringe pitches help earn additional strike calls through their ability to frame pitches that otherwise might get called balls. Buying extra strikes, or creating a larger strike zone, more or less. Conveniently enough, FanGraphs finally added this catcher trait to their overall valuations, and retroactively applied it to fWAR totals for catchers just before the start of this season. As David Appelman broke down quite well, it significantly altered how catchers have been (and will be) valued, with Grandal in particular a player whose overall value increased significantly thanks to his pristine framing ability.

FanGraphs was not alone in their adoration for Grandal’s ability to frame pitches. Baseball Prospectus, who in many ways pioneered how to value pitch framing, ranked Grandal as the single best framer in the game in 2018, a mark he has backed up in 2019 by ranking 4th among all MLB backstops. In other words, when it comes to Grandal’s work back there, both metrics seem to jive in their evaluations.

Where things get a little more interesting is if you slide your eyes just two lines down from Grandal on the 2019 B-Pro rankings. There, you’ll find Tucker Barnhart, a player whose poor framing metrics according to FanGraphs pretty well torpedoed his entire value from 2014-2018, as he was only valued at a cumulative 1.7 fWAR across those 5 seasons after the framing update. And while FanGraphs has yet to back up that he’s been a much improved catcher in that arena in 2019, B-Pro certainly has endorsed his ability there this season, especially considering that in 2018 Tucker ranked 109th out of the 117 MLB catchers in that arena.

Add-in that Curt Casali has similarly been significantly improved in the eyes of B-Pro - he ranks 19th on the 2019 framing list - and suddenly it doesn’t seem as if the Reds have nearly the glaring deficiency behind the plate that they thought they had just one offseason ago.

There are certainly questions to consider here, so let’s do just that.

For one, whether or not this is merely a one-year blip or a massive character trait turnaround is important for the Reds to know. The art of pitch framing is certainly not an easy one to just pick up out of nowhere, but with an entirely new coaching staff and the obvious need for improvement from the current crop of Reds catchers given the 2018 data, perhaps it was an area of heightened importance for the likes of Barnhart and Casali heading into the 2019 season. If so, the idea that they can continue to excel in this area going forward becomes a more realistic one to bank on.

The other question, obviously, is how much actually having a competent pitching staff for the first time in Tucker’s career, specifically, has helped his overall framing scores. In case you hadn’t noticed, the 90 loss seasons the Reds were piling up were due in no small part to their complete lack of competent pitching, with staffs that featured “strikeout leader Tim Adleman” and “Opening Day Starter Scott Feldman [TM]” and “Homer Bailey,” among others, and it’s not exactly the easiest thing in the world to frame pitches that miss their spots by feet, at times. It’s a bit of a chicken/egg argument, obviously, as good framing makes pitchers look better, too, but pitchers only missing their spots by fractions instead of fathoms sure does make the catcher’s ability to frame them as strikes significantly easier, as well.

The point is, I think, that while the Reds will be heading into 2020 with an existing commitment to be good in that year in particular, they still need upgrades across the board to make sure that’s a realistic goal. The starting pitching should be more than fine already, while the likes of 3B, and 1B are pretty well spoken for already. Beyond that, however, the Reds have a number of question marks, as we still don’t know exactly what to expect over a full season from the likes of Jesse Winker, Nick Senzel, Josh VanMeter, Aristides Aquino, Jose Peraza, and others. That leaves the door open to pursue a number of potential upgrades to mix and match with that existing roster, and the idea that an upgrade at catcher - something the team actively pursued last winter because they obviously thought they needed one - might not be as blatantly obvious of a need as it once was.

Could they still upgrade behind the plate? Certainly, especially if the improvement in the Reds starting pitching department in 2019 was truly the fuel behind the metric spikes for Barnhart and Casali, since it’s hard to ignore just how good Grandal’s numbers might look after a full year of catching that kind of talent. He’ll be monumentally expensive in the free agent market, however, so it’s pretty paramount for the Reds to determine whether the rise in framing numbers from the current Reds catchers is a true improvement or merely a byproduct of their environment, since if it’s the latter there’s still a huge room for improvement in that area. And if 2020 is truly a year in which they want to compete, upgrading to the best at his craft is an obvious way to make the club significantly better with one signature.

Heck, he does look good in that jersey, too.