MLB catchers combined to hit .226/.295/.367 in nearly 22,000 PA during the 2022 season, their efforts good for a .293 wOBA. This article, I should preface, is a Tyler Stephenson Appreciation Post.
Stephenson has rocketed into his big league career like the 1st round pick we all hoped he’d be, and in just over 600 total PA so far at the highest level of professional baseball in the world has hit a robust .296/.369/.454 - good for a .356 wOBA. It’s the kind of production from a guy with a facemask who can whisk lasers down to 2B with the flick of the wrist that teams everywhere can only dream of, the kind of player around whom franchise begin to build rosters for the decades to come.
Of course, part of why it’s hard to hit as a catcher is because it’s hard not to get hit as a catcher. As breaking pitches spin to the farthest reaches of the zone and fastball velocities continue to regularly work into the triple-digits, it isn’t just one those majestic dingers where exit-velocities have been increasing, it’s on the foul balls that bonk catchers in their chins, their shins, their beans. Getting hit back there has always hurt, to be sure - now, it just hurts harder.
Tyler gets hit. He got hit, a lot. Concussions, a busted thumb, a busted collarbone, and the bulk of his 2022 season was spent not just not playing, but actively trying to get his body back to normal. While we all hope upon hope that it never happens again with that kind of voracity, the fact is that the more time he spends behind the plate, the more the sound of the inevitability.
I’m not advocating the Cincinnati Reds turn Tyler into a 1B full-time. Nor am I advocating they move him off of catcher at all. I’m simply trying to figure out a way for the Reds to get better production on the hopefully 40 to 50 games a year in which his knees and surface bruises are getting a day off from catching duties. In a modern, ideal National League world, that’ll mean the days on which Tyler is either subbing in at 1B or acting as the DH to keep his elite-anywhere bat in the the lineup, days in which the fledgling-yet-promising next era of Reds baseball can still try to actively win games.
The thing is, his replacements behind the plate this year were positively abysmal at the plate. Their offense was offensive, their bats hollow. Even with Tyler’s 50 games of work factored in, Cincinnati catchers posted a collective 58 wRC+, tied for the third worst among all units among the 30 MLB teams.
As I opined earlier this offseason, the Cincinnati Reds need a catcher, even though they’ve got Tyler. They need Tyler protection. Tyler insurance. A Stephensongänger, even for the best of times, as the best of times mean nearly 200 PA available to catchers not named Tyler Stephenson in a full, healthy Tyler Stephenson season. The problem is, of course, is that everyone needs a catcher, most need three, and aside from Willson Contreras this offseason, the free agent class is effectively a league-wide mimic of what the Reds rolled out in Tyler’s injured stead in 2022.
What if they’ve already got one around, though?
What if that guy is due nearly $6 million in arbitration, is a guy everyone already loves, plays absolutely everywhere, and currently spends most of his time playing where the entire future of the franchise is set to play beginning as early as 2023?
To date, Farmer has played more games at catcher in his professional career (393) than at any other position on the diamond, with shortstop (319) and 3B (211) following suit. He has not, however, donned the gear since 15 games there during the 2019 season, a timeline that initially was due in very large part to the looming emergence of a talented young catching rookie by the name of Tyler Stephenson. Stephenson and Tucker Barnhart, you’ll recall, were the then-present of the situation, and Farmer’s versatility meant he, and the team, would be better off all around if he were deployed elsewhere.
Farmer’s versatility meant he, and the team, would be better off all around if he were deployed elsewhere. I think I’m trying to present-tense that statement for the catching position right now.
Though Jose Barrero has flailed terribly in his big league efforts, he still deserves at least a shot to show he can competently be an infielder at the big league level. Behind him, Elly De La Cruz looks poised to set the world on fire as the team’s shortstop of the future, with Noelvi Marte a burgeoning force at 3B beside him. 1st round pick Matt McLain is a shortstop, too, with potential to move somewhere else on the infield also in his wheelhouse in the very near future, too.
What the Reds simply do not have, as currently constructed, is someone who could step in to spell Stephenson and provide competent enough offense to not only not embarrass oneself at the position, but actually turn the unit into one of the best in all of baseball. Elite offensive player Farmer is not, obviously, but the back to back seasons of 90 and 91 wRC+ he’s posted would - as a catcher - have put him in pretty top-tier offensive company at the position.
Do that for 30-40 games, play SS for 20-30 games, play 2B and 3B and 1B and DH for 20-30 games, and the Reds begin to get the kind of undefinable value out of his versatility that most advanced metrics often overlook, in my opinion. And from Kyle’s perspective, it makes the pitch for the ever-frugal, ever-rebuilding Reds to pay a 32 year old nearly $6 million for the 2023 season seem that much more palatable, as they’d be paying him to cover that many more jobs all at once.
Rest assured, this is not a plea to make Kyle Farmer a catcher, or make him the guy behind the dish for 5 days a week if, god forbid, Tyler gets hurt again next year. If Tyler gets hurt again next year, the next year’s win/loss record becomes once again meaningless altogether, and rolling out whoever the hell can actually catch a pitch is all that will really matter to bide the time. However, if the karma that torpedoed even the lightest of 2022 plans flips for 2023 and Tyler, Jonathan India, Joey Votto, Jose Barrero, Nick Lodolo, Hunter Greene, Graham Ashcraft, Tony Santillan, Lucas Sims, and Tejay Antone are much healthier than they were last season, getting this out of Kyle - perhaps the most out of Kyle - just might be the best way to field the best possible outfit for the 162 game long-haul, all the while leaving more windows open for the prospects who’ll ideally be breaking into the infield at some point in 2023, too.
At the least, it’ll increase his trade value.