Let’s travel all the way back to the 2012 season and settle in behind the plate at PNC Park.
Don’t worry about any responsibilities you have back here. It’s 2012. If a runner tries to steal, let him steal. This is the era where the Pirates have turned their catcher into a literal backstop, whose only task is catching the ball.
Rod Barajas was the starter that year. Michael McKenry was the backup, after surviving the gauntlet that was the 2011 season behind the plate for the Pirates.
Barajas gave up 93 stolen bases that year out of 99 attempts. He saw 25 wild pitches and seven passed balls. Forget what I said about turning the catcher into a literal backstop. The Pirates were pretty much playing short-handed that year.
That offseason the Pirates signed Russell Martin to a two-year deal. They followed those two years by trading for Francisco Cervelli, who remained in the organization until 2019. Martin and Cervelli locked down the catcher role in Pittsburgh, leaving the memory of Barajas in the distance.
While Barajas was trying to erase the memory of Ryan Doumit and others before him, the Pirates were getting creative in the 2012 draft. They had a chance to draft Mark Appel, who fell to them in the first round with the eighth pick. In rounds six through ten, the Pirates went with signable draft picks, hoping to get enough money for Appel to sign.
That didn’t work, and Appel returned to the draft the next year. But the seventh round pick that year was Jacob Stallings, signing for $10,000 as a senior out of UNC, and he would go on to become the Pirates starter behind the plate in the first non-Martin or Cervelli year.
Stallings was a signability pick, taken largely to save money for Appel. The Pirates wanted more than a warm body for these picks, so they went with very specific skillsets. In this case, the Pirates went with strong defensive ability and game calling. Stallings didn’t show much on offense in the early days of his pro career, but his defense was always solid.
He immediately got on my radar right after he entered the system. Stallings took over a State College Spikes short-season A-ball team that had an extremely diverse pitching staff. That group had players who were a year removed from high school ball in the US, college pitchers, pitchers from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and of course a pitcher from Lithuania named Dovydas Neverauskas. Stallings joined the team and within a week was managing the entire staff, with diverse countries of origin and diverse experience levels in the game.
I watched Stallings for a week in the lowest levels of the minors, watching him handle that staff with ease, and watching his defensive skills on display. I talked with him after each game about what his pitcher was doing right and wrong. It was through all of this that I saw a future MLB catcher. Granted, he caught 36% of runners stealing, and in the Age of Barajas, this would make any catcher look like an MLB catcher.
I didn’t expect what we saw in 2020 from Stallings. He held his own defensively, providing enough value to be the 11th best catcher in the majors by fWAR, which isn’t the best way to evaluate catchers, but it’s something. His offense held solid, with a .248/.326/.376 line, which was actually better than his offensive line that first year in State College. In the last two seasons, Stallings has been consistent in this regard, with a combined .256/.326/.380 line with nine homers in 353 plate appearances.
Getting a .700 OPS with Stallings’ defense is what you want from a starting catcher. The only downside is that Stallings turns 31 years old next month.
The Pirates added Russell Martin before his age 31 season. They extended Francisco Cervelli at the start of his age 30 season.
Stallings is very athletic, and seems like a guy who can sustain his production into his 30s. The main question is whether he can sustain the level of production we’ve seen over the last two seasons, which really amounts to half a season of play.
I think the defense will stick around. It’s the thing about Stallings’ game that has been constant. The offense has picked up as he’s climbed through the system, and anything in a .650-.700 OPS range should be good enough to keep him behind the plate.
What this means is that the Pirates could be fine at catcher for the next few seasons, riding it out with Stallings. He’s not going to be a Russell Martin who can make an impact from behind the plate. He’s also far from being Rod Barajas, who was a detriment to the team. Stallings looks like he could spend a few years as an average-to-above average catcher, fueled by defensive value, but adding enough offense along the way that he won’t make the bottom of the lineup a complete black hole.
The Pirates just made a move to add to Stallings for next year, bringing in former Rays catcher Michael Perez. Perez will be 28 on Opening Day, and has the same “strong defense with enough offense to stick in the majors” type of profile as Stallings. He could end up the next version of Stallings, grinding out an MLB career as a backup turned acceptable starter by playing to his skillset.
The 2021 season looks like it will be manned by Stallings and Perez, which isn’t horrible if Stallings can repeat what he’s shown over the last 18 months.
The Pirates don’t have much beyond those two guys, with very little in the system. I’ll break that down tomorrow, and give us a reminder of how dire things need to be to get to Rod Barajas levels again.