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February 13, 2014 / Nat Anacostia

Nats trade for Lobaton as backup catcher

Last season, 11 MLB teams won at least 91 games and made it to some type of playoff, wild card, or tie breaker game. Nine of those teams had a # 2 catcher with an OPS of at least .650; over all 11 teams, the average OPS of the # 2 catcher was .711 in 252 plate appearances. Although there are a lot of weak-hitting backup catchers in Major League Baseball, it is not characteristic of championship teams to have a hole in their lineup when the backup catcher plays.

Before this morning, it looked like the Nats were heading into the season with a gaping hole at their backup catcher slot. The backup catchers on their 40-man roster were Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon. Last year, Solano’s OPS was .523 in Triple A and Leon’s was .542 in Double A. Furthermore, their primary catcher, Wilson Ramos, has had several injuries and played only 103 games over the last two seasons. While the Nats had  Chris Snyder and Koyie Hill available under minor league contracts, neither of them bring much of a bat either.

With today’s announcement of the trade of Nate Karns for Jose Lobaton and two additional prospects who haven’t been named yet, Mike Rizzo has taken a small step toward filling that hole. Although Lobaton had a .249/.320/.394 line last season, his career line of .228/.311/.343 is probably more indicative of his projected hitting ability. Furthermore, reports of a weak throwing arm and below average ability at framing pitches* leaves me wondering just how much of an upgrade he’ll be over Solano and Leon. Nevertheless, this was the one roster hole that most needed filling, and I’m glad to see Rizzo make this move.

* Update: I notice that there are reports that Rizzo said Lobaton’s ability to frame pitches was a “key” to the Lobaton deal, which would contradict my statement about “below average ability at framing pitches.” So I need to clarify. First, it’s a bit hard to find data on pitch framing, so I hadn’t actually checked his record before writing this; I was just remembering a comment by Harper a couple days ago on Nationals Baseball blog. According to StatCorner, it looks like Lobaton is about average at pitch framing, neither unusually good or bad. I misinterpreted Harper’s point, which was that Lobaton became expendible because he was not nearly as good at pitch framing as the Rays’ Jose Molina, who everyone agrees is one of the best at framing. So I was wrong, but it would also seem hard to defend Rizzo’s comment about pitch framing being a key to the deal.

There is a sense in which Rizzo may be right, that pitch framing mattered. It’s when you look at the bottom of the list, the worst pitch framers. This list includes not only Koyie Hill, whom the Nationals control under a minor league contract, but other free agent catchers that the Nats passed on, such as John Buck. So even though Lobaton’s average pitch framing is what made him expendible by the Rays, it may also have been the key that made him more attractive to Rizzo than Buck.

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