Most people underestimate this aspect of the game, but the catcher is involved in almost every play of every game. They call every pitch, they hold every runner, and they block the plate on every close scoring play. It is a tough physical position, usually requiring more off-days than other field positions. Therefore, Joe Girardi is right to focus on the defense aspect of the role.
Still, this is a departure from the function that Yankee catchers have played for the last two decades, having been spoiled by the offensive productivity of the likes of Russell Martin, Jorge Posada, Joe Girardi, Jim Leyritz, and Mike Stanley. In fact, most Yankees World Series teams had strong bats at the backstop (think Thurman Munson, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, and Bill Dickey).
When thinking about catching defense, you think primarily about three things. First, how well do they call a game? Second, how well do they handle difficult pitches? Finally, how well do they stop the runner on first from taking second? So how do the current contenders stack up?
Francisco Cervelli can call a decent game. Pitchers had an ERA of 3.50 when he caught them in 2011 and 4.04 in 2010. For the most part, it will be the same pitchers this year, so it looks like he can handle the current roster of pitchers. This is good news for him. As far as handling difficult pitches, he only has five passed balls in his entire career (over 1300.1 innings). It makes him a reliable backstop. However, throwing runners out runners at second is where he fails significantly. Since he had hardly any major league experience in 2012, I am looking at 2011 and 2010. In 2011, he allowed 24 stolen bases out of 28 attempts. In 2011, he allowed 55 stolen bases out of 64 attempts. If I am an opposing manager, and I have a few good base runners, I am sending the runner from first as often as I can. This can create a real liability on defense, and if Cervelli wants to make a run for the starting catcher spot, he needs to improve his arm strength and mechanics.
Chris Stewart is known as a primarily defense catcher. In 2012, Yankee pitchers had an ERA of 3.42 when he was catching, which is comparable to Cervelli. In 2011, for the Giants, his pitchers' ERA was 2.74. Having to face American League hitting can probably account for the increase in 2012, but you can see that he calls a good game. He allowed eight passed balls over 395 innings in 2012, which is above average, but not terribly off the charts. He may have had an off-year in that category, as he came into the season with 5 passed balls over about 600 innings in his career coming into last season. Therefore, the expectation is that he will be able to handle pitches. He threw out about a third of the base runners attempting to steal, which is above the American League average for qualified catchers. The conclusion is that he is a very good defensive catcher. The problem is his bat. Can Joe Girardi swallow having a career .217 hitter in the lineup every day? Granted, he did improve his average last year to .244, but you have to wonder how Joe will handle him in a lineup that is clearly lower on power and higher on contact and speed.
Austin Romine is a great rookie coming up through the system, known for his defense skills much more than his hitting skills. At 24 years of age, he has some time to build his game-calling skills and his hitting. He has a great opportunity this spring to show off his progress and create a good impression to Yankee management. At the same time, he is probably only getting this opportunity because the catching spot is so fluid right now. He got some looks last September, and his defense was very good in some spots, but it is obvious that he is not yet ready for the majors. Bobby Wilson is another career journeyman who is getting a look this spring. He will be turning 30 this April, he has never hit .230 for any season, and he has never started 60 games in a season. If the Yankees had only one option at catcher, he might be able to fill a backup role. Nevertheless, on this team, at best he is the backup to the backup, and is unlikely to get serious consideration for a spot on the 25-man roster.
I do not pretend to have the ability to read Joe Girardi's mind, but if it were I, I would carry both Cervelli and Stewart and mix/match as the season goes on. Realistically, Stewart is the one who will probably get more of the starts and be pinch-hit for in close games with runners on. Then the Yankees will need another reliable backstop on the bench - probably Cervelli. Both have an opportunity to make a case for themselves. Stewart needs to improve his hitting enough that he is not an automatic out. Cervelli will need to improve his arm strength and his mind-set towards the game. By his own admission, he went into a tailspin last year with is approach, and he is looking to make a better showing this year. Personally, I am rooting for Cervelli, because I liked how he played with fire in his belly in 2011. However, both of them fighting for that spot by improving their respective weak points will be great for the Yankees. The Yankees will surely need that this year.
--Ike Dimitriadis, BYB Writer
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