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Helping the Guardians with their catcher conundrum

Digging into pitching data to see how the offensively challenged backstops compare

MLB: Cleveland Guardians at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The Guardians catching conundrum is simple. At least you’d think so based on [gestures wildly at everything]. Signing Mike Zunino was a decent idea at the time but it hasn’t worked out, and he’s not providing the offensive production hoped for and has been the worst-qualified catcher in blocking and average at best at framing. Likewise, Cam Gallagher is a little better defensively by FanGraphs’ defensive metrics, but carrying a -18 wRC+, which is like if a black hole and a vacuum had a baby.

For Cleveland, having strong leadership behind the plate is clearly worth the pain on offense. The Guardians have shown incredible patience with their catchers, accepting an astonishing rate of offensive futility from backstops in return for their defensive prowess. Since 2020, Guardians’ catchers have a cumulative wRC+ of 52, which is 48% worse than league average and the worst among all 30 MLB teams by 12 percentage points (the Pirates rank 29th over that span with a wRC+ of 64 from their catchers).

But at some point, enough is enough, right?

We know Bo Naylor belongs in the big leagues. Everyone knows this! Even MLB’s Mike Petriello has taken to wondering aloud why the Guardians won’t just call up Bo Naylor and let the revolution begin.

Cleveland’s front office is clearly struggling with the decision, though. So I took it upon myself to dig into the stats and help them out. There’s no easily accessible split that I could find that spits out pitcher performance for each catcher, so I manually input a bunch of data and came up with some interesting comparisons between Zunino and Gallagher.

The most top-line stat possible is each catcher’s win-loss record, awarding them a decision if they were behind the plate when the pitcher credited with the win or loss was in the game. Thus far, Zunino is 13-19 and Gallagher is 10-8 this season. It’s not a fair metric, because no amount of pitch calling or framing is going to make Zach Plesac’s or James Karinchak’s pitches less barrel-able, but it’s a start.

Going deeper, Guardians pitchers have allowed opposing hitters a batting average of .267 and .219 and on-base percentage of .317 and .276 when Zunino and Gallagher are catching, respectively. Given that batters are reaching base less when Gallagher is behind the dish, it makes sense they’re also scoring less. Of 728 batters faced when Gallagher is catching, 64 have scored (8.8%), only 56 of them earned (7.7%); 1,225 batters have come to the plate when Zunino is catching and 155 of them have scored (12.7%), 144 of them earned (11.8%). Opposing hitters putting the ball in play and scoring is the result of many factors, but all start with both ends of the pitcher-catcher battery doing their job, and Gallagher seems to have a slight edge in this area.

Via Baseball Savant’s catching framing runs, Gallagher is seventh-best among 59 qualified catchers with 2 runs. Zunino, on the other hand, is 20th with one run. In the raw numbers, that narrow margin remains: Zunino has caught 4,647 pitches and 2,993 have been strikes, which is 64%; Gallagher has caught 2,791 pitches and 1,813 have been strikes, which is 65%. Where pitchers throwing to Gallagher start to differentiate is in called strikes and whiffs, getting better percentages in both categories. Pitchers throwing to Zunino have a whiff rate of 10% and called strike rate of 15%, whereas Guardians pitchers have a whiff rate of 11.6% and called strike rate of 17% when throwing to Gallagher.

We know called strikes and whiffs are correlated to strikeout rate, but it’s rather striking to see how this has played out in Cleveland. Pitchers have a strikeout rate of 18.3%, a walk rate of 7%, and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.64 when Zunino’s catching versus a strikeout rate of 21.3%, walk rate of 7.3%, and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.92 when Gallagher’s catching. For reference, Lance Lynn has a K:BB ratio of 2.92 and MacKenzie Gore has a K:BB ratio of 2.64.

Nothing here suggests Gallagher is going to turn around the Guardians’ fortunes, but he does seem to provide a slight advantage in terms of leading the pitching staff. Considering both Gallagher and Zunino have negative wRC+ for the month of May, the best move the team could make at this point is likely to remove the catcher that has played the lion’s share of the games (Zunino = 35 games, Gallagher = 23 games) and give a large amount of that playing time to Bo Naylor.

Let’s hope the front office agrees, and soon.