One of the most underrated positions in baseball is the role of backup catcher. This role is growing ever more important in the MLB as fewer and fewer catchers start more than 120 games season. In 2016, Yadier Molina was the only catcher in baseball to start over 140 games, and only 6 other catchers started 120. This is why players like Eric Fryer have continued to find a role, as quality backups are hard to come by. The St. Louis Cardinals thought they found one such quality backstop when signing Brayan Pena before the 2016 season. As I am sure you know, that didn’t really go as planned. (He played in only 9 games) One could argue that the lack of quality back up is what led Matheny to pencil in Molina 142 games last year. (Career High) With Derek Norris put on waivers by the Nationals, Cardinal fans have been blogging and tweeting for John Mozeliak to go after the 4-year veteran. Allow me to explain, why that is not in the cards.
First question: Is Eric Fryer good enough to back up Yadi?
Fryer has a big advantage of knowing the pitching staff and coaches. This means he is already aware of the role and expectations asked of him, like scouting hitters, catching bullpens, and watching Yadi from the bench. He also knows that it can be multiple games between at-bats, and even a week between starts, and can prepare himself for playing in those situations.
Offensive Breakdown: In 291 MLB plate appearances, Fryer has a .254/.332/.322 slash, and had a .267/.336/.319 in 2016. Looking at his spray chart, he hits the ball on the ground a lot (50.8%), but consistently does it to all fields. He struggles to hit a plus breaking ball, but can hit a quality fastball. He doesn’t hit the ball hard, but has a contact percentage of 78%, which is right around league average. Every sabermetric comparison shows him to be an average MLB hitter.
Defensive Breakdown: The upside on Fryer is his experience and athleticism behind the plate. He has a defensive WAR based on UZR of +2.0, and his scouting report pegs him as an above average defensive catcher, who has thrown out 20.1% of would be base stealers. He has the look of a player who could get exposed if needed to play more than 40 games a year, but the Cardinals would never need him to fill that role. (knocking on wood) If Yadi had to serve a stint on the DL, Carson Kelly would be called up from AAA to be the everyday catcher. Fryer isn’t the greatest back up in the league, but I would still rank him higher than Cardinals former backup Tony Cruz. So in my opinion, Eric Fryer is an adequate backup.
Second Question: Is Derek Norris that much better than Fryer?
There seems to be a lot of intrigue among Cardinal fans concerning Derek Norris. When first starting to write this post, I was one of those who thought he may get a look from the front office. A closer look at his numbers, changed that opinion.
Offensive Breakdown: While Norris is a much more proven MLB player with close to 2000 plate appearances in 557 games, his career slash isn’t much better than Fryer. (.233/.309/.380) While Derek does hit for more power, he lacks any amount of plate disciple, and has a tendency to chase balls out of the strike zone. Playing for San Diego, Norris had his worst year statically in 2016. In 129 games last year Norris slashed .186/.255/.328, a big drop from his 2015 slash line of .250/.305/.404. Some have called it a decline, others a case of playing for a bad team, anyway you slice it… it was an awful year. I do expect him to rebound this year, and get his slash line closer to the .250/.300/.400, but that still makes him a league average hitter. Those numbers do not separate him from Fryer.
Defensive Breakdown: Derek Norris would be a slight downgrade defensively from Fryer. He has a WAR based on UZR of -2.8, as he also was the league leader with 13 passed balls in 2016. His scouting report shows a slightly below average defensive catcher with an above average arm behind the plate. This again does not separate Norris from Eric Fryer.
With both players having similar numbers, the entire situation really comes down to one variable… Fryer is already in camp with the Cardinals. Hard Norris been available this past offseason, I am sure the Cardinals would have reached out to him. I also get the sense he would have passed at any opportunity to play in St. Louis. I imagine he want to play for a team that he can start around 50 to 60 games in 2017. He will probably go to a team like the Rockies, who lack depth at catcher, and would give him a chance to start a few games at first while Ian Desmond is on the DL.
Thanks for reading.