Is 'Less' Actually 'More' When it Comes to Playing Time Behind the Plate?

(image credit: Brian Curski, Cumulus Media)

It’s only natural for a baseball player to want to play every day. It’s ingrained in our ballplaying brains from the first day we see our name on a lineup card.

But is it productive to play that often? That’s an especially apt question when it comes to the position of catcher.

“I know it matters,” said Baseball Prospectus writer Matt Trueblood with an impish grin at Target Field on Tuesday night when I told him what I was working on. “Take a look at Willson Contreras last year.”

“Oh yeah,” I said. “Didn’t he catch like a ton more pitches than any catcher last year?”

He did. In 2018, Contreras caught 18,474 pitches in 133 games behind the plate. Only one other catcher — fellow iron man Yadier Molina — even caught 17,000. So Contreras caught 1,300-plus more pitches than any of his contemporaries — and it certainly showed in his production.

Before Contreras went hitless in the Wild Card game last October, he showed a consistent pattern of decline at the plate as the season wore on:

  • March/April – .767 OPS
  • May – .869
  • June – .731
  • July – .876
  • August – .623
  • September – .465

To simply split by halves, Contreras had an .818 OPS in the first half and a measly .585 in the second. Manager Joe Maddon made the conscious choice to grind Contreras into a pulp rather than relying a bit more on the carousel of catchers behind him, namely Chris Gimenez, Victor Caratini and Bobby Wilson.

Fast forward to this year, and Contreras is third in the NL in pitches caught with 8,288 in 60 games played. That’s still 55 starts in 71 team games (77.4 percent), which isn’t far off from last year’s pace of 123 starts in 162 games (75.9 percent), but it’s very possible that Maddon can throttle back in the warmer months of the season as Victor Caratini (.316/.418/.491) has emerged as a reliable backup after an uneven 2018 (.232/.293/.304).

And so far, Contreras is performing greatly, as he’s hitting a robust .287/.387/.530 so far.

As a result, it should surprise no one that the Cubs have one of the most prolific catching tandems in the game. Altogether, they’ve combined for 2.3 WAR via Fangraphs with the highest wRC+ (136) as a unit.

Another tandem leads the American League — the Minnesota Twins.

But their playing time split has been drastically different.

The trio of Jason Castro, Mitch Garver and Willians Astudillo — most notably the first two — has combined to hit .270/.338/.520 with 2.6 fWAR.

How has the playing time been divvied up?

  • Castro – 33 starts (46.5 percent)
  • Garver – 26 (36.6 percent)
  • Astudillo – 12 (16.9 percent)

Those numbers favor Castro a bit because Garver missed time with a high ankle sprain, but otherwise it’s been roughly a 50/50 timeshare with Astudillo since being sent to the minors after a prolonged slump.

(photo credit: Brian Curski, Cumulus Media)

Could the division of playing time be the reason Castro and Garver are producing like they are? Garver is hitting .310/.394/.664 and could garner some All-Star consideration despite not appearing on the ballot, while Castro is more than holding his own at .248/.342/.533.

Castro leads the Twins in pitches caught this season with 4,704, but that ranks just 16th in the American League alone. Garver is 19th (3,929) and Astudillo 32nd (1,810).

So is less actually more when it comes to squatting behind the plate?

“We ask our catchers to do a lot of things physically that we don’t ask anyone else to do,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Their job is clearly the most physically demanding position during the game when they’re out there. They get beat up, they are hurting. The way they’re moving at the end of the game is never the way they’re moving at the beginning of the game. Because of that, it is challenging to take a bat and go up there and to have a good, quality at-bat. To have our guys doing that is pretty impressive. It’s not something that just happens. It’s not something that the game is changing in a certain way where all of a sudden we’re seeing all of this offensive production from our catchers.

“Maybe that is the case and I’m just not noticing it. And maybe offense is going in a certain direction as a whole. I still think it’s a challenging thing to go up there after getting beat up behind the plate the entire night.”

Because of all of this, Baldelli says it’s a luxury to have two catchers producing the way Castro and Garver are.

“I would say so,” Baldelli said. “With the guys we have doing what they’re doing, it’s pretty special and something — I really haven’t been around anything like it before. I know that I keep saying that about a lot of different things around here. But our catchers are doing a great job and no matter who we throw back there, we send them out and they get it done.”

But how much of the production is attributable to added rest as opposed to guys just having career years? Baldelli said he wasn’t totally sure.

“I really don’t know. Maybe,” Baldelli conceded. “I can’t speak to how they’re feeling, to what they’re seeing when they’re at the plate and how their timing is. The production has been very good. I think they probably have been fresh. I don’t know if that’s what’s leading to their offensive success. But it’s what fits us right now. It’s what works best with our group and spreading around the games and the at-bats and things like that. I can’t really say for sure.”

Baldelli also has the difficult task of not only writing the lineup card every day, but having to tell one of the two guys that they aren’t starting every single day.

To their credit, Rocco said, they’ve handled it well.

(image credit: Brian Curski, Cumulus Media)

“Those aren’t always easy discussions,” Baldelli said. “I think we talk about it with our catchers because for a while we had three. We might have three again at some point and we’ve kind of gone back and forth with — sometimes our guys are going two or three days without playing. Then they get out there for a day or two. Then they sit again. It’s kind of been a little back and forth with when they’re getting their playing time. But all of our players have handled it very well.

“Overall, we might get into different parts of the discussion as to why we do certain things. Everyone does want to play. These guys, that’s one thing we can’t forget. They all want to be out there. They’re playing, playing well and they want the at-bats and I don’t blame them. But I think everyone has taken to these discussions very well. We explain things and it works out well.”

But what do the players themselves think? One thing Garver suggested is that the evidence of this plan working will become evident more so in the future.

“I think we’re going to notice it more in about a month or two,” Garver said. “That’s kind of when it’s going to really start to matter is how you feel at that point. If you’ve caught 80 games out of 100, and you’re in August, you’re exhausted. You’ve still got x amount of games to go.”

That exhaustion is both mental and physical, Garver said, and is not a foreign concept to him. After Castro went down with a season-ending injury early last season, Garver got the lion’s share of the time behind the plate, and had the position more or less force-fed to him.

But how much did that trial by fire help Garver in preparation for this year?

“A lot,” Garver said. “I think a lot of the things I dealt with last year made it tough to show up at the park and get motivated to go out there again. But having guys like Bobby (Wilson) with me was helpful. That was big for me. Just improving defensively over this offseason has been huge for me. It hasn’t gotten quite where I want it to be, but there’s still room to grow.”

But again, that exhaustion cuts both ways.

(image credit: Brian Curski, Cumulus Media)

“There’s a lot of things that go into it,” Garver said. “Obviously the physical part of it. But motivating yourself to try to feel good for that day takes more and more energy. Catching a starting pitcher for the 20th, 30th time, you start to run out of ideas maybe. It can be repetitive. Honestly, we feel pretty good right now. I think being rested at this point is important, but now we’re looking at being rested in August and September.”

So is it difficult to reconcile wanting to play every day — but realizing that can be counterproductive to, well, production?

“Maybe,” Garver conceded. “You’re going to want to play every day — especially when you’re hot. If you have a good offensive game, you’re going to want to get back out there. Less is more. I guess you could put it that way.”

Overall though, Garver says he feels good — or at least as good as one can feel 70-some games into a 162-game schedule.

Castro sees the game trending in a direction where having two capable catchers makes a lot of sense. Work smarter, not harder, he says.

“I think the way baseball is going, it’s kind of getting away from working harder and focusing on working smarter and how to maximize the chances you get and really emphasizing being efficient,” Castro said. “I think it’ll be more evident over the course of the full season, but the way I feel know…it’s not too much time where you feel like you’re maybe missing out on getting those reps in on a regular basis. But it’s enough time to feel good and stay fresh at the plate and behind it, but still feel rested and physically on top of your game.”

Castro agreed with Garver’s concession that less is more behind the plate.

(image credit: Brian Curski, Cumulus Media)

“I mean, there’s definitely something to be said about feeling good or fresh,” Castro said. “I think catcher is probably the one position on the field where the more you play, the worse you feel. Right about now is kind of when some of those things start to set in when you’re catching every day. Speaking for myself and I’m sure Mitch feels the same way, I haven’t really experienced any of that this year. That part of it has been nice.

“It allows you to continue the same level and quality of work that you can get offensively. The same cage routine and all that. You don’t have to worry about throttling back so you have something left for the game because we’re getting ample rest and taking advantage of it.”

So what does Castro expect August and September to be like? It’s an especially apt question for a catcher who is not only coming off missing nearly a full season with a second knee injury, but also a catcher who spent the bulk of his 10-year career catching in the Houston heat if/when the roof was open on Minute Maid Field.

“Obviously, I’m a little older now. I remember some seasons where I felt better than others,” Castro said. “I think that just has to do with breaks in the season. Like taking not playing through something that lingers over the course of the year, and the more you play the more likely you are to be exposed to something like that.

“I fully anticipate to feel as good is August and September as I do now based on our scheduling and how we’ve been able to utilize our added off days this year. Being able to stay on our offensive routines and workout routines and staying strong longer into the season will definitely help.”

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