This past December, I wrote a post titled “Francisco Cervelli, Backup Catcher: No More, No Less” about the Yankees’ surprisingly controversial backup catcher. In it, I defended him as a perfectly solid backup catcher, stating:
Cervelli finished 27th (min. 120 PA’s) among all catchers in wRC+ last season (94), and was 28th in WAR (min. 60 PA’s). Now, that does not mean he was the 28th best catcher, as WAR is a cumulative stat and his unfortunate amount of playing time helped him build value relative to some backup types who may be better than him. But wRC+ is a normalized rate statistic, and it suggests that Frankie was right on the fringe of starting quality as a hitter. MLB catchers as a group hit an atrocious .249/.319/.381, while Frankie turned in a .271/.359/.335. A lot of that line can be attributed to a high BABIP in April, May, and September (where he OPS’ed at least .768 in each month), but his struggles in the middle months (.548 OPS or below) saw some fairly hard luck as well. To put his season in perspective, since 2004 only one Yankees backup has had a better OPS+ than Cervelli (88) did this year (Jose Molina in ’07, and that was in 71 PA’s). Overall, it seems clear that if you were to make an evaluation based on 2010, Cervelli would be ahead of most backup catchers in terms of offense.
As for defense, Cervelli had a tough season, and most metrics have him near the bottom of the league defensively. However, it is important to note that he caught the incredibly wild AJ Burnett practically exclusively, which likely hurt him in terms of blocking pitches and throwing out potential base-stealers. Some, like our own Steve S., have contended that Frankie is actually a much better defensive player than we saw in 2010, but I do not think it is fair to make that assumption at this point without more evidence. The best we can do is mix some scouting into our evaluation and conclude that Cervelli is likely a bit better defensively and a bit worse offensively than he was in 2010, which would likely make him one of the 5 or 10 best backups in the sport.
Some would say that while it is fair to say that Frankie is better than most backups, the issue is that he was the starter in 2010. While this is absolutely true, it misses the point on how the Yankees should view him going forward. He is a poor starter, but the club has already made that determination and now must evaluate his ability in the right context, as a possible backup. When planning for 2011, the club needs to look at how his 2010 would position him among others who might fill the backup role. In a league where guys like Wil Nieves, Chris Widger, and Sal Fasano types are continually recycled due to a dearth of major league catching talent, Cervelli grades out as a bad player but an above average backup catcher.
Thus far, it seems pretty obvious that I was wrong about the bolded sentence. Cervelli has been a bit better than awful with the bat and absolutely, inexcusably atrocious with the glove. A backup catcher is not expected to hit a ton, but he does need to be competent behind the plate and Cervelli has been anything but. Not only his he not stopping the running game, he is actually facilitating it by throwing the ball into center field and giving up free bases. As the Red Sox showed this week, teams have caught on and are going to run on Cervelli with impunity until he shows the ability to make them pay, something that does not seem to be forthcoming. Anecdotally, he has actually had some trouble catching pitches that most catchers snag, and he has not distinguished himself in any way that would merit keeping his roster spot.
Now, it is still early and Cervelli has not had a ton of playing time, but when it comes to backup players who are not that good to begin with, it makes sense to have a slightly quicker hook than you would with a regular such as Jorge Posada or Nick Swisher. He is not going to get regular playing time to work through his issues as the backup, so he needs to start performing or the team needs to move on to options that really cannot be that much worse than Cervelli at this point. Frankie can be sent to the minors or traded, as he is still a young and cheap catcher with a decent batting line for a backup and may have a bit of trade value. If there are no takers, stick him at AAA and let him work on his throwing and his insanely hyper movements behind the plate.
As for the Yankees, they can go with the defense of Gustavo Molina, make a trade, or finally call up Jesus Montero. I am partial to Montero, as I think the club could use a bit of a spark offensively and can always recall Cervelli if Montero struggles badly behind the plate. At this point, considering how bad Frankie has been, I do not think there is much to lose by calling up a player who they initially were hoping would make the club out of spring training anyhow. Whoever the alternative is, I think it is becoming increasingly clear that Cervelli is not the answer.
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