Many transactions were obscured by the Ohtani-mania of the past week, perhaps none more than the always unheralded glove-first catcher signings. No one represents this category better than Austin Hedges, who MLB.com’s sources say returned to Cleveland on a one-year, $4 million pact after departing for Pittsburgh last offseason and winning a World Series ring with Texas. Meanwhile, on Thursday, the Astros finalized their deal — a two-year, $12 million contract — with Victor Caratini, whose own defensive skills have taken a huge leap forward the past two seasons. Each will serve as a backup to an exciting young catcher, hopefully furthering their respective development trajectories in the process.
Let’s start with Hedges. At this point, what you see is what you get with the 31-year-old veteran. His framing was as good as ever this past season, saving his clubs an estimated 16.9 runs per our FRM metric, good for second best in the majors. It’s his fourth season saving at least 12.5 runs, though his 2023 total came in fewer innings than all but one of the rest of the top-ten framers (Jason Delay, who ranked eighth). Baseball Savant sees a similar halo sitting atop Hedges’ catcher’s mask, with sterling framing and blocking more than making up for a merely average arm. Neither Savant nor FRM has him as a below-average framer (save for a small-sample 2016) in any individual season, and Savant has never cast him as a below-average blocker.
This is only half of the Austin Hedges experience, though; his offense inspires as many groans as his defense does awe. From 2019 to ’22, a wRC+ in the 40s was the norm, but he really outdid himself in ’23 with a mark of 24 — you read that right — across 212 plate appearances. That’s the 13th-worst single-season result in the Wild Card Era (min. 200 PAs).
It would be hard for Hedges to hit much worse in the coming season, and his expected statistics do indicate some positive regression may be in store. But even if he played up to his .246 xwOBA (and he’s underperformed it every year since 2020) in ’23, he would have just improved his wOBA from worst to seventh worst.
Still, the Guardians believe in the defense. Or they at least believe in Hedges more than their other options. Christian Bethancourt, whom they flipped to the Marlins for cash in the wake of the Hedges signing, had a solid showing in his 2022 return to the majors after five years away but failed to follow it up. On the other hand, David Fry, the other player with catching experience on Cleveland’s active roster, looked out of place behind the plate in the majors (though he may stick as an OF/DH if his bat plays). Both of them unquestionably have more offensive upside than Hedges, but the grizzled veteran is seemingly viewed as the better choice to mentor Bo Naylor, who looked good from both sides of the plate in his debut but could stand to learn more from a defense-first backup. Think of it this way: there are other hitters Naylor can look up to on the team, but there’s no one quite like Hedges behind the plate.
The Caratini situation is a bit different, because the switch-hitter can at least hold his own on offense. Since his debut in 2017, his 85 wRC+ has ranked 49th among 89 catchers with at least 500 plate appearances (Hedges has ranked 83rd). Before joining the catching-defense clinic in Milwaukee, his bat was his calling card, better than the average backup at the position.
But now, he too is bringing an above-average glove to the table. Per FRM, Caratini cost the Padres 4.2 runs in 2021 before adding 3.7 and 6.2, respectively, in ’22 and ’23 for the Brewers. At the same time, it’s fair to wonder whether there’s something unique among Milwaukee’s pitchers that enables them to steal strikes, leading to perceived improvements across the board for all of their catchers. One example furthering this theory: Omar Narváez, whose vastly improved framing in Milwaukee helped him land a two-year, $15 million deal with the Mets last offseason. He saw his numbers immediately worsen upon arriving in Queens.
Narváez’s numbers didn’t completely bottom out, and he may have been put off by a calf strain that cost him two months in the spring. Plus, in the article linked above, our Esteban Rivera showed some tangible improvements in William Contreras‘ framing in his first season with the Brewers, seemingly independent of whoever was pitching. Did Caratini make the same adjustments?
Unlike Contreras, whose improvements Esteban chalked up to more called strikes on pitches below the zone, Caratini notched an impressive 54.8% called-strike rate on pitches above the zone. That ranked 12th of 63 qualified catchers on the season, and it was Caratini’s second-best mark on those pitches in his career (his third best, a 49.8% rate, also came in Milwaukee). Here are a few examples of pitches he stole:
The biggest difference between these and his time in San Diego is that he rarely used to set up on one knee, even if he was anticipating something low:
Setting up in the squat gave his glove motion a rigidity that he just didn’t have in Milwaukee; it’s a lot easier to be more fluid when you aren’t doing a wall-sit, or when you’re not trying to execute two movements at once. In two of the San Diego examples above, Caratini sets up in a traditional squat but ends up on one knee. This also indicates a certain level of comfort with the one-knee position, which is perhaps what the Brewers picked up on.
This added comfort has been expressed by catching corps on teams such as the Red Sox, and the benefits of switching to the more relaxed stance have been borne out through research. The Sox stress that this isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy, but many of their backstops found it helpful, and the evidence agrees.
This is certainly a tangible change in Caratini’s setup, and he can be confident that any adjustments he makes in-line will be handled well by another forward-thinking org. But the move makes sense for Houston, too; Martín Maldonado had become a liability, with his poor hitting no longer propped up by stellar defense. Yet questions remain about presumed starter Yainer Diaz’s ability to remain behind the plate. With Caratini, who’s capable of being an average starting catcher in his own right, as the next man up, the Astros have a solid Plan B should Diaz falter.
Overall, both Caratini and Hedges should provide valuable support to their clubs’ respective second-year starters. Caratini offers a higher floor for a young backstop with more questions on defense, while Naylor’s impressive rookie showing and the Guardians’ more miserly ways led them to the lower-floor Hedges. Still, under the veteran’s tutelage, Naylor could truly take his game to new heights, and there’s no reason Caratini can’t impart some of his Milwaukee wisdom onto Diaz as well.