2019 Braves Positional Preview: Catchers
Updated: Feb 15, 2019
Grant McAuley’s 2019 Braves Preview Series will break down a different position group. Pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 15 and their first workout is Feb. 16. Position players report on Feb. 20, with the first full-squad workout taking place on Feb. 21. The Braves begin Grapefruit League Play on Feb. 23 against the New York Mets.
The Atlanta Braves have relied on a veteran catching tandem on an annual basis since the departure of stalwart backstop Brian McCann following the 2013 season. Now McCann is back and he will form, you guessed it, another veteran catching tandem. Alongside Tyler Flowers, the returning McCann is hoping to give Atlanta stability both behind and at the plate in 2019. Of course, that is barring further attempts to pry All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto away from the Miami Marlins. Beyond those two veterans and putting all trades aside, Atlanta is eagerly awaiting the arrival of top catching prospect William Contreras. He is the best of the minor league backstops, but is likely still a year or two away from making the major leagues.
Looking back at 2018, Braves catchers were led by Flowers and Kurt Suzuki and combined for a 3.0 fWAR (FanGraphs’ wins above replacement). That ranked sixth highest in all of baseball. If the Braves can get similar value from McCann and Flowers in 2019, it will give the club time to continue the development of Contreras and assess other options that may become available during the season.
Brian McCann | Age: 35 | Contract Status: 1-year, $2 million
The Braves turned back the clock to counter the loss of Kurt Suzuki, signing longtime catcher Brian McCann to a low-cost, one-year deal. McCann returns to Atlanta, where he spent the first nine years of his career and was named to seven All-Star teams. After signing a five-year, $80 million deal with the Yankees in the winter of 2013, McCann spent three seasons in the Bronx and the past two in Houston, where he won a World Series title in 2017. Unfortunately, McCann missed significant time last season due to right knee surgery in July. He was limited to just a .212/.301/.339 line with seven home runs in 189 at-bats in 2018 and has played just 160 games over the past two seasons combined.
McCann has been one of the most durable catchers in baseball since arriving in Atlanta as a fresh-faced rookie in 2005. He averaged 120 games (115 starts) behind the plate to go along with 22 homers, 79 RBI and .801 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) per season from 2006-2016. As those numbers illustrate, McCann was one of the most productive offensive catchers in baseball over that time. While he still has that power, having a healthy and productive off-season are keys to McCann’s success this year. Though he is universally praised for his handling of a pitching staff, something Braves know first-hand, McCann has some work to do defensively. In particular, his pitch-framing has been trending in the wrong direction over the latter years of his career. This is something Alex Anthopoulos believes the Braves’ approach can assist with. It’s worth noting that even in a smaller sample size in 2018, McCann’s numbers were better than Suzuki’s pitch-framing metrics. That is also true over the past two seasons and throughout McCann's career according to Stat Corner.
McCann passed on the opportunity to field more lucrative offers in order to sign with the Braves early in the winter. This homecoming was his top priority this winter, as evidenced by the hometown discount he took to help make the reunion possible. McCann is hoping that he can help bring a championship to Atlanta. While the winter has been remarkably quiet since McCann and Josh Donaldson signed in late November, both men represent bounce-back candidates who should strengthen the lineup if they’re healthy and able to perform up to career norms. The McCann signing also leaves the door open for Atlanta to explore its options behind the plate in 2020, if not before.
Tyler Flowers | Age: 33 | Contract Status: 1-year, $4 million (2020 team option)
It’s funny how things work out. Just over a decade ago, Tyler Flowers was a power-hitting prospect who was blocked in the big leagues by the presence of Brian McCann. Atlanta chose to deal Flowers away in the winter of 2008, trading him to the White Sox in a package of players for Javier Vazquez. Flowers made it to the majors the following year and spent parts of seven seasons in Chicago before returning to Atlanta as a free agent in the winter of 2015. At the time, the Braves were still trying to fill the void from McCann's departure two years prior. Now, Flowers and McCann find themselves in a platoon that the Braves are hoping will provide capable defense and adequate offense in 2019.
Flowers has enjoyed the best offensive production of his career during his three-year stint with Atlanta, though his 2018 numbers dipped significantly from the two seasons prior. Overall, he owns a .261/.360/.411 slash line in nearly 1,000 plate appearances as a Brave. This comes after posting a .223/.289/.376 line in 1,395 PA with the White Sox. Quite the transformation. Flowers batted just .227 last season but posted a respectable .341 on-base percentage. He missed a month early in the season after he strained an oblique in his first plate appearances of the year and was later ene of several Braves to struggle at the plate in the season’s second half. Flowers batted just .220 with four home runs in 42 games after the All-Star break. There was a certain amount of tinkering with the leg kick he added upon joining the Braves, a timing component that has been a major factor in his offensive success. Flowers struggled mightily against right-handed pitching last season, batting .184/.268/.270 in 208 PA. However, he wore out lefties to the tune of an incredible .348/.511/.606 line in 88 PA. Couple that success with McCann, a lefty hitter who has always had a little more success against right-handers, and you may have the makings of a somewhat traditional platoon. The exact split in playing time remains to be seen and may not be that cut and dried.
Behind the plate last season, Flowers was still one of the best framing catchers in the game according to Stat Corner. As cited annually in this preview series, those metrics are compiled by combing through the called strikes F/X data. After spending several seasons at or near the top of those leaderboards, Flowers slid down the list a little in 2018. Despite some regression, he was still among the top 10 in framing among qualified catchers. Flowers remains a major asset to the pitching staff thanks to his talent for stealing calls and adding strikes for Atlanta pitchers, something that will be counted on again this season. With a host of young pitchers still at the forefront of the Braves’ future plans, the experience that can be gleaned from working both Flowers and McCann may not show up on the catchers’ stat lines but could have a lasting impact on those arms.
Raffy Lopez | Age: 31 | Contract Status: Pre-Arbitration
The Braves added some catching depth to the 40-man roster by acquiring veteran Raffy Lopez from San Diego for cash considerations in November. This will mark the seventh organization for the well-traveled Lopez as he heads into his ninth season in professional baseball. He has seen big league time with four teams, most recently the Padres in 2018. Lopez batted .176/.265/.284 with three home runs and 13 RBI in 37 games last season. The former Florida State University product has also played for the Cubs, Reds and Blue Jays in brief major league stints. Lopez flashed some power in the minor leagues over the past two seasons and maintained a spot as catching depth that every big league club needs to have in reserve. That is the role he will serve in 2019. He will be ready to step in should one of Atlanta's primary catchers suffer an injury.
Down on the farm: The Braves have a handful of depth options in the minor leagues and a pair of prospects who bring differing levels of intrigue to camp this spring. William Contreras, 21, is Atlanta’s top catching prospect and continues to show reasons why he could be the long term answer behind the plate. Last season, Contreras slashed .285/.347/.336 with 24 doubles and 11 home runs in 105 games between Low-A Rome and High-A Florida. This marked the first time he’d been promoted in-season. Contreras rates well behind the plate and has a strong arm. He’s a complete catcher and a solid hitter who shows signs of emerging power. Though he may still be a couple of years away from the majors, Contreras will be a name for Braves fans to keep in mind as Atlanta weighs its options behind the plate in 2020 and beyond… Alex Jackson, 23, is hoping to get things back on track in 2019. After belting 19 home runs in 96 games and going off for five more in the Fall League, Jackson hit just eight homers last season while batting .201 between Double-A and Triple-A. The former first round pick's path to the majors has been filled with detours. After stalling out with the Mariners, Jackson was traded to Atlanta in the winter of 2016 and agreed to move from the outfield to catcher, his high school position. Jackson has been fairly solid behind the plate, but remains a work in progress. There is no doubt that the time spent adapting to such a demanding position may have led to some unintended effects on his offense. Atlanta chose to keep Jackson on the 40-man roster, an indication that the club still sees some value in the power-hitting prospect. There’s no way around the fact that 2019 is a make-or-break year for Jackson... In addition to Contreras, the Braves announced Carlos Martínez and Jonathan Morales as non-roster invitees to spring training.