The Pirates haven’t had to make many tough roster decisions this season since they haven’t been able to field a full team. With Starling Marte suspended, they haven’t had to find somewhere for Adam Frazier to play. Same goes for Jung-Ho Kang, who is still awaiting a visa to come over to Pittsburgh. One position that is creating a bit of a dilemma for the Pirates, however, is at catcher.
Going into 2017, the Pirates were more than set at catcher. Francisco Cervelli had just inked an extension and Chris Stewart was still in the mix as the backup. While that’s how the team opened up the season, the team two suffered many injuries, with Stew missing time with a hamstring injury and Cervelli dealing with concussion symptoms. In their absence, Elias Diaz has stepped in. He was once a prized prospect in the Pirates system with a cannon arm but lost his shine thanks to many injuries. No one expected Diaz to become a reliable starting option ever again, but that’s exactly what he has done this year.
Ever since getting some consistent playing time in the majors, Diaz has hit the ball much better than anyone expected. He’s hitting for a .267 average, .309 on-base percentage and is slugging .373. These aren’t blistering numbers by any means but those are well above the typical backup catcher’s numbers in the MLB. Compare that to Stewart and you’ll see what I mean. Stewart is hitting for a measly .194 average, .254 on-base percentage and slugging a putrid .274. Sending Stew to the plate with those numbers is like having two pitchers bat in the lineup. Offense has never been Stewart’s value, as the Pirates have always loved his defense. But Diaz is up to par with Stew in defensive categories too.
In a small sample size, Diaz has thrown out 2 of the 6 runners who have attempted to steal on him. Stewart, on the other hand, has only thrown out 5 of 13 runners. These are virtually the same numbers but one thing stands out. Both players have played about the same amount of innings but only half as many players have tried to run on Diaz. That could be due to luck but it tells me that runners are more afraid to run on Diaz than Stewart. Both are actually better than Cervelli, however, who has only thrown out 8 of 28 attempted base stealers.
Pitch framing has been a huge stat in recent memory, and Stewart is great at it. Since the start of 2017, Stewart has gotten .001 more strikes called above average. Diaz, on the other hand has actually done better, getting .004 more strikes called above average. These don’t sound like huge numbers but compared to the league, Diaz is the 23rd best catcher in the league in this category for catchers with more than 1,000 framing opportunities. Stewart ranks 28th. If you’re wondering where Cervelli fits in this, he ranks 37th, getting .003 less strikes called on average.
The one area where Stewart may have an edge on Diaz is with commanding a game. Since he is a veteran and has worked with the staff more, he knows his pitchers better. But that shouldn’t be enough to make up for his awful offensive numbers. I may even keep him if his defense was better than Diaz but that isn’t even the case. Diaz is just better in both categories, and if he can keep up his current pace, he could end up surpassing Cervelli as well. For someone playing that well, they deserve a spot in the majors, not Triple-A. So while Stew has been a great influence and role player for the Pirates, his time seems to have expired in Pittsburgh. It’s time to give Diaz the backup job and see if he can blossom into the player many think he can be.