When this tumultuous season ends, the Angels know they must overhaul their pitching staff. Their rotation has been in shambles for years, and it became even more of a wreck after promising rookie Griffin Canning was shut down for the season Thursday with an elbow injury.
General manager Billy Eppler said last month he will focus during the offseason on repairing the damage. Issues are not limited to the mound, however. There is a matching problem 60 feet 6 inches away.
The Angels have struggled to find a satisfactory catcher since trading Martin Maldonado in July 2018. None of the stop-gaps they used immediately after Maldonado’s departure remain in the organization. They tried to squeeze value from veteran Jonathan Lucroy, but he didn’t improve the defensive trends that had long been in decline. He was designated for assignment Aug. 2 and is now a backup for the Chicago Cubs.
Max Stassi, acquired from the Houston Astros at the trading deadline, has yielded early positive returns on the defensive end but not at the plate. Stassi has three hits in 35 at-bats since joining the Angels, two coming in Wednesday’s loss to the Texas Rangers.
The Angels will consider bolstering their depth at catcher in the offseason, but they don’t mind sacrificing offense. When it comes to prioritizing a catcher’s contribution, defense tops the list.
“Dating back to a few decades ago, [catcher has] been a field-and-throw first type position,” Eppler said. “We put a premium on those tools. Clearly anything you get on the offensive side helps to contribute on the run production side. But honoring those primary tools is where our mind-set is focused.”
Stassi’s pitch-receiving ability is considered one of the best in the game among backups. The numbers, albeit from a small sample, support the claim: Stassi gets called strikes on nonswings 54.3% of the time; only Cleveland’s Kevin Plawecki has a better strike rate, according to Baseball Savant.
Stassi is far from the only offensively challenged catchers in MLB. Yes, the Dodgers are enjoying startling production from rookie catcher Will Smith, who has 12 home runs, 31 RBIs and a .318 batting average in 30 major league games entering Thursday. But Smith is an outlier.
Among the Angels’ American League West opponents, the last-place Seattle Mariners’ duo of Omar Narvaez (17 HRs .283 average) and Tom Murphy (16, .293) is by far the most productive offensively.
Robinson Chirinos and Maldonado of the Astros have combined for 22 homers and a .228 average. Josh Phegley (10, .243) of the Oakland Athletics is sputtering in his first season as the starter and 36-year-old Jeff Mathis of the Rangers has two homers and a .167 average. His backup, Jose Trevino, is batting .206 with one homer.
Production from Angels catchers could hardly be worse. Stassi is batting .144 with four home runs and a .388 on-base-plus-slugging percentage for the season. His backup, Anthony Bemboom, is batting .167 with one home run. Injured backup Kevan Smith has two homers and a .246 average.
“A little bit harder thing to recognize in the public domain is the impact that catchers can have on every single pitch a pitcher throws,” Eppler said. “That’s something that might not be as recognizable, but is no less important than anything he contributes in the batter’s box.
“No other position has direct responsibility for the performance of another player like the catching position does.”
Whether Stassi will become strong enough defensively for the Angels to absorb his weak bat remains to be seen. Maldonado, a career backup when the Angels acquired him in December 2016, became a Gold Glove award winner in 2017. He was traded the following July to the Astros for promising pitching prospect Patrick Sandoval.
The Angels don’t have much in the way of catching prospects. There is Jack Kruger, a 2016 draft pick from Westlake Village Oaks Christian High whose defense has improved in his second season at double-A Mobile. And there is Franklin Torres, a second baseman who was converted to catcher in spring training.
Both have posted positive receiving numbers, according to the Angels’ internal database.
The likelihood either will turn into a slugger is slim. Kruger, 24, has struggled to tap into his power. He is batting .235 with a slugging percentage of .307 in 88 games. Torres, 22, is batting .257 high-A Inland Empire and has struck out 102 times in 346 at-bats.
Eppler sounds like he’s fine with feeble hitting as long as the catchers do a great job handling pitchers. Which, of course, brings the front office back to their primary concern this offseason -- improving the pitching staff.
The Angels decided Thursday to shut down Canning, their promising rookie starter, after an MRI exam revealed mild inflammation in his right elbow joint.
Canning, 23, already endured a stint on the injury list this month for the same ailment. The structural integrity of his elbow was not in jeopardy then. The team does not believe it is in jeopardy now.
Rather than push Canning’s development to the brink, the Angels decided to exercise caution and “allow the inflammation to subside,” Eppler said in a news release.
Although he went through rough patches, he mostly lived up to the hype and posted a 4.58 earned-run average in 90 1/3 innings over 18 outings.