Who should be the Royals’ backup catcher in 2020?

One thing that Kansas City Royals fans will look forward to in 2020 is the return of catcher Salvador Perez, who missed all of 2019 due to Tommy John surgery. A six-time All-Star, five-time Gold-Glove winner, and two-time Silver Slugger, Perez was sorely missed in 2019, as the Royals rotated through four catchers (Martin Maldonado, Cam Gallagher, Meibrys Viloria, and Nick Dini) to mediocre results (all four catchers’ production averaged a 63.3 wRC+ and they also combined for a negative 0.2 WAR). While Salvy struggled a bit when it came to plate approach and hitting for average in 2018 (.235/.274/.439 slash; .713 OPS), he has hit over 20 home runs every year since 2015, and it’s plausible to think that he’ll be able to continue that streak now that he is fully-fresh after a year off. Considering the Royals struggled to find production beyond Whit, Soler, Mondesi, and Doz in 2019, the addition of Salvy to this lineup should provide a nice boost in the Royals’ offensive production overall in 2020.

That being said, Salvy’s recent injury, as well as lost year, should make Royals fans realize that Salvy will need some more time off in 2020. The grueling gantlet of the Major League schedule is one thing, but to do it behind the plate is another challenge all together, especially for a player coming off a major surgery. Salvy will need some time to re-acclimate to the game, and thus, the pressure on the Royals’ backup position will be amplified in 2020.

Thankfully, the Royals have some interesting backup options in Gallagher, Viloria, and Dini, who should all return to the Royals organization in 2020. However, who should the Royals go to when it comes to Salvy’s primary backup in 2020?

Let’s take into consideration a few factors regarding Salvy and the current catcher situation on the Royals’ 40-man roster, and what the Royals should do by Opening Day this March.

The Royals’ backup should complement Salvy’s weaknesses (which is primarily pitch framing)

Framing is an important skill for a catcher at the Major League level. The ability to garner those extra strikes can mean the difference between a strikeout and a walk, a pitcher-friendly 1-2 count or hitter-friendly 2-1 count, etc. Framing has become more valued than ever at the Major League level, especially with the advent of Statcast providing more and more detailed data regarding catchers’ strike rates and the runs created by extra strikes.

Salvy may have six Gold Gloves, but if there has been a weakness in his defensive game, it is his pitch framing. In 2018, according to Baseball Savant, Perez has a strike rate of 43.7 percent, and cost the Royals 11 runs when it came to extra strikes missed. In 2017, it was more of the same, as he posted only a strike rate of 44 percent, and cost the Royals 14 runs when it came to extra strikes missed.

Thus, it’s no surprise that Salvy ranked in the lower percentiles of the league when it came to catcher framing. Therefore, when it comes to finding a suitable backup catcher, the Royals need to find someone who offers more upside in terms of framing in comparison to the long-time Royals backstop.

Let’s take a look at some Royals catcher statcast data from 2019:

As you can see from the chart above, Gallagher is the strongest of the bunch, as he had a strike rate of 48.8 percent and saved the Royals a run from extra strikes. Viloria and Dini on the other hand were sub-par when it came to framing, as Viloria posted a strike rate of 45.3 and Dini posted a strike rate of 42.5. Combined, the two Royals’ catching options other than Gallagher, cost the Royals five runs from extra strikes in 2019.

Who can keep runners at bay on the basepaths like Salvy?

While Salvy struggles with framing pitches for extra strikes, the one aspect of his game that he excelled in was throwing runners out. In 2018, Salvy threw out 25 runners out of 52 attempted stolen bases, a 48 percent clip. If you look at Royals catchers who patrolled behind the plate other than Salvy since 2018, only Dini had a throw out rate of 40 percent (40 percent; though he had a small sample size with only 10 total SB attempts in 2019). Maldonado (33.3 percent), Viloria (36.4 percent), and Gallagher (21.8 percent) all posted rates that paled in comparison to the Royals’ multiple-time All-Star.

Most of this stems from a player’s pop rate and the time on their exchange. Let’s take a look at some Statcast data when it comes to pop time from Royals catchers in 2019:

The 22-year-old Viloria demonstrated the best arm tool of the Royals’ three catchers returning from last season. His pop time to second base was 1.98 second on average, which placed him in the upper percentiles of the league. The combo of his quick exchange (0.73 seconds) and high velocity on his throws (82.5 MPH) probably was a big reason why the catching prospect from Colombia performed so well in this category in 2019.

Unfortunately, Gallagher, though a strong pitch framer, did not showcase a great arm in 2019 or the past two seasons in general. His 2.05 average pop time would have ranked him in the bottom percentiles of the league, and though his exchange is just as fast as Viloria (0.73 as well), the lackluster velocity on his throws (79.4 MPH), is what hurts him when runners get going on the basepaths.

Dini showcases a better arm than Gallagher when it comes to velocity, but unfortunately for him, his slower exchange (0.78) doesn’t help his candidacy as a backup catcher. Thus, considering he’s behind Gallagher when it comes to framing and Viloria when it comes to arm, Dini looks to be the worst defensive backup option the Royals currently have.

Who gives the Royals a more dependable bat at the plate?

None of the three options will provide the 20-plus home run or power output of Salvy. But to be honest, that is expected. A good backup catcher should provide stability behind the plate, and simply be a dependable enough bat so that they aren’t an automatic 0-fer whenever they make a start every three to four days. If the Royals had a backup with 20-plus home run potential, that catcher would’ve been traded to another team for assets at this point.

Of the three catchers, all offer different positive aspects when it comes to hitting. Gallagher has the best plate discipline, as he had the lowest swinging strike rate of the three (7.5 percent to Dini’s 13.3 percent and Viloria’s 12.8 percent), the highest contact rate (82.6 percent to Dini’s 76.2 percent and Viloria’s 71.3 percent), and posted the best BB/K ratio (0.33 to Dini’s 0.22 and Viloria’s 0.21). On the other hand, Dini posted the best power (.161 ISO to Gallagher’s .116 and Viloria’s .075), while Viloria offers the most upside, as he was the highest-rated prospect of the bunch, and only 22-years-old.

When it comes to who is the better offensive option, it really is a matter of what the Royals’ future manager will prefer. Will he want a more disciplined bat, even if it won’t result in more upside in power? (Which would favor Gallagher.) Or will he want a hitter who can hit the long ball or get more extra base hits, which will sorely be needed in the lineup when Salvy has a day off? (This would favor Dini and perhaps Viloria.)

What should the Royals do?

All three catchers will have minor league options in 2020, with Gallagher and Viloria having only one left, while Dini will have all three. Dini, considering he’s way behind defensively and has more minor league options to burn, should automatically start the year in Omaha, barring an unbelievable Spring from him and/or miserable springs from Gallagher or Viloria (or injuries).

So basically, the Royals backup position comes between the framing prowess and plate discipline of Gallagher or the rocket-armed upside of Viloria. The smart move would be to make Gallagher the backup, since his framing is something that the Royals would not get with Salvy behind the plate unfortunately. Furthermore, it would be nice for the Royals to get that kind of production that would be better than Salvy on the defensive end from Gallagher, since it is unlikely that Gallagher would match Salvy in any way offensively at the plate. Gallagher provides a nice Ying-Yang with Salvy, while Viloria defensively is more of the same.

That being said, Gallagher should not be seen as the long-term option, which is why Viloria probably should start in Omaha. Viloria needs to work on his framing (which is a learned skill and can get better over time), and the opportunity to develop chemistry with top prospects like Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar in Omaha could have benefits when Viloria becomes the backup in 2021 and takes the starting backstop position in 2022 after Salvy’s contract expires (maybe sooner depending on how this year goes though to be honest). By next year, Viloria will be the better backup option than Gallagher, especially if he makes gains in 2020 when it comes to framing, and gaining experience working with Singer and Kowar (who should be up by next season). Those factors alone should make him the Royals starting catcher of the future when Salvy leaves Kansas City.

Who knows…maybe a Singer-Viloria battery with the Storm Chasers next season will be the most entertaining thing to watch in the Royals’ organization in 2020.

It could be a glimpse of Opening Day in 2022 or 2021, perhaps.

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