As a rule of thumb, going to the Toronto Blue Jays isn’t usually the best career move for a pitcher.
Even for those who perceive the city in a positive light, joining the Blue Jays means pitching at Rogers Centre; a very uncomfortable venue for hurlers. There have been recent success stories like Marco Estrada, but for the most part Toronto is a place hitters go to thrive, not pitchers.
Last off-season the Blue Jays made a big free agent splash that made the prospect of pitching for the team a little more attractive. By signing Russell Martin to a five-year, $82 million contract they ensured that their staff would be throwing to one of the best defensive backstops in the game. Not only does Martin control the running game and create extra outs with his arm, perhaps more importantly he steals strikes on the fringes of the zone leading to more favourable calls and additional punchouts.
Excellent framing benefits every pitcher, but it helps some more than others. Power pitchers who miss more bats require less framing help and when it comes to knuckleballers like R.A. Dickey, catching the ball alone is a Herculean task, making framing a secondary consideration.
However, for pitchers that rely on command, live on the edges and get a lot of their strikeouts looking, a catcher who can grab some extra strikes on the margins can be incredibly useful. Blue Jays’ recent acquisition Jesse Chavez fits this mold to a tee.
Last season, 33.8 per cent of Chavez’s strikeouts were looking, the sixth-highest total in the majors. The previous season the number was 39 per cent, good for eighth in baseball. Considering the league average was 22.9 per cent in 2015, it’s apparent that freezing batters is a core component of Chavez’s game.
He showed this ability in a start against his current team on Aug. 13 when he struck out nine over six innings and demonstrated his primary weapon to put batters down looking.
In his career, 51.3 per cent of Chavez’s called strikeouts have come on his cutter. It’s his best pitch overall and one he can use to tie up right-handed hitters like Josh Donaldson or back door left-handers like Ryan Goins.
Interestingly, Chavez’s ability to paint the corners has never been paired with a catcher possessing any real framing chops. The catchers he had in Oakland weren’t just unremarkable at the stealing strikes, they were well below average over the last two years, according to StatCorner Catcher Report framing metrics. The comparison between Oakland’s stable of catchers and Martin is a stark one.
|Year||Oakland Athletics catchers||Russell Martin||Difference|
|Framing Runs Above Average 2014||-13.6||+11.7||25.3|
|Framing Runs Above Average 2015||-9.3||+3.7||13.0|
Chavez has never thrown to someone who complements one of his greatest strengths the way Martin will. In all likelihood that doesn’t change the calculus on the 32-year-old’s ceiling that much. Good framing can’t turn a back-end starter into an ace, but the presence of Martin certainly increases the chances of the Blue Jays getting the most out of the right-hander.
There may still be moments in the year ahead when the move to Toronto is not kind to Chavez, but having a battery mate who complements his skills should help soften the blow.