It’s June 1 and Red Sox catchers have collectively produced the 8th-highest OPS at that position in all of baseball (.748.) That’s good! And considering that the catching position was a major question mark coming into the season, we should be satisfied that there’s nothing to worry about here after all, right?
Well, not so fast. A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about potential regression candidates in the Red Sox lineup, and both Sox catchers (Connor Wong and Reese McGuire) were on it. Wong made the list because his free-swinging approach portended trouble as pitchers began to develop a book on him, and McGuire made the list because his numbers were simply not supported by what was obviously a poor batted-ball profile.
Since then, Reese McGuire has continued to scrape together some bloop hits here and there, but his overall production has cratered: he had just 2 extra base hits and one single walk in the entire month of May, adding up to an abysmal .290 OBP and .614 OPS. Connor Wong remains much more promising. He’s continued his strong slugging with 4 homers and 7 doubles. But, as predicted, he’s struggling to control the strike zone; like McGuire, Wong walked just once over the course of the entire month, putting up an even worse .271 OBP.
Baseball is a game of adjustments, and now it’s time for Wong to adjust back. But what happens if he can’t? To the extent that the Red Sox once-promising start was, at least in part fueled by unexpected production from the catchers, we should at least consider the fact that it may continue to get worse from here. And in that regard, today is a pretty important day.
As of today, Jorge Alfaro, who has spent the entire season with AAA Worcester, can exercise an opt-out clause to pursue a job with an MLB team. Alfaro has been outstanding at the plate with the Woo Sox, putting up a .320/.367/.520 slash line with 6 homers and 13 doubles. He’s never produced at that level in the big leagues, of course, (he’s a career .256/.305/.396 hitter) but it seems more than likely that he’d be a big upgrade over McGuire.
But there are two major things to consider about a Wong/Alfaro catching tandem. First, they’re both right-handed hitters; all things considered, you’d prefer your catching tandem to hit from different sides of the plate to give you a natural platoon and better bench bat options. However, this concern is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Wong has produced reverse-splits throughout his career, performing better against righties:
Granted, we’re looking a pretty small sample, here, but his minor league splits show the same trend.
The second and more pressing issue is that, although he is a catcher, it’s not clear that Jorge Alfaro can catch. Alfaro led all of baseball in passed balls last year with 7, this despite the fact that he started just 59 games. This wasn’t a fluke — it was actually the third time Alfaro’s led the league in that ignominious category. And, amazingly, he already has 6 down in Worcester this year.
Having said that, it isn’t as if McGuire is a defensive whiz behind the plate, either. While he’s a significantly better receiver than Alfaro, he’s only middle-of-the-pack at framing and is significantly worse at controlling the running game, having thrown out just one single base-stealer in 22 attempts. Alfaro excels at throwing out base runners, having consistently produced elite pop times.
Moreover, Alfaro would probably provide more value than McGuire in other roles. He would be a very effective power bat off the bench, particularly against lefties, against whom he has a career 108 OPS+. He’s also a good athlete who, just two seasons ago, stole 8 bases in 9 attempts, and could fill in at first base or a corner outfield spot when necessary.
This is by no means an easy call, and Jorge Alfaro is not going to save the Red Sox season. But on the balance, the Sox may be better off with Alfaro than Reese McGuire. But if they don’t act soon, it won’t be their call.