2014 Phillies Report Card: Wil Nieves
As a former catcher (OK, in Little League) I have a soft spot for those brave souls who don the tools of ignorance. Some of my favorite Phillies are Darren Daulton, Mike Lieberthal, and Carlos Ruiz. Of course, my favorite catchers of all time are Crash Davis and Jake Taylor.
The catcher’s viewpoint is unique and beautiful, but comes with a heavy price: knee pain, foul tips off the mask, balls in the dirt, backswings, and hot, stinky umpire breath. The catcher is often looked upon (or perceived) as a team leader and a quasi-manager on the field. A catcher is asked to do so much more than any other player, which is why a catcher who can hit really well – like Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, or Jonathan Lucroy – is so impressive and valuable. Unfortunately for the Phillies, and despite attempts to address the issue, catching depth at the upper levels is a significant organizational problem.
We’ve already discussed our beloved Choocher. Today, I’m going to focus on his backup, Wil Nieves. Coming into the 2014 season, the Phillies were so desperate for a catcher that they signed Nieves, entering his age 36 season, to back up the 35-year-old Ruiz. The contract was fine – one year for $1.125 million. Amazingly, the front office restrained itself from tacking on two vesting options, a buyout, and a partial no-trade clause.
Among 63 MLB catchers with at least 100 plate appearances in 2014, Wil Nieves finished 44th in fWAR with 0.2 – the same as David Ross and Drew Butera. That’s not great, but it’s not bad for a 36-year-old backup. Nieves created most of that value with his defense. According to Baseball Prospectus, Nieves measured 35th out of 100 catchers in pitch framing (for perspective, Carlos Ruiz was 78th and Cameron Rupp was 59th). Nieves threw out 10 of 33 would-be basestealers for an average of 30.3%, which is a shade above the 2014 league average of 27.2%, and well above his 24.5% career mark. So he was a pretty good pitch framer and he more or less held his own throwing out runners. That’s the end of the good news, I’m afraid.
At the plate this year, Nieves posted a 71 OPS+, which is better than his career mark of 61, but a far cry from the 91 and 90 he produced in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Amazingly, that dropoff in production from what was clearly Nieves’ two-year peak would have been much worse if not for a .341 BABIP, which is 50 points above his career average. If you prefer wRC+, Nieves had a 69 (nice!) in 2014. The 2014 league average wRC+ for a catcher was 93. Again, Nieves did slightly better than his career average (56), but didn’t come close to league average or to his 2012 and 2013 seasons (84 and 86 wRC+). Nieves’ 69 wRC+ was 372nd among all hitters. Yikes. To compare to some non-catchers sharing the shame of occupying that awful pit of despair, Nieves was basically the same hitter as Reed Johnson or Allen Craig. If you need help visualizing how bad a 71 OPS+ or a 69 wRC+ truly is, this should help.
What did we get from Wil Nieves for a million bucks and change? We got an above-average defensive performance measured by pitch framing and CS%, but a well-below average offensive performance, as evidenced by his .271 weighted on base average (2014 league average wOBA for catchers was .305). That’s fine for a backup catcher, but not on a team that already has an aging, injury-prone starter. Wil Nieves is a free agent, and we wish him well. It’s Cameron Rupp time. Bye, Wilbert.