The Astros have landed a new starting catcher: Houston will pay Robinson Chirinos nearly $6 million as part of a one-year pact, per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. Chirinos joins an Astros club that’s now certain to lose two backstops to free agency: Brian McCann has already signed with the Atlanta Braves after having his option declined, while Martin Maldonado continues to wait for a deal to come along that’s up to his liking.
The Astros evidently weren’t willing to meet either Maldonado’s ask, nor that of the Miami Marlins for J.T. Realmuto. Hence Chirinos.
But while this reads like a straightforward deal — team that needs a catcher gets a catcher — it does mark a departure from the norm in Houston.
Since Jeff Luhnow took over the Astros in late 2011, Houston has gravitated toward competent defensive backstops. Luhnow inherited Jason Castro and paired him with the likes of Carlos Corporan and Hank Conger. When Conger departed for a lucrative free-agent contract, Luhnow traded for Brian McCann, a strong hitter sure, but also someone whose framing made up for his weak arm. Luhnow added a defensive whiz in Maldonado to help shore up his catching depth when McCann went down this season. Even the fleshy rockpile of a man named Evan Gattis, acquired by Luhnow years and years ago at this point, historically grades as a good framer.
That’s why it’s a little surprising to see the Astros link up with Chirinos, arguably one of the worst defensive backstops in baseball. According to Baseball Prospectus, Chirinos’ mitt cost the Texas Rangers 11 runs in 2018. For his career, he’s sacrificed more than 20 runs. Most of that damage comes via poor framing, as he’s consistently been below-average in that regard. He doesn’t make up for it with good pop times or strong goalie-work, either.
Rather, Chirinos’ only means of adding value is his bat. For his career he has a 101 OPS+, and he’s homered 35 times over the last two years. Sounds good … except there’s ample reason to worry about his offensive viability heading forward. For one, he’s a 34-year-old who has battled durability concerns his entire career — last season was the first time he’d appeared in more than 100 big-league games. It stands to reason he may not age as well as the average catcher, which is concerning since the average catcher doesn’t age well. The other big red flag with Chirinos is last season was his worst offensive effort in years. His strikeout rate increased to 32.9 percent, and he proved too far prone to hitting underneath the ball.
What the Astros feel about Chirinos’ offense is almost beside the point, however. What intrigues us is what they’re seeing with his defense. Do they have reason to believe he’s better than public-facing metrics suggest — or are they intent to live with his mitt for other reasons, like perhaps the conviction that catcher defense is overvalued these days?
At minimum, it’s an interesting coincidence that the Astros seem to be changing gears the same winter that analytics guru Mike Fast — one of the first to quantify catcher framing — leaves to join the Braves. At maximum, it’s a legitimate philosophical switch that could inform Houston’s personnel decisions in the coming years. We’ll have to find out which is which, but inside-baseball stuff like this is why they don’t play during the winters.