Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Mesoraco Move Makes Sense

Mesoraco was an All-Star and an elite hitter in 2014 (Fantasy Baseball Dugout)
The Cincinnati Reds haven't done much to applaud this offseason, mainly because they haven't done much at all. Cincy made an outstanding move yesterday, however, locking up catcher Devin Mesoraco with a four-year, $28 million extension that will cover his three arbitration seasons and first year of free agency.

Given that teams are paying roughly $6 million for a win on the open market these days and accounting for inflation, Mesoraco will only need to be worth about one win above replacement per year over the life of the contract to earn his keep. Seeing as how he was worth around 4.5 WAR last year alone, he should have no problem accruing a similar value over the next four years combined (which, by the way, also happen to cover the prime ages of 27-30).

Unless, of course, Mesoraco turns out to be a massive fluke, but I don't think he is (neither does ESPN's David Schoenfield). One might question last year's 25 home runs and .893 OPS (149 OPS+) in light of his 16 home runs and .641 OPS (74 OPS+) from 2011-2013, but I wouldn't. I see Mesoraco's breakout as a product of age (he was 26 last year) and increased experience (he had just 589 major league plate appearances before last year). Catchers also tend to bloom later than other position players, not that there's anything out of the ordinary about a 26 year-old putting it all together.

As for the how/why behind Mesoraco's breakthrough, Jeff Sullivan over at FanGraphs provides a detailed explanation. From what I can see, the Reds' receiver enjoyed a huge boost in BABiP, which at .309 is only 10 points higher than the league average but represents a mammoth improvement over his career average. That was strange to see, considering that a) his line drive rate remained about the same as 2013, b) he hit more fly balls than ground balls last year, and c) he's slow as molasses. Perhaps last year was mere regression to the mean after three straight years of horrendous luck on batted balls, but a .309 BABiP just doesn't jibe with Mesoraco's 2014 hit distribution. Accordingly, I'd project him to be a .250 hitter going forward rather than the .273 batter he was last year.

And what about the power? Mesoraco can hit .250 all he wants if he keeps hammering 25 balls out of the yard every year, something only Brian McCann and Wilin Rosario have proven to be capable of doing among the current crop of backstops. Given the large increases in his strikeout and fly ball rate, Mesoraco appears to have sold out for the long ball by lengthening his swing, which certainly worked for him last year (and should continue to in Great American Ball Park). That said, in 2014 his fly balls left the yard about twice as often as they had in the past and more frequently than the league average, which leads me to believe he's due for a bit of regression in this area. Not much, but enough to cap him at roughly 20 big flies rather than 25 or 30.

I guess this is all a long-winded way of saying that I think Mesoraco's true talent level is probably closer to what he did during the second half last year. He was a monster in the first half, doing his best Mike Piazza impression by batting .320/.387/.667 through June 24th. After that, natural regression combined with pitcher adjustments limited him to .244/.342/.449 the rest of the way. Those are still terrific numbers for a catcher in today's offense-challenged times, and I'll readily admit that Mesoraco could make his own adjustments this year. It's just highly unlikely he'll be as good as he was last year, if only because he was so exceptionally good last year.

Then again, he doesn't have to be. If he's only 75-80 percent of the player he was last year, he's still an awesome hitter. And if last year does turn out to be a fluke, and he's only a so-so hitter from this point onward, then he'll still comfortably exceed one WAR per year so long as he's healthy. The Reds aren't banking on four more All-Star seasons from Mesoraco; they're merely paying him to be an everyday catcher. If his bat turns out to be legit, then he'll wind up being an incredible bargain, but he'll still be one even if it doesn't.

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