Earning His Pay Stubbs

Mar 28, 2023 - 4:00 PM
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Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

There’s an old truism in football: the backup quarterback is the most popular player on the team. He is all promise, all potential, he is not yet tainted by thwarted effort and frustrated hopes, he will carry the team to a bright tomorrow so much better than the mundanity of today. But no parallel truism seems to exist in baseball. Hearing that the backup catcher is in today’s starting lineup is something like hearing that the understudy will be playing the lead role in a Broadway show. Even more so if your typical starter is an All-Star. Like the understudy, though, the backup catcher has a crucial role to play: the player lending their name to the marquee can’t be on stage every night; someone needs to bridge the gaps that emerge in even the most dedicated performer’s schedule. But all this raises a question: what does it mean to be a backup to your team’s catcher when your team’s catcher rarely needs a backup?

No catcher across MLB started more games in 2022 than J.T. Realmuto. His 130 starts were 14 more than those of his nearest competitor leaguewide for the endurance crown (Oakland’s Sean Murphy), and 24 more than those of his nearest in the senior circuit (the Dodgers’ Will Smith). That left his backup, Garrett Stubbs, with just 32 starts, making for an appearance every 5 or 6 days. That suited the Phillies and their fans just fine; when you believe, and believe fervently, that your backstop is the Best Catcher in Baseball, you want him behind home plate as much as possible.

Perhaps, then, that is why Stubbs may be best known to the Phillies faithful for his contributions to the team chemistry, for his good cheer, for his ability to serve as the glue holding the team together. But while it’s fun to remember him as a character, it would be doing him a disservice not to measure him as an actual ballplayer. What does Stubbs bring to the table, and what can you contribute to the team as the backup to the catcher who, at least in terms of raw starts, is least in need of one?

Despite having seen action across 4 MLB seasons, it’s still a bit early to judge Stubbs as a hitter. He has just 208 plate appearances under his belt, enough to get a sense for his abilities, but perhaps not enough to make an extremely precise conclusion. More than half of those 208 came last season, where Stubbs provided a solid .264/.350/.462 batting line. He walked in 11.6% of his plate appearances and struck out in 24.8% of them; both numbers being a little higher than the league average. If there’s any concern with his otherwise solid hitting numbers, it’s his relatively low exit velocity. He landed in the 18th percentile for major leaguers with a maximum exit velocity of 104.9 MPH in 2022; he’s not likely to be hitting it into the cheap seats with any real frequency. The caveat, of course, is the somewhat small sample size. Perhaps last season’s numbers will turn out to be a proper baseline; perhaps his true capabilities as a hitter are somewhere above or below that. Despite the uncertainty, we can be reasonably confident that Stubbs can provide adequate contributions with his bat.

As for his duties behind the plate, Stubbs can boast an enviable pop time to second; he’s not as quick as Realmuto, but his placement in the 93rd percentile of catchers in that statistic for 2022 left most of the league’s backstops looking up at him. He’s sent a full 50% of those who have attempted to steal on him home in his career, though that number is undoubtedly in part the product of small sample size. His 28% rate from last season seems a bit more reasonable as a baseline, and is still quite solid. Unfortunately, he’s less effective when it comes to framing; Baseball Savant had him in the 8th percentile for that last season. Framing is something of an invisible skill, it’s not something you’ll notice unless you’re really keeping an eye out for it. Nevertheless, it’s a skill that can change games on the margins, and one in which Stubbs has not, as of yet, shown the ability to excel.

Stubbs also offers some positional flexibility. Not so much directly—a few brief substitutions into left field and 3.2 innings as a position player pitching aside, he’s only ever played catcher in the majors. But having him behind the plate would allow Realmuto to play first, where he has a handful of starts across his career. Given the recent development of Rhys Hoskins’ ACL tear, that’s relevant. Realmuto may or may not end up picking up a first baseman’s mitt, but at the very least, Rob Thompson will have the option.

No little leaguer ever hoists his bat imagining being a backup catcher. But more than a few clubs have had nightmares because they don’t have a good one. You can count on Stubbs for locker room cheer and a few good quotes, but you can also count on him to be a solid presence both behind and at the plate whenever the team needs him. In a division that projects to be tight, the 30-ish games which he’s expected to start mean quite a bit. I wouldn’t expect Stubbs to pick up a catchy acronym of his own (Rather Reliable Backup Catcher, or RRBC, doesn’t roll off my tongue, or anyone’s), but I expect few complaints from the Phillies faithful about their backup backstop.

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