2014 Not a Lost Season for Tampa Bay Rays’ Ryan Hanigan
By Robbie Knopf
It was strangely exhilarating for Tampa Bay Rays fans when they first heard that their team had acquired Ryan Hanigan. One day, the Rays were set for their third straight year featuring a Jose Molina–Jose Lobaton catching tandem–the next, they had acquired a legitimate catcher, perhaps the best in their history. The season began, and Hanigan somehow managed to take the excitement to another level. After his four-RBI performance on May 12th, Hanigan possessed a .267/.347/.422 line and was tied with Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist for the team RBI lead with 22 despite significantly less plate appearances. His defense was top-notch as well as he threw out 6 of 13 attempted basestealers (46%) while maintaining the strong game-calling and pitch-framing that we had heard so much about. Just eight days later, however, we first heard about Hanigan dealing with an injury, and everything has spiraled downwards from there.
Between hamstring, neck, and oblique injury, Ryan Hanigan has been unavailable for 80 games this season and subjected Rays fans to far too much Jose Molina than they would have liked. That is concerning, and it is easy to see that and dismiss Hanigan’s first season with the team as a failure. However, when we look at Hanigan’s numbers, it becomes clearer that Molina’s struggles are making Hanigan’s year seem much worse than it really is. After his recent hot streak, Hanigan now has a .226/.324/.337 line, amounting to an 89 OPS+ that is just under his 90 OPS+ for his career. Hanigan has hit well for a catcher, rebounding nicely from a 2013 season that saw his OPS+ slip to just 59. The Rays have to be perfectly satisfied with what Hanigan has given them at the plate when healthy.
Defensively, Hanigan has bizarrely thrown out just 8 of 30 attempted basestealers, just 27% compared to his 39% career average. That big of a drop, though, deserves a closer inspection, and seeing how Hanigan got to that point reveals a lot. The first thing to recognize is that Hanigan had thrown out 7 of 15 basestealers (47%) before his first injury before struggling afterwards. When he was healthy, he was perfectly in line with his career numbers. Admittedly, that is not the best argument, but luckily, we can do better: even as Hanigan has struggled since then, teams still are not running on him at all.
On the whole, major league teams have run against American League catchers on 5.48% of their “stolen base opportunities” (meaning that they had a runner on first or second with an empty base ahead of the lead runner) according to Baseball-Reference. Ryan Hanigan has been run on just 3.9% of the opportunities, the lowest mark in the AL minimum 400 opportunities against (he had 772). By comparison, Molina is below-average at 5.6%–this isn’t just a product of the Rays’ pitchers holding runners well. If Hanigan was truly struggling, presumably teams would be more aggressive against him. Instead, the best runners have found some success against Hanigan, and the rest are too scared of him to try.
The big issue with Hanigan this season is obviously the injuries, but the good news is that now the Rays have a better idea of what Hanigan can handle. After the Rays’ game on May 16th, Hanigan had played in 36 of the Rays’ 43 games, starting 28. He had already made 115 plate appearances, putting him on pace for 433 on the season. Hanigan has surpassed 370 PA’s just once in his entire career, in 2012. Hanigan was facing a higher workload than ever before, and it did not take long for him to wear down. The reality is that Ryan Hanigan is not a starting catcher. He has been a tandem backstop his entire career, and it is too late for him to change that. However, he can be extremely effective when he is used the right way, and the Rays can focus on keeping him in his comfort zone next season.
Ryan Hanigan can’t be the entire solution to the Rays’ catching situation. Realistically, he will only be able to start 80 or 90 games per season moving forward, and the Rays will have to figure out the rest. But if the Rays can find Hanigan a suitable tandem partner, they will find themselves with a vastly improving catching corps compared to before, and that is exactly why they acquired him. It would have been nice if Hanigan had stayed healthy, but there is nothing from this season that suggests any reason for long-term concern now that the Rays know how much playing time he should receive.