In 2014, the Tampa Bay Rays’ catchers–mostly Jose Molina, Ryan Hanigan, and a little bit of Curt Casali–hit a grand total of 5 home runs while driving in just 48. Jose Molina hit .178, Hanigan hit .218 (but at least he had a .318 OBP), Casali hit .167, and Ali Solis went 0 for 6.
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The Rays’ front office thought that they solved the problem by trading for Rene Rivera. Rivera was a strong defensive catcher coming off a career year. After finally getting a chance to play regularly for San Diego, Rivera hit .252 with 11 home runs and 44 RBIs in 102 games. He also had an OPS+ of 116. Rivera was 30, but he was a sure bet to work well behind the plate and it seemed reasonable to assume that he had made at least a moderate breakthrough offensively. His numbers wouldn’t make anyone forget Mike Piazza, but Rays staff thought they would at least make fans forget Jose Molina.
The Rays started the season with Rivera as the starter and defensive specialist Bobby Wilson backing him up. Curt Casali was sent to Triple-A for more seasoning, and was later joined by J.P. Arencibia. We all know Rivera slumped horribly in the first half of the season, never breaking the Mendoza line. He did, however, match the Rays catchers’ 2014 home run total with five. Wilson, although good defensively, hit worse than Rivera. Meanwhile, Arencibia was leading the Triple-A International League in home runs, and Casali, after a poor start, was swinging the bat well.
The Rays called Casali up on June 13th to back up Rivera. The 26 year old hit a home run in his third game. As he showed he was a more effective hitter than Rivera, he started taking the majority of the playing time, and after playing in 38 games, he had 10 home runs, including back-to-back two-homer games. On the year, he now has a .238 average, a .304 OBP, and a ludicrous .594 SLG in 113 plate appearances. If Casali could keep up his pace for an entire season, he would hit 30 home runs in 120 games.
Casali pulled a hamstring rounding first base after hitting his tenth home run. He’s scheduled to come off the DL soon. His replacement, J.P. Arencibia, has been even more impressive. In 17 games, Arencibia has hit 5 homers and driven in 15. He’s also batting an amazing .364, and he’s only 29 years old. Mostly because of Casali and Arencibia, Rays catchers so far in 2015 have hit 20 homers and driven in 64 runs. If the Rays showed improvement like that at two or three more positions, they would be leading the AL East.
That has to make us one wonder whether bringing up Casali or Arencibia earlier would have made a big difference this season. It might have, if we could be sure they would have hit at this pace over an entire season. But we can’t be confident of that at all–their lack of plate discipline makes it unlikely that they can come close to sustaining this and their Triple-A numbers provide further reason for skepticism–and that is beyond the fact that hindsight is 20/20. The important point to remember, though, is that Matt Silverman knew something needed to be done to improve the catching, and he made several moves that have worked out. Now, with the offseason quickly approaching, Silverman and the Tampa Bay Rays will face a critical question: who will they keep out of their current group of catchers?