Every spring, there are a handful of minor league contracts handed out to veteran players that raise a few eyebrows. This year, I found myself questioning the additions of Robinson Chirinos and Rob Brantly as non-roster invitees. The Yankees have taken three catchers in the in the first two rounds of the previous three MLB drafts. However, none are close to the major-league level, so it makes a little more sense that the Yankees would want options with a bit more seasoning.
Between Gary Sánchez’s career track record as one of the most dangerous offensive catchers in the league and Kyle Higashioka’s newfound prowess with the bat, the Yankees sneakily have one of the best catching tandems in the league. However, given the injury history of both players, it cannot hurt to have catching support at the alternate site with major league experience, which is precisely why Brantly and Chirinos were brought in. Today, let’s take a look at Chirinos, whose much more recent MLB experience puts him ahead on the depth chart.
2020 Stats: 82 PA, .162/.232/.243, 1 HR, 7 RBI, 25.6% K%, 7.3% BB%, 32 wRC+, -0.8 fWAR
2021 Steamer Projections: 1 PA, .198/.299/.341, 0 HR, 0 RBI, 31.1% K%, 10.1% K%, 73 wRC+. 0.0 fWAR
Chirinos sounded excited to be joining the Yankees, but his opportunity to compete for the backup catcher role was halted barely after it began. He was struck on the wrist by a Blake Cederlind hit-by-pitch in the eighth inning of a Yankees spring training exhibition game against the Pirates on March 10th. CT scans revealed a broken wrist, and per Bryan Hoch, he underwent surgery on March 16th with an estimated four-to-six week recovery time.
Well, those six weeks have come and gone with Randy Miller reporting on Thursday that Chirinos has fully recovered and set to join Scranton/Wilkes-Barre this week. Indeed, he has already played in some alternate site exhibitions, and will now hope to impress enough that he reopens the backup catcher discussion. It seems highly unlikely, as reflected by his updated projections for 2021, and Higashioka’s surge to essentially a shared starting catcher role with Sánchez.
The biggest thing going for Chirinos is (or was) his bat. Along with Yasmani Grandal, Chirinos was one of only two catchers to post an above-average wRC+ every season between 2015 and 2019. Despite a below-average exit velocity and strikeout rate, Chirinos buoyed his offensive production with a walk rate routinely north of 10 percent and slightly above average hard hit and barrel rates.
In contrast, Chirinos has never been a highly-regarded defensive catcher. Although his DRS fluctuates between negative and positive from year-to-year, Chirinos often sat toward the bottom of the league in framing ability and catcher pop time. He won’t give up too many passed balls, but he also won’t steal many strikes for his pitchers.
Some may point to the fact that Chirinos and Gerrit Cole were teammates in Houston, but they would be forgetting the fact that Martín Maldonado was Cole’s personal catcher with the Astros. There are not too many conclusions that can be drawn from that alone — having a personal catcher does not automatically mean the pitcher dislikes the starting catcher — but don’t expect Cole and Chirinos to have some sort of well-tested connection should the latter ever get called up to the major league roster.
Given the trust the Yankees continue to have in Sánchez and the way Higashioka has been playing so far, it is hard to see Chirinos being anything more than a third-stringer. However, that does not mean that he holds an unimportant role within the organization. Like we saw with Erik Kratz last year, the mentorship Chirinos could provide to the young pitchers at the alternate site can prove to be an invaluable addition to their development. And who knows? Just like Kratz, he may yet get a runout of games with the major league team, so all he can do is stay as prepared as possible.