Coming out of the lockout, the Yankees knew that they needed to address deficiencies at shortstop, catcher, center field, the starting rotation, and first base. The killed the first two birds with one stone, agreeing to trade Gary Sánchez and Gio Urshela to the Twins for Josh Donaldson, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, and Ben Rortvedt. Donaldson was the obvious headliner of the deal, while Kiner-Falefa represented the club’s attempt to fill then most glaring need at short. Today, we’re focusing on the the least-heralded member of the deal, 24-year-old lefty-hitting catcher Ben Rortvedt.
2021 Stats: 39 games, 98 PA, 3 HR, 7 RBI, .169/.229/.281, 6.1% BB%, 29.6% K%, 40 wRC+, 0.2 fWAR
FanGraphs Depth Charts Projection: 78 games, 307 PA, 10 HR, 34 RBI, .215/.282/.367, 7.2% BB%, 27.1% K%, 78 wRC+, 1.4 fWAR
Minnesota drafted Rortvedt out of high school with the 56th overall selection in the 2016 MLB Draft. He climbed as high as 24th on FanGraphs’ 2021 Twins top prospect list and 26th on MLB Pipeline’s 2020 Twins top 30 before making his major league debut on April 30, 2021 against the Royals, collecting an RBI single for his first MLB hit.
At the very least, Rortvedt will give Giancarlo Stanton and Aroldis Chapman a run for their money as the most jacked Yankee. And yet, despite his cartoonishly large muscles, Rortvedt struggled mightily in his first taste of major league pitching, particularly when it came to making contact. He strikes out almost 30 percent of the time, which on its own isn’t an issue, but when you add the piddling 6.1 percent walk rate and general lack of on-base threat, it becomes a problem.
Josh, Esteban, and I talked extensively about the potential we saw in Rortvedt during our Twitter Spaces chat reacting to the trade with Minnesota, so if you want to listen to Josh’s full breakdown of his defense and Esteban’s full breakdown of his swing, you can check it out here.
Esteban noticed a troubling hitch in Rortvedt’s swing, almost like he’s swinging in stages rather than one continuous fluid motion. This interruption in the kinetic chain robs him of all power — it doesn’t matter how much he can lift if his swing is an inefficient stop-start mess — and his quality of contact tells the story. Out of 487 hitters with at least 50 batted ball events in 2021, Rortvedt ranked 467th with an 84.6-mph average exit velocity. Needless to say, poor plate discipline and weak batted balls combine to make one of the worst hitting catchers last season — his 40 wRC+ tying him for the fourth-lowest mark out of all catchers with at least 90 plate appearances.
But perhaps we’re looking at Rortvedt through the wrong lens. As Josh pointed out, Rortvedt might be one of the next great up-and-coming defensive catchers. In 256 innings behind the plate, Rortvedt was credited with 5.0 defensive runs saved, 2.3 framing runs, and 5.5 total defensive runs above average. Extrapolating over a full season, or roughly 1,000 innings as catcher, (yes, I know it doesn’t work this way, but bear with me), Rortvedt would be worth just under 20 DRS, about 9 framing runs, and just under 22 defensive runs above average. All of this would have made him the second-best framer and best overall defensive catcher in the league.
We know that Rortvedt won’t be given that much playing time, with Aaron Boone confirming that the plan was to platoon the lefty Rortvedt with the righty Kyle Higashioka. It’s certainly a risk to rely on most if not all of the value from the catcher position being produced on defense. In general, I’m not a fan of assuming that defense will make up for a lack of production at the plate. Nick Ahmed is widely regarded as the best defensive shortstop in the league over the last five years — his 87 outs above average is tied for tops in baseball during that span — and yet he has been worth little more than a win per year despite putting up a wRC+ more than double Rortvedt’s 2021 mark.
That said, FanGraphs projects the combination of Higashioka and Rortvedt to be worth three wins — higher than their projection for reigning AL home run champ Salvador Perez. There’s a very real chance that a tandem of Higashioka and Rortvedt winds up as the best defensive catching duo in the league, and given Higashioka’s spring hot streak and sneaky good batted-ball profile, any additional offensive production would be icing on the cake.
Of course, everything I’ve said up to this point could be rendered moot by the ongoing oblique issues that Rortvedt faces.
Ben Rortvedt is still recovering from his oblique strain and is unlikely to play in any games this spring, Aaron Boone said.— Bryan Hoch (@BryanHoch) April 1, 2022
Guessing it'll be a K. Higashioka- R. Brantly catching tandem to start the year. Boone says that David Freitas and Max McDowell are also in the mix.
Obliques are a tricky injury, often with nebulous recovery timetables and a lasting impact on the ability to swing a bat. Fingers crossed that Rortvedt’s Grade 1 strain heals sooner rather than later.
I like to think of Ben Rortvedt as the throw-in lottery ticket tacked on after most of the details of swapping Sánchez and Urshela for Donaldson and Kiner-Falefa had been hashed out. He was never expected to be the main difference maker on the team. And while I do believe the leap in offensive production projected by FanGraphs to be overly optimistic, I am intrigued to see Rortvedt the framer and game-caller when he does eventually take the field.