How Francisco Cervelli became elite

Pittsburgh Pirates LogoAfter reading the title of this article, the answer to my hypothetical question may seem a little obvious. But if I were to ask you who the best catcher was (not named Buster Posey) over the 2015 season, you would probably be surprised to hear Francisco Cervelli as such a player. Lauded over his minor league career and start to major league one as more of a defensive catcher, the offensive upside with him was limited. Eventually, as his glove and framing ability grew to one of the better ones in the league; he looked like he could become a strong defensive minded catcher.

But that just wasn’t enough for the young Italian-Venezuelan. Known around the Bronx for his high energy personality, a trade down to Pittsburgh let him unlock his inner self into his field game. The Pirates are one of the more forward thinking organizations in the league, and no doubt loved the extra strikes that Cervelli was able to steal for the pitching staff. Understanding that, as well as his strong ability to work with pitchers and call a game, he was allowed to work almost completely hands off with full trust from the Pirates’ brass.

Never starting more than 40 games with the Yankees, being given the starting job meant more opportunity for Cervelli. And looking into his rate stats, it seems like it was a good idea. By wRC+, he had never been an average hitter until his age 26 season in 2012. Where projection systems didn’t believe he could hold up an above average stick, and apparently neither did the Yankees’ front office, he continued to defy the odds. Putting up marks of 116, 144 and 130 from 2012-14, he had over half a season of very strong offensive numbers. And even in 2011 he played almost a full half season (although mostly off the bench) with a wRC+ of 96. His production shows a clear upward trend over this time period, making him ripe for a breakout.

The 2015 season has been tough for catchers overall, but not Cervelli. His 295/370/401 slash line is one of the better marks. Although lacking in power compared to some, the contact and on-base skills are elite among the position and great outside of it as well. It just goes to show that sometimes to be great you don’t have to do everything well, but control what you can and you’ll find yourself in great places. Cervelli has never had a power stroke, but precise focus on strike zone discipline and bat control has helped him develop into a tremendous overall player.

The issue with him holding back his breakout was simply getting the playing time, which was a function of lack of power. As John Sickels of Minor League Ball had said, he though his bat held him back when in reality it was just not properly assessing his skill set. Here’s a snippet from his prospect retrospective:

In retrospect that was too negative and it was unfair and inaccurate to say his bat “holds him back.” His bat was actually pretty good when healthy, as long as you weren’t looking for home runs.

The deeper we look into Cervelli, the clearer his issue seems; he was just never trusted enough to let himself shine. But what is even more impressive about him is that even when not getting the starts, he’s still made adjustments to improve his game and focus on what he does well.

In an effort to buy more playing time by trying to tap into some more power, he increased his fly ball rates to over 42% in 2012. But he hit just .222 without improving his power on flies, as it just wasn’t what fit his stocky batting stance and playing style. He has steadily gone back to favoring ground balls, a decidedly less sexy approach (have you ever heard the phrase “chicks dig the seeing eye single”? Didn’t think so). But it’s one that has allowed him to bat near .300 and become almost 20% better than your major league average hitter.

And by doing so he’s been able to hit fastballs better, something that is kind of important for a hitter (slight understatement). His pitch weighted value for the fastball has never had him at even three runs above average, and he reached 11.8 in 2015. Of course, this stat can get inflated with more playing time, although it also speaks to continued success with the pitch. Still, his rate stats for weighted fastball values are the best of his career as well, leaving little doubt to his constant improvement.

But as much as I love to say how the numbers have indicated a breakout, how much I want the answer behind every question to be a simple numerical one, every now and then we get the story where the resolution is just more romantic. Francisco Cervelli credits his success not to a batting stance tweak, or a nice ballpark, but simply a new attitude and appreciation. In his own words:

“I have a lot of positive energy for my teammates,’’ Cervelli said. “The good thing is [Hurdle] lets me be me. When I came here he said, ‘I don’t want you to be anybody else. Just be you and play. That’s why we brought you here.’

“He never criticized when I get excited or mad. He just wants me to be me. He doesn’t want to take away anything [from] my game. That’s something I really appreciate.’’

He’s shown the ability to be good, and the Pirates just letting Cervelli be Cervellie has allowed him to be great. Don’t think of this as a BABIP fueled fluke season, but instead of a delayed breakout by a legitimate top-tier catcher.

 

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James Krueger
James lives in Tampa, Florida and is often one of the 10,000 people you can see at Rays' home games. He's a huge fan of prospects, loves analyzing swing mechanics, and will eat a "Top 100" list for breakfast. Dynasty leagues are his forte, especially rebuilding teams; building a farm system is the best part.