Finally out from under the scrutinizing thumb of Dusty Baker, Devin Mesoraco was given a chance to shine in 2014 and had a breakout season. He ended the year ranked 3rd in Yahoo, 3rd on ESPN’s player rater and 5th on CBS for overall points among qualified catchers. Pretty good value for one of the last catchers drafted, going off the board in round 18 on average. Looking at early rankings, Mesoraco has moved to the top of the charts and placing 2nd or 3rd, passing players like Yan Gomes and Evan Gattis along with staples like Salvador Perez & Yadier Molina. While his 2014 season does deserve recognition, has Mesoraco done enough to warrant such of high place in the rankings? I know, how dare I ask such a question, but it is a valid one.
First let us look at Mesoraco’s power. His average fly ball distance this year according to baseball heatmaps was 297.5 feet, good enough to place 24th among major league players. He’s among some good company in the top 25 with players like Justin Upton, Victor Martinez and Corey Dickerson, but there are also some less than desirable names like Yasmani Grandal, Pedro Alvarez & Mark Reynolds who have power but can kill your batting average. We will delve more into the batting average in a few minutes, lets stick with the power for now. In 2010 across 3 levels in the minors, Mesoraco launched 26 home runs in 397 at bats. Between then and now, his power stroke has only been displayed sparingly, partly due to the lack of playing time. Some may view the lack of power during this time as a sign of inconsistency, but don’t read too much into that. He has legitimate power, enough to hit 20 or more home runs annually.
What worries me is where all those home runs landed. Looking at his spray chart over at Fangraphs, you’ll see what could be conceived as trouble as we move forward.
Do you see what I see? All of his power is to left field (with one lonely shot landing near center). The majority of his line drives and ground balls are to left field as well. Fly balls are scattered, but the ones to right just don’t have enough behind them. This is not just this year either, here is his spray chart covering his last 3 years in the majors.
That’s 39 home runs and only 2 to right field. To be a complete hitter you have to be able to use the entire field. If you don’t, well, you get Mesoraco’s teammate in Cincinnati, Jay Bruce. All of his power is to right field (along with a majority of groundballs and line drives). It hasn’t prevented Bruce from knocking in 30 or more home runs each year (until this year), but it has kept his batting average in the .250 range for his career. Mesoraco’s batting average for balls hit to left field is .433, and he needs every point of that considering his batting average for balls hit to right field is .154…yikes.
Mesoraco finished the year with a .273 batting average. Normally I don’t question an average like this, but I am forced to considering he batted .242 or lower in 3 out of 6 months. He hit a ridiculous .468 for the month of April; his next two highest months were June and July where he hit .253 and .267. If you take out that first month of 47 at bats, you get an average of .246. I know it’s not fair to take out the best month, but it is important for you to realize that Mesoraco was a .250 hitter for a majority of the year. If you go into next year thinking he will improve upon his .273 final line (or even match it), you could be in for a rude awakening. He handles lefties well, but this year he showed big improvements against righties and increased his road average, two things he has struggled with in the past. While those go into the positive column, I have to add to the negative side (it’s in my nature to be negative).
Mesoraco’s strikeout rate spiked this year. It was 19% for the months of April and August, and for the remaining months it hovered between 23% and 28%. A 23.4% strikeout rate isn’t a deal breaker, but it doesn’t give a vote of confidence that the batting average will improve. If anything, it puts him in the company of Tyler Flowers who also has great power but a low average. Power is nice, but when the bottom drops out on that 20% HR/FB ratio, what are you left with? The good news is, with a line drive percentage over 20, Mesoraco should be able to maintain an average close to the .250 range even without those other improvements, at least short-term.
Catchers bats mature slower in comparison to their counterparts on the field. They spend a majority of the time honing their craft behind the plate, studying their opponents, getting accustomed to their pitching staff, etc. Hitting is usually the last thing that comes around (not everyone can be Buster Posey). Mesoraco is at a critical age right now and standing at the crossroads. He will be 27 next June so he is still at an age where he can make adjustments, but he’s at a point that if he doesn’t make changes soon, he will become complacent in his ways.
Mesoraco needs to learn to use the whole field. If he doesn’t, opposing pitchers will start to take advantage which could reduce the number of home runs. Outfielders will take advantage as well and you could start to see that centerfielder shift towards left when he’s at the plate. He also needs to reduce the strikeout rate and hit for a more consistent average. The league is full of catchers who can hit 15-20 home runs with a bad average. If this doesn’t change, Mesoraco could be the new Russell Martin in a few years, the guy you grab off waivers when you have an injury.
Defensively Mesoraco is solid so the Reds have little reason or motivation to look elsewhere for the time being. He has the job security, so the only real questions are, can Mesoraco adjust and how long will it take him. I don’t see him making any major changes going into 2015 so I expect an average in the .260 range. He hasn’t put a stamp on the league yet as a legitimate power threat so pitchers probably won’t pitch him differently. If that’s true then expect another 25 home runs (plus or minus a handful). With a healthy Votto and Bruce potentially being back to his old self, Mesoraco will probably bat 5th next season (possibly lower depending on f/a signings) so another 80 RBI season seems unlikely. I would scale your expectations back to the 60 range which is still good for a catcher.
So for 2015 you’re looking at .260 with 25 home runs and 60 or so in the run and RBI department. For 2014, that would rank him in the 7-10 range for catchers and not in the top 3. What places him in the top 3? Upside, plain and simple. We all want to believe when we see a player on the verge of a potential breakout, that next year will be the year (myself included). In our early 2015 rankings, I placed Mesoraco 5th but could have easily ranked him 6th or 7th. I can’t see jumping early for a player like Mesoraco when I can get an Evan Gattis or Brian McCann rounds later, and both of those players should give you the same numbers I predicted for Mesoraco. His potential for a breakout season may make him worthy of being ranked in the top 3, but given the talent behind him it’s not worth where you will have to draft him.
If you are planning on drafting Mesoraco I suggest you make a different plan, use that pick for something else and be content with one of the lower ranked catchers. Even if I am wrong, the difference in production from tier to tier at catcher will not be that far off to make that much of a difference in the grand scheme of things.