Chris Iannetta Signs with M’s for One Year, $4.25 Million
The M’s made one of the easiest upgrades of the off-season today, signing catcher Chris Iannetta to a one-year deal for $4.25 million; the deal also includes an option for 2017. Iannetta comes via Anaheim, where he was acquired by Jerry Dipoto from Colorado in a 2011 deal for one-time Angels prospect and starter Tyler Chatwood. Dipoto can’t quit Iannetta, but his obsession came cheap, and the backstop represents a clear, clear upgrade over a position whose production Ryan Divish astutely labeled NSFW.
The M’s made it clear: Iannetta isn’t a mentor or back-up to Mike Zunino, he’s the primary catcher heading into the spring. While Iannetta put up a slash line of .188/.293/.335, Dipoto referenced Iannetta’s abysmal BABIP (.225) and track record as proof that his 2015 wasn’t age-related decline, but garden-variety bad luck. Priced at well under 1 win on the open market, it almost doesn’t matter: Iannetta’s signing makes financial sense for the Mariners no matter what you project his bat for in 2016. His patient approach means he can stay in the line-up even when his BABIP tanks or his K rate edges up, as it did in 2015.
There are two trends that jump off his fangraphs page and complicate the idea of a clear “buy low” free agency bargain. First, his ISO has settled in at around .140-.150, lower than it was in his 20s, and definitely lower than it was in his 20s-in-Colorado. That’s not an indictment or anything, and again, his patience means it’s not as big of a deal, even though he’s likely to post a low average. He can be incredibly productive at that level of power, as he was as recently as 2014. The second trend is a decline in his contact rate. His walks have always been the product of a discerning eye, and not the result of great bat control to spoil pitcher’s pitches. Unlike Zunino, Iannetta simply doesn’t swing at balls, with an O-Swing rate under 20% in 2014 and 2015 against a league average over 30% in both seasons. Despite that, he’s making less and less contact when he *does* swing, with last year’s 71.2% a career low (except for a cup of coffee in 2007).
Again: these trends, paired with his age (he’ll be 33 next year), are warning signs, but they in no way make this deal “bad” or concerning or whatever. A one-year, $4.25m deal for anything north of a batboy makes financial sense in this day and age, and given the M’s needs at the position, this has the potential to be one of the best bargains of the off-season – his projected WAR a bit north of 2 should be worth somewhere around $15-18m, or 4X what he actually signed for.
His offense is what it is, but this signing is even more interesting on the defensive side of the ledger. Check the catcher framing leaderboard on Statcorner, and Iannetta rates as one of the elite pitch framers in baseball, a bit ahead of Zunino. By Baseball-Prospectus’ framing metric, the story’s identical: BP has his saving 14.6 runs to Statcorner’s 14.4. But wait, you say, why wouldn’t the market value this skill? Why doesn’t he command more money, even despite the lousy batting average in 2015? In part, it’s because in every year up to 2015, Iannetta wasn’t a great framer at all – he was lousy.
Is it possible that his framing “skill” is the product of luck? That the luck gods gaveth on defense and tooketh away from his BABIP last year? Well, as Eno Sarris described back in April, this seems to be the result of some serious, intentional work on Iannetta’s part. Iannetta mentions working with ex-teammate and current Astro Hank Conger on his body positioning and focusing on improving this skill. He seems to have been inordinately successful, so we can hope that all he needs to do is keep it up. The sabermetric nerd in me says “regress, regress, regress,” and that an outlier like his 2015 is not the final word on his defensive ability. But sabermetrics is still somewhat divided over framing in general, and the fact that the emphasis on it is so new means that it’s at the very least plausible that Iannetta hadn’t ever worked on it, and that his 2015 represents something much closer to his new true-talent level than you’d gather by compiling a career average. He didn’t know what to do, now he does, so we’re good here. It’s simplistic and I *want* it to be true, which makes me kind of suspicious (I’ve been an M’s fan too long).
If Iannetta’s defense is anywhere on the positive side of the ledger, and if his BABIP bounces back before his contact rate drops into the ZuninoZone, this is easily one of the best signings of the offseason – for the M’s, or anyone else. The market at catcher is an odd one, with a number of players coming off of injury – Matt Wieters, Alex Avila, etc., and a number of somewhat similar players like Iannetta, Soto and Navarro. Iannetta’s played in the toughest hitting park of that troika, and is easily the best framer, even if you regress his 2015 pretty heavily. The downside risk is pretty minimal, considering the money. If Iannetta’s BABIP stays low and he’s a .200 hitter, he’d likely *still* be more productive than Zunino, and Iannetta’s presence means the M’s can be strategic – finally – about Zunino’s developmental path. Nice work, Mr. Dipoto.