According to Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections, James McCann and Jarrod Saltalamacchia will combine for the worst WARP at any position in Major League Baseball. For a team that is looking to get back to the playoffs after a one-year hiatus, having the worst positional platoon in the game isn't exactly a ringing endorsement. WARP, BP's version of wins above replacement (WAR), takes pitch framing metrics into account, and due to McCann and Saltalamacchia's awful pitch framing ability, PECOTA projects them to be worth -1.8 WARP combined.
Pitch framing is a relatively new way to evaluate catchers, but it has the ability to change the way we look at each team's backstop. The ability to turn a ball into a strike simply by the way a catcher moves his glove is an invaluable skill that is becoming more prevalent in the saber-friendly front offices taking over today's game. While the Tigers' new front office regime is much more analytically focused, it seems that they have not yet emphasized pitch framing over some of the other skills McCann and Saltalamacchia possess.
Last season, McCann took over the Tigers' starting catcher job midway through the year. As he began to play more over incumbent Alex Avila, fans took a liking to him due to his high caught stealing percentage. McCann also hit .264, considerably higher than any single season Avila had produced since 2011. McCann was your prototypical old school catcher with a Howitzer for an arm and a gritty approach at the plate. On the surface, he looked good. Advanced metrics weren't so kind, though.
McCann was worth an atrocious -1.7 WARP last year, costing the Tigers 16.6 runs due to his inability to frame pitches. His 16.6 runs allowed were the second most in baseball, behind only Philadelphia's Carlos Ruiz. PECOTA projects McCann to have a better season in 2016, but still come in at -1.4 WARP due to costing the Tigers double-digit runs behind the plate.
Assuming he makes the Opening Day roster, Saltalamacchia appears to be slated for a backup catcher role rather than McCann's platoon partner. Despite McCann's struggles against righthanders last year, the Tigers' front office has faith that he will improve with more experience.
Still, it would be nice if Saltalamacchia could provide the Tigers with some quality innings behind the plate. Sadly, PECOTA doesn't think that's going to happen, again, due to his inability to frame pitches. Salty bounced around between the Marlins and the Diamondbacks last year, costing his teams a combined 8.8 runs due to pitch framing, the ninth-worst mark in MLB.
The beautiful thing about quantifying catchers, and really baseball as a whole for that matter, is that it's an imperfect science. It is hard to pinpoint what a catcher can control when he's squatted down behind the plate. Depending on which website you check, a catcher's WAR value may vary quite a bit. According to FanGraphs, McCann was worth 1.0 WAR last season, while Saltalamacchia was worth 0.9. However, metrics that account for pitch framing aren't so kind.
As McCann matures, it's reasonable to expect an improvement in his pitch framing techniques and mechanics. There is no guarantee that he will -- we're not sure how a player's framing ability evolves as he ages -- but with only one season of framing data, jumping to conclusions would be irrational.
In Saltalamacchia's case, he was one of the better pitch framers in baseball in 2011 and 2012 according to Stat Corner, but has been at or near the bottom of framing statistics over the last three seasons.
If you believe that pitch framing is as valuable as some project, Tigers catching situation is a bit scary, and there is no help on the horizon in the minor leagues. However, with some variability present in the data -- not to mention some conservative offensive projections for both catchers -- things may not be as dire as PECOTA suggests.