If we were ranking the catchers that the Detroit Tigers should actually sign this offseason, Nick Hundley would be a fair ways down the list. Wilson Ramos would have been a great option — especially on that affordable deal the New York Mets locked him up to — and there’s a case to be made for signing Yasmani Grandal, draft pick compensation and all. Defensive options like Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado would also be nice pickups, but both are receiving attention from other clubs this winter. Certain members of this website would riot if I don’t mention Matt Wieters as well.
Hundley is not as good as those players. He managed a solid .706 OPS for the San Francisco Giants last year, good enough for a 93 OPS+, but still finished right at replacement level in 96 games played. He is, by all accounts, a below-average defender; he was worth -18 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) last year, and was the second-worst pitch framer in baseball.
But for the 2019 Tigers, on-field performance isn’t everything. The team isn’t expected to compete next year, and the front office’s bargain bin approach to fixing the club’s needs this winter reflects these expectations. And with Grayson Greiner expected to be the team’s starting catcher next year, adding a veteran presence to mentor him — and take stress off John Hicks’ surgically repaired groin — might be the team’s most pressing need remaining this offseason.
Once again, Hundley probably isn’t the best option for this role. The Tigers could get similar mentorship out of Maldonado, and be a better baseball team in the process. But Hundley might be the cheapest option (and one expected to add a little bit of offensive thump, to boot) which seems right up Detroit’s alley.
“Way to really sell this guy. Why should we care?”
Hundley’s glove may not be all that great — oh yeah, he’s not very good at throwing out base stealers either — but he is a decent hitter when compared to other catchers. Hundley’s 91 wRC+ ranked 15th of 27 catchers who logged at least 300 plate appearances in 2018, and 21st of 50 who managed 200 plate appearances. His career 89 wRC+ is right around the league average for catchers since he made his major league debut in 2008, and he has five full seasons with a 90 wRC+ or above.
Hundley could also add some much needed thump to the lineup. He has hit at least nine home runs in each of the past four seasons despite never playing more than 103 games. On a 162 game pace, that’s roughly 17 home runs per year. He hasn’t driven in many runs in this span, but that seems largely due to his place in the lineup — the vast majority of his career plate appearances have come sixth or lower in the batting order. He also upped his walk rate slightly last year, drawing free passes at a decent 7.2 percent clip.
But that glove tho
Yeah. It’s not great. Hundley was the worst defensive catcher in baseball last year, according to Defensive Runs Saved, and just about every metric in the book agrees. He was a poor pitch framer, below replacement level according to Baseball Reference, and he threw out just 21 percent of attempted base stealers. While this may not matter much when tutoring Greiner (and maybe even Jake Rogers), it will have an effect on the pitching staff. Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris, among others, could always benefit from a solid defender behind the dish, and Hundley is... not that.
There’s no silver lining here either. Hundley’s -18 DRS in 2018 was a career-worst mark, but he has been at least 10 runs below average in five of the past seven seasons. Baseball Prospectus’ numbers are slightly more friendly, but he has been a well below average pitch framer for his entire career. He hasn’t thrown out more than 35 percent of attempted base stealers since 2011.
Still, there are reasons to sign him
Again, his on-field performance might not be great. He’s a lefty masher who, statistically, isn’t all that different from James McCann, but Hundley has still been able to carve out an 11-year MLB career. This may partially speak to what a low bar backup catchers have to keep a job, but it also reflects that there might be something to his profile beyond the statistics that could help the Tigers clubhouse. Whether it’s veteran leadership at large, specific tutelage for Greiner and the other young catchers in the system, or just freeing up Hicks to play elsewhere, Hundley could be a decent pickup for the Tigers if they don’t want to bid for any of the flashier options on the free agent market this winter.