There’s a familiar phrase about getting the carrot or the stick, an idiom drawn from the concept that you can nudge a reluctant horse via promise of a treat or threat of a beating. That’s kind of how the Cubs’ play has seemed here of late as they move in fits and spurts. But one development that might make the difference in them either sputtering or accelerating is to use both the carrot and the stick.
Or, if I can forge this metaphor into a terrible dad-pun, they could use Caratini and his stick. Which is to say that backup catcher Victor Caratini performing at the plate opens things up in a big way.
It’s been kind of an odd season for Caratini, who easily won the backup catcher job coming out of spring training. The footsteps were always close behind, though, since longtime veteran Chris Gimenez had to be called up or released by June 1. As such, Caratini soon found himself back at AAA through no real fault of his own.
Not that he was lighting the world on fire by any stretch or that he was some sort of defensive wizard, just that he’d done a fair job behind Willson Contreras and clearly had nothing left to prove in the minors. So he was pretty miffed about the demotion and wasn’t shy about expressing his displeasure with the decision.
To make matters worse, Gimenez did absolutely nothing to justify the switch. Not only did he not work much with good buddy Yu Darvish, whose recruitment was at least a small part of the reason Gimenez was signed, but his offensive numbers were atrocious. And unlike David Ross, Gimenez didn’t have a cannon for an arm or any other easily discernible value props.
When you’re batting .139/.220/.222, you’d better have some damn good reasons for a team to keep you around. Gimenez didn’t, and he put up -0.3 fWAR over 16 games (roughly equivalent to -4.4 fWAR over a full season) before being sent back down and eventually traded.
And to be fair to the Cubs here, it’s not as though Caratini had been making an ironclad case for himself, either. His .262 batting average in 69 plate appearance through May 22 (his last game before being sent down) was solid, but a .612 OPS isn’t going to open any eyes and his .046 ISO (measure of raw power) was proof that he’d displayed no pop.
But the real problem was Caratini’s performance against right-handed pitchers, who’d held him to a .581 OPS with a .024 ISO. When you’re spelling a right-handed-hitting catcher, it’s not ideal to have an offensive output against righties that’s 42 percent worse (58 wRC+) than the average batter. It’s even less ideal when said starting catcher is desperately in need of more rest down the stretch.
Contreras has been flagging since at least early August and now has a .525 OPS and 50 wRC+ in his last 103 plate appearances. That includes a .479 OPS and 39 wRC+ in 86 plate appearances against righties. Not great, Bob. He’s continued to get the lion’s share of innings, though, since Caratini hadn’t necessarily doing much to demand more time.
That’s changing lately and the switch-hitting Caratini is becoming a much more viable “everyday” option. He still doesn’t have a hit against a lefty in 23 plate appearances since being called back up July 4, but that’s fine because Contreras can still face all of them. In 73 plate appearances against righties, however, Caratini has an .858 OPS with a 131 wRC+ and a .149 ISO.
Those numbers have continued to go up more recently as well. His .942 OPS, .233 ISO, and 153 wRC+ since August 14 (33 PA’s) jump to 1.103, .280, and .197 in the last three weeks (27 PA’s). And for those of you whose small-sample Spidey-sense has you pointing at the screen like that ubiquitous meme, please know that I do understand the danger of putting too much faith in these results.
However, it’s becoming quite clear that Caratini is a much better option against right-handed pitchers at the moment. One need look no further than his performance against the Brewers, led by Jhoulys Chacin’s wicked slider, in Tuesday’s win.
Caratini’s first at-bat was a 10-pitch affair that saw him foul off six straight pitches, four of which were sliders, before an errant pickoff throw allowed Ben Zobrist to score and Javy Baez to advance to third. The hot-hitting catcher then fouled off a seventh pitch in a row, this one a fastball, before dumping a single into right field to plate Baez.
He produced a lineout in his second trip to the plate, but capped the Cubs’ scoring with a double that he shot down the line in left. It was a 96 mph Brandon Woodruff fastball on the outside corner that Caratini just rode to the opposite field in a textbook display of hitting that scored Tommy La Stella from first.
The most obvious benefit of Caratini’s resurgence is that it gives the Cubs a productive hitter in the lower half of their order when he’s in the game. But the fact that he’s absolutely raking against righties, who comprise a majority of the starters the Cubs will face, means that he can shoulder a bigger innings load and give Contreras a break.
That gives the Cubs better overall offensive production in the near term and could allow Contreras to rest and recharge for what should be another playoff run. Joe Maddon often says that he doesn’t make out lineup cards by simply riding the hot hand, but — and I must note here that I don’t completely believe that’s the case — this isn’t just about trying to catch a wave.
Caratini has always been a better hitter from the left side and he’s been a monster lately. Contreras, though a pretty split-neutral hitter this season and throughout his career, has been nothing short of awful for the last month. The calculus is really quite easy when you look at it that way.
Even with a little regression, Caratini getting more playing time gives the Cubs the best chance to win right now while also improving the chances of a Contreras bounce-back in October. So using his stick a little more means a much better shot at some carats.