After struggling to replicate his minor league success in Chicago over parts of two previous seasons, backup catcher Victor Caratini broke out at the plate and established a successful partnership with starter Yu Darvish in 2019. However, he headed into this season facing yet another year of limited playing time behind two-time All-Star Willson Contreras.
Since then, the upheaval in baseball led to the implementation of the universal DH and opened up the possibility of more regular at-bats for the man affectionately known as “Victory Carrot.” Contreras confirmed earlier in the week that the plan is for Caratini to remain Darvish’s personal catcher and also that the DH would allow for more at-bats all around.
“Victor is catching Darvish, because there’s only 60 games and Darvish did really well with Victor last year,” Contreras said. “That’s one thing that I don’t mind. I think they did really good and I think I put myself in that situation when I started catching Lester. So it’s the same situation. I’m not mad. We are teammates. We want to do really good and we’re here to win. That’s the most important thing.”
While I previously had concerns about Caratini’s groundball rate and hard-hit percentage, that latter mark improved from 28.2% in 2018 to 33.5% in 2019. His grounder percentage also dropped below 50% after a previous high of 65.2% in 2017. Most encouragingly, Caratini’s home run-to-fly ball rate increased to 22% last year from a mere 5.9% in 2018. This coincides with a drop in pull rate to 27.1% from a high of 41.3% in 2017.
It’s hard to find a more meaningful example of his improvement than this shot against eventual back-to-back Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom to break a 1-1 tie against the Mets on August 29. Even better, this was Caratini’s second homer of the game off deGrom.
Those aforementioned improvements were all part of Caratini’s emergence as an above-average offensive performer in 2019. He slashed .266/.348/.447 with a 104 OPS+ and 108 wRC+, well above the MLB averages for catchers (.236/.308/.405, 85 wRC+). He also outperformed fellow super-sub David Bote (.257/.362/.422, 103 OPS+, 106 wRC+ in 2019), who negotiated a long-term deal with the Cubs last year.
While most members of the baseball media believe Kyle Schwarber is the best and most likely candidate to serve as the Cubs’ designated hitter, Caratini’s 2019 performance has earned him more playing time. Using Caratini in the DH slot affords him that opportunity while also giving manager David Ross more more versatility in his lineups. As a switch hitter with nearly even splits, Caratini is less susceptible to matchup issues caused by opposing pitchers’ handedness.
When Caratini is catching Darvish, the DH slot will allow Contreras to remain in the lineup without placing him in a suboptimal corner outfield role. This will be especially useful against left-handed pitching. Schwarber’s splits against lefties are poor (.198/.302/.356), while Contreras has performed very well against them (.285/.381/.516). Caratini has historically been slightly better from the left side than from the right, and part of that improvement included putting up bigger offensive value from both sides last season.
His .798 OPS from the left side was 23 point higher than from the right, but his 110 wRC+ as a righty batter was three points higher. That’s a bat you’d love to have in the lineup as often as possible, particularly when you factor in Caratini’s ability to play first base. With Anthony Rizzo battling lower back issues, the Cubs need a solid hitter who can spell their captain as needed.
While Caratini won’t get to tee off on the clearly overmatched deGrom in the regular season, the Cubs catcher has earned the opportunity to do damage against the likes of Brandon Woodruff, Luis Castillo, Jack Flaherty and Lucas Giolito. Cubs fans should look forward to seeing what Caratini is able to do in what is sure to be an increased role in 2020.