San Francisco Giants Fans, Meet Tyler Heineman

On Saturday, it was announced that catcher Aramis Garcia will miss six-to-eight months after undergoing labrum surgery.  It was widely expected that the 27-year-old would serve as the primary backup to Buster Posey after a reasonably successful 89-game stint in Triple A, in which he slashed .271/.343/.488 (.831 OPS) with 16 home runs while playing excellent defense behind the plate (9.90 RF/9 and 46 percent caught stealing percentage). He also logged some time at first base, posting a 9.00 RF/9. With him out of the running to serve as Posey’s backup, Tyler Heineman, Rob Brantly, and Chadwick Tromp are expected to compete for the job.

As the headline of the article suggests, I would bank on Heineman winning the job, but that’s not to say that either Brantly or Tromp should be counted out. In the interest of transparency, I didn’t know much about Tromp until this offseason, but he absolutely raked through 26 games in Triple A with the Cincinnati Reds last season, slashing .286/.389/.610 over 90 plate appearances. While it’s a small sample size, there were some encouraging peripherals including a 12.2 percent walk rate and a reasonably sustainable .333 BABIP.

His fly-ball percentage was higher than it had ever been at 46.2 percent, and while he has primarily been a pull hitter throughout his career, he did a nice job redistributing some of that contact to center fielf. That being said, his HR/FB rate was unsustainable (29.2 percent), and he struck out 27.8 percent of the time. I see him beginning the season in Triple A, but his contract has never been purchased, meaning that, if called up, he would have three minor-league options. Between that, and the fact that he’s still just 24 years old, I wouldn’t be surprised if he became a long-term option for the Giants as a backup to Joey Bart.

Brantly, a former top prospect, spent last season with the Philadelphia Phillies. He earned a cup of coffee in the bigs but spent the vast majority of the season with the Iron Pigs. While he posted a very strong .866 OPS, it was coupled with a .338 BABIP, which is roughly .050 points higher than his career number, suggesting that he’s very likely to see some regression. My projections have him at a .243/.304/.355 (.658) batting line while playing defense at 92.76 percent of the league average.

Moving onto Heineman, he’s a 28-year-old journeyman catcher who has 11 major-league plate appearances under his belt. On the surface, he’s not going to blow anybody out of the water, and while he found a considerable amount of success in Triple A last season, like Brantly, he benefited from high BABIPs, although the discrepancy wasn’t quite as extreme. My projections have him slashing .252/.317/.416 (.733) while playing defense 2.41 percent better than the league average. Baseball-Reference is high on him too, with a very encouraging .255/.324/.451 (.775) projection.

Aside from the bottom-line numbers, there are a few things that set him apart from his competition. The first and most important aspect of his game that stands out to me is how difficult he is to strike out.  He typically sits in the 12-17 percent strikeout rate, and it’s not like he’s a pure soft contact-type hitter. He actually hits the ball in the air roughly 40 percent of the time, and on top of that, his walk rates typically sit around seven-10 percent. While this isn’t anything special, comparing it to his strikeout rate, it’s very strong. He’s also a switch-hitter, which, while valuable for any player, is a rarity for catchers.

The appeal of switch-hitting catchers is well-documented, as I spent roughly 20-25 minutes reading through blogs and statistics detailing reasons that switch-hitting catchers are so valuable. Catchers are often considered to be among the weaker offensive positions, as their craft is so reliant on their defense that their attention in development doesn’t heavily focus on hitting.

Becoming a switch-hitter is typically something  that hitters take up after mastering the ability to make contact from one side, and seeing how catchers rarely get to that point, the supply is rather limited. Specifically, there are eight switch-hitting catchers currently on 40-man rosters, comprising of just 0.667 percent of the player population. Here are the eight guys:

Yasmani Grandal

Sandy Leon

Jonah Heim

Victor Caratini

Keibert Ruiz

Andrew Knapp

Francisco Mejia

Matt Wieters

It should also be noted that Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart used to be a switch-hitter but has since decided to bat exclusively from the left side. This is some great company for Heineman, as Grandal and Wieters have six All-Star Game appearances between them, and Mejia, Ruiz, and Caratini are all great young receivers, who could find themselves atop the MLB catcher rankings within the next few years.

To delve a bit further into his defensive prowess, he has posted a career 9.35 RF/9, while the average for a catcher typically sits around 9.15-9.20. Meanwhile, his career caught stealing ratio is 39 percent compared to the league average typically sitting between 25-30 percent. He showed off both his glove and arm in his brief opportunity with the Miami Marlins, catching one of two attempted base stealers, while posting a 10.41 RF/9 over 23.1 innings at the position.

If, for some reason, the Giants decide to look for external help, Jonathan Lucroy and Russell Martin are the only two proven major-league options still available on the free agent market, while Mike Zunino could be a speculative trade target.

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