The 2021 Colorado Rockies are entering the upcoming season with a lot of uncertainty. After two consecutive seasons filled with disappointment and unfulfilled expectations, fan excitement is at the lowest it’s been in quite a while and the team is directly headed towards a pit of misery and wasted potential. A big part of this is the lack of legitimate impact talent in the position player group, with only Trevor Story and Nolan Arenado being established All-Star caliber players and a lot of other positions featuring either past their prime veterans or unproven young players.
The catcher position is likely the worst of the bunch. The team has mainly deployed Chris Iannetta and Tony Wolters behind the dish since 2017, with the duo combining for a sterling -0.2 fWAR in that time frame. They showed little patience with somewhat intriguing long-time prospect Tom Murphy, who went on to develop properly and play very well for the Mariners in 2019, and seemed to generally judge the quality of their catchers based on how much of a “gritty veteran” each of them was.
Of course, saying the Colorado Rockies haven’t had a lot of impact catchers throughout their history is putting it mildly. Since the team’s inception in 1993, Rockies catchers have compiled 10.9 fWAR, which ranks dead last in baseball. The next worst team is Tampa Bay at 20.6 fWAR and for reference, the Rays have played a thousand fewer games than the Rox over that period of time. Not great. Will the story be the same for the 2021 Colorado Rockies?
2021 Colorado Rockies: The Catching Options
Assuming the Rockies won’t make an addition to the Major League roster for the second offseason in a row, which seems likely at this point, the options have been narrowed down to just a few key figures. The Rockies non-tendered fan-favorite Tony Wolters in December of last year and decided against bringing back veteran backup Drew Butera (to the joy of many Rockies fans), so they have seemingly already made their decision on who will be behind the plate on Opening Day with these moves. Let’s take a look at the candidates.
The Rockies seem to like Díaz. The 30-year-old Venezuelan slowly took playing time away from Tony Wolters as the 2020 season progressed and after Wolters was non-tendered, Díaz seems like the logical choice to take over the starting catcher duties for the 2021 Colorado Rockies.
A former prospect for the Pirates, Díaz broke through at the Major League level in 2018 with a really strong showing in just 82 games, slashing .286/.339/.452 en route to a 114 wRC+ and 1.8 fWAR in 277 plate appearances. However, he followed that up with a 61 wRC+, -1.5 fWAR season in 2019 and was non-tendered by Pittsburgh immediately after. The Rockies signed him to a Minor League deal with an invite to Spring Training in early 2020 and kept him on the roster even if it meant carrying three catchers.
Díaz is a subpar pitch framer by every metric you want to take a look at and although he’s always ranked well in Statcast’s pop time metric (which measures the time between the pitch hitting the catcher’s glove and the catcher’s throw reaching the infielder’s glove), the importance of stolen bases is in decline and with it, so is the importance of pop time. He also has a career 74 wRC+ and is a below-average baserunner. So what gives? How is Díaz supposed to be a plus for the 2021 Colorado Rockies?
Well, I’m not here to explain why the Rockies like Díaz so much because I have no clue, but I am here to say that if he’s deployed correctly, he can be a passable player who doesn’t hurt the team at all. And the key is his performance against left-handed pitching: Díaz has a career 96 wRC+ against lefties, which is more than good enough for a catcher to provide solid value. As you’ll notice in the video below, there’s some power here, but it’s almost exclusively to his pull side, which is why righties give him so much trouble.
Of course, Díaz being deployed in the right way to hide his weaknesses and taking advantage of his strengths is all dependent on Bud Black being willing to aggressively platoon hitters. And any Rockies fan will tell you he’s not shown that ability before, as Ian Desmond‘s every-day player status through 2019 will tell you.
The lefty Núñez is a familiar name for Rockies fans. He was signed by the team out of high school way back in 2013 and has been one of the franchise’s only real catching prospects since, going as far as almost getting some top 100 looks in 2015 after crushing Low-A pitching in 2015. He stalled a bit after that but finally showcased the combination of excellent plate discipline and solid pop that made him intriguing early on in 2019, mashing Triple-A to the tune of a .244/.362/.559 line.
That slash line was good enough for a 116 wRC+, his best since 2015, and it got him a cup of coffee in the Show in late 2019. Núñez didn’t do too well at the plate through 43 plate appearances (.179/.230/.410, 45 wRC+), but his defense registered in the positives and his set of skills seemed to demand playing time, particularly for a team with a catching situation as thin as the Rockies.
Alas, it was not to be. The Rockies carried three catchers in 2020 and Núñez was not one of them, with the team going with three more experienced backstops: Butera, Wolters, and Díaz. Núñez did travel with the taxi squad, but he didn’t see a single Major League at-bat in 2020.
Núñez is a player I’ve liked for a while. Every report considers him as a solid defender behind the plate, with natural movements, a solid arm and soft hands. I think he’ll be a better fielder than Elías Díaz, but not only do I think the glove will be solid, I think the bat will be roughly league-average and Núñez will be a good contributor to the 2021 Colorado Rockies. And the reason why resides in Núñez’s hitter profile.
Dom Núñez is a very modern hitter. He’s a left-handed hitter who pulls the ball a lot, which is a good fit for Coors Field, and his swing has a natural ability to lift the ball in the air. Núñez ran an extremely low 30.4% groundball rate in his limited big league action and you can see in his hit chart just how extreme his tendency to pull the ball actually is:
The key to Núñez’s approach is his terrific plate discipline and ball-strike recognition: his 18.3% Chase% in 2019 was similar to Joey Votto‘s that very same year. Núñez has consistently put up great walk rates throughout his Minor League career and his extremely patient swing tendencies combine very well with his pull-and-flyball-oriented approach to create a hitter who will walk, strike out, and hit a decent amount of home runs. I mean, look at his swing. It looks like a Major League swing to me:
Of course, Núñez is not perfect at the plate. He has swing-and-miss issues, he really doesn’t do damage to pitches he can’t pull, he has troubles against lefties and his flyball approach will lead to quite a few pop-ups and low BABIPs. But I think he has a shot to be a solid platoon catcher if you keep him away from left-handers.
2021 Colorado Rockies: The Ideal Catcher Plan
Unless Colorado goes with other fringe options like José Briceño (whom the Rockies signed to a Minor League deal in November of last year) or Triple-A catcher Chris Rabago, it seems likely that Díaz and Núñez will be the pairing on Opening Day, which is more than fine as far as I’m concerned. The only worry I have is Bud Black will refuse to platoon them adequately and as such, the team will not get the value they could get out of their duo.
In short, I’d like to see Núñez play exclusively against right-handed pitchers while Díaz spells him against lefties. If the Rockies do that, they might just have two average-ish hitters on their hands, a valuable thing to have behind the plate. And if things work out, I can see Núñez and Díaz giving the 2021 Colorado Rockies the most value the team has had from the catcher position in a while. Why not? Rockies fans deserve some good things, too!
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Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images