Rockies’ catchers were much improved in 2021

Jul 30, 2021; San Diego, California, USA; Colorado Rockies catcher Elias Diaz (35) gestures after hitting a home run against the San Diego Padres during the fifth inning at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The Colorado Rockies had an absolute black hole behind the plate in a shortened 2020 season, getting below-replacement performances from Tony Wolters, Elias Díaz, and Drew Butera. Colorado’s catchers ranked 29th in baseball in rWAR. They didn’t hit, and they didn’t really add anything defensively either.

Fortunately, 2021 was a different story.

Sparked by the club’s decision to move on from Wolters and Butera in favor of Díaz and Dom Nuñez, the Rockies’ backstops combined to post 1.5 rWAR, a total that ranked just 17th out of 30 clubs but was a night-and-day improvement over the previous season. Things didn’t start out well for Colorado’s catchers, but one in particular found his swing in June and never really lost it.

Most Valuable: Elias Díaz (2.2 rWAR, 1.6 fWAR)

Díaz was hitting .123/.191/.185 entering the Rockies’ June 3 contest against the Texas Rangers and looked like more and more of a DFA candidate every day. But he went 1-for-3 with a walk that day, and it was the start of a stretch of 282 plate appearances in which the veteran catcher his .284/.348/.553 with 17 home runs. Díaz didn’t strike out much during that stretch, walked a decent amount, and was in no way the benefactor of luck, hitting just .270 on balls in play.

Defensively, Díaz’s arm in particular emerged as the stuff of legend. He threw out a league-best 42 percent of attempted base stealers, helping him finish with nine Defensive Runs Saved. All of that added up to one of the better seasons from a Rockies catcher in recent memory. It’s just too bad he couldn’t get started sooner; his rough beginning to the season resulted in a somewhat pedestrian and slightly below-average overall line of .246/.310/.464.

Least Valuable: Dom Nuñez (-0.5 rWAR , 0.5 fWAR)

Nuñez flashed a lot of power from the left side, contributing to the Rockies finishing third in the NL in catcher home runs with 10 of his own. Unfortunately, Nuñez struck out in almost 35 percent of his plate appearances, leading to a .189/.293/.399 line for the season. He was also not a good defender in terms of metrics, finishing the season six runs below average behind the plate. There is potential within Nuñez to improve upon his first season as a regular contributor, but he’s not off to a great start.

What happens next?

Díaz will enter 2022 as the clear-cut No. 1 catcher, and it would be a surprise to see anyone but Nuñez behind him. Brian Serven, who hit .250/.308/.504 at Triple-A Albuquerque, could get a look at some point, and the club really likes the defensive ability of Willie MacIver, who will represent Colorado in the upcoming Arizona Fall League. But A-ball catcher Drew Romo appears to be the real future for the Rockies at the position. Romo, a first-round pick in 2020, hit .314/.345/.439 for Low-A Fresno in his first taste of pro ball, and reports about his defense were glowing.

If the Rockies decided to go outside the organization to improve their major league catching situation, the options are likely limited to Yan Gomes, Austin Romine, Sandy Leon, Wilson Ramos, and Manny Pina. Nuñez provides better youth and upside to any of those players. But if they decide his defense and swing-and-miss issues are too prohibitive, potential trade targets include defensive wizard Austin Hedges and offense-leaning Max Stassi, though the latter is more of a No. 1 guy.

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