This past offseason marked the second straight winter in which the Marlins made a series of moves in hopes of upgrading the lineup. By and large, their set of transactions over the 2021-22 offseason didn’t pan out as hoped. Among those who had a tough first year in South Florida was backstop Jacob Stallings.
Stallings was a late-blooming regular for a couple seasons with the Pirates. He didn’t garner significant MLB playing time until 2019, his age-29 season. Once given the opportunity, Stallings developed into a solid primary catcher. Over a three-year stretch between 2019-21, he hit .251/.331/.374 in a little less than 800 plate appearances. That was a little better than the .233/.308/.399 line compiled by catchers overall. Stallings was a bit below-average from a power perspective but posted stronger on-base numbers than the typical backstop.
He’d paired that respectable offense with elite receiving behind the plate. Public pitch framing metrics loved Stallings’ work. He wasn’t charged with a single passed ball in 892 innings in 2021. While he wasn’t great at controlling the running game, he looked like one of the sport’s top pure receivers.
Considering those two-way contributions, it was understandable the Fish targeted Stallings to solidify their catching situation. The acquisition cost was fairly modest; they relinquished depth starter Zach Thompson and mid-level prospects Kyle Nicolas and Connor Scott for three arbitration seasons of their hopeful #1 catcher. Unfortunately for the Fish, Stallings’ production cratered on both sides of the ball.
The right-handed hitter posted a career-worst .223/.292/.292 line through 384 trips to the plate. His already modest power went backwards. Stallings managed just four home runs and posted his lowest hard contact rate (32%) since becoming a regular. That diminished contact quality also resulted in a .280 batting average on balls in play that was .025 points below the mark he carried between 2019-21. Stallings’ strike zone discipline remained intact; he made contact and continued to generally lay off pitches outside the zone. He just simply didn’t do enough damage on batted balls to make an offensive impact.
That offensive drop-off wouldn’t have been quite so alarming if it hadn’t been paired with a bizarre dip in Stallings’ pitch framing numbers. Statcast graded him as seven runs below average in that regard, his first subpar season after three consecutive years of plus marks. Stallings remarkably posted another flawless year with regards to avoid passed balls but didn’t have his typical level of success stealing strikes on the edges of the zone.
Teams also took more advantage of his middling arm strength than they had in years past. No catcher was behind the plate for more successful stolen bases than Stallings, who saw opponents swipe 61 bags in 75 attempts (an excellent 81.3% success rate). Stolen bases aren’t solely on the catcher — pitchers’ times to the plate plays a significant role — but Statcast rated Stallings’ arm strength below par.
That could take on added importance in 2023. MLB is introducing rules such as the limitation on pickoff attempts and larger bases designed to incentivize base-stealing. Stallings seems unlikely to develop above-average arm strength in his age-33 season. Keeping the running game in check figures to be a challenge yet again, which places a greater emphasis on Stallings to return to peak form in the areas of his game that have historically been his strength.
He’ll need to more closely approximate his offensive production and framing marks from his final couple seasons in Pittsburgh to serve as the caliber of upgrade Miami believed they were getting 12 months ago. To his credit, Stallings had a decent second half offensively after a terrible start to the year, though he’ll need to sustain that over a full season this time around.
General manager Kim Ng and her staff seem bullish on his chances of righting the ship. There was little indication Miami seriously looked outside the organization for catching help this offseason. They avoided arbitration with Stallings, signing him for $3.35MM. He presumably heads into Spring Training atop the depth chart for a second time, though he could face some internal pressure if he starts the season slowly.
26-year-old Nick Fortes has put himself on the radar after a quietly effective rookie season. The Ole Miss product made a 14-game cameo at the tail end of the 2021 campaign. Last season was his first extended MLB action, and Fortes impressed. He hit .230/.304/.392 with nine home runs and a modest 18.8% strikeout rate over 240 trips to the plate. Fortes demonstrated both above-average contact skills and solid batted ball metrics, showing the potential to be an interesting offensive option.
Fortes logged 441 innings behind the plate last season, rating fairly well in the eyes of public defensive metrics. Statcast pegged him as a roughly average pitch framer with above-average arm strength. Fortes threw out 28.6% of base-stealers, a solid clip. After committing four passed balls in just 44 innings in 2021, he was charged with only one passed ball last season. It was a solid all-around showing that earned the former fourth-rounder a near equal split in playing time with Stallings from the All-Star Break onwards. Still, with just 86 career games under his belt, he’ll need to prove he can continue performing over a larger sample.
The duo will continue jostling for playing time this season. Stallings and Fortes are the only two catchers on the 40-man roster, with Miami dealing Payton Henry to Milwaukee at the start of the offseason. Austin Allen is in camp as a non-roster invitee but figures to open the year in Triple-A Jacksonville barring injury. How to allocate playing time behind the dish is one of the bigger questions for first-year manager Skip Schumaker. Stallings figures to get the lion’s share of time early in hopes of a rebound, though it remains to be seen how long the leash would be if he struggles after Fortes’ solid 2022 campaign.