There may be no more daunting job in baseball than taking the spot of Joe Mauer, the most prolific offensive catcher of the last decade. For residents Twin cities, it is the equivalent of trying to replace Derek Jeter at shortstop, which is why Josmil Pinto’s stat line from last September is that much more impressive than it already looks.
Filling in for an injured Mauer, Pinto, 24, got the first start of his big league career on September first and proceeded to rack up six hits in 11 at bats, two doubles, one walk, and one RBI over his first two games. The rest of the month was equally impressive as the rookie catcher slashed to a .342/.398/.963 line with four home runs and twelve RBIs in 21 games and 83 plate appearances.
Offensive prowess is not new for Pinto. Once considered nothing more than organizational filler, he hit .295/.362/.482 between High-A Fort Myers and Double-A New Britain in 2012 and then a .309/.400/.482 between New Britain and Triple-A Rochester last season.
Despite his overwhelming performance at the plate across levels, Pinto is not the favorite to replace Mauer next season, when the 31 year old veteran moves over to first base; journeyman backstop Kurt Suzuki is. I would expect Pinto to be instilled by this summer, but general manager Terry Ryan has indicated that not only will Suzuki likely begin the season as the starting catcher, but that it’s unclear who will back him up, with Chris Herman and Eric Fryer getting opportunities to play for a bench spot.
Pinto does have a chance to win a major league job out of camp but he could just as easily spend the first few months of the years training in Rochester, a demotion that could actually go a long way toward success in the latter half of the season and further down the road.
Pinto’s major issue is his defense. Right now he is a passable receiver at best, a below average backstop for the most part. He has the arm strength to succeed and knows how frame a pitch, but mechanical issues in his throwing motion and an inability to call a game properly have held him back. Two months in Triple-A, working with coaches away from the bright lights of Target Field, may let him shore up these issues and develop into an average, or even slightly above average fielder.
Alternately, if Pinto is named backup catcher, he could benefit from the presence of Kurt Suzuki, himself a respected defensive catcher, who particularly excels at one of the two things Pinto struggles in, calling a game.
Either way, Pinto should make defensive strides over the first half of the year, and could be a threat on both sides of the ball when he eventually takes the starting job, as offense is his primary weapon. That being said, don’t expect a performance remotely similar to the one he put up last September. Not only is the sample size minuscule, but the stats themselves are dubious.
His Babip was a ridiculous .440, 150 points above the major league average of .290. Over the last two seasons in the minors, Pinto has shown the ability to sustain a relatively high Babip, posting a .356 mark in Triple-A and a .342 in Double-A, but there is no player in baseball who can sustain a .440. Among the sabemetric projection systems, FANs is the most optimistic, forecasting a Babip of .329.
On average, 10% of all major league fly balls hit land as home runs. Pinto managed a fluky 22% rate. In an extreme pitcher’s park like Target Field, that number is going to dip, steeply, and his home run totals will fall with it.
Still, Pinto’s track record and scouting reports both indicate that if given the chance to start, he will perform at the plate, hitting for moderate power while getting on base at a decent clip. In a league where only seven catchers had an OPS above .725 (minimum 300 plate appearances), Pinto should be in the upper half of offensive catchers. Even the most pessimistic of projections predict an OPS of .723 and FANs predicts .765, which would have ranked fourth among all American League catchers in 2014.
The Twins’ farm system is absolutely stacked and within the next couple years, players like Alex Meyer, Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Jose Berrios, and Eddy Rosario could form one of the best young teams in recent memory. This summer, Josmil Pinto should just give fans a sneak preview of what’s to come.