Just 94 games into his major league career, 25-year-old Victor Caratini is still attempting to adjust to big league pitching. Currently serving as the Chicago Cubs’ back-up catcher, Caratini is in the middle of his second (and longest) tenure with the big league team.
With Chris Gimenez now playing for the Minnesota Twins and no other catching prospects near the upper reaches of the Cubs’ minor league system, the back-up catching job seems to be Caratini’s to lose. Obviously, Willson Contreras is going nowhere, even in the middle of a down season, and the aforementioned lack of depth at the catcher position does not extend much past Taylor Davis (also in the middle of his second stint with the big league club).
It’s for that reason Caratini needs to find his power stroke at the plate and end the days of him being an offensive liability at the major league level.
Minor League Success Has Yet to Translate to The Show
Since joining the Cubs’ system full-time in 2015, Caratini has been a valuable piece to any lineup he has been a part of. As a 22-year-old in 2016, the switch-hitting back-stop managed a .780 OPS with the Cubs’ Double-A affiliate. Additionally, Caratini posted a 129 wRC+ to go with a very solid 16.7 percent strikeout rate.
It was that year Caratini seemed to unlock the natural power that comes with a 6-1, 215 pound, prototypical catcher’s body. With six home runs, the youngster set his career-high as a professional, while his .405 slugging percentage was the best (at that time) of anything he had posted with the Cubs’ organization. Just a year later, Caratini was blowing those numbers out of the water, helping his cause as he continued to inch closer and closer to the big leagues.
At the Triple-A level in 2017, he posted a slugging percentage of .558, fueling an OPS of .951 and an ISO of .216. Producing those numbers were Caratini’s 10 home runs and 27 doubles in 83 games. Caratini’s sudden outburst of power was not the only thing that caught the eye of Cubs’ brass. The 23-year-old also poured in 60 singles in 2017, driving a .342 batting average and .393 OBP all while managing to lower his strikeout rate to 14.7 percent.
Caratini’s outstanding 2017 minor league effort earned him his first call-up to the big leagues as he made his debut on June 28. However, what ended up being a short stint, just 31 games, didn’t go very far in showing Caratini could carry his success over into the majors. Across 66 plate appearances, the youngster managed an OPS of just .689, collecting just four extra base hits on his way to an ISO of .102.
Now of course, not every rookie can come up and be Bryce Harper or Kris Bryant as it takes time to adjust to the differing skill-set of pitchers from one level to the next. Because of that, Caratini broke camp as the club’s back-up catcher in March just to spend 32 games in the minors, mostly during the month of June.
Since July 4, Caratini has been with the big league club, appearing in 63 games total during the 2018 campaign. Those 63, like the 31 before them, have not gone well for the back-up catcher. After keeping his strikeout rate below 20 percent during his time in the minors, Caratini has posted a 22.2 percent rate this season, with a declining 6.8 percent walk rate to boot. Additionally, Caratini owns an OPS just .644 at the major league level, a number not helped any by his .333 slugging percentage.
That lackluster power number has fueled his .082 ISO as the youngster had just one home run and six doubles prior to Saturday.
The meat of Caratini’s problems and lack of power has been his inability to hit breaking pitches. On fastball’s, Caratini is hitting a solid .270 with a .360 slugging percentage, 14.6 percent strikeout rate and whiff percentage of just 12 percent. The good news is that 57.7 percent of the pitches Caratini has seen this season have been fastballs. The bad news is the remaining percentage has been made up of softer stuff that Caratini struggles with.
On breaking balls (pitches such as sliders and curveballs), Caratini is hitting a meager .152 with a .182 slug. What were solid numbers against fastballs turn into a 50 strikeout rate on the soft stuff and a 49 percent whiff rate. Things get better when the back-stop faces offspeed offerings (splits and change-ups). After Caratini’s home run on a change-up during Saturday’s action, his batting average on offspeed pitches sits at .320. Even so, his whiff rate clocks in at an elevated 29.4 percent as Caratini hit just .111 with a 42.9 percent whiff rate on those same pitches last season.
It’s quite obvious the league has done their home work on Caratini and turned what were parts of two promising minor league seasons into lackluster efforts on the big league stage. Caratini, however, is not helping himself out any. According to statcast, Caratini’s topped percentage (the perecentage of balls that Caratini has gotten on top of) sits at 49.1 percent for the season. That number is solidly above the major league average of 34.5 percent, while his barrel percentage (3.7 percent) is more than two percentage points lower than the league’s average. Both of those numbers have resulted in a 55.1 percent ground ball rate and 27.8 percent hard contact rate, numbers that do not bode well for producing power at the plate.
The Cubs Need Caratini to Step-up
As the stretch run wears on and the Cubs near the end of 23 games in 23 days, the need for a reliable back-up catcher has never been more prominent. Contreras currently leads all major league catchers with 985.2 innings caught this season, better than 40 more frames than Jonathan Lucroy who has caught the second most innings in 2018.
The wear and tear of catching that many innings has no doubt hampered Contreras’ efforts offensively this season as he is hitting just .259 with a wRC+ of 106.
With the Cubs closing in on another postseason berth, it will be important for Contreras to be fresh for October. Caratini will likely be the guy replacing Contreras behind the dish, making it imperative that he steps up offensively.
On Saturday, we got a glimpse of the power that is hidden away in Caratini’s bat. In the fourth inning of game two of the double header between the Cubs and Washington Nationals, Caratini uncorked on an 89 MPH change-up, sending it 419-feet over the right-center field seats for a grand slam. Off the bat, the ball was clocked at 104 MPH with a sweet launch angle of 24 degrees.
Just Caratini’s second home run of the season, that mighty swing of the bat proved the power is there in the youngster’s bat. Caratini, who was traditionally a doubles hitter in the minors, obviously has the power to rocket balls over the fence.
Perhaps, the issue, like with David Bote, is Caratini’s bat path to the baseball. Just two innings after his grand slam on Saturday, Caratini grounded into a double play on a ball that came off his bat at 108 MPH. Of the nine hardest hit balls during that game, Caratini’s double play ranked second with his home run slotted into seventh. In addition, of those nine balls, Caratini’s ground ball was the only one turned into an out, with seven of the remaining eight going for extra bases.
It’s not hard to see that Caratini is a talented baseball player. All that’s needed is some work this winter to help with his inability to hit softer offerings. That, combined with more reps at the big league level in conjunction with a more consistent launch angle, will no doubt help unlock some of Caratini’s hidden power and make him a force at the big league level.
Follow Daniel Shepard on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: Bleed Cubbie Blue
Want to stay in the loop? Subscribe to exclusive The Loop Sports content via Patreon