Ryan Hanigan won last night’s game against the Chicago Cubs with a bases-clearing, three-run double in the sixth inning. On one swing, he drove in the only three runs the Reds would score all night.
It was a rare hero moment for Hanigan, signed as an undrafted free agent out of Rollins College. Hanigan is a player that can blend into the background. Usually hitting eighth this season, he rarely is in position to make a serious impact on the game offensively. But on a team full of stars, Hanigan may be one of the most underappreciated, and important, players in the league.
Catcher is by nature an underappreciated position. Their primary task is calling a good game for the pitcher. Offense is secondary. The few catchers who are above average offensive players are perennial All-Stars. In addition, catchers see little action on batted balls compared to the other fielders. Their defensive abilities are not as showcased as, for example, a middle infielder’s.
Ask a fan of another team, or even a casual Reds fan, to start naming Reds players. They’ll start with Joey Votto, then Brandon Phillips or Aroldis Chapman, then maybe Jay Bruce or Johnny Cueto, and then they’ll probably start naming players from the past. Only a knowledgeable fan would name Hanigan, and many fans assumed Devin Mesoraco would be the primary catcher this season. But Hanigan is just as crucial to the team’s success as almost anyone else.
Hanigan is having an excellent offensive year, although not far from his career statistics, with a .288 average and a .375 on base percentage. His power numbers are lacking, but in a lineup with Votto, Bruce, Phillips, and Ryan Ludwick, he doesn’t need to hit balls to the bleachers. He just needs to put the ball in play, get on base, keep the inning alive so the pitcher doesn’t lead off next inning. Hanigan does all of those things as well as anybody on the team.
Defense, however, is where Hanigan really shines. With his reputation, Yadier Molina will almost undoubtedly win another Gold Glove this season, and he certainly deserves it, although Hanigan should at least be in the discussion. Hanigan leads MLB in caught stealing percentage, throwing out 49% of base runners, compared to 46% for Molina. Hanigan has made four errors to Molina’s three, but Hanigan has the edge in passed balls, three to four. Molina has also allowed 30 wild pitches, compared to just 17 for Hanigan.
The most impressive statistic of all for Hanigan, however, is that when he is behind the plate, Reds pitchers have a 3.01 ERA. You read that right. Despite calling games in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the league, of all catchers who have caught at least 450 innings, Hanigan’s ERA is the best in baseball. By a lot. Some of that has to do with the talent on the Reds pitching staff. But if you look at the splits for the pitching staff, you’ll realize that a lot of it has to do with Hanigan’s ability to call games.
The Reds starters typically stick with the same catcher each time they take the mound. The bullpen is a different story. They pitch to whoever is in the game already. Nearly every pitcher in the Reds bullpen has a better ERA pitching to Hanigan than they do with Mesoraco and Dioner Navarro. In some cases, the difference is dramatic, like Alfredo Simon (0.60 to 4.39) and Chapman (0.67 to 5.27). Overall, however, the bullpen pitchers who have pitched to multiple Reds catchers this season have a 2.10 ERA with Hanigan behind the plate, and a 3.29 ERA with Mesoraco/Navarro.
Hanigan seems like a quiet, unassuming guy. On the rare occasion that he is interviewed after the game, he usually deflects all of the credit for his success, and instead praises his pitcher. But the fact of the matter is, Ryan Hanigan is a heck of a player himself, one of the best in the game defensively, and the Cincinnati Reds would be a lot worse without him.