Reds might regret Hanigan trade


Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

"To measure is to know.” – Lord Kelvin"

Few fans know the Ryan Hanigan impact. And though physicist Lord Kelvin wasn’t speaking of baseball, he likely would appreciate the sport’s scientific revolution. It’s a game of physics. It’s a game, increasingly, in which we seek to measure, to know, every force and impact that enters the winning formula.

Yet some facets, like defensive prowess, continue to elude precise measurement. And since we can’t diminish defense to sexy stats and triple crown categories, it rarely enters the new-age conversation of value. Which is why we still don’t fully know the Ryan Hanigan impact; it’s difficult to measure.

Hanigan will never compile the sexy stats, the glittering RBIs and home runs, the jewels of the triple crown. He’ll never find himself atop the news wire of sexy transactions. He doesn’t move these meters. In these realms, he’s a net-zero.

In making their own measurements before shipping Hanigan to Tampa Bay for pitching prospect David Holmberg, the Reds may have missed what more fans should know: Ryan Hanigan is a force to be reckoned with.

And his departure might create the most critical measurement: less wins.

Defensive stats, especially for catchers, still leave something to be desired. It’s not easy to quantify every nuance and skill it requires to manage the game, to block balls, to frame pitches, to catch base stealers, to adjust your cup, etc. We can’t wrap that up in a statistic like the “RBI” and serve it to the average fan.

But for those starting to measure the catcher’s impact, one truth has become increasingly clear. Ryan Hanigan changes the game.

On one hand, literally, Hanigan has emerged as one of the game’s best pitch-framers. His leather-bound left hand has turned macaroni-artworks into Picassos at an astounding rate. According to a study by Max Marchi at Baseball Prospectus, Hanigan has contributed 46 runs worth of value over the last four years with his framing, a number that places him fourth in Major League Baseball, sandwiched between the Molina brothers.

Taking it next level, Ben Lindbergh of Grantland noted that Hanigan successfully converts balls to strikes on all edges of the strike zone. Since 2008, on pitches two inches or less outside the strike zone, Hanigan gets strike calls at a clip 51% above average on balls high, 37% above average on balls low, and 29% above average inside and outside.

Put simply, Hanigan expands the strike zone in all directions with his savvy deception.

Put obviously, that helps the pitcher get batters out.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

On the other hand (again, literally), Hanigan’s rifling right arm greatly limits the impact of baserunners he and his pitchers face.

Hanigan has led the league for two straight years in caught-stealing percentage, throwing down 45.5% of would-be-base stealers in 2013, and 48.5% in 2012. To put that in perspective, league average is 27%.

But the rest of Hanigan’s “measurable” defensive impact is too complicated for the average fan to digest, and too hard for the average baseball analyst to explain. His range factor ranked first among catchers in 2013. His Total Zone Runs among catchers ranked best the season before. But what does that mean? Even the most statistically savvy baseball writers aren’t quick to trust these numbers.

And thus, the impact of Ryan Hanigan goes largely forgotten. Because to measure is to know.

After a putrid year at the plate, then, it’s hard to blame the Cincinnati Reds’ brass for moving on from the 33-year-old catcher. With his defensive presence hard to quantify, and his offensive counting stats failing to impress, it’s hard to know what a team is getting out of Ryan Hanigan.

Especially when his successor is waiting in the wings.

The decision to trade Ryan Hanigan largely hinged on the presence of Devin Mesoraco. The once-highly-touted prospect can now finally claim the role, unquestionably, as his. He wears the mask. He calls the games. And, by all reports, his defense and game-management has improved with experience. Last season, for example, his caught-stealing rate increased by nine percent, and the ERA of pitchers throwing to him went from 4.19 in 2012 to 3.38 in 2013.

That said, Mesoraco hardly projects to be the defensive stalwart Hanigan has become. Rather, the rise of the Reds catcher largely happened because of his offensive potential, especially at a position where offensive prowess is a rarity. So far in the Big Leagues, that hasn’t panned out. He’s hitting a career .225 with 16 HR and 62 RBI in 175 games. However, Mesoraco is also quite young at 25, still a couple years shy of a player’s typical peak, and has provided bursts of hope (such as a 30-game stretch last July and August when he hit .299/.327/.474).

Mesoraco’s ascension will be key to making this deal seem smart for GM Walt Jocketty and the Reds. Otherwise, it could be argued that he isn’t even an offensive upgrade over the departing Hanigan. Though Mesoraco obviously possesses a little more “pop”, his career on-base percentage of .282 pales to Hanigan’s .359.

But that only takes into account what we can measure. If one is to believe the clubhouse reports in which pitchers endlessly praised Hanigan for his ability to manage games and basepaths; if one is to believe that it’s more than coincidence that Hanigan caught both of Homer Bailey‘s no-hit bids; if one is to believe that the captain of the field can contribute more than the box score suggests, then Hanigan might not only be valuable.

He might have been invaluable to this team.

The loss of Ryan Hanigan comes down to two very simple measurements: age, and money. At 33, at a demanding position, regression could easily diminish his (suspected) defensive value. Eventually, the shoulder might lose its explosion, the knees their stability. Already, injuries sapped him in 2012. If Mesoraco can continue to improve, and for less cost on the payroll, then the math is easy. The Reds had to move on.

But if Hanigan can fight Father Time, if his defense can hold up, then he may have allowed the Rays to do what few runners can with him nearby: come away with a steal.

So maybe Lord Kelvin was wrong to say “to measure is to know.” Maybe the Rays knew something all along.