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Luke Maile makes bid to be Rays 2017 catcher

Luke Maile: catcher of the future?

Baltimore Orioles v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

The Rays have had an ongoing struggle to find a competent starting catcher.

They’ve used a total of four catchers so far this season – Casali, Conger, Maile, Wilson – who have provided less than adequate offensive production.

Maile (25) has been getting the majority of playing time lately, which has fans pondering whether the Rays see him as a solution to their behind-the-plate woes.

Offense

The former Kentucky Wildcat has not produced league average numbers for the catcher position. He’s currently hitting .223/.252/.359 with a 60 wRC+ (40% below average) in 37 games played. Among catchers with at least 100 PA’s this season, Maile ranks 44th out of 66 (so -- not the worst!)

His best production came in August, when he slashed .295/.326/.500 with a .826 OPS and 123 wRC+ (23% above average) in 16 games. His OBP was low because of a high strikeout rate (27.1%) and lowly BB% (4.2%). The more Maile strikes out, the tougher it will be for him to maintain a high BA/OBP since he is putting fewer balls in play.

Defense

Defensively, Maile has made a good impression during his limited time in the majors.

"Have you ever looked at his hands? His actual hands? They are enormous,'' Archer said. "I think it allows him to be strong and present the ball really well. We've always had good receiving catchers, but on other teams you see guys get beat by the ball and then try to frame it. That doesn't happen to Luke, because his hands are so strong.'' – Marc Topkin, TB Times

His major league time represents such a small sample that it is hard to assess true talent, but in what we have seen thus far he has been at least solild. Maile has thrown out 6 out of 22 base stealers (27.2%) this season, which is just a bit below MLB average (28.4%).

In 273 innings Maile has been credited with -2.6 Framing Runs Above Average (FRAA) according to StatCorner. He ranks very well in keeping strikes from turning into balls (13.0%) where the lower the number the more calls you are getting for your pitcher. League average is 14.5%. However, Maile has only been able to convert 5.5% of balls into strikes where the league average is 7.2% leading him to come out behind 19 calls on the season. That would leave him around -9 runs over a full season as the number one catcher, if we were to extrapolate from these limited samples.

All four catchers the Rays have employed this year  have above average rates of keeping strikes from being called balls, including Bobby Wilson (13.2%), Curt Casali (11.2%), and Hank Conger (13.9%). Casali has been particularly impressive,  fourth best in the league among catchers who have at least 500 pitches called.

Maile hasn't shown the ability to do anything at a well above average rate in the majors, but he seems to be solid all around on the defensive side of the ball.

Is "solid" good enough?

This has been a lost season given the team’s 64-86 record. Because of that, Maile is one of the Rays’ younger players who have received additional playing time to factor in 2017-decision making, having played 37 of the Rays 59 games since being called up.

Unfortunately, catchers who excel on both offense and defense are rare.   If Maile can consistently hit around a league-average level for a catcher like he did in August, then he will give himself a great opportunity to win the starting catching job in 2017. But if he doesn’t improve that aspect of his game, then he is more suited to take on the backup role.

True #1 catchers, like many deciduous trees, wither and die in West Central Florida, so the Rays yearly challenge then becomes identifying the backup catcher who will do the least damage in the starter role. If Maile can be the best "#2" catcher on the Rays roster during Spring Training next year, he will give himself a chance to claim starting catching duties on 2017 Opening Day.