Austin Romine, the very good backup catcher [2019 Season Review]

On one hand, Austin Romine often seems overrated. That feeling comes around whenever Gary Sánchez makes a mistake and the clamors of some parts of the fanbase call for Romine to start. That happened during Gary’s rough postseason, for instance.

But, on the other side of the coin, Romine doesn’t always get enough credit. It’s easy to rag on the backup catcher, especially the one whose talent simply doesn’t compare to Sánchez’s. It’s easy enough for any one of us to cite Romine’s substandard numbers (at least in comparison to Gary) in order to combat the silly argument that “ROMINE SHOULD START IN THE PLAYOFFS!!!”.

Truthfully, Romine is one of best, perhaps the best, at his job. Having a steady backup catcher isn’t easy to find, but the Yankees have had one for a few years running now. Moreover, he’s really stepped up offensively in the last two years which has made him more than palpable when he needs to start.

In just a few days, Romine will file for free agency for the first time in his career. More on that a little later, but I can’t help but wonder if (some) Yankees fans won’t know what they had in Romine until he’s (potentially) gone.

Three everyday catcher stints

Starting catcher Sánchez was hurt a few times this season, though he still managed to appear in 106 games (90 as a catcher). That allowed Romine plenty of opportunities, who caught in at least 70 games for the second straight season. The Kraken was sidelined three times this year, which forced Romine into everyday duty.

Sánchez strained his calf in early April and missed a little more than the required ten day minimum for an injured list stint. Romine wasn’t great in Gary’s stead, but he was passable. In 27 plate appearances before returning to a backup role, Romine hit .280/.308/.320 (68 wRC+). That’s just about no power whatsoever, but at least he wasn’t an automatic out for that near two week job.

A few months later, Sánchez suffered a groin strain. He was placed on the IL on July 24th and returned August 10th. During this stretch, the Yankees didn’t miss a beat from the catcher position. Romine tore it up: in 40 trips to the plate, he raked to the tune of a .333/.375/.750 (184 wRC+) batting line including four dingers. That’s pretty much what Gary does when he’s on a tear of his own, but this time, it was Romine aptly filling his shoes.

A couple of those four homers were incredibly clutch during those two weeks. Here’s one he hit against Chris Sale on July 28th to give the Yankees a 2-0 edge in the 3rd inning (18.1 percent win probability added).

Romine hit an even bigger homer just a few days later. On the 31st, against the Diamondbacks, Romine came up in the 7th inning against Yoshihisa Hirano with the score in Arizona’s favor, 3-2. After this swing, the Yankees took a 4-3 lead and didn’t look back.

That 7th inning dinger increased the Yanks’ win probability by 42 percent, which is a massive swing.

After that brief stretch of regular playing time, Romine reverted to the backup role until mid-September when another opportunity arose. Sánchez got hurt on an ill-advised stolen base attempt that thrust Romine into the starting role until Gary returned for a tune up in the season’s final series against Texas.

From September 12th through the end of the season, Romine didn’t fare quite as well as his midsummer starting gig, but still pretty darn good. He hit .314/.333/.457 (108 wRC+) in 36 plate appearances. Once again, Romine didn’t let Sánchez’s absence be too painful.

In all, Romine did a fantastic job when Gary was down. Summing up the three stints:

PeriodPAHBB2BHRRBIAVGOBPSLG
Stint 12771106.280.296.320
Stint 240123346.333.375.750
Stint 336111212.314.333.457
Total1033056514.313.340.531

Can’t ask for more when the starting catcher is banged up. Kudos to Romine.

An above average backup

Obviously, most of Romine’s time in 2019 was spent as the backup. He hit .258/.285/.371 exclusive of those three stints as an everyday player, which was nothing special. But still, we can’t throw out those periods and say he was an ineffective reserve. He stepped up in a big way when Gary was down, and his numbers as a whole reflect a really strong option for the backup catcher.

In total, Romine recorded 0.9 WAR and a 95 wRC+ in 280 total plate appearances this season. That WAR total ranked him 32nd of all catchers per Fangraphs this year, which isn’t shabby at all. Moreover, if you go back to 2018, Romine looks even better against his peers. He has 2.2 WAR since then, 25th best among catchers during that span. That’s stellar for a backup.

Anytime Romine hits is a plus, as he’s not known for his bat. More important are his defensive chops and rapport with the Yankees’ pitching staff. He excels in the latter, though the former is somewhat unclear. He had poor framing numbers this year after typically above average marks in prior seasons. His throwing arm or blocking have never been things to write home about, either.

Defensive metrics aside, Yankees’ pitchers love throwing to him. He’s been in the organization for over a decade and on the big league club regularly since 2016, so it’s not a shock that he’s a good battery mate. The Yankees would have cast him aside if he wasn’t good at his job by now. Tack that on to a couple of consecutive solid offensive campaigns and the Yankees have had themselves perhaps the league’s best backup for two years running.

What’s next?

Free agency. It’s been a long time coming for Romine, who the Yankees drafted all the way back in 2007. That leaves the Yankees with two options: pay Romine a few million dollars to remain Sánchez’s backup or roll with Kyle Higashioka at near the league minimum next year. Of course, the former might not be an option if Romine is able to obtain a starting job.

Romine joined Ryan Ruocco and CC Sabathia on R2C2 this season, and the subject of wanting to start someday was discussed.

“Anybody would be lying if they said they didn’t want to try and [be a starter]. I would love to start, but my role now is to do the best I can for this team. You can think about that stuff when it comes to it, there could be certain situations where I can make that decision, but a lot of times in life that decision is made for you. I would love to be able to play good enough to make a decision like that.”

Austin Romine

It’s been a while since Romine was an everyday backstop in the minors with the Yankees. Will another team be willing to hand him a starting job from the get go in 2020? Seems daunting, but then again, decent catchers are few and far in between. Per Fangraphs, seven teams had below replacement level catching. Surely, Romine could start for one of those clubs, no? In any event, I kind of expect Romine to depart. The Yankees are likely going to try to save a few bucks here in order to upgrade elsewhere.

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11 Comments

  1. Wire Fan

    One thing to keep in mind is Higgy is out of options. Not sure if that plays in the decision at all (probably not that much), but if Romine is brought back, Higgy is likely gone either in a small deal this winter or as a waiver claim at the end of ST.

    I expect Romine to be back as the Yankees seem to love him, but the glove is over-rated (is he even average at this point?) and I wonder how the bat will look if MLB de-juices the ball. He has 18 HRs the last 2 years, and just 7 HRs the rest of his career (in similar PAs). He also had a BABIP nearly 40pts over his career avg, so there is probably some regression coming there.

    The problem with Higgy as a BUC is he is somewhat injury prone and Gary seems to take an IL trip or two every year. I’d like to see the Yankees upgrade the position via a small trade (doesn’t seem like there is much on the FA market). Outside the box – maybe target the all glove Austin Hedges in a trade, and hope the Yankees can work their hitting voodoo on him?

    • RetroRob

      Higgy’s injury history is an issue. One of the most important qualities in a BUC is his ability to stay healthy. Romine takes a beating but he keeps on ticking. That’s not something to be overlooked.

  2. The Yankees won’t do it but Sanchez is vastly overrated and should be moved. Just because Sanchez’ stats seem better than the average catcher he is all or nothing and his ABs against quality pitchers are mostly awful. Every once in awhile he runs into one and hits it out but he also does nothing in most other ABs. You could live with him batting 8th but having him in the middle of the order is just wrong. Just compare him to the offense Jorge Posada brought to that position for so long and it’s pretty obvious.

  3. Fortunately, Higgy can easily step in to be the whipping boy in Romine’s stead. Otherwise, his loss (should he decide to leave) would be really damning.

  4. I’m done with Gary Sanchez. His prodigious power doesn’t make up for his frequent tendency to expand the strike zone, his poor contact skills and his extended slumps. Lettuce doesn’t have Sanchez’s arm or power, but at least we’ll get a better BA and fewer Ks. I’m not saying Romaine is better than Gary, just that the lower ceiling/higher floor is less annoying than the higher ceiling/lower floor. Trade Gary and Clint Frazier for an ace and install Romine as the everyday catcher. We’ll still have a great offense.

  5. RetroRob

    BUCs are mostly overrated by all fan bases, and Romine has certainly received too much love at times. He had a 54 OPS+ from 2011-17. Even by BUC standards that’s pretty wretched. It was also a bit surprising as Romine was known to possess hitting skills coming up through the minors, at one point early on being considered more of a bat-first prospect. His last two years, 18-19, he showed some of that. That said, I suspect he’d be exposed if some team turned him into a primary catcher getting 500+ ABs. Would a contending team give him a primary catching job? Unlikely. Would he want to go to a losing team simply to start? Maybe. Money speaks, especially for a guy who hasn’t made a ton of it. So I can see him leaving, but his best role might be with his current team. Gary gets injured and also DH’s, so Romine is good for 250 ABs a year on a team where he knows the pitching staff. There is value there.

    Overall, though, Higgy can likely serve the BUC role effectively with a little more pop. It may be his time to take over and for the Yankees to direct the several million it will take to keep Romine and direct those resources elsewhere.

  6. MaryAnn Slater

    No contest. Keep Romine. He should be starting. He is 10 times better than Sanchez. I pray my prayers will be answered.

  7. Steve W

    If you were Romine, and if the money was the same, would you rather be a backup on a WS-caliber contending team, or a starter on an also-ran? I think I’d choose the former. He could probably continue as a backup for years.

    • dasit

      when romine hit the sale home run i remember thinking “there is no question that was the best bat-to-ball contact he’s made in his entire life”

  8. DJ Lemeddardhieu

    Well I think Austin was the unsung hero this year, Derek, and should be named starting catcher out of Spring Training next season. I’d give him whatever he wants to return and then promote Higgy to backup C because he’s earned it to. Gary should be traded for a starter. There were two people who were exposed as expendable last year, Michael Kay and Gary Sanchez. All Romine and Higgy did was hit when Gary was hurt.

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