At any given moment, there are somewhere around 1,200 players on 40-man rosters around Major League Baseball. That means (a) my math skills are impeccable, and (b) there are a lot of stories of how professional baseball dreams became reality.
One of the best of those stories belongs to Ryan Hanigan. Hanigan, of course, was traded this week from the Cincinnati Reds to the Tampa Bay Rays (in a three-team deal also involving Arizona), whereupon he signed a three-year, $10.75 million dollar contract. If you are what we might term sabermetrically-inclined, you’ve probably been aware of him for a while. For the rest of you, here’s what you need to know: Ryan Hanigan is the best .198-hitting, 33-year-old catcher on planet earth.
Before I get into the reasons that I think he is likely to earn every dollar of that contract, let’s talk about how Hanigan got here. He made his major league debut in 2007, at the ripe old age of 27. The fact that he made it to the big leagues at all is amazing given that Hanigan wasn’t drafted out of college.
Hanigan played collegiately at tiny Rollins College in Florida. Rollins is an excellent school, known for being the alma mater of Anthony Perkins, Buddy Ebsen, and Mr. Rogers (you’ve probably been to his neighborhood), but it’s not exactly renowned for being a professional baseball factory. Rollins “Tars” (don’t ask me) to have played in the majors are pretty much limited to 1979 AL Rookie of the Year John Castino and noted former New York Yankee Clay Bellinger.
Hanigan played mostly in the outfield for the NCAA Division II school, posting a .359 career average that ranks seventh in the school’s history. It wasn’t enough for big league scouts, however. After going undrafted and performing well in the Cape Cod League, the Reds offered him a free agent contract. Hanigan jumped at the opportunity, and promptly reported to Dayton, Ohio, to begin his career.
Immediately, he began to display one of the traits that would eventually endear him to Reds fans: the guy just has a knack for getting on base. In his first full minor-league season, mostly spent at Single-A Dayton, Hanigan got on base at a .365 clip, and earned a spot in the Midwest League All-Star game. Two years later, at Double-A Chattanooga, Hanigan hit .321/.418/.405, walking 50 times in 100 games and finishing second in the Southern League in average. He was moving slowly through the system, as most non-drafted free agents usually do, but starting to open eyes.
(As a sidenote, I first saw him play at Chattanooga. I got a kick out of watching him play, mostly because he didn’t really look like an athlete, but I didn’t think we’d see the day that he’d sign a three-year, multi-million dollar contract in the big leagues. In related news, I’m clearly not a prognosticator.)
He finally got a cup of coffee in 2007, but wouldn’t collect more than 100 plate appearances in a season until his third year in the big leagues. He’s only had more than 300 plate appearances in a season twice in his career, but before 2013, he had developed into one of the most dependable catchers in the league. Hanigan’s reputation, of course, has largely been made on the strength of his defensive prowess.
Obviously, the defensive metrics for catchers leave much to be desired, but Hanigan grades out well. He’s one of the best in the league at framing pitches, he blocks balls well, and he has led the National League each of the last two years in throwing out baserunners. For what it’s worth, Hanigan scores well on the eye test, as well. There is no one in or around baseball who doesn’t believe that Ryan Hanigan is outstanding behind the plate.
Hanigan continues to be underrated offensively, and that’s something the Rays haven’t failed to notice. His value at the plate, of course, is almost entirely dependent on his ability to handle the bat intelligently, as he has almost no power (career ISO of .081). What he does, however, he does very well. Hanigan’s OBP over seven big league seasons is .343, and his career walk percentage is a robust 12%. He also makes contact, posting an excellent career strikeout rate of just 10%.
On the flip side of that coin, if you are looking for reasons to be skeptical about his future, you don’t have to look far. Hanigan suffered through a nightmare 2013 season, hitting .198/.306/.261, with a 53 wRC+ and a .252 wOBA. The year was marked by two stints on the disabled list (with a strained oblique and a sprained wrist), and Hanigan was never really able to get anything going. A 32-year-old catcher with numbers in decline, and a recent history of injuries? We’ve seen that story before. It doesn’t usually end well.
So why does an analytics-friendly organization like the Rays think Hanigan’s a good enough bet to commit three years to him? Well, first of all, we aren’t talking about a ton of money, really. Hanigan will earn $2,750,000 next season, and just $3.75 million in the final year of the deal. Even if he’s simply a good defensive backup catcher, Hanigan won’t be breaking the bank.
There’s reason to hope that 2013 was a bit of an aberration, as well. The injuries, one in April and the other in July, were disruptive, and the wrist injury in particular sapped even further what little power Hanigan possesses. In addition, his BABIP was just .216, well below his career mark of .283, but his walk rate remained high, and his OBP remained serviceable despite the bad luck. If his BABIP reverts to the norm, Hanigan begins to look much more like the player he was in 2012. When you combine that with the great defense, you have a guy who should be a 1-2 win player. In other words, he’ll earn the contract.
The Rays are known for taking chances, but this is more of a low-risk gamble than most people realize. Hanigan’s walk rate will probably drop a bit, since he won’t be hitting in front of pitchers any longer, but he does a lot of things that smart teams value. As Jeff Sullivan noted, Hanigan is “more of a disciplined, contact sort, and he adds value by being strong in the field. He blocks, he throws, and he frames, giving him some of that hidden value that Tampa Bay clearly appreciates.”
Everyone loves the stories of the kids who were underestimated, yet turned out to be stars. Think about Mike Piazza, drafted in the 62nd round as a favor to his father. Or Stephen Curry, who didn’t receive a scholarship offer from a single major-conference school before going on to stardom in the NBA.
Hanigan’s story is even better. He didn’t have a father who was friends with a Hall of Fame manager, or a father who had a sixteen-year career as a professional athlete. He made it by doing a few important things very well. It’s easy to root for a guy like Ryan Hanigan, as Rays fans are about to discover.