The Quick Emergence of Devin Mesoraco

Before this season began, there was no shortage of advocates for a Devin Mesoraco breakout. The Cincinnati Reds’ backstop caught Eno’s eye last fall in the end-of-season catcher rankings, re-examined. Eno also highlighted the 25-year-old, who was No. 18 on RotoGraphs’ preseason consensus list at the position, in his bold predictions for 2014. Indeed, prior to opening day, Mesoraco translated loosely to “optimism.”

Mesoraco seems to be determined to deliver on those forecasts – and perhaps some divine prophecy – all in one month. Or even one week. His 2014 debut didn’t come until April 8 because of the strained left oblique he suffered in mid-March. After his 20 plate appearances, he’s at the front of the pack in Off WAR on the strength of, among other things, his eight extra-base hits – which so happen to comprise all his hits thus far – including three home runs. Five games in, his fantasy owners can chalk this one up as a win.

In fact, inclement weather prompted the umpire crew for last night’s record-setting Pirates-Reds slugfest to suspend play after six innings, with the score tied at seven. Technically, Mesoraco could add to his legend before his fifth game of the season comes to an end. This is potentially almost practically epic.

Of course, this kind of work with the wood can’t be surprising. It’s largely what earned Mesoraco the upgrade in status to that of top prospect just a few short years ago. He posted a combined .285 ISO and wRC+ of well above 150 across three levels in 2010 and followed that with a .195 ISO and a 133 wRC+ in a full season at Triple-A Louisville in 2011.

Alas, immediate success in the bigs wasn’t to be. Mesoraco spent the entire 2012 season in the majors because it was clear to the organization that he had little else to prove on the farm. Clear to everyone except Dusty Baker, that is, which is why the slugging backstop played in the shadow of Ryan Hanigan for a season and a half. By the metrics, most notably Hanigan’s 18.4 Def WAR in 2012, as well as his deserved reputation as a game-caller and pitch-framer, the now deposed skipper had a legitimate argument that year. But at some point Baker’s reluctance to play the conceivable catcher of the future became stubbornness that poured into 2013.

It wasn’t by choice, but it wasn’t for long. Hanigan’s left oblique strain and strained left wrist forced Baker to rely on the youngster. The veteran’s health-affected but nonetheless merely just above-average job behind the dish and repulsive stick work (.198/.306/.261, 53 wCR+) could have made it too difficult for Baker to sit Mesoraco even when both were available. The circumstances allowed Mesoraco the chance to reach 352 plate appearances, but they resulted in an unimpressive .238/.287/.362 slash set and a 74 wRC+. His September slump gave his skipper adequate reason to turn to Hanigan in the Reds’ one-game wildcard matchup with the Bucs.

But that .294/.329/.441 in 73 July PA provided fantasy owners with a glimpse into the hopeful Mesoraco’s future. The 6-foot-1, 220-pounder oozes latent MLB power and the ability to hit for much better BA than his .232 average and .254 BABIP have demonstrated.

What his .471/.500/1.176 start to 2014 seems to have done is some make up some ground. Mesoraco, however, hasn’t yet oozed the batted-ball and plate discipline indications to support his full-blown arrival that may be materializing.

Mesoraco has produced a fly-ball rate in the mid-30s so far in his career. Although it has come with a HR/FB of just less than 12 percent, he has provided us with reason to expect that rate to balloon. His spray charts and career ISO splits to left, center and right (.310, .066, .091) indicate that he’s decidedly a pull hitter. This isn’t much of a surprise or abnormal. What may be worth watching is his pull fly-ball rate of 19.8 percent, a figure that isn’t out of place among the top hitters of 2013, for instance, but among those we regularly identify as pull-heavy power hitters, it certainly is. It’s something I’d like to check out a little more.

This may not be an issue if Mesoraco were a certain source of batting average, too. As Eno has pointed out, even the slow-footed backstop is due for some increase in that anemic average on balls in play. His early-returns swing percentage is down just a touch, but his contact rate (70.3 percent) is notably worse than his so-so lifetime rate of 80.2 percent, and his 13.6 swinging-strike percentage represents a marked jump in the category. As we’ve learned, swing percentage, followed by contact rate, stabilize most quickly. Even now, of course, it’s too soon to draw meaningful conclusions. But Mesoraco is making his bed. Strikeout rate soon follows, and the covers are kind of strewn all over the place, with one pillow at the wrong end of the mattress. How does Mesoraco spend his nights, anyway?

Mesoraco could be the next incarnation of Wilin Rosario. Pitchers haven’t yet been particularly aggressive when facing him, however, and he has been susceptible to breaking balls and off-speed stuff, as many a young hitter often is. Perhaps that’s changing this year. Batted-ball and plate discipline data stabilize more quickly than home run rate or HR/FB, in both of which he seems poised to make dramatic progress, but how dramatic? Mesoraco has made his fantasy owners giddy because of his start in the latter areas, but his marks in the former and his track record suggest a hitter with more to learn, even if he’s manifesting the physical part.

Mesoraco’s defense and the manager are no longer hindrances to his playing time. He fell just short of qualifying benchmarks in fielding metrics in 2013, but he would have resided among the top 15 backstops. He seems to be poised to outdo his rest-of-season Steamer projections already (.244 AVG, 11 HR in 321 PA), but by how much? Does he finish with a .280 AVG and 24 HR in 450 PA? Or are we thinking more along the lines of .265 and 21 HR? Perhaps even .250 and 18 HR? There’s nowhere to go but down, obviously.

It’ll be interesting to see how far April takes Mesoraco. It’s much too soon to urge anyone to line up possible trade partners for his services. But certainly, he has fans in fantasy leagues. He could be an attractive addition to barterers hoping to even out a larger package, where the Mesoraco owners receives a more than acceptable option such as Yan Gomes or A.J. Pierzynski to replace what is likely his No. 2 catcher in a mixed league. If nothing else, you can trade him to Eno.

Nicholas Minnix oversaw baseball content for six years at KFFL, where he held the loose title of Managing Editor for seven and a half before he joined FanGraphs. He played in both Tout Wars and LABR from 2010 through 2014. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasMinnix.

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Drop Yan Gomes for him?

microwave donut
microwave donut

I’m in the opposite position.

I believe in Gomes a bit more than Mesoraco, but I want to see where this hot streak goes.