PITTSBURGH -- Pirates catcher Jacob Stallings had not caught more than a half-season’s worth of games before 2021, spending time as a backup behind Elias Díaz and Francisco Cervelli from 2016-19.
But this season, at an age where you’d expect catcher production to decline, Stallings -- 31 going on 32 -- only got better. That was especially true on defense, and it led to some hardware on Sunday, when Rawlings announced Stallings was the winner of the Gold Glove Award for the best catcher in the National League.
“To be honest, it’s kind of been the highest individual achievement that I ever felt like I could probably win," Stallings said after the announcement. "Growing up, I wondered if I could win the Gold Glove. I didn’t know if I could get to the big leagues … [but] the Gold Glove was always kind of the one that was like, ‘Maybe I could actually do that.’"
The metrics were eye-popping over 104 games (103 starts) behind the dish. Stallings’ 21 defensive runs saved were tied with Astros shortstop Carlos Correa as the most recorded by any player at any position. Among all Major League catchers, Stallings was the only one to not allow a passed ball all season.
Guiding a young pitching staff that allowed the fifth-most runs in MLB (833 in 162 games), that reliability was crucial.
“I think if there's one constant, it's been Jacob Stallings,” manager Derek Shelton said in September. “He just continues to improve and learn.”
Stallings is the first Pirate to win a Gold Glove Award since 2018, when Corey Dickerson earned the award in left field. Stallings is the third catcher in franchise history to take home the honor, along with Tony Peña (three) and Mike LaValliere (one).
The road to this award was a long and bumpy one for Stallings. He was designated for assignment in 2016, outrighted later that season after having his contract selected, then outrighted off the roster again in ‘19. Yet he was able to stay in the organization, and once Díaz moved to Colorado and Cervelli to Atlanta then into retirement, Stallings claimed hold of the starting spot.
Stallings’ first season as the primary backstop was shortened by the pandemic, but 2021 was a testament to what makes him an example for a growing organization.
“I think what Jacob has done speaks to even if you’re down, you’re not out,” Shelton said. “Sometimes, when you get challenged by certain situations, it’s how you respond to it. I think a lot of players go through that. Hopefully, some of these guys look at Jacob and see you can work your way back and say, ‘Hey, man, I have an opportunity and I want to continue to take advantage of it.’”
Always refreshingly candid, Stallings is the first to admit he’s not built in the mold of those one would consider the best catchers in the game. His offensive profile is meager, though 2021 (1.4) was the first season in which he posted an offensive bWAR of more than 0.5, pointing toward some gains. And while he was the heart of many of the Pirates’ walk-off wins last season, he also had a few down stretches.
But when it comes to the glove, there are few in the same conversation as Stallings playing the game today.
“Statistically speaking, I think I do it differently than most of those top catchers,” Stallings said in September. “... It’s humbling to be mentioned with those guys, because those guys are some of the most talented players in baseball. I still have a lot of work to do, but it’s cool when you’re mentioned with those guys.”
Being in that conversation takes a lot of hard work, as well as working smarter. Stallings has had to adjust his preparation as a starter; he told MLB.com, “You can’t practice throwing a whole lot or your arm will fall off, and you can’t practice blocking because you’ll fall apart.” In some ways, recovery on off-days has been as key as practicing his defense to his success.
But Stallings has diligently worked on his receiving, even on days he starts, reflected in an 8.8 FRM -- FanGraphs’ calculation of catcher framing value -- that is tied for the best mark in the National League with Omar Narváez.
All of his hard work doesn’t go unnoticed -- neither in the awards voting nor by the Pirates’ leaders, who are trying to develop a positive, winning culture.
“So much of defensive improvement and being a great defender is simply the willingness to work at it,” GM Ben Cherington said in October, “and not just to work at it in time spent, but the willingness to be open-minded, how to work at it, how to train, what information to use and what not to use, trying new things. Stalls just does that consistently.
“Whatever metric you want to use, it's a pretty controllable skill if one is really willing to put the time and effort and practice in the most effective ways, and Jacob is an example of that.”