Freddy Fermin has been way, way better than I think anyone other than maybe his mom expected this season. He is a bit unusual though, so I am not sure what we should expect from him going forward. To try and figure that out, I have combed through some history and his advanced metrics to see what it is the Royals have found in their Venezuelan backstop.
Most players in the pros make it to their rookie year before they are 28, if they are going to make it at all that is. I pulled every position player rookie since 1990 to get at least 250 plate appearances (about what Fermin will end up at), and isolated all of them that were 28 or older in that season. Only 84 out of 1,256 were in that age range. Those 84 old rookies went on to average 2.7 fWAR in their careers. Most of them did very little. In fact, the top eight of that group basically matched the other 76 in total WAR. Those eight and their total career WAR are as follows: Melvin Mora (27.3), Carlos Ruiz (15.5), Hideki Matsui (13.3), Jamey Carroll (12.8), Damian Miller (12.6), Luke Scott (11.4), Mike Yastrzemski (10.5), and our old friend Nori Aoki (9.9).
You will notice that a couple of those names are on there because they are Japanese and didn’t get to go to the MLB due to the posting system. Another thing you might notice, though the names here are obscure enough you might not, is that two of those eight players are catchers. Both Carlos Ruiz and Damian Miller played primarily catcher in their careers after making it to the bigs so late. Ruiz was, for a few years, a very good regular with excellent defense. He had a couple of years where BABIP luck smiled on him and posted 3.8 and 4.7 WAR. Miller was a competent big leaguer for a number of years, but never really hit much only having one partial season where is wRC+ topped 100. If Fermin managed to be either of those two, it would be a nice development for the Royals.
What Fermin is doing is not unprecedented at least. The history suggests that it is unlikely he will be an every day player going forward, but it could happen. There are few reasons why I am skeptical, but also a few that make me think the Royals really have found a guy they can depend on here.
First, let us look at the pessimistic view. He seems to be about a league average catcher so far, and hHe has gotten a bit lucky with the bat. Freddy’s BABIP is sitting at .358 right now, and that is well above what we saw in the minors for him. Baseball Savant also says that his slash line of .313/.350/.544 is inflated relative to his batted ball characteristics. His XBA is .279 and his XSLG is .499, so significantly lower than what he has actually done. It is very likely that Fermin’s performance is going to drop off from where it is currently.
On the other hand, a .499 slug from anyone, let alone a catcher, is fantastic. If he regresses to say .275/.315/.475 even, that would still be a 110 wRC+ or so, and he would be one of the top ten hitting catchers in the league. Is that realistic though? No one thought he was going to be an above average hitter. His projections going into the year were all saying that OBP is realistic, but no one had him slugging even .400, so what is going on?
Some of that will regress due to his 19.5% HR/FB rate. That is way above his minor league rate, and generally only the top power hitters can maintain a rate that high or better. It is not outlandish and does not explain the power entirely though. Fermin is just hitting the ball consistently. He has a barrel rate of 12.2%, which is about the same as Shohei Ohtani. He has a hard hit rate of 43.7%, not elite but solid. He also does not strike out a lot. This combination seems like the sort of thing that should work.
If the defense being averag-ish is true, for him to be an every day player (2+WAR), he needs to hit somewhere in 95 wRC+, so he could fall quite a ways from where he is at and still be a nice option for the Royals behind the dish. Scouts all thought his defense was solid before getting to the big leagues with a 55 as his field grade on Fangraphs, an above-average regular. All the metrics I can find have him just a touch above average or dead on average at every aspect of catching so far in 2023, but the sample sizes are small.
If I were forced to bet on whether Freddy Fermin was a 2 WAR or more player next season, I would bet against him. History, both of old rookies and of this organization, just isn’t on his side, so the smart money is to bet that he is not the one out of 20 or so that end up being good for a handful of years. That being said, he has looked the part while having the numbers say it is far from all luck. With Salvador Perez aging and having injury problems every year, it probably does not really matter from a decision perspective. You almost have to keep him and play he proves it to you one way or the other unless someone this offseason offers you a trade that values him has a cheap everyday catcher with a lot of team control left.