There were questions heading into the season about whether Victor Caratini could serve as a competent enough backup catcher to prevent Joe Maddon from wearing Willson Contreras out for a second consecutive season. And those who believed in Caratini’s skills no doubt wondered how he’d be able to develop at and behind the plate with very limited playing time.
Not only does Caratini play the most labor-intensive defensive position in the game, he’s a switch hitter. Trying to achieve mastery of the nuances of catching while also maintaining swings from both sides is no easy task, even for someone who’s doing it every day.
So when the 25-year-old opened the season slashing .571/.647/1.000 with three doubles and a homer, talk of the Cubs’ need for a veteran backstop subsided. More accurately, it went from a dull roar to the occasional yells picked up on field mics when the crowds are sparse. Even though Caratini had earned praise from his veteran staff since the start of spring, no one mistook him for a Gold Glover back there.
But when you rake, a lot can be forgiven, and Caratini was doing loads of damage from the left side in particular. That was perfect because it offered Maddon not just someone to spell Contreras, but to platoon against right-handed pitching. In fact, Caratini had only made one plate appearance as a righty hitter prior to Thursday night.
He ended up doubling against Francisco Liriano, a ringing drive to the gap to score Daniel Descalso and give the Cubs a 2-0 lead. But Caratini had felt something crack in his hand when he fouled off the first pitch of the AB. That feeling was later revealed to be a fractured hamate — the triangular bone at the base of the pinkie and ring fingers with a small hook-like projection — and Caratini was placed on the injured list Friday.
He’s scheduled to have surgery Monday and the initial recovery estimate has been placed at 4-6 weeks, though that may be a tad optimistic. A 2017 study of 74 athletes (including 57 baseball players) who underwent surgical excision for hook of the hamate fractures showed a median return time of 6 weeks, with 11 of the participants (14%) having a return time of 12 weeks or longer.
In one of the best-known examples of hamate injuries, Giancarlo Stanton sat out the remainder of the 2015 season following surgery in late June. But there’s a wide gulf between Stanton and Caratini, and I don’t just mean their power. That’s part of it though, since hamate fractures almost always occur on the bottom hand as the result of pressure from the knob of the bat or a hit by pitch.
As such, a hitter is going to have to be very careful with recovery, whether it’s ensuring that the fracture is properly healed or that discomfort is mitigated. And an elite slugger like Stanton who’s putting more stress on that hand is going to be that much more wary of going full bore. But remember, this was Caratini’s left hand. That means it’s at much less risk when he’s batting left-handed, which is very good news for Caratini and the Cubs.
It’s possible that’s the reason for the aggressive estimate on his convalescence, since Caratini has an advantage most other hitters do not.
Of course, recovery is always a tricky proposition when you’re talking about baseball players and hands. But a 2018 study of 18 MLB players who sustained hook of hamate fractures offers found “no significant change in Wins Above Replacement or isolated power” between pre- and postinjury performance” and concluded that “MLB players sustaining hook of hamate fractures can reasonably expect to return to their preinjury performance levels following operative treatment.”
It should be noted that the study was tracking the first and second seasons after surgery, not a return to action in the same season. There’s more to coming back from an injury than just being at full strength or pain-free, especially in baseball. Caratini’s timing is sure to be off after a long layoff and his hand strength isn’t likely to be back to where it was prior to the fracture. But maybe his rehab will address all of that and he’ll come back good as new.
After all, I seem to remember another player who served as a backup catcher for the Cubs once upon a time who came back from surgery and performed really well in a big spot. Maybe it’s my old age catching up with me, but I can’t quite place the player or moment in question. If someone could help me out with that, I’d really appreciate it.