Three years ago, baseball had a cadre of talented catchers in their primes.
Minnesota’s Joe Mauer was the American League MVP, after winning his third batting title and establishing a career high with 28 home runs. The hard-working Victor Martinez started 82 games behind the plate, with stellar overall production (.303, 23 homers, 108 RBI) for the Indians and Red Sox.
Brian McCann and Miguel Montero checked off three boxes that would satisfy just about any general manager — left-handed, power bat, still in their 20s. Both players set career highs in RBI that season for the Braves and Diamondbacks, respectively.
Mike Napoli was showing his offensive upside in Anaheim, even if Mike Scioscia didn’t trust him defensively. Oakland’s Kurt Suzuki led AL catchers with 132 starts, and the workload didn’t stop him from posting the best offensive numbers of his career.
Only one of those six players has an OPS of at least .800 — the rough standard for a good major league hitter.
And that is Mauer … at .810.
The era of the great offensive catchers — Mike Piazza, Jorge Posada, Ivan Rodriguez — is gone. And with the amateur draft less than two weeks away, many organizations must feel dismayed about the state of catching on their major league clubs, farm systems or both.
Across the majors, catchers have the lowest OPS — .713 — of any position other than shortstop and second base. Statistically, they are underperforming. But maybe “overburdened” is the more appropriate adjective.
Teams hand their catchers more detailed scouting reports than ever before, and they are expected to develop close relationships with pitchers who have varied repertoires. That takes time, and language barriers can make it more difficult to develop a lasting rapport.
Relatively few players, particularly at amateur levels, are willing to play the position, because of the injury risk (collisions, foul tips) and overall wear-and-tear. Fewer still are able to stay healthy doing it.
Oh, and they also are expected to hit.
There are scarcer commodities in the game — say, ace left-handers with 96 mph heat — but catcher is the most difficult position to fill on an everyday basis.
“No doubt,” Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd said this week. “It really is the heartbeat of a club. It is really hard and getting harder to find catchers who can contribute with their (offensive) ability but also have that innate leadership and intellectual gifts to own a staff.
“I feel we need to look at catchers differently. We need to value not so much what we want them to look like but what they bring every day to help you win. I’m not sure that can be measured in a standard scouting evaluation. I think it goes a lot deeper than that.”
The Twins have reason to be frightened that the best years of Mauer’s career are behind him. He has an .818 OPS with 13 home runs in 261 games since signing his $184 million extension — decent numbers, but hardly commensurate with his salary. Injuries are to blame for at least some of the diminution in power, which underscores the greatest pitfall of investing in everyday catchers: They have shorter primes than peers at other positions.
The rigors of the job make it difficult to string together several excellent offensive seasons in a row. Of the six All-Star catchers last year — Alex Avila, Russell Martin and Matt Wieters in the AL; McCann, Montero and Yadier Molina in the NL — only Wieters and Molina have upped their OPS from 2011 to 2012. Martin is hitting just .173 for the Yankees.
Even serious baseball fans would struggle to name the three most productive catchers in baseball this season: the Phillies’ Carlos Ruiz (.996 OPS), the Brewers’ Jonathan Lucroy (.990) and the Dodgers’ A.J. Ellis (.963).
Paradoxically, some catchers — such as Ruiz and Molina — improve offensively as they age. One National League scout has a theory about that: “Early in your career, it’s hard to focus that much behind the plate and still have something left to focus during your at-bats as well. But as catchers mature, game-calling becomes more second-nature, and they start to understand what teams are trying to do to them at the plate.”
Makes perfect sense. There’s only one problem: Not enough catchers remain on the field long enough for that evolution to occur. Only five — Ruiz, Molina, McCann, Suzuki and A.J. Pierzynski — started 100 or more games in each of the past three seasons. One American League scout believes the catching shortage is a “major issue in our game right now,” with “not many good ones (in the majors now) and not many coming.”
“It’s amazing how bad it’s gotten,” the scout said. “It takes a certain type of person to play the position, so I’m not sure how it changes. I believe we are going to have to convert players more and more. It’s the easiest way to the majors, but there’s a crazy workload with it.”
Some of baseball’s best catchers — San Francisco’s Buster Posey, for example — played elsewhere in college before switching positions in order to boost their value. Posey has been one of the most indispensable players in baseball since he arrived in the majors to stay during the 2010 season; that fact became particularly evident when the Giants floundered in the second half last year while he was on the disabled list with a catastrophic leg injury.
As if to illustrate the trouble in finding a long-term solution at the position, Posey may be a catcher only in the short term. He has started seven games at first base this year and could play the infield more frequently if Hector Sanchez shows he can handle the everyday job. The reason: Posey’s bat is too valuable to be subject to the frequent days off and potential injury absences that are part of the catching gig.
And then there are other prospects — such as Bryce Harper — who have amateur catching experience but don’t get the chance to play the position as a professional for the same reason.
Should teams simply draft more catchers every year and hope that one or more of them pan out? Perhaps, but that’s hardly foolproof. “If you draft a shortstop, he might be able to play third, second or center field if he doesn’t meet expectations,” explained Brewers GM Doug Melvin. “If you draft a catcher and he doesn’t meet expectations, he probably becomes a minor league manager or scout.”
That’s not to suggest minor league managers and scouts aren’t valuable. They are.