Ranking MLB’s best backup catchers

When someone uses the word “best” in a category I don’t know much of anything about – and let’s be honest, who does know anything about backup catchers? – I become intrigued.

So this intrigued me!

What’s more, we’re so close to the end of the season that it’s not too early to take stock of what we’ve seen.

First, though, what would the best backup catcher look like?

Well, first and most obviously, he can’t be his team’s No. 1 catcher, which means he’s not playing more than two or three times per week. I went looking for catchers with fewer than 250 plate appearances this season but more than 100, and excluded guys who duck under that bar but have either missed much of the season because of injury, or have actually become the No. 1 catcher late in the season.

Oh, but then I added two guys who have caught a lot this season, but only because their teams’ No. 1 catchers were injured: Kevin Plawecki and Caleb Joseph.

Which is to say, I want real backup catchers.

Next, because it’s a big part of the job and the easiest to measure, I’m looking for a decent hitter. Not great, not necessarily good. But decent. So for the first cut, I’m eliminating anyone without an OPS+ this season of at least 80.

With due apologies to Jesus Sucre.

That gives us 16 candidates, from Boston’s Ryan Hanigan (81 OPS+) to Tampa Bay’s Curt Casali (142). Oh, and our man Roberto Pérez? He’s squarely in the middle of the pack, seventh in the group with a 101 OPS+.

But there is, of course, a lot more to catching than hitting. Especially considering that a) the hitting stats are only so meaningful, considering the small sample sizes, and b) teams generally look for gloves before bats when choosing backup catchers.

To narrow our list further, I turned to our friends at Baseball Prospectus, and their sophisticated methodology for evaluating catchers’ defensive contributions, including pitch-framing.

Before showing you my list, a word about Curt Casali… Yes, he’s hit 10 home runs in barely 100 at-bats. But no, there’s nothing in his track record to suggest his .594 slugging percentage accurately reflects his true abilities. He might simply be a late developer, but we just haven’t seen enough of Casali yet.

Pérez is an interesting case. He hit terribly in Triple-A in 2013, then excellently in 2014. In his two major-league campaigns, though, he’s been steadily decent. This season, 28 catchers have at least 300 plate appearances, and Pérez’s (again, career) .321 would rank 11th, which strongly suggests he’s indeed one of the best backup catchers, good enough to play more often for more than a few teams in the majors.

In the end, that’s really what we’re looking for here, right? Backup catchers so good they wouldn’t be backups on a bunch of other teams?

I think that’s true of Pérez, and I think it’s also true of A.J. Ellis and Caleb Joseph and probably Andrew Susac if he can improve his pitch-framing some.

But should we even consider Joseph the Orioles’ No. 2 catcher at this point? Yeah, but just barely; Joseph’s caught 12 games since the 1st of September, Matt Wieters 14. And it’s highly likely that Wieters will depart via free agency this winter, with Joseph officially taking over next spring as the No. 1 guy.

Still, right now Joseph’s technically a backup catcher, and I believe his track record, his sterling defense, and his decent bat make him the best No. 2 catcher in the majors. My top five at the moment, which isn’t based on any particular metric, but rather’s just a sort of feel thing, based on a whole bunch of stuff I looked at:

1. Caleb Joseph (Orioles)

2. Roberto Pérez (Indians)

3. Andrew Susac (Giants)

4. A.J Ellis (Dodgers)

5. Geovany Soto (White Sox)

I’m going to stop there. Because while you might make cases for Josh Phegley and a few others, those are the only five current backups with whom I’d feel comfortable as my No. 1 catcher for long.

Getting back to the original question, though? Maybe August wasn’t considering Joseph a backup. In which case, yes: Roberto Pérez might well be The Best Backup Catcher in Baseball.