MLB 2017: Top 10 catchers
Catcher may be the most unappreciated position on the diamond. Let’s show a little love to the best catchers in MLB.
There may not be a more thankless job in professional sports than catcher in the big leagues. The position beats you up every game, shortening the life of a career or forcing a player into a part-time role at a much younger age than any other position. In the history of baseball, no catcher has hit 500 home runs or reached 3,000 hits. Heck, only nine have ever reached 2,000. There are only 14 catchers in the Hall of Fame, compared to 62 starting pitchers.
Yes, the catcher is surely unappreciated despite his obvious impact on every pitch of the game. Strides are being made in quantifying the ways catchers block or frame pitches that may influence the way we view the value of future generations of catchers. The ability to call pitches, handle and cajole a staff, and buy strikes is difficult to measure, but that does not minimize the value of a dependable catcher.
Around MLB right now, the position is slightly top-heavy. The American League, in particular, is short on elite catching talent. Joe Mauer, the first catcher to win more than two batting titles, has been permanently shifted to first base. Similar moves may be coming for several of the names mentioned on this list. It might not even be out of the question to see teams adopting a more “catcher-by-committee” approach similar to the fate of the NFL running back. While you ponder the future of the catcher position in Major League Baseball, dive right into the top-ten catchers entering the 2017 season.
10. Francisco Cervelli, Pittsburgh Pirates
There were quite a few names in the running for the tenth spot on this list, including Kyle Schwarber (still unclear if his future in the big leagues includes any time behind the plate) and Matt Wieters (a four-time All-Star still left waiting in free agency). Cervelli gets the nod thanks to his underrated offensive game. Over the past three seasons, he actually ranks sixth in baseball with a .335 wOBA and sixth with a wRC+ of 113. Cervelli has quietly become one of the most productive catchers in his two years as the starter in Pittsburgh.
Cervelli is not a power hitter, and he may never hit more than 10 home runs in a season. His best attribute is his ability to work a walk and consistently put the ball in play. Cervelli has an on-base percentage of .372 over the past three years, which ranks first among catchers. The big downside with Cervelli is his injury history. He won the backup job with the New York Yankees in 2014, but hit the 60-day DL with a hamstring injury. Concussions have also been an issue, and he spent time on the shelf in 2016 with a broken hand.
It is highly unlikely that Cervelli ever contends for a Silver Slugger, but that’s perfectly fine for the Pirates. As a small-market team unable to afford power in the first place, scoring runs comes down to putting as much traffic on the bases as possible. Cervelli excels in that regard, and remains a very valuable piece for a team that has a better shot at contending in 2017 than most realize.
9. J.T. Realmuto, Miami Marlins
Realmuto can get lost in the shuffle down in Miami with so many young and talented hitters like Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, and Dee Gordon. Without quite as much flair, Realmuto was actually third on the team in WAR last season, ahead of both Stanton and Ozuna. He was ahead of them too in oWAR, which takes defensive value out of the equation.
In his three seasons with the Marlins so far, Realmuto has slashed .281/.317/.416. He has also gotten better each season so far in the big leagues and is still only entering his age-26 season. It is unlikely that there is huge upside potential left in Realmuto at this point, but he has safely established himself as a quality starting catcher in the major leagues.
You’re probably not buying a ticket to a Marlins game to see J.T. Realmuto play (if you’re even buying a ticket to a Marlins game at all), but he will be a big part of helping turn the team into a more consistent winner in the future. Very few catchers are transcendent stars, but the Marlins have a solid contributor on their hands in Realmuto, and that matters very much when it comes to winning.
8. Brian McCann, Houston Astros
McCann became expendable in the Bronx after the arrival of Gary Sanchez. He was traded to the Astros in November, and joins one of the best young lineups in baseball. That should help McCann out considerably as he seeks his tenth straight season with 20 or more home runs.
In his three years with the Yankees, McCann’s numbers dropped considerably. He slashed only .235/.313/.418 and did not make an All-Star team. McCann’s OPS in New York was nearly 100 points lower than it was during his nine years in Atlanta. His signing can only be counted as a disappointment for the Yankees, but they managed to free themselves of the final $34 million on the contract.
Historically speaking, McCann is shooting up the career leaderboards at catcher. His 245 home runs currently rank 13th at the position, and he has a shot of cracking the top-10 with a strong year in 2017. By the time his career ends, McCann should become just the eighth catcher in MLB history to hit over 300 home runs. Just how many more of those home runs come as a true catcher remain to be seen, however, as McCann caught a career-low 757 innings last year. He has never been a standout defender behind the plate, which will make it even easier for a team to make him a full-time DH in the near future.
7. Salvador Perez, Kansas City Royals
That Perez won the American League Silver Slugger at catcher last year with an OPS+ of 89 should tell you all you need to know about the weakness of the position in the league. For Perez, the award was actually deserved. He led all AL catchers in home runs and slugging percentage.
Perez is quite an interesting player to consider. He has been to four straight All-Star Games despite gradually declining offensive numbers. Perez actually rates quite low in most pitch-framing metrics, but has won four gold Gloves in a row. He has a rifle arm, a knack for getting the most out of a pitching staff, and a winning personality.
The intangibles put Perez into the upper echelon of catchers in the game today. That being said, he is probably not destined for an all-time great career. It’s just not there offensively for him, and catching 130-140 games a year is going to take its toll. Perez does not do enough with the bat to justify a move to first base. He is a valuable part of a winning team, a fan favorite, and a solid player — just not quite worthy of being mentioned as a top-five catcher despite the accolades.
6. Russell Martin, Toronto Blue Jays
Intangibles play a big part in Martin’s position in these rankings. There is, after all, a reason he is highly sought after by good teams. Over the past six years, Martin has played in the postseason each time but for three different teams. His teams have finished out of the playoffs just twice in 11 years. That’s not all on Martin, of course, but he is a big part of the success his teams have experienced.
Behind the plate Martin has a passable arm, but his biggest value is in his ability to frame pitches and handle a staff. Since data has been tracked by Stat Corner, Martin is a top-five catcher when it comes to framing pitches. Some things are out of his control, but the Blue Jays backstop is generally considered one of the better framers in the league. One of the best examples of Martin’s influence is pitcher Francisco Liriano, who has a 2.94 ERA in his 248 career innings with Martin doing the catching but an ERA close to or over 4.00 with everyone else. Liriano pitched to a 5.46 ERA in 2016 with the Pittsburgh Pirates before being traded to the Blue Jays. Upon reuniting with Martin, his ERA fell all the way to 2.92 in nearly 50 innings. Clearly, Martin is doing something right.
With the bat, Martin has fallen off slightly over the past two years. Since signing with Toronto, he is a .235/.332/.427 hitter with an OPS+ of 103, making him barely better with the stick than league average. The aging curve will continue stealing from Martin’s offensive value as he enters his age-34 season, but his influence on a good, young pitching staff will remain strong.
5. Wilson Ramos, Tampa Bay Rays
If Wilson Ramos is to be believed, LASIK surgery is the next big thing for Major League Baseball players. The catcher had the procedure done before the 2016 season and proceeded to contend for the NL batting title for most of the year before falling off slightly down the stretch and finishing with a .307/.354/.496 line with career highs in home runs, RBIs, doubles, and OPS. Ramos made his first All-Star team and won the NL Silver Slugger at catcher.
As a hitter, Ramos has always excelled at making consistent contact. He has only struck out in 16.8 percent of his career at-bats, well below the league average. Ramos struggled to make hard contact in 2015, and batted .229 with a woeful .258 BABIP. In 2016, he made hard contact 35.4 percent of the time, helping to raise his BABIP to .327, which is significantly above the league average. This good luck seems to be fueled by increased plate discipline brought on by improved vision and a better ability to hit the slider. Consider this, Ramos swung and missed at nearly five percent fewer sliders in 2016. He also appeared to be more comfortable attacking early in the count, hitting .338 on the first pitch (80 at-bats), compared to .179 (78 at-bats) in 2015.
Ramos would have been set up to earn a massive pay day this offseason if not for a serious knee injury, the second of his career, in the final week of the season. The Rays may have gotten one of the biggest bargains in the history of the league if Ramos is able to replicate his success from 2016 going forward. Based on the improvements Ramos made last season, his increased offensive output last year does not appear to be fleeting. He will return to the field in mid-May.
4. Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees
For two months last season, rookie catcher Gary Sanchez was literally Babe Ruth. No rookie in league history has ever been as prolific in a short time as Sanchez was last year. In only 53 games, he homered 20 times (once every 11.4 plate appearances) and doubled 12 more. In all, 32 of his 60 hits went for extra bases and he slugged .657. All of this led to a second-place finish in the AL Rookie of the Year voting despite the fact that Sanchez played in less than a third of his team’s games.
It was truly a remarkable debut for Sanchez in 2016, and there is reason to believe he can continue producing at an elite level in his first full season in the big leagues. He struck out 57 times in 53 games, which is not an alarming rate for a rookie hitter with so much power. Sanchez also drew 24 walks, showing a willingness to be patient if pitchers are unwilling to challenge him. He did struggle slightly in September, batting .225/.314/.520 in 28 games. Pitchers will eventually figure him out, but Sanchez still hit nine home runs while slumping to end the year.
The player who batted .389/.458/.832 in August is not the real Gary Sanchez, but neither is the slumping rookie of September. In 2017, Sanchez will fall somewhere in the middle of those two batting lines with plenty of power. It would not come as a surprise to see him drive out 35-40 balls next season.
3. Jonathan Lucroy, Texas Rangers
Jonathan Lucroy may have hitched his horse to the wrong wagon after turning down a trade to the Cleveland Indians in favor of the Rangers. The Tribe went all the way to the World Series, while the Rangers were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. Cleveland followed up their postseason run by signing Edwin Encarnacion. The Rangers have not been able to pull off a big addition yet this offseason.
Lucroy had been angling for an out in Milwaukee for years, and he did not disappoint after being traded. In 47 games with Texas, he hit 11 home runs and drove in 31. Lucroy finished the year with a .292/.355/.500 line with 24 homers and 81 RBIs. It was the best full season of his career, and was a solid rebound from a disappointing 2015 that saw him struggling with injuries.
The development of a home-run stroke was big for Lucroy in 2016. He did hit 53 doubles in 2014 to lea the league, but only left the yard 13 times that year. Going forward, Lucroy will have to be careful not to get too homer-happy, but the powerful lineup and climate in Texas should help him approach 30 homers for the first time in 2017.
2. Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals
Molina is without a doubt the heart and soul of the St. Louis Cardinals, one of the most consistent franchises in sports over the past decade. He’s also done it almost exclusively behind the plate, starting only five games at first base and four at DH out of his nearly 1,600 games over the past 13 seasons. Molina has been to seven All-Star Games while winning eight Gold Gloves along the way. After looking like a light hitter for his first few seasons in the big leagues, Yadi has also made big strides with the bat.
It is hard to quantitatively rank catchers and their defensive value across generations due to the lack of data dating back more than 10 years. Molina’s eight Gold Gloves more than speak for themselves. He trails only Ivan Rodriguez and Johnny Bench in that regard. Bench is already in the Hall, and Rodriguez appears likely to get in this year or next. Molina should be viewed as one of the top five defensive catchers in the history of baseball.
Even as he turned 34 in the middle of last season, Molina still caught 146 games in 2016 while logging the highest innings total of his career. Since his first All-Star season in 2009, Molina is second among MLB catchers in WAR, behind only Buster Posey. His defensive value over that time period is nearly double Posey’s. As it currently stands, Molina should be a Hall of Famer. He is roughly 400 hits shy of 2,000, and only two catchers who have reached that mark are not enshrined. Molina will top 2,000 hits within the next three seasons, and has the intangibles that help him add up to a Hall of Famer.
1. Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants
At a weak position around the league, Posey is far and away the clear choice for top catcher in baseball. Since his debut in 2009, Posey leads all catchers in batting average, is second in on-base percentage and slugging percentage, and leads in wOBA, wRC+, and WAR. Many of the other catchers that rank near the top of the leaderboard — Joe Mauer, Mike Napoli, Evan Gattis — have spent considerable time at first base and DH. Posey has caught nearly 6,000 innings over the past eight years.
Posey may eventually transition to first base to protect his offense, but for now he is also one of the best defensive catchers in the league. He threw out 28 would-be thieves on the bases last year, and was one of the top pitch framers in baseball according to StatCorner. In terms of a complete package behind the plate, few in baseball history have matched Buster Posey.
With a few more solid seasons of work behind the plate, Posey will cement his status as a Hall of Famer. That is the path he’s on now, with his .307/.373/.476 line, three World Series titles, a Rookie of the Year and MVP, four All-Star appearances, three Silver Sluggers, and a Gold Glove. He has done it all with a quiet, understated brilliance that has not been seen at the catcher position in quite some time.
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