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A Good Man Behind the Plate Is Hard to Find

Beyond Buster Posey and a handful of others, MLB is suffering from a dearth of top-line talent at the catcher position. Is it just a blip? Or a sign of things to come?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

We don’t appreciate Buster Posey enough. His trophy case includes three World Series rings, a Rookie of the Year award, an MVP, four All-Star appearances, three Silver Sluggers, and a Gold Glove. His statistical record is equally impressive — a .306/.372/.475 line for a 135 OPS+ — and he’s also the best defensive catcher in baseball. Lots of people can hit big league pitching, but only a select few can do it while spending 120 games a year behind the plate. By any objective standard, the 30-year-old dog enthusiast is the best catcher in the game.

Apart from Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw — and really, all baseball arguments should come with a built-in caveat for those two — no other position has such a clear-cut best player. But while Posey towers above other catchers like Trout towers above other center fielders, he’s not on Trout’s level as a player. Posey’s in a class with the likes of Josh Donaldson, who doesn’t stand out from other third basemen the way Posey stands out from other catchers.

That obvious superiority is partially a function of the difficulty of the position, but we’re also in something of a dry spell for quality catchers, even by the standards of the game’s most demanding position.

If you’re not familiar with the defensive spectrum, it’s a pretty intuitive concept. Some defensive positions are harder to play than others, which means offensive expectations are higher for players at easier positions. Easier defense means more players can play those positions competently, which means those positions can draw from a larger pool of potential hitting talent. The spectrum has evolved over time, but generally it goes something like this, from easiest to hardest:

DH, first base, left field, right field, third base, second base, center field, shortstop, catcher, pitcher. The average big league catcher hit .243/.310/.393 last year, while the average first baseman hit .259/.338/.453.

You see the wear and tear of a catcher’s defensive duties on a daily basis, in the form of foul tips off the mask, or spiked curveballs that bounce off the plate and hit the catcher in places his gear doesn’t quite cover. There’s the discomfort of wearing a plastic-and-foam suit of armor for three hours in the summer sun five or six days a week, and the sheer physical toll of squatting, standing, then squatting again 200 times a game. Other ballplayers spend their time on normal-looking athletic actions. They stand, they sit, they run, they jump, they throw, they fall down, they get back up. Catchers do all of that, plus their default position makes your knees and thighs sore just to look at. There’s a reason starting catchers get 20 or 30 extra days off by default.

Almost every big league position player was, at one point in his life, either a catcher, a shortstop, or a center fielder — they were the best kids on their youth teams, so they played the most important positions. As they age, those players reach a level of play where they can’t hack it up the middle, or they grow into bodies that are too big for up-the-middle positions, or they get old and slow and move to a corner. Donaldson and Bryce Harper are former amateur catchers, Alex Rodriguez moved from shortstop to third base in his late 20s, and first base and the outfield corners are full of guys who once played up the middle but don’t have the legs anymore, from Andrew McCutchen to Mike Napoli.

The defensive decline doesn’t just bump catchers one spot on the spectrum. When they fall off the position, they often go all the way down to first base, like Napoli and Joe Mauer did, because years of erosion made them unable to run fast enough to play shortstop or center field, if they ever could in the first place.

Other positions lose talent, too, but then they usually get restocked. Right field will lose players to first base as guys move down the spectrum, but right field will also gain players as center fielders eventually get moved to a corner. Ex-catchers get fed into the player pool at other positions, but no other position mints new catchers from its big league rejects.

Since the start of the 2015 season, only 12 players have played at least 50 percent of their games at catcher and produced three or more bWAR. That’s not a high bar — three wins over two seasons is either one really good year or two below-average but still playable years. Over that time, 24 third basemen, 20 shortstops, and 18 center fielders have gotten to three wins. It’s just really tough to catch in the big leagues.

Good catching hasn’t always been this hard to find. From 2013–14, 16 catchers produced 3.0 WAR or more; from 2010–11, 18; from 2004–05, 15; from 1992–93 and 1996–97, 15, despite there being fewer starting catching jobs to go around. In 2000 and 2001, only 11 catchers produced 3.0 WAR, but four of them produced 7.5 WAR or more, and over the past two years, only Posey’s even gotten to six.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Some of that drop-off is fluky. Over the past two years, Yan Gomes (122 OPS+ from 2013–14) forgot how to hit, and four-time All-Star Matt Wieters missed half a season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Gary Sánchez, whose torrid 53-game 2016 campaign almost won him Rookie of the Year honors, missed the cutoff by less than a tenth of a win, and Derek Norris was close, as well. Jonathan Lucroy’s on the three-WAR list but he’s not as high as he should be because he was hurt and struggled in 2015.

It’s not all random. In 2009, Posey debuted, followed by Lucroy, Wilson Ramos, and Welington Castillo a year later. The next season, Salvador Pérez came up, and the year after that came Gomes, Stephen Vogt, and Yasmani Grandal. In 2016, Sánchez and Willson Contreras broke into the Yankees’ and Cubs’ lineups for the first time and, despite having made a combined 77 big league starts behind the plate coming into 2017, are two of the best 10 catchers in the game thanks to a total talent vacuum at the position. Only one of those 12 three-win catchers, J.T. Realmuto, made his debut between Grandal in June 2012 and Sánchez in October 2015. So what the hell happened to everyone else?

From 2013 to 2016, 14 catchers appeared on the Baseball Prospectus Top 101 Prospects list at least once. Here’s what happened to them:

  • Travis d’Arnaud (Mets) (x2) — Debuted in 2013, was good in 2014, hurt in 2015, and bad and hurt in 2016.
  • Austin Hedges (Padres) (x3) — Defensive wizard with an iffy bat. Entering his first full big league season in 2017 carrying a career .161/.206/.236 MLB slash line.
  • Mike Zunino (Mariners) — Forgot how to hit.
  • Sánchez (Yankees) (x3) — Maybe the best offensive catcher in baseball.
  • Jorge Alfaro (Phillies) (x4) — Traded for Cole Hamels in 2015, played six MLB games in 2016, stole Fernando Rodney’s lunch money in the WBC, and then returned to the minors for more seasoning in 2017.
  • Christian Bethancourt (Padres) (x2) — Never learned to hit, currently learning how to pitch.
  • Josmil Pinto (Giants) — Couldn’t stick with the Twins or Brewers over the past three years. Probably a first baseman going forward.
  • Reese McGuire (Blue Jays) (x3) — Traded from Pittsburgh last year to entice the Blue Jays to take on Francisco Liriano’s salary. Still only 22 and in Double-A, but hasn’t learned to hit.
  • Blake Swihart (Red Sox) (x2) — Moved to outfield, got hurt, moved back to catcher, might have the yips.
  • Kevin Plawecki (Mets) — Forgot how to hit.
  • Francisco Mejia (Indians) — Authored a 50-game hitting streak in the minors last year, but at age 21, is still probably another year away.
  • Andrew Susac (Brewers) — Backed up Buster Posey for two years, then was traded to Milwaukee for a reliever.
  • Chance Sisco (Orioles) — Still a year away, inspired an essay in this year’s BP Orioles prospect rankings wondering why catching prospects have busted so much recently.
  • Jacob Nottingham (Brewers) — Traded from Houston to Oakland at the 2015 trade deadline as part of a package for Scott Kazmir, flipped to Milwaukee seven months later for Khris Davis. Might be a first baseman.

Even top-100 prospects wash out a lot, and Mejia and Alfaro still have a lot of their prospect shine left, but that’s pretty grim. Those extra two or three good catchers who normally pan out but haven’t over the past half-decade are somewhere in this list. Combine that with normal catcher attrition and a few star backstops like Carlos Santana and Joe Mauer moving off the position earlier than expected and all of a sudden the big league catching crop starts to look really thin.

Posey isn’t just the best catcher overall; he’s either the best or close to it at every single thing you’d want from a modern big league catcher. He’s the best hitter — at least until we get a handle on what Sánchez’s realistic ceiling is. He was the best pitch framer in baseball last year, saving 26.5 runs compared with the league average. And as evidenced by his handling of three pitching-heavy World Series champions and his insistence that Matt Moore introduce a slider to his repertoire, Posey also has that ineffable pitcher-handling leadership voodoo.

The closest anyone else gets to the entire package is Lucroy, who’s not the pitch framing savant he was in his mid-20s, but is still an above-average defender, handles a staff well, and posted an OPS+ of 116 or better in four of the past five seasons.

The gem of the current non-Posey, non-Lucroy catching class might be Grandal, who’s been underrated his entire career. He slips under the radar because his career .238 batting average looks really bad no matter how much you’ve convinced yourself batting average isn’t as important as OBP, and because he’s played his entire career for the Padres, where nobody paid attention to him, and Dodgers, where he’s been completely overshadowed by his dozen or so headline-grabbing teammates. When news does break out about Grandal, it’s tended to be bad — either the 50-game PED suspension he served in 2013 or Clayton Kershaw’s conspicuous preference to throw to A.J. Ellis rather than the Dodgers’ nominal starter.

However, Grandal grades out as the second-best pitch framer in the game, behind Posey. Despite his low average, Grandal walks a lot, which is unusual for any Los Angeles resident. He also drives his fair share — 45 home runs since 2015, second among catchers, including one from each side of the plate on Opening Day 2017. Plus, Kershaw’s preference for a personal catcher might have more to do with Kershaw than Grandal. The three-time Cy Young winner threw seven strong innings to Grandal on Monday, and on the The Ringer MLB Show this past offseason, Dodgers reliever Grant Dayton praised Grandal’s game-calling and receiving skills.

That leaves 27 teams with one of three options: throw a youngster into the fire, punt on the position entirely, or find a catcher who’s good enough at one or two aspects of the game to cover up for his other weaknesses.

The Yankees, Cubs, and Padres are taking the first tack, and so will the Phillies when they hand the keys over to Alfaro likely sometime later this year. If you don’t have a Sánchez or a Contreras, and you can’t get your hands on a Posey or a Lucroy, though, sometimes the wisest choice is to cast your lot with a replacement-level catch-and-throw guy and use the resources you’d have devoted to catcher to strengthen the team elsewhere.

Last year’s Indians were a great example. OMC had more hits than Yan Gomes last year, and Mejia was still nowhere close to ready, so Cleveland tried to trade for Lucroy at the deadline to address that obvious area of need. When Lucroy vetoed the deal, the Indians traded for Andrew Miller instead. Despite Roberto Pérez and his 51 OPS+ starting every Indians playoff game, Miller was able to push Cleveland to within a win of the World Series.

Then there’s the final path: Nobody can find a catcher who’s good at everything, but everyone can find a catcher who’s good at something.

Among the 77 catchers with at least 1,000 framing chances last year, Vogt finished 71st in framing runs, but he kills right-handed pitching (.268/.353/.479 in 2015, .264/.318/.430 in 2016), is a perfect mother duck for a young pitching staff like Oakland’s, and has a pleasant baritone singing voice.

Realmuto was 74th in framing runs but hit .303 in 2016 and controlled the running game well. Salvador Pérez was 73rd in framing runs last year, and his OBP hasn’t broken .290 in three years, but he has some power and a good handle on the running game. Francisco Cervelli hits for next to no power and is an iffy defender apart from his framing, but he had the seventh-most framing runs in baseball last season and since 2015, his .373 OBP leads all catchers with at least 500 PA.

Some teams are loading up on players we’d ordinarily think of as being on the decline, but are more attractive in a thinner catching market. The Cardinals just re-upped Yadier Molina, whose ability to manage pitchers will get him strong Hall of Fame consideration on its own, for $60 million over his age-35 through age-37 seasons. That contract looks like a retirement gift from the Cardinals, but it’s exactly what the Blue Jays owe Russell Martin, who’s the same age and just a slightly better hitter and pitch framer than Molina.

Meanwhile, the Astros traded for 33-year-old Brian McCann this past offseason. McCann is no longer the player who made six straight All-Star teams in Atlanta a decade ago — he looks like a novelty teddy bear and is about as mobile — but he’s a league-average hitter, give or take, over the past three seasons, was 9.2 runs above average in framing last year, and will probably be worth the $23 million Houston owes him over the next two years.

None of those guys is the whole package, but they’re good enough.

Having a position with this many holes leaguewide feels weird, particularly when it seems like 20 different teams either have a franchise shortstop or are about to call one up. But catching is such a hard job, and so few people are capable of doing all parts of it well, that one or two developmental failures, and one or two career-altering injuries, can cut down the number of good big league catchers by a quarter. Is it a trend that’s likely to continue? Probably not. But it’s the world big league teams live in right now.