Five best Catchers in the game we call baseball.

As statisticians know, summing up what a catcher does is very difficult to do.  And separating what they do on a baseball field, aside from hitting, isn’t easy to evaluate from one catcher to the next.  For example, calling a game.  There really isn’t a way to measure that accurately, therefore it is simply easier to dismiss it in a ranking such as this.  Maybe I could do more research and base a lot of it on reputation, but then it will have a “loose” base, so I am better off avoiding it. 

The five best backstops in the game are…(With the 2008 OPS+ included)

  • Joe Mauer: OPS+137:   Perhaps when I am finished with these positional rankings, I will pursue a top ten players in baseball list, ranking the top ten from any position.  And I am interested where I will rank Mauer.  I have an idea, but more research always helps in matters like these.  How Joe Mauer does not get more MVP love is beyond me.  Sure, he finished 4th in 2008 and 6th in 2006, but come on, give the guy more love, he deserves it.  Both seasons he was a batting champ, and both seasons he has been on base at clips of .413 and .429.  And he is a freakin’ catcher!  It sickens me.  I would say he is underrated, but the “experts” that I rely on most respect the heck out of the guy.  And he IS getting a lot of votes, just not as many as he probably should.  Mauer should probably have an MVP by now, that is what I am trying to say.            
  • Brian McCann: OPS+ 134:  McCann has been a great hitter–and not just for a catcher–for two of his three full seasons at this level.  His bat is probably most comparable to Mauer’s of any catcher in the game.  McCann hits for average, gets on base, and hits for power.  When I say comparable to Mauer, I mean overall.  Mauer gets on base more, hits for a higher average, but less power.  But OBP>Slugging.  McCann isn’t as patient as Mauer, but draws enough walks anyway.   
  • Russell Martin:  OPS+ 106:  The first two catchers are clearly better at the plate than Martin.  But Russell is no slouch either.  I still wonder if the Dodgers were interesting in exploring a trade of Martin this off-season.  Or if that was just a fabrication.  Martin could potentially get better, as he is still only 25.  And Martin is incredibly patient at the plate, meaning that he should always get on base a lot.  They have a nice asset down in LA, more than one, but this one in particular.
  • Victor Martinez:  OPS+ 85:  Martinez was hurt and played in only 73 games last season.  Is it really fair to leave him off the list because of that down year?  Before that, in four consecutive seasons, Martinez posted OPS+’s of 121 or greater.  Ranging from that 121, all the way up to 130.  He was a great hitting catcher, period.  Somehow in 2005, Victor finished 18th in the MVP voting.  I have a feeling that he was more valuable than that, but the voters have their flaws, evident by the way they vote much of the time.  I expect Martinez to bounce back.
  • Jorge Posada:  OPS+ 103:  This may sound ludicrous to some, as Posada will probably be out of this if I rank the players after 2009.  But he too was injured in 2008, and that prevented him from playing well (although was still a decent hitter).  Granted, there is a distinct difference in age between he and Martinez.  So the likelihood that Martinez is great again is higher.  But Posada has been a good-great player for much of his career.  A catcher in Chicago, or perhaps Pittsburgh will make some noise this season.  But I feel that it is unfair to Posada to be left off because of injury, even if injuries may hinder him from performing for the reminder of his career (possible).

Apologies to: 

Geovany Soto-One great year doesn’t usually transfer into the “Statistican Magician’s” top five.

Ryan Doumit-  More playing time, and the same production might get you on the list. 

Just for the record, I feel that I have made it clear that projections for upcoming seasons don’t really play a role in these rankings.  I mean, Soto will almost definitely be a better player than Posada next season.  And I do value the current projection systems in place (Pecota, CHONE, Marcel, Bill James).  But my rankings are based on actual numbers that have been established.  Not numbers that may or may not be established.  If I was to rank the top five for 2009, then the rankings would be different, no doubt. 


Catcher By Committee.

     “Hitting in the number 3 spot today, game 162 of the season, catcher Victor Martinez steps to the plate.  Refreshed, relaxed, full of energy.  Anyone can notice the extra giddy-up, the exuberance that Martinez has in his body language of late.  As we have mentioned several times this season, the Indians have implemented a new program for their catchers.  The team has begun to use the Anaheim Angels approach of using two catchers, platooning,  Or, a “catcher by committee” if you will.  With Joakim Soria on the mound, Martinez is going to need all the energy that he has to catch up to that fastball.  Again, two on two out, Royals up 3-2.  If the Indians win, they hold off the Twins and win the division.  If they lose, a one game playoff will be taking place, as the Twins were already victorious earlier in the day.  And Soria delivers from the stretch; A first pitch slider missing a little inside to the switch hitting catcher, batting left handed against the right handed throwing Soria.  Well off target with his slider as Buck was setting up away.  Again, Soria delivers, this time a change-up catching the outer half of the plate for a strike.  Soria is showing his respect to Victor Martinez today, throwing a pitch that he rarely does throw, and trying to confuse the very smart mind of Martinez.  The Pitch…another ball, another off speed pitch.  This was Soria’s slider yet again, missing down and away this time.  Soria is nit-picking, and rightfully so.  Martinez has been as productive as most hitters this season, but of course this is only his 100th game of the season, due to the platoon the Indians have stressed.  So, 2-1 count.  A red-hot Victor Martinez at the plate.  One of the best closers in the game on the mound.  Here’s the pitch…And. That ball is drilled!!!   Back…At the track!  Outta here!  The Indians win!  The Indians win!  The Indians are going to play on into October!  Oh my, it cannot get any better than this!  Martinez just got around easily on that 94 MPH fastball and ripped it well into the right field seats…

     Ok, maybe the “catcher by committee” wouldn’t result in a division championship, definitely unlikely in this fashion.  And realistically, it is would be very difficult to find two catchers who are prodcutive enough at the plate to make it work.  One reason being that if a team does have two catchers that are good enough to play every day, then there is always another team that could use one of them.  Catchers who can hit aren’t exactly growing on trees.  So it would probably make sense to trade one of the catchers to improve the team in another area.  But, catcher is the most physically demanding position in baseball.  Just as running back is the most physically demanding position in football.  Now, I understand that running through a hole and knowing that you are going to be met by at least a defender, or more, is a little different than crouching down for a long period of time, over a great number of games.  But just as running backs retire earlier than that of other positions, or are not effective anymore, seemingly earlier than any other position.  Catchers are in relatively the same boat.  Catchers rarely acheive success late in their careers.  It is difficult to do, as their bodies have gone through more than any other position in the sport.  But I find the “Catcher by Committee” to be intriguing. 

     Mike Scioscia and the Angels applied this thinking to what they did last year behind the plate.  Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis split time as backstops; Mathis caught 793 innings, Napoli caught 625.  But one problem, possibly, with this is that Napoli was a significantly better hitter.  Jeff Mathis was terrible at the plate, an OPS+ of 55, which is not worthy of receiving any playing time, and 90 games was too much.  Mike Napoli killed the ball.  OPS+ of 147, in a decent sampling, yet not really a great sample size.  Mathis cannot hit, yet, while Napoli can.  I know there is more to catching than just hitting, but Napoli deserves more playing time in 2009, unless Mathis improves at the plate.  But part of me wonders if Napoli hit so well because he didn’t play much.  Maybe Napoli was well rested and never experienced the effects that most catchers feel over the long, 162 game season.  Napoli is a good hitting catcher, but if he were to have played, say 135 games last year, his numbers probably would have come down, because while he is good, I doubt he is that good.  So, playing more games–a greater sample size–Napoli would most likely have had his numbers decrease, at least some.  But, I wonder if Napoli plays 100 games each year, rather than 135, would he always put up better numbers in the shortened seasons then he would by playing 135 games?  It feels as though a catcher would be better, the more he rests, within reason, because they still need to get pretty consistent AB’s.  And I understand the difficulty that an organization would have committing time to two catchers, such as Napoli and Mathis, when one is so much greater at the plate. 

     But just because the Angels “platoon” may not be best example of this, the Indians might have a better chance to do this, assuming that they keep Kelly Shoppach this year, which seems likely at this point (as he is under contract, and still with the club).  The difference between Shoppach and Mathis is that Shoppach can actually hit well enough to start.  Shoppach may have experienced a career year in 2008 (OPS+ 123).  But it is safe to assume that he is roughly average at the plate, if not better, AND right in his prime.  And an average hitter, at the catcher position, is a pretty good player, assuming Shoppach isn’t challenged behind the plate. 

     But keeping Victor Martinez rested appears to make sense.  The Indians want his bat in the lineup, which I understand completely.  But if they could say, limit Martinez to catching around 100 games, while giving him some time off, and playing him at first some, they may increase his productivity at the plate.  Maybe a 100 games is too few, but Ryan Garko isn’t exactly Lou Gehrig at the plate.  Victor should be catching fewer games than most great hitting catchers, because of the personnel that the Indians have.  And first base does present an opportunity for the Indians to get Martinez some more AB’s while not having the team suffer any.

     Which leads me to yet another example of the platooning of catchers.  Let us say that Varitek ends up accepting the contract offer he has been presented, and the Red Sox have he and Josh Bard.  Neither catcher can hit much, and both might have the same problem; They cannot hit from the left side.  If last year holds any water, Varitek’s days having any kind of success from the left side are well over.  But since Jason is 37 now, platooning may be the best option for the team, with those two on the roster I mean.  Keeping Varitek rested, and hoping that helps his bat get through the zone in less than 4 seconds, seems to be the best option if they do not choose to trade for their catcher of the future (which still seems like a good option to me).  I could see a scenario where each plays 80 games, or something like that.  Varitek half the time seems a better option than Varitek full time.  Plus, that would give him the chance to stay in the clubhouse and have whatever positive effect he seems to have in there. 

     But I do wonder how much teams will explore having a “catcher by Committee in the future.  It
seems that catchers are expected to hit much more than they were in the past.  So in the future, where there are more catchers who are good behind the plate AND good AT the plate, maybe the option will arise to carry two starting catchers on as many teams as possible.  I don’t mean two Joe Mauer’s.  I mean maybe a Shoppach/Martinez combo.  Or a Posada/Shoppach.  Something like that.