Due to an unfortunate data error, the numbers in this story did not include park factors upon publication. We have updated the data to include the park factors, and the data you see below is now correct. We apologize for the mistake.
What’s all this, then? For an explanation of this series, please read the introductory post. As noted in that introduction, the data is a hybrid projection of the ZIPS and Steamer systems with playing time determined through depth charts created by our team of authors. The rankings are based on aggregate projected WAR for each team at a given position.
With the intro out of the way, we have to start this series somewhere, and I can’t think of a compelling reason not to start with the catchers. So, we’re going to start with the catchers, and yes, since the rankings are based on imperfect projections and subjective depth chart determinations, there are quibbles to be had here if you’re the type who enjoys quibbling.
Especially because catchers occupy the position about which we probably know the least. Oh, we know a lot about how catchers run and hit, and we know something about how they throw, but we’re still in the beginning stages of understanding the importance of handling a pitching staff. There’s been some groundbreaking research in the study of pitch-framing, but those numbers aren’t included here. There’s a lot more than pitch-framing, too, which also isn’t included here. So while, below, you’ll find rankings based on what we can measure, I’ll take care to note when I think a ranking might be off for other reasons. With that all expressed, let’s start from the top.
In theory, depth could be a big help in allowing a team to achieve the #1 spot. I don’t really have anything against Hector Sanchez — he’s perfectly adequate — but this isn’t about Hector Sanchez. This is about Buster Posey, because it helps your ranking when you’re dealing with the last season’s league Most Valuable Player. No, Posey isn’t projected to do what he did in 2012. No, Posey shouldn’t be projected to do what he did in 2012, nor does it really matter for purposes of this ranking. He’s simply tremendous, and tremendous enough to lift the Giants to the top.
Of interest is that this isn’t even all of Posey’s projected WAR, since he should get some time at first base that isn’t accounted for here. He’s got a projected .380 OBP. He’s got a career .380 OBP. Seems sensible. Say hello to Guillermo Quiroz, potential emergency catcher who is still in baseball, and who is actually only 31 years old.
Chances are you don’t know anything about Tony Cruz, aside from his name, now, and the fact that he’s a Cardinals catcher, now. It doesn’t matter, because Cruz shouldn’t play that much, because Cruz is behind Yadier Molina, and Yadier Molina is amazing, as backstops go. It’s true that, when Molina was first getting going, he didn’t hit. But he started to hit in 2007, and he can also hold his own on the bases while being arguably the best defensive catcher in baseball. As is, he’s so good in the field that the Cardinals might be even with the Giants at the position in terms of true talent. And that’s using Molina’s rather bearish projection, which doesn’t believe in his last two seasons. At least, I suspect the difference between #1 and #2 is less than almost a full win.
Here’s a tricky one — Ruiz, see, is facing a 25-game suspension to begin the year. Whenever a guy turns out to be a drug cheat, it’s hard to know what to do with his numbers. Thus, it’s hard to know how to project his numbers, assuming the drug use stops. Ruiz is coming off a career-high .215 ISO and a career-high .398 wOBA. But it stands to reason that Ruiz shouldn’t completely fall apart, and his projected .339 wOBA is right on his career mark. So I’m willing to accept it. Also helping matters is that Erik Kratz actually looks to be a reasonable backup. Kratz has power and hints of plus defensive ability, allowing him to survive a below-average contact rate. Once Ruiz is back, then the Phillies should have a pretty good catcher behind the plate every day. That’s one of the reasons they can’t be written off as a bounceback 2013 contender.
At one point, Taylor Teagarden was a pretty good prospect. He hasn’t panned out, but for the 2013 Baltimore Orioles, it hardly matters, because Teagarden’s behind Matt Wieters, and Wieters was a super-prospect who’s an excellent regular who also hasn’t scraped his ceiling. I remember, in a chat I did some time back, a user asked if Wieters might be one of the league’s best catchers this coming year. Wieters was already one of the league’s best catchers in 2012, and I don’t see any reason to believe he’s going to decline. He’s 26, and between the last two seasons he barely changed. Maybe you want for Wieters to be more. His prospect hype, after all, was loud and inescapable. If he never becomes more, he’s already terrific. Most teams in baseball would not-literally kill to have Matt Wieters.
He doesn’t always look it, but Avila’s only newly 26 years old. Though the 2012 season took a bite out of Avila’s power, he played the season through knee discomfort that took a toll on his swing mechanics, and now Avila claims to be healed up and capable of things he couldn’t do, physically, a year ago. Every year, players come to camp saying their injury problems are behind them, but with Avila it makes sense, and two years ago he slugged .506. That’s why the projections foresee something of a bounceback, allowing the Tigers to show up high in the rankings despite very limited positional depth. If Avila’s problems aren’t behind him, then the Tigers will have a problem at catcher. But as long as Avila’s symptom-free, that’s just a negative hypothetical.
There’s not much not to like about Montero, who doesn’t get the attention of a Posey or a Molina. For a catcher, he can hit for above-average power. He hasn’t finished with a wOBA under .330 since 2007, his strikeout-to-walk ratios are acceptable, he throws out a lot of runners, and he frames. Montero is solid across the board, allowing him to be a star even though he doesn’t have an outstanding skill. It’s an open question as to who will actually be his backup, but it’s of little significance; neither option is great, and neither option would stand to play that often. Because, by the way, Montero is durable, too.
Well, Butera can’t hit, Doumit can’t field, and Mauer can’t catch every day. Doumit is easily one of the very worst defensive catchers in baseball, despite what these numbers say, and it’s his bat that keeps him in the lineup. But this remains predominantly Joe Mauer’s position, even though he won’t get all of his time behind the plate. The projection doesn’t see Mauer getting back to his dinger-happy 2009 days, and it shouldn’t — since then, Mauer’s gone deep just 22 times. But Mauer still hits for average and Mauer still walks, and most catchers just can’t hit the way that Joe Mauer can hit. Of all the Twins’ problems, the catching position isn’t much of one.
On the tenth day of May, Salvador Perez will turn 23 years old. He’s already batted almost 500 times in the bigs, with a .311 average and legitimate power. Last year he struck out just 27 times in more than 300 plate appearances. It would be easy to knock Perez for not walking, and he most certainly doesn’t walk, but he’s got phenomenal bat control and the Royals say good things about his ability to handle a pitching staff. His projection is modest, given what he’s done, and he has upside beyond this. And behind him, there’s George Kottaras, who isn’t Yadier Molina in the field but who does own a 97 career wRC+. Anyway, that long-term Perez contract looked a little weird at the time. It looks more sensational now. For the Royals.
Much like Carlos Ruiz, Brian McCann is going to miss the beginning of the regular season. But not because he’s facing a suspension — McCann, rather, is coming back from shoulder surgery. Which is bad, because it’s shoulder surgery, but which is good, because last year, with a hurt shoulder, McCann slugged .399. Healthy, McCann should get back to hitting like he used to, and between 2008-2011 McCann’s worst wRC+ was 119. The numbers also suggest McCann is a hell of a pitch-framer, so a healthy McCann is among the league’s elite. What the Braves don’t have now is David Ross, who has been an incredible backup. Laird is worse, and Evan Gattis is a wonderful mystery. But from the time McCann is able to make his return, the Braves should be sitting pretty at the catcher position. If McCann does get back to 100%, the Braves probably belong higher on this list.
Carlos Santana can hit, so it’s acceptable that he isn’t much of a defensive catcher. Lou Marson can’t hit so good, so it’s less acceptable that he isn’t much of a defensive catcher. Marson does have Santana beat in blocking and arm, but as we’ve written about here before, neither scores well in the pitch-framing metrics, which seems to have done the Indians’ pitching staffs a real disservice. Because of Santana’s bat, no one would consider the Indians’ catching position a team weakness. Santana still does a lot of things well, and he’s only nearly 27. But I can’t help but wonder how the Indians might look with a backstop more defensively able.
All right, so the projections don’t buy Jonathan Lucroy’s 2012 bat, and that’s fine. All right, so the projections don’t buy Martin Maldonado’s 2012 bat,and that’s fine, too. The projections are smarter than I am; the projections are free of bias. But despite those modest projections, the Brewers still project for nearly 4 WAR from their catchers, and these are two catchers who have scored well in the framing sheets. Lucroy in particular has been outstanding from Day One, and for that I think they deserve a boost. What you see is the Brewers slotting in at #11. Personally, I’d probably bump them into the top 10. But I’m a big fan of framing research, and maybe I’m the one who’s wrong.
Like McCann and Lucroy, the framing numbers love Ryan Hanigan. He blocks pitches, too, and he throws runners out. He makes contact 10 out of every 11 times that he swings, and he seldom goes fishing. Hanigan’s walked in 12% of his plate appearances. What Hanigan doesn’t have is power, which keeps him from being truly outstanding. Behind him we find the confusing Devin Mesoraco, who’s been putrid in his limited big-league career. His minor-league numbers are far more encouraging, and he’s only 24. That’s what the projection is seeing. If Mesoraco hits, the Reds should have a legitimate two-headed threat. If not, well, the starter’s pretty tremendous, so they’ve got that going for them. Hanigan is far from being a problem.
Wow, Yasmani Grandal put up a 144 wRC+ while playing half the time in Petco! Wow, Yasmani Grandal got busted for PEDs! Grandal is facing a lengthy suspension, and as another consequence, we don’t know what to do with his numbers. What the suspension does is give Nick Hundley an opportunity, because while Hundley was dreadful in 2012, he played most of that time through a knee injury that eventually brought him down. There’s reason to believe Hundley could put himself back on the map, and two years ago he was an offensive threat. He’s not a great defender. If Hundley hits and Grandal doesn’t crater upon his return, this position could be an actual strength. But we can’t assume a Hundley bounceback, and Grandal will have to prove himself all over again. Maybe it isn’t fair, but neither is cheating.
A year ago, these rankings had the Dodgers last. Then A.J. Ellis went and got on base more than 37% of the time, and he slugged .414, instead of the projected .317. So that’s kind of how the Dodgers moved so far up in the list. Ellis, probably, won’t hit quite so well again, and Tim Federowicz can’t yet be counted on as a strong reserve. What the Dodgers don’t have is one of the league’s best catching situations. But what the Dodgers also don’t have is one of the league’s worst catching situations. Whoops.
The Mariners traded John Jaso because they don’t think he’s a regular player, and because they don’t like his work behind the plate. The A’s are going to try him as a regular player, and while he isn’t a defensive wizard, he’s fresh off a near-.400 OBP. Jaso has one of baseball’s better plate approaches, and there’s also the chance he holds on to some of his 2012 power gains. If Jaso hits like that again, the A’s won’t care if he drops every fifth pitch. Well, no, that’s not true, they would care, but they’d console themselves by looking at his batting line. Norris is looking at a platoon job, and he ought to hit better than he just did. This has the makings of a very classically Oakland job share.
Chris Iannetta is a perfectly serviceable bat and a perfectly serviceable defender. If there’s something exciting about him, please inform me in the comments below this post. Hank Conger has a better minor-league track record than major-league track record, but then Conger has done a lot of his damage with triple-A Salt Lake, which should be taken with several grains of…yeah. If Conger were to develop, he’d be a perfectly serviceable bat and a perfectly serviceable defender. John Hester is a player in the Angels organization. The Angels’ roster has a lot of sex appeal. This isn’t where you’re going to find it. The hope is that these guys do enough to not be a problem.
The idea, I believe, is that Kurt Suzuki will open the season as the starter, but as Wilson Ramos works his way back from injury, he’ll play more and more often. So, come the end of the summer, the responsibilities could be flipped, which could be good news for Washington given Ramos’ certain upside. Ramos is the more exciting of the two catchers, and Suzuki’s strikeouts are going in the wrong direction. Suzuki is perfectly safe, and we can’t take Ramos’ return for granted, but the sooner Ramos can get back to full strength, the better the Nationals’ situation looks.
For the Pirates, this is less about having Russell Martin, and more about having Russell Martin instead of Rod Barajas. Martin comes with very little performance upside, given his age and past workload, but he provides a stable presence and he’s considered to be a good handler of pitchers. He has the statistical track record of a good pitch-framer, which is something the Pirates have sorely lacked in recent seasons. McKenry’s still around as a half-decent backup, but with Martin, this position shouldn’t be an embarrassment. That’s a step up, even if the end result isn’t magnificent.
Just when it seemed like the Mariners were prepared to shift Jesus Montero away from catcher, they went the opposite direction, installing him as the 2013 regular backstop. He’s really only keeping the position warm for Mike Zunino, but Zunino still needs at least a few more months of seasoning, since his professional experience is limited. Montero, in 2012, lost some of his shine, as he didn’t hit like the masher he was billed as when a prospect. There are legitimate concerns with his approach, and he’s unlikely to ever post a high OBP, even if he starts hitting for more power. In the immediate, Montero looks like a potentially average bat with more weaknesses than strengths in the field. Kelly Shoppach is a power-hitting backup with some modest defensive ability. There’s no denying Montero’s offensive ceiling, but odds are he’s not about to approach it.
Maybe you think Travis d’Arnaud is going to play a lot more than this in the bigs in 2013. Maybe you’re right; there’s not much standing in his way. But if you swap his playing time with Anthony Recker’s, nothing changes in terms of projected WAR. Here, we have Recker getting three times the plate appearances and accumulating three times the WAR. The starter out of the gate will be John Buck, and John Buck is John Buck, exactly as you know him. He’ll post a low OBP and he’ll hit some dingers. Recker is just a guy, and d’Arnaud is clearly the future. The future should and will arrive this season, barring further injury, so while the Mets deserve this low ranking at least they can see the upside coming. That the Mets don’t look good at catcher in 2013 doesn’t mean the Mets won’t look good at catcher in 2014.
#21 Blue Jays
J.P. Arencibia has plenty of power, and he still has youth on his side, but he owns the same career OBP as Miguel Olivo. He strikes out too often for someone who doesn’t walk, and there’s no reason to believe that’s about to change. He’s not exceptional elsewhere in his game, so basically, Arencibia is fine when he’s collecting extra-base hits, and when he isn’t, he’s an exploitable liability. Henry Blanco is 41 years old. While the Blue Jays would love it if Arencibia took a step forward, as with the Angels, the real hope is for the catchers to just not be a weakness.
Last year, A.J. Pierzynski slugged .501, and he’s probably going to regress away from that. A few years ago, Geovany Soto slugged .497, and he’s probably going to regress toward that. Pierzynski isn’t the hitter he just was, but Soto probably isn’t the hitter he just was, allowing for some averaging out. Though it was too bad for Pierzynski to have to leave the hitter-friendly confines of Chicago, Texas ought to treat him well. Depending on how much Soto bounces back at the plate, the Rangers might never have to start a liability. But there is the chance that Soto’s just done being all right.
You don’t find many pitch-blockers worse than Wilin Rosario. You don’t find many walk rates worse than Wilin Rosario’s. If you wanted, you could make a strong statistical case against Rosario having much of a big-league career. But the guy just slugged 28 dingers in 117 games as a 23-year-old rookie, and of note is that he drew eight walks in the first half and 17 walks in the second half. Rosario was at his best down the stretch, and there’s the hope that he made some adjustments and refined his approach. He’s a volatile sort, of course, because of his swinging ways. Hernandez is an acceptable backup who isn’t otherwise remarkable. The error bars around the Rockies’ catcher position are considerable. But Rosario can’t be dismissed, and there’s a fair chance he comes out and slugs .500 again. Slug .500 and you make up for a lot of shortcomings.
#24 Red Sox
At this point, it seems like we have a pretty good understanding of what Jarrod Saltalamacchia is as a catcher. We also have a pretty good understanding of what David Ross is as a catcher, and Ross is perhaps the league’s best backup, with terrific power and exceptional framing skills. These are two catchers who are going to strike out, and that’s going to be the source of some consistent frustration. But they could combine for 30 home runs, and Ross could really help the pitching staff generate a few extra outs. Ryan Lavarnway could develop, but with the guys ahead of him on the depth chart, the Red Sox don’t need him to rush.
#25 White Sox
There’s not much to say about Hector Gimenez or Josh Phegley. Certainly not that you’d find worth reading. Tyler Flowers is the player of intrigue, being not old and possessing a .484 minor-league slugging percentage. Flowers swings hard and misses a lot, and that’s not a characteristic that’s going to be ironed out over time. That’s going to stick with Flowers for as long as he plays. But his power is real and it should look even better in Chicago half the time. In limited big-league trials Flowers has posted a .183 ISO. He doesn’t seem to be a defensive liability. If Flowers can keep his strikeouts even somewhat in control, he should give the White Sox some stability at the position. He won’t be great and his backups will be worse, but the White Sox could get enough production to be satisfied.
This is not a high-upside position. Steve Clevenger has very limited upside, Dioner Navarro has even more limited upside, and though Welington Castillo is still a kid at 25, he’s been only adequate in the minors, and his approach in the majors suggests he won’t maintain a high OBP. That he’s slugged .488 in triple-A is of some significance, given the relative difficulty of hitting for power in Iowa, but the projections agree that Castillo is something like a league-average bat with perhaps roughly league-average defense. That doesn’t make him a problem, but that doesn’t make the position a strength.
Jason Castro, just a few years ago, was the tenth overall pick, and fewer years ago, he was Baseball America’s #41 overall prospect. He does have offensive potential, and he says his knee problems are behind him, but he’s limited by mediocre power and mediocre defense, and the guys behind him aren’t anything. Carlos Corporan is a journeyman in training, and Jason Jaramillo already is a journeyman, at 30 years old. The Astros might be better than this if Castro hits like he did in 2012, and it’s within the realm of possibility that Castro could even exceed that. But based on the projections, the Astros are here near the bottom, and you should get used to seeing that. This series is just beginning.
I know, I know. Among those of you who put stock in pitch-framing research, this ranking is criminal. That’s because Molina is probably the best framer in the league, and the Rays think he saves them tens of runs with his glovework. I agree that there’s something there, and I agree that the Rays don’t belong in 28th on this list, but for whatever it’s worth, Molina won’t catch that many innings, and he really isn’t a hitter. In early June, he’s going to turn 38. Jose Lobaton doesn’t make for an outstanding backup. Jose Molina is amazing at framing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Rays have a good catching situation; it just means they have a better catching situation than the other numbers might suggest. I’ll note that, of the three catchers who mainly caught Rays pitchers in 2012, Molina had the highest OPS against.
The team that couldn’t afford to re-sign the perfectly decent Russell Martin is left choosing between Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli. Austin Romine has already been sent to the minors. Stewart is 31 and he isn’t going to hit. Cervelli might hit a little, but he isn’t going to hit much. Stewart has going in his favor a positive defensive reputation, and the numbers like his framing. The smaller-sample numbers also like Cervelli’s framing, to a lesser extent, so this situation isn’t hopeless. First and foremost, the Yankees just want these guys to be good to the pitching staff. They should be able to manage that; they probably won’t be able to manage much else.
You’re forgiven if you confused Rob Brantly with Rob Bowen. Brantly went over from the Tigers in the Anibal Sanchez/Omar Infante trade, and he hit well in limited time. But those numbers are unsupported by Brantly’s minor-league track record, and of course, behind him, once he’s recovered from an injury, will be Jeff Mathis. Kyle Skipworth has been a prospect, but he’s been a prospect who doesn’t get on base. Brantly isn’t a hopeless case, and at 23 with an even swing, he could show up as a reasonably productive bat. He still qualifies as a prospect. But he’s a low-ceiling prospect, and the Marlins get no help at this position from their depth. Somebody has to finish last, and just because a situation isn’t hopeless doesn’t mean it isn’t the most hopeless.
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