What do we have here? For an explanation of this series, please read this 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. The author writing this post did not move your team down ten spots in order to make you angry. We don’t hate your team. I promise.
Dave’s hit you with the introduction, so it’s time to begin this series in earnest. And we’ll begin, as we always do, with the catchers, even though catching might be baseball’s most mysterious position. For an idea of the spread of what you’re going to see — which is more important than the rankings themselves — here’s a graph with green in it:
You’ll notice there’s a big gap between first and second. It’s a gap of 1.2 WAR. That’s as big as the gap between fifth and 24th. Let there be no question: by our system, there’s a clear first place, looking down upon the rest of the landscape.
But of course, our system isn’t all-encompassing or perfect, and not just because the projections are arguable and the playing time is arguable too. There are just things about catching that aren’t included, one invisible one being game-calling, and one visible one being pitch-receiving or pitch-framing. You’ve seen the pitch-framing research, and you’ve seen some of the numbers it suggests. Including those numbers would shake up these rankings. The market doesn’t seem to believe too heavily in the numbers, and conversations I’ve had suggest people in the game think the numbers are too extreme, but there’s little question there’s some kind of skill there, and so catchers should receive at least partial credit. I’ll take care to talk about pitch-framing below, for catchers where it makes sense. You can mentally shuffle that information into the rankings. Now it’s probably beyond time to proceed, from the top.
A year ago, the Giants ranked first, by almost a full win. This time around, they rank first, by more than a full win. There’s talk about how Buster Posey could end up a first baseman down the road, and last year he made 16 starts at that position, but for the time being he remains a backstop and an absolutely incredible one. The pessimist would say that Posey’s wRC+ just dropped 30 points. The optimist would say that Posey’s wRC+ was 33 points higher than average, and no one could’ve reasonably expected Posey to repeat what he did in 2012. All he was was an excellent hitter who’s more than capable of handling the load behind the plate, and that ought to remain the case for the coming season. Posey’s a gem, and he’s a major reason why the Giants should play like contenders.
Hector Sanchez, last year, swung at 40% of pitches outside of the strike zone. That’s the same as what he did the year before. But he did drop his swing rate at strikes by five percentage points. So, that’s Hector Sanchez for you.
When the Indians picked up Yan Gomes along with Mike Aviles for Esmil Rogers, they probably figured, “hey, we’re getting a neat guy.” They probably didn’t figure, “hey, we’re getting maybe a franchise catcher.” Gomes is 26, and in his first full season, he hit for power and average while displaying solidly above-average defensive skills. He gave the Indians their first quality pitch-framer in a number of years, and while Gomes probably isn’t going to sustain the numbers he just put up, he doesn’t have to do that to look plenty good. He’s already been good enough, in fact, to displace Carlos Santana. If Gomes is a league-average hitter, he’s a good regular. If he’s an above-average hitter, he’s a great regular. Santana will still catch some, so Indians pitchers will still have to deal with some Carlos Santana, but Gomes has to be a breath of fresh air. Good going, Brazil. Good going, Cleveland. Worse going, Toronto.
Yadier Molina does everything. He can even run a little bit, at least for a catcher. He hits for average. He gets on base. He hits for power. He blocks pitches in the dirt. He calls a good game. He has a terrifying, intimidating arm. He frames. He ages slowly, given that he’s still just 31. He leads. Molina is a dream of a regular catcher, and I expect him to exceed this playing time, as he hasn’t batted fewer than 518 times since 2008, when he reached 485. Because they’re a baseball team, the Cardinals have always carried a backup catcher. Because they’ve had Yadier Molina, they almost haven’t had to. Every few months, I’ll look over the Cardinals’ roster, and I’ll see Tony Cruz’s name, and I’ll think to myself, “what is that guy’s deal?” I’m probably never going to find out. Molina’s too durable, and Molina’s too good.
Perez has had his wRC+ drop two years in a row, but just because he hasn’t broken out and just because he’s easy to forget doesn’t mean he isn’t a hell of a player. He’s still just 23 years old, last year he played almost every day, and he blends a contact-heavy batting-average approach with standout defensive skills and improving pitch-receiving. As a rookie, Perez was 1.6 strikes below average per game, according to Matthew Carruth’s framing numbers. As a sophomore, he moved to -1.4. Last year, he jumped up to -0.3. Though he won’t walk, he also won’t strike out, and along the way he’ll hit for some power and help out the pitching staff. Perez is signed through 2019, and the Royals probably couldn’t be more thrilled. Brett Hayes isn’t much of anything, but he’d only have to be in the event of a disaster.
The Yankees are coming off a season in which their catchers gave them excellent defense and excellent pitch-framing. The front office subsequently dipped into the free-agent market, and now their catchers stand to provide excellent defense, excellent pitch-framing, and really good hitting, too, in stark contrast to the 2013 out-apalooza. If you don’t believe much in framing, McCann looks like a good sign, as he’s a productive regular catcher with a few more years to spend behind the plate. If you do believe in framing, McCann could be a superstar bargain. As bridges to future youth go, McCann is second to few.
Compared to last year, Wieters’ projected OBP is down 16 points, and his projected SLG is down ten points, so his projected wOBA is down ten points. Not a whole lot changed about him, but he hit into more outs and put more balls in the air, and I think it’s safe to say Wieters isn’t blossoming into the superstar he was projected to become as a high-minors prospect. But if you’re feeling pessimistic, I’ll remind you of two things: one, he’s still one of the best catchers in baseball, and two, he’s still just 27 years old, and catchers tend to have their development proceed more slowly. Wieters is still a part of the Orioles’ core, and he’s still a guy who’s going to help determine whether or not the 2014 Orioles are gunning for the postseason. His future’s up in the air, but the same could be said for all of us.
Wilson Ramos’ initials are WAR. If he can ever stay healthy, he could be worth a lot of it. His defensive skills seem to be perfectly fine, he’s only 26, and he owns a career 109 wRC+ while last year he trimmed his strikeout rate while boosting his power. Staying on the field is the key for Ramos, and as long as he’s able to do that, the Nationals might well have a top-five backstop. Because of Ramos’ health concerns, the Nationals made it an offseason priority to land themselves a reliable reserve. Lobaton fits, as a guy who was squeezed out of Tampa Bay, and while Washington would obviously like for Ramos to play as much as he possibly can, Lobaton’s an all-right option if he’s forced to play a couple weeks in a row. He’s coming off a quietly good 311 plate appearances.
While the future might be Max Stassi, the present’s still Jason Castro, and Castro is one of the rare Astros players who could still be a starter on most of the other teams in major-league baseball. It’s been a delight to watch his progress. As a rookie, he fought his way to a 56 wRC+. The next time around, he pulled himself up to a strong 100. Last season, he finished at 130, with power and walks to offset the strikeouts. For good measure, Castro improved his blocking, and worked on his receiving. Castro’s turned himself into a well-rounded player, and even if his future might be with another organization, he’ll give the Astros value in 2014 and he’d bring the Astros value after that, if Stassi pushes his way through. Which, you know, he’s capable of, because the Astros are becoming increasingly loaded with quality youth.
according to 1 gm, their team ranks brewers jonathan lucroy as 1 of top 2 catchers, along with yadier molina.
Framing. This is where we have to talk about framing. The numbers make Lucroy look outstanding. Maldonado, too, suggesting that the Brewers are doing something to teach this. As is, the Brewers’ catchers are at the bottom of the top 10. Include framing numbers and they jump all the way to the front, or at least close to it. If the framing ranges are true, then Jonathan Lucroy is baseball’s quietest superstar. If they’re exaggerated, Lucroy’s still better than he looks above, unless you believe it’s 100% completely made up.
And you know the funny thing? Lucroy can hit, too. He’s chopped his strikeouts, he’s boosted his power, and he’s turned himself into a legitimate threat. Without framing, Lucroy is underrated. With framing, Lucroy is one of the most valuable players in baseball. What percentage of baseball fans even know his name? Maybe you’re sick of people like me beating this drum, but Jonathan Lucroy deserves to have his drum beaten. I don’t think that came out right.
Really, Ellis’ 23-point drop in wRC+ was a 60-point drop in BABIP. That’s the main component, and though there were other changes, BABIP could be blamed for the bulk of it. This ought to be an easily projectable player. You know he’s not going to run much. He’ll walk, he’ll strike out some, and he’ll hit for very modest power. Despite being a Dodger, Ellis is the opposite of flashy, but he’s reliable and he might be developing his throwing arm. Last season he nabbed 28 of 63 runners, although it’s possible this had more to do with the pitching staff.
I’ll throw out some framing numbers again, for A.J. Ellis:
2010: -2.0 strikes/game
It stands to reason that pitch-framing could be coachable. It stands to reason that Ellis could be getting better in that department. It stands to reason the Dodgers are pretty happy with their catching situation, all things considered.
Setting a minimum of 1,000 called pitches caught, last year’s best framer, according to Matthew Carruth, was Rene Rivera. In second was Yasmani Grandal. The season before, Grandal finished sixth, and I’ve had it relayed to me that the Padres do believe in this stuff, maybe because they have to but maybe also because they’re smart baseball men who are trying to take advantage of what remains an over-cautious market.
So Grandal’s a surprisingly capable receiver. The question, oddly, is his bat, which last year dropped 44 points to a 100 wRC+. People continue to wonder about his power on the other side of a PED suspension, but our system sees him as a threat. There’s little doubt about the walks and the strikeouts, and the power potential is still in there. Should Grandal end up slumping or hurt, there are worse backups around than Nick Hundley, who had a big bounceback 2013. Though he wasn’t extraordinary, he was clearly happy to have put his injury problems behind him.
Behold, the position that in large part helped the Pirates finally return to the playoffs. Behold, the catcher that the Yankees probably missed every single day. Martin’s still hitting, even if he’s come down from what he was in 2007, and he was tremendously valuable behind the plate, blocking pitches and gunning down a whole lot of baserunners. And, yeah, Martin’s a quality pitch-receiver, which is something the Pirates hadn’t had in way too many years. Martin is the rare free-agent acquisition who looks like a bargain, and behind him, Stewart can at least approximate some of his skills. Tony Sanchez is of interest, and he makes for good depth, but Martin is one of those guys who makes the Pirates tick. So, he’s one of those guys the Pirates would prefer not to have to play without for too long a stretch.
Gattis makes for a fascinating story and an intriguing power bat. Somewhat surprisingly, he seems to be a quality receiver, too. What he’s got are some other question marks, but one should hope those question marks don’t lead the Braves to play too much of someone else, because the alternatives to Gattis are lousy. Laird doesn’t really do anything well, and though Doumit can hit some, he gives everything back as a defender in a helmet. It’s going to be a big adjustment for the Braves to enter the post-McCann era, and it’s going to sting some, but Gattis has it in him to make the adjustment tolerable. Even exciting, once every handful of at-bats. After how bad the spring has gone so far, the Braves could use some Evan Gattis optimism.
When did the decline begin? On the one hand, Miguel Montero’s wRC+ peaked in 2012 before plummeting in 2013. On the other hand, he was coming off a career-high BABIP and a career-low ISO, and then last season the BABIP regressed while the ISO dropped further. The result was that Montero was worth hardly anything, and even a better second half didn’t make the picture all the more rosy. Montero, now, is projected to bounce back. Our numbers put him solidly in between his last two seasons. But the downside potential exists, and I’m not sure about relief in the persons of Henry Blanco or Tuffy Gosewisch. By the way, Montero’s receiving numbers have also declined. This reads like an awful negative paragraph.
Between 2011 and 2012, Alex Avila lost a lot of power. Between 2012 and 2013, Avila lost a lot of OBP. This guy’s still just 27 years old, but it’s been quite the fall from his breakthrough year, which in some sense is reason for optimism. In that, it’s not too late for him to get back. Encouragingly, his numbers against right-handed pitchers stayed about the same, and he had a bigger second half after a miserable first half. So if you look closer, Avila is actually trending somewhat positively. He’s going to carry the load again, because he doesn’t have a lot of quality behind him, and it seems reasonable to me to project the Tigers in the middle of the pack. But if Avila’s strikeouts keep going up, that wRC+ will keep going down, and the Tigers can lose only so much value before they drop closer to their divisional rivals. They remain in a strong, dominant position, but throw enough rocks and you’ll bring down a lion.
Just to point something out: the A’s, here, rank 16th, while the Dodgers ranked 10th. But the Dodgers rank 10th with 3.2 WAR, while the A’s rank 16th with 3.1 WAR, so this is the part of the post where you shouldn’t care about the rankings too much. Many of these teams project more or less the same. The A’s continue to insist that John Jaso isn’t finished catching, despite his concussion trouble. What that means is that Jaso should get some playing time here. But he’ll also give some to Jaso-equivalent Stephen Vogt, and together they’ll probably platoon with Derek Norris, who’s young and good and fairly promising. Norris, also, has a little defensive skill, so he could be a quality regular down the road. For the time being, the A’s will leverage their all-around roster depth. As with many of their positions, this is neither a strength nor a weakness.
Now we’re making our way toward the lower tier, and in Welington Castillo, we have a catcher who’s posted a .346 BABIP with three times as many strikeouts as walks. Also, he doesn’t hit for big power, and also, he doesn’t seem to receive particularly well. But Castillo’s young and you can’t ignore a 103 wRC+, and last season he did manage to reduce his strikeouts a little bit. In the event Castillo has to miss some time, the Cubs can turn to a guy who can also hit a little without really contributing a lot as a defender. That’s not fair to Castillo, who can block and throw, but I’m biased toward pitch-framing numbers and if you didn’t already know that you haven’t been paying attention. You want me to sum this up? Castillo’s fine. Could be better, but, could be worse. Not the biggest problem the Cubs are going to have. Not going to represent the organization in the All-Star Game.
#18 Blue Jays
Look, I could write words, and if you’re reading these words, you would’ve read those words. I could tell you all about Dioner Navarro’s upside. I could tell you some things about Erik Kratz’s apparent defensive ability. I could tell you how Navarro’s deal could look like a real bargain, even though the Jays themselves claimed they paid more than they would’ve liked. But this section absolutely isn’t about Dioner Navarro and Erik Kratz. It’s about how the Blue Jays don’t have J.P. Arencibia anymore. Last season J.P. Arencibia posted a .227 OBP. Things are going to be better. Things are going to be better, you guys.
You just have to believe. You don’t even have to believe. They just will be.
While d’Arnaud is a question mark, it’s interesting that the projection systems are in agreement. Steamer projects a 99 wRC+. ZiPS projects a 97 wRC+. Oliver projects a 99 wRC+. The Fans project a 117 wRC+, but that’s about the same after you make the usual Fan adjustment. Everyone agrees that d’Arnaud will continue to walk, and everyone agrees that d’Arnaud will start to show some more of the power he’s only so far shown in hitter-friendly environments. It isn’t known whether d’Arnaud will end up all right or legitimately good, but this is a position of promise for an organization that needs more of them. In the short term, d’Arnaud will blend discipline with defensive skills. If he hits for this much power, the Mets will be happy. If he hits beyond this, the Mets will be thrilled.
Ruiz was absolutely outstanding in 2012. Then he served a suspension and, while his walks and strikeouts stayed the same, he gave away more than half his ISO along with a good chunk of his BABIP. Now Ruiz is just an aging catcher coming off the worst season he’s had since 2008, so this is a situation where you can see both the bounceback upside and the potential for the Phillies to have a nightmare on their hands. Not long ago, Ruiz was a quality regular. Sometimes, however, when catchers go, they just go. I guess it could be worse. All the projected teams below the Phillies project worse, after all. Here’s one of them!
The thing that makes me chuckle is that I’m writing about Wilin Rosario in a post about catchers. Rosario is as raw as it gets, defensively, and in a way, he’s about as raw as it gets offensively, too. A list of the things he doesn’t do: walk, block, frame, make contact, throw with consistent accuracy. A list of the things he does do: hit for power, hit for some average. Rosario is dangerous at the plate, some of the time, and he’s still young enough to become a real terror, but the likelihood is that if that happens, it’ll happen for him at another defensive position. He’s made some improvements as a catcher, but it seems to me he still has too far to go.
This is a fairly unremarkable duo. The great separation: last season, as a receiver, Iannetta was about 1.1 strikes below average per game. Conger, meanwhile, was about 2.1 strikes above average per game, standing out as one of baseball’s premier pitch-framers. Whether or not Mike Scioscia’s aware of that, I can’t say, but the potential is there for Conger to have a lot more value and help to push the Angels toward the playoff race. Iannetta probably has more of the offensive upside, but neither guy is a slugger and neither guy is a star. John Hester is here, too. Say hi.
Do I even need to tell you? The primary reason the Rays have both these guys isn’t included in the projection systems. So, as a result, the Rays seem underrated by the projection systems. It’s no secret that Jose Molina can’t really hit. Ryan Hanigan’s best days might be behind him. He certainly can’t hit for much power. But Molina’s here to catch borderline strikes, and the same goes for Hanigan, and if you believe strongly in those skills, the Rays ought to show up sooner in the list. A lot of teams are skeptical. The Rays aren’t skeptical. You choose who to trust, I can’t make up your mind.
It doesn’t get less exciting than Kurt Suzuki. From our standpoint, I mean. Pitchers love him, he’s a great guy, calls a good game, but he does nothing for me as a player and I’m guessing he does nothing for you. A fun thing I heard over the weekend: Suzuki is able enough as a receiver, but he’s hurt by his short arms, causing him to stab for pitches he shouldn’t have to stab or reach for. Consider him one of those guys who might be more valuable in real life than he seems to be on his FanGraphs page. Josmil Pinto is the real intrigue here, after hitting his way up the organizational ladder in 2013. The more he plays, the more interesting the Twins will be to non-Twins fans, and also to Twins fans. I should’ve led with “Twins fans”.
#25 Red Sox
No one’s going to tell you the Red Sox found their solution in A.J. Pierzynski. But the Red Sox aren’t paying him to be the solution, and you’ll notice the guy they lost to free agency hasn’t shown up on the list yet. Pierzynski is perfectly fine, and a better fit for the clubhouse than he seems to be based on his Internet reputation. Behind Pierzynski, the Red Sox have maybe the best backup catcher in baseball, and if Ross had more stamina he’d have a lot more career plate appearances. This is all about buying time until the younger guys are ready, and Pierzynski makes sense as a one-year stopgap. He’s far from spectacular, but he’s reliably adequate, and the Sox are strong in other places. Expect Pierzynski to get a lot of the credit if the Sox succeed, and expect him to get a lot of the blame if they fall flat. For personality reasons, I mean.
At some point, bat-first catchers have to swing good bats, and Devin Mesoraco hasn’t done that yet. But the projections foresee improvement, with Steamer pegging a 92 wRC+ and ZiPS going as high as 99. For as much as Mesoraco’s career numbers so far are depressed, we’re talking about just 589 plate appearances over parts of three seasons, and the guy turns 26 in the middle of June. There is significant offensive upside, and Mesoraco’s defensive game seems to be tolerable. Consider the Reds lower-tier, with an asterisk. Do I have to write about Brayan Pena and Corky Miller? I was never told that I was, specifically, so I’m going to talk about the Mariners now. Oh, great.
The Mariners drew some criticism for promoting Mike Zunino awful aggressively. Mostly because that’s exactly what they did, but in their partial defense, they had an injury situation that all but forced their hand. Zunino didn’t do anything as a hitter in the bigs, and previous to his promotion he was in a slump in Triple-A, but there’s reason to believe for a better 2014. Zunino has fairly good power, and he’s one of those guys who’s revamped his swing, currently getting reps with it in camp. He’s now playing with experience, and his discipline isn’t a particular weakness. Elsewhere, Zunino features pretty good defensive skills. The elements are there for Zunino to be the long-term guy, like what the organization sells him as. Odds are, though, he won’t get really settled in until after 2014 is finished.
Well, I found J.P. Arencibia. And look, he’s projected for a big OBP improvement! I’ll say this for Arencibia: he seems to have made some dramatic steps forward with regard to framing. And Geovany Soto isn’t bad, either. Arencibia, in the past, has hit for just enough power to make himself something better than a disaster. Soto is coming off a strong offensive year as a backup, in which he hit for the power he had in 2010. It would be silly to suggest there’s no upside here. The Rangers like the way Soto catches and he could hit well enough to earn more than half the playing time. But the key is less about achieving upside, and more about avoiding downside. The Rangers just want for this to not be a problem. Anything more than that would be gravy.
The thing about Jarrod Saltalamacchia isn’t that he isn’t worth the contract he signed with the Marlins. He is worth the contract. The contract is fine. The thing about Jarrod Saltalamacchia is that he just isn’t that great. He was a two-win player a few years ago, he was a two-win player two years ago, and he was almost a four-win player last season in large part because of a .372 BABIP. Send that back down and Saltalamacchia goes back down, and we’re beyond the point at which we can still hope for him to stop striking out like a crazy person. What Saltalamacchia will do is give the Marlins a pinch of veteran adequacy. He probably won’t do much beyond that. At least he’s way better than Jeff Mathis. Just because he’s not great doesn’t mean he’s not a great improvement over the alternative.
#30 White Sox
Over the career equivalent of a full season, Tyler Flowers owns a 75 wRC+ with a strikeout for every three plate appearances. The strikeouts weren’t much better in Triple-A. Meanwhile, Josh Phegley, to his name, has 41 strikeouts, five walks, and four dingers. He showed some offensive promise in Triple-A but no one who watched him down the stretch last season can believe it. He chased way too often and made a habit of popping the ball in the air. Given the minor-league slash lines, the potential is there for the White Sox to actually have a pretty good catching situation. That would represent their 2014 ceiling, and the only point that would really make is that everybody in the majors is good and everybody in the majors has upside and downside. The projections have spoken: the White Sox aren’t in a good catching situation in 2014. Thankfully, for the White Sox, it isn’t about 2014. Maybe these guys will hit this year or maybe they won’t. At least then the White Sox will have their answers for when they think more about the future. It’s…it’s going to take time, for the White Sox.
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