If you have MLB.tv, you’re well aware that MLB has opened up voting for the 2008 All-Star Game, as the commercial every half inning reminds us constantly. And while the game itself doesn’t mean anything, regardless of Bud Selig’s protestations, being named to the team is still considered a pretty big honor among the players. In some cases, the choice is obvious – not voting for Albert Pujols is a felony in Missouri, for instance – but in others, the picture is a little more muddied. Nowhere is the water darker than behind the plate in the National League, however, and it’s not for the usual reasons.
A decade ago, the NL catcher position was Mike Piazza and a host of catch-and-throw guys who hit like catch-and-throw guys. The landscape has changed a bit, however, as the current crop of young backstops are showing that they have some punch at the plate as well as behind it. In no particular order:
In his third full year, McCann is showing that his ’06 season was no fluke and he’s significantly better than he showed last year, and at the age of 24, he appears to be blossoming into a full blown superstar. He’s hitting .333/.394/.603 while drawing as many walks as strikeouts (18 apiece). Contact and power together are the signs of greatness at the plate, and McCann is showing the ability to hit the ball frequently and with violence. He doesn’t even have to maintain this level of success to be one of the game’s truly great players, but if he does, you can start polishing his Cooperstown plaque now. He’s just 24 years old, by the way.
The leading candidate for National League rookie of the yaer, Soto is matching McCann at the plate, hitting .299/.401/.569 in his first year of regular work. However, his underlying skillset isn’t quite as good as McCann’s – he strikes out a lot (27.5%), which means he’s going to have to sustain his much higher than average batting average on balls in play to keep hitting for average. This isn’t to say he can’t, but slow footed catchers don’t usually show up on the league leaders in BABIP, so even though he’s spraying line drives all over the field, we should probably expect a little regression. Like McCann, though, he could fall a long way and still be a very good playerl, and at age 25, he appears to be at the start of a nice career as well.
Also 25 years old, Martin doesn’t have the power that either McCann or Soto possess, but he’s a great contact hitter with the ability to drive the ball into the gaps, and he’s clearly the best defensive catcher of the group mentioned so far. If you liked Jason Kendall in his prime, you’ll love Martin, and the Dodgers certainly do.
The late bloomer of this group, Doumit is already 27 and scouts don’t love his work behind the plate, but he can hit, and the new regime in Pittsburgh seems committed to maximizing his value as an offensive minded backstop. He’s not as good as the .350/.383/.573 line that he’s currently posting, and his extreme aggressive approach can lead to him getting himself out too often, but the power is legit. His drawbacks might limit him to being the new B.J. Surhoff, but that’s still a quality player, especially if the Pirates can figure out how to keep him behind the plate.
Snyder’s behind a quality part-time backstop in Arizona the last two years, and now, given the chance to play regularly, is showing that he can thrive as an every day player. His .277/.377/.492 isn’t as eye popping as the first few guys on the list, but they’re just setting the bar ridiculously high. Snyder’s proving that you can count on him for a .775-.800 OPS from behind the plate, and every team in baseball would have gladly taken that kind of production from their catching position if offered before the year started. Like Doumit, he’s 27 and unlikely to become a star, but he’s the kind of valuable role player that you find on championship clubs.
Assuming the NL only takes three catchers, you have to omit two of the guys above as well as Bengie Molina, who is on pace to have the best season of his career at the age of 34. Picking the catchers for the N.L. All-Star squad this year won’t be easy. I’d bet on McCann, Soto, and Martin, but you could make a case for Snyder, Doumit, and even Molina.
How fitting that in the year that Mike Piazza hangs up his spikes, the National League has multiple successors to his throne.
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