Without looking at the leader boards: who’s the best catcher in baseball? Criteria will vary from person to person, but generally it will involve a heavy weight on recent performance with some level of emphasis on long-term production. At this point, I’m willing to bet that the most common answer is Brian McCann. He stands far ahead of the pack this season with 19.1 wRAA, which bests No. 2 ranked Alex Avila by 7.3 runs. Still, there has to be some weight give to performances in the recent past. If we expand this leader board to include the past two calendar years, McCann does not stand atop. That honor belongs to another household name, Joe Mauer.
In all of the weighted categories, Mauer is McCann’s better. It starts with wRAA, where Mauer is 11.4 runs better, despite coming to the plate 105 fewer times. The gap only narrows by 0.7 runs when we factor for park. Even after we account for base running and fielding, both of which favor McCann, and then add in positional and replacement values (again pointing to McCann) Mauer comes out ahead, 10.0 WAR to 9.4. If we stick to just offense — preferable for catchers, due to the difficulty of quantifying all of their defensive responsibilities — only Victor Martinez comes with in 10 park-adjusted runs of Mauer. He truly has been the elite catcher in the past 730 days.
This is in some ways unsurprising. Mauer did win the MVP award in 2009, a season in which he not only topped all catchers in wRAA, but topped all other American League hitters. In this two-year sample, only the final two months of Mauer’s MVP run are included, though it was quite the exemplary sample. In those two months he came to the plate 265 times and produced 26.3 wRAA. McCann, while certainly excellent by any measure, hasn’t produced 26.3 wRAA in any one-year stretch from 2009 through 2011. This year, in 373 PA, McCann has produced 19.1 wRAA, and in the last calendar year he has produced 14 wRAA. Only in 2008 and 2006 did he top those two months from Mauer, but of course those are stats for the full season. It puts into perspective Mauer’s dominance in 2009.
What’s more impressive is that this sample also includes Mauer’s 2011 performance, which amounts to -0.2 wRAA. That’s not terrible for a catcher, but it certainly falls below expectations for Mauer. In other words, in about two-thirds the plate appearances of his final two months in 2009, he has gone from amazing production to average. From here we can turn to 2010, which was anecdotally a disappointing year for Mauer. Of course, that’s only because of the standard to which we held him after 2009. He still led all MLB catchers in wRAA by 4.4 runs, and led McCann by 6.1 runs.
The one manner in which McCann comes out ahead is if we weigh the performances over time. That is, if we put a greater emphasis on 2011 performance and incrementally diminish the weight as we get back to 2009, McCann probably comes out on top. His 19.1 wRAA tops all catchers by 7.3 runs, and he’s one of two full-time catchers, along with Alex Avila, to produce more than 10 wRAA. In the past calendar year he’s also topped the charts with 22.3 wRAA, which leads the next full-time catcher by 7.4 runs (both Victor Martinez and Mike Napoli are within three runs of him). It is possible, perhaps even probable, that at this time next year McCann comes out ahead of Mauer by nearly every measure.
After a 2009 season in which he dismantled the competition, and after which he signed a long-term contract, he’s been seen as something of a disappointment. His 2010 fell short of expectations based on 2009, but lost in that perception is the reality: he was the best catcher in baseball last year. His injury riddled and otherwise mediocre performance in 2009 puts a further damper on the perception of his value. But in the last 24 months, he’s been the best catcher in baseball. McCann may soon supplant him, and depending on how you weigh recent performance he very well might do so soon. But the recent performance also makes it easy to forget that this will be only the second year that McCann ever tops Mauer in wRAA. In my book, at least for the time being, that still leaves Mauer on top.
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