The Future of Catchers

A few weeks ago, I took a look at how the profile of corner outfielders has changed over the past decade, and it led to a little discussion between Wendy Thurm and I. She shared some research she had done on catchers, and she wondered whether or not catchers were changing as well. Catchers such as Buster Posey, Brian McCann, Matt Wieters, Carlos Santana, Miguel Montero, and even Yadier Molina of late have been producing offensively, eschewing the traditional idea of a catcher as an offensive pipsqueak. But are these players exceptions or the beginning of a new rule?

The first thing we’ll do is take a look at MLB catchers’ overall performance using wOBA and wRC+.

Both graphs show that catchers (blue) have been closing ground on the rest of the league (red) over the past five years. Catchers seemed to closely mirror the rest of the league for a while, but that seemed to have changed in 2008. In order to figure out how this is working, let’s look at the components.

First up is walk rate and OBP. Looking first at BB%, catchers have actually passed their league counterparts when it comes to drawing free passes. They began closing the gap in 2007, but while the league peaked in 2009 and began declining, catchers continued gaining ground, matched the rest of the league in 2010, and even started pulling away. Moving over to OBP, the gap began closing in 2008, and catchers narrowed the advantage of the rest of the league in 2012. Are catchers just drawing more walks, or is there more to the story?

There is more to the story. The graph above shows that catchers have been hitting with more power as well. Again beginning in 2008, the gap begins to close, and as of the last two seasons, there is a .002-.003 gap in power production. We’ve often thought of catchers as defense-first players, but they seem to be getting their groove back. This does make one wonder, however, if teams are sacrificing something to get this added offense.

My first inclination was that teams might be sacrificing defense. Measuring catcher defense has come a long way in the last few years, but we can’t really go back very far to see if things have shifted in the past decade. But I’ll present a few statistics as an option.

A successful stolen base isn’t completely the catcher’s fault, but it is interesting that the CS% has gone from around 32% in 2003 to 26% in 2012. Base runners could be getting better. Pitchers could be worse at holding runners. Catchers could be worse defensively. Or it could be a combination of all three. I also included passed balls and passed balls plus wild pitches to see if there was an increase there, but the increase per team wouldn’t be more than 3 or 4 more over the past 10 years. So catching defense could be getting a little worse, but I don’t know if we can definitely conclude it’s worse.

But the real question is where things are headed. If teams are really willing to sacrifice some defense for a little more offense, we might see a change in how they treat prospects.

Player Team Offensive Chops?
Mike Zunino SEA Yes
Travis d’Arnaud NYM Yes
Gary Sanchez NYY Yes
Austin Hedges SD Kinda
Stryker Trahan ARZ Yes
Jorge Alfaro TEX Yes
Clint Coulter MIL Yes
Blake Swihart BOS Yes
Wyatt Mathisen PIT Yes
Tommy Joseph PHI Kinda
Cameron Gallagher KC Kinda
Rob Brantly MIA Kinda
Christian Bethancourt ATL No
Will Swanner COL Yes
JT Realmuto MIA Kinda
John Hicks SEA Kinda
Carlos Perez HOU Yes
Andrew Susac SF Kinda

The above chart includes a few of the top catching prospects in the game along with a rough estimation of their offensive talent. How they are ordered isn’t important, but the top half of those prospects have a certain offensive glow to them. Here’s where the situation gets tricky. Zunino, d’Arnaud, and Sanchez are basically guaranteed a chance behind the plate at the major-league level, but prospects such as Stryker Trahan, Clint Coulter, Blake Swihart, Wyatt Mathisen, and Will Swanner are offense-heavy prospects that may find themselves moved before they reach the top level in the game. If they stay at catcher while continuing to have defensive deficiencies, it may be an indication that teams think the possible difference in offense is more than the difference in defense, which would continue the trend we have begun seeing.

We’ve certainly seen more offensively-gifted catchers recently. It didn’t fully dawn on me until I started game planning for fantasy drafts and noticed there were appetizing options to be had that didn’t have the initials BP. The question is whether this is a result of coincidence or design, talent fluctuation or decision-making. We are too close to the time period to know conclusively, but the next wave of prospects will shed more light on how teams value catcher defense. Wilin Rosario and Jesus Montero may be some early returns.



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semperty
Member
semperty
3 years 4 months ago

I have to say if this is a trend and not a coincidence it’s a little disheartening. I love defensive minded catchers. Guys like Yadi and Miguel Montero are awesome, but I’d much rather my catcher be able to catch better than anyone rather than hit.

CircleChange11
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CircleChange11
3 years 4 months ago

Look at what you just said and consider some of it was directed at Yadier Molina …. quite possibly the best defensive catcher of the last 10 years.

semperty
Member
semperty
3 years 4 months ago

Definitely well aware of how offensively inept Yadi was 4+ years ago, I was just saying now. Even before his offensive out break Yadi was my favorite (former defensive minds catcher than grew up as Yadi grew into the Majors). His type of catcher is by far my favorite. Offense or no offense, top notch defense must be there.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
3 years 4 months ago

I grew up watching baseball in the 80s and 90s. “When I was a kid”, catchers were generally power hitters and thumpers.

Then along came Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines, and ESPECIALLY Vince Coleman and teams needed defensive catchers (and slide moves by pitchers) to cut down on the running game (also on turf).

It’s also possible that right now there are some freaks at the catcher position and the trend may be to keep them their rather them getting the Biggio-Zeile treatment and being moved off the position.

In more recent history, catchers that could hit, spare Piazza, were moved away from catcher to “save their legs/knees” and things of that nature.

It may also be possible that teams realize that a catcher that can hit may be the most value on an offense aside from a SS that can hit, and are keeping guys at the position, strongly scouting hitting catchers, etc.

DJG
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DJG
3 years 4 months ago

Yeah, I’m wondering if teams are more willing to let good players who come up as catchers play catcher for a longer period now. It seems likely that guys like Posey, Mauer, Santana, etc. will eventually be moved permanently to a different position (probably 1B or DH), but they’re going to get in at least 5 good years before they do so. In the past did more up-and-coming catching sluggers just get moved earlier?

MustBunique
Member
Member
3 years 4 months ago

Bryce Harper sure got forced out of catching in a hurry.

jgordon
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jgordon
3 years 4 months ago

Wil Myers, too.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
3 years 4 months ago

Was Bryce Harper ever viewed to be a major league catcher? Or was he just viewed as a major league batter that happened to play catcher? I ask genuinely because I haven’t read it conclusively that teams loved him at catcher, but were just awed by his physical ability and hitting skill. I’ve read about his 96mph heat to 2nd base (not sure Ibelieve it), but haven;t heard much about hsi times to 2nd or framing/blocking ability and associated aspects that would lead me to believe that teams were looking for him to be a MLB catcher.

Same thing with Wil Myers. Has anyone heard great things said about his catching ability? I ask because I’ve only pretty much heard of him as being a good hitter and adequate fielder.

When we talk of people being moved away from catching, we’re talking about “good catchers” like Biggio, Zeile, etc not necessarily all guys that are changed from the position. If we did that there’d be tons of guys in the discussion for being moved off catcher or moved away from SS, due to not being able to handle the position well at the higher levels. Being moved to proloing your career is one thing, being moved because you’re not good at the defensive aspect of your position is another.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
3 years 4 months ago

Or guys in college or HS that have some batting talent but lack professional range at SS are moved off of SS to positions like C that require a similar skill set.

HAL9100
Member
HAL9100
3 years 4 months ago

This hearkens back to the days I spent excited by up and coming catching prospect with a big bat, Carlos Delgado.

nj
Guest
nj
3 years 4 months ago

Actually it might be a question if teams would be willing to risk a high ceiling offensive player at catcher, seeing that they are losing 25% productivity per year and maybe more than that in total career years.

Agrijus
Member
Agrijus
3 years 4 months ago

I’m guessing we will see a trend of great catchers getting long breaks at first during the season, much like Buster Posey last year. This may only apply to contending teams, however — why grind a guy down if you’re not going anywhere? The most important thing is to be able to play your best backstop everyday in the highest leverage games, pennant or post-season.

Cidron
Member
Cidron
3 years 4 months ago

Here is an idea why the caught stealing numbers declined post 2003. PED usage came under scrutiny, and the game had to start to adapt. Gone were the lineups of 9 20+ homer hitters. Teams had to manufacture runs, ie, incorporate the running game more. Instead of just one maybe two reasonable quality base stealers on a team, alot had that one or two, but had three or four more capable base stealers. Sure, one may think that the rate of caught would stay semi-same. But then again, it may not. Either way, it is food for thought.

Dimaggio
Guest
Dimaggio
3 years 4 months ago

Yeah, I think it’s a combination of a couple things. First is the decline of the green light as sabermetric knowledge really sunk in with the Theo Red Sox and similar minded not give up an out teams. Otis Nixon and Brett Butler types lost their green lights. See Johnny Damon During his Red Sox years. After teams started stealing less teams started caring less about Catchers arms and looked for other strengths. When this happened these catchers who were inept at throwing became more prevalent base stealers started running again against bad throwers. (see Carl Crawford vs. Wakefield, Varitek, Posada etc.) I’s like to see a graph of base stealers with over 20 attempts going back to the Maury Wills, Lou Brock days going forward that looked at stolen base attempts and whether those attempts became more concentrated against Varitek and less concentrated against better throwers. I mean Rickey, Rock, Vince, Butler, Nixon and various others seemed to run against everyone.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
3 years 4 months ago

That’s another aspect that I would like ot see considered as well. Yadi Molina has a very high CS%, which is amazing to me because it would seem logical that only the best base stealers steal against him, as opposed to say everyone stealing on Martin.

The BIG change, and really it is a significant change, are pitchers moving to the slide step out of the set position. Back in the 80s, guys like Dwight Gooden would STILL use the big leg kick in the stretch and give the runner a whole ‘nother step, which is very often the difference between safe and out on a stolen base … especially stealing 3rd from 2nd where a runner can get a walking lead.

Mr Punch
Guest
Mr Punch
3 years 4 months ago

Here’s a revealing fact – until 1972 no catcher (even 3-time MVP Yogi Berra) had ever led the AL in any positive offensive category. Then the change began with Pudge Fisk (3B-T), followed by Darrell Porter, the other Pudge, Mauer. It’s a striking transition. Seems to me that the difference between the AL and NL in this regard suggests that style of play, or simply tradition, was a factor.

Therood
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Therood
3 years 4 months ago

Ernie Lombardi and his schnozz disagree.

GoodasGoldy
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GoodasGoldy
3 years 4 months ago

In addition to more teams adding speed players to the lineup (given the PEDless drop in pop) it also seems like less pitchers are using the slide step these days. There’s been a lot more focus/discussion on altering the time pitchers hold the ball and going to quickened deliveries from the stretch without changing mechanics. The reason given was that the slide step reduces effectiveness of pitches for most pitchers.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
3 years 4 months ago

How does the slide step affect the effectiveness of pitches? (Literally)

rbt
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rbt
3 years 4 months ago

How can you mention Wilin Rosario and Jesus Montero and not Salvador Perez? At least Perez has performed well at the major league level, which is more than you can say for Montero, and he is younger than both.

SprayingMantis
Guest
SprayingMantis
3 years 4 months ago

Being a catcher got Neil Walker drafted 9th, but I think he got switched pretty quickly. Seems to me like he’d be a lot more highly regarded throughout fandom if he were a catcher in MLB today.

AJK
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AJK
3 years 4 months ago

throughout fandom, possibly, but not throughout the Pirates’ pitching staff.

dan w
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dan w
3 years 4 months ago

The catcher CS% going down could be a result of selection bias. Specifically, managers with the help of front offices, could be sending only the base runners who have a high efficiency in stealing bases, thus lowering the CS% for catchers.

Hank
Guest
Hank
3 years 4 months ago

I think this is part of it… the scouting is also probably better as you have coaches (1st base or bench) generally breaking down split times to homeplate, catcher release, etc.

I imagine teams have things broken out… only certain guys will run if the combined splits are below a certain value, another group of guys if it is higher, and pretty much everyone if AJ Burnett is on the mound.

Bhaakon
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Bhaakon
3 years 4 months ago

I also get the feeling that managers are much more reticent to hit and run or pitch out today than 15+ years ago, two strategies which lead to more CS.

Sparkles Peterson
Guest
Sparkles Peterson
3 years 4 months ago

99% of this is Brad Ausmus losing his starting job after 2007 and retiring shortly after.

vivalajeter
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vivalajeter
3 years 4 months ago

To be fair, Piazza retired around the same time. Together, they were an average hitter. There was just a huge gap between their individual contributions.

Ben
Guest
Ben
3 years 4 months ago

Catchers job is:

1. Handling a pitching staff.

2. Calling a game.

3. Playing defense.

4. Hitting.

It’s nice that Molina, Posey and others can hit. But Santana cost his team games with how poorly he does playing the catching position. There were stats last week about he and Marson hurting Justin Masterson with his poor framing of pitches.

Russell Martin doesn’t hit much – though he does get some nice clutch hits – but Russell Martin is easily one of the most valuable catchers in MLB, something the Yankees and their fans are going to find out shortly.

Fred
Guest
Fred
3 years 4 months ago

Not to be a wet blanket, but could it be tested whether the catcher wrc+ is significantly moving closer to league average? Looking at the wrc+ graph to me at least, makes it seem like nothing is really changing other than a high blip in 2012. Maybe next year’s data will make things look different, but at this point it seems like 2012 could just be a fluke.

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