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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.