The Rise of the Offensive Catcher

You probably are well aware that offensive levels in baseball have collapsed over the last few years. We’re well past the “Year of the Pitcher” and are now at a point where run scoring is as scarce as it was back in the 1970s. It seems like no one can hit anymore, or at least, no more than one or two guys per team anyway. For various reasons, the recent trends in baseball have almost all gone in favor of the pitchers.

But not quite all. There is one place in baseball where offense is actually trending upwards, and that trend is behind the plate.

Last March, Mark Smith wrote about the improved offensive levels of catchers in recent years, but with another year of data and our new by-position split leaderboards, I think it’s worth pointing this out again. Especially because, for the first few weeks of 2014 at least, the trend seems to only be accelerating.

First, let’s start off with some data, pulled from the site using our new positional split leaderboards. The top section is hitting by players while catching from 2002 to 2014, the second section is hitting by all position players from 2002 to 2014, and the third section is the difference between the top two sections.

Catchers BB% K% AVG OBP SLG ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+
2002 8% 16% 0.253 0.315 0.383 0.130 0.285 0.305 83
2003 7% 16% 0.258 0.320 0.402 0.144 0.287 0.314 87
2004 8% 16% 0.261 0.324 0.403 0.143 0.291 0.316 87
2005 7% 16% 0.253 0.315 0.390 0.137 0.281 0.308 85
2006 7% 16% 0.269 0.329 0.416 0.147 0.300 0.321 90
2007 8% 17% 0.256 0.318 0.394 0.139 0.287 0.312 84
2008 8% 17% 0.256 0.325 0.390 0.133 0.291 0.315 88
2009 8% 18% 0.254 0.321 0.396 0.142 0.289 0.314 87
2010 9% 18% 0.249 0.319 0.381 0.132 0.285 0.310 89
2011 8% 19% 0.245 0.313 0.389 0.145 0.282 0.308 91
2012 9% 20% 0.248 0.318 0.400 0.152 0.285 0.313 95
2013 8% 20% 0.245 0.310 0.388 0.142 0.286 0.307 92
2014 8% 20% 0.253 0.318 0.398 0.146 0.293 0.317 100
—– —– —– —– —– —– —– —– —– —–
All Hitters BB% K% AVG OBP SLG ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+
2002 9% 16% 0.265 0.336 0.424 0.159 0.294 0.331 100
2003 9% 16% 0.268 0.337 0.430 0.162 0.296 0.333 100
2004 9% 16% 0.270 0.340 0.436 0.166 0.299 0.335 100
2005 8% 16% 0.268 0.335 0.427 0.158 0.297 0.331 100
2006 9% 16% 0.274 0.342 0.440 0.166 0.304 0.337 100
2007 9% 17% 0.272 0.340 0.430 0.158 0.305 0.336 100
2008 9% 17% 0.268 0.338 0.424 0.156 0.302 0.333 100
2009 9% 18% 0.266 0.338 0.425 0.159 0.301 0.334 100
2010 9% 18% 0.261 0.330 0.410 0.149 0.299 0.326 100
2011 8% 18% 0.259 0.325 0.406 0.147 0.297 0.321 100
2012 8% 19% 0.259 0.324 0.413 0.154 0.299 0.320 100
2013 8% 19% 0.257 0.322 0.403 0.146 0.299 0.318 100
2014 9% 21% 0.250 0.319 0.396 0.145 0.296 0.316 100
—– —– —– —– —– —– —– —– —– —–
Difference BB% K% AVG OBP SLG ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+
2002 1% 0% 0.012 0.021 0.041 0.029 0.009 0.026 17
2003 1% 0% 0.010 0.017 0.028 0.018 0.009 0.019 13
2004 1% 0% 0.009 0.016 0.033 0.023 0.008 0.019 13
2005 1% 0% 0.015 0.020 0.037 0.021 0.016 0.023 15
2006 1% 0% 0.005 0.013 0.024 0.019 0.004 0.016 10
2007 1% 0% 0.016 0.022 0.036 0.019 0.018 0.024 16
2008 1% 0% 0.012 0.013 0.034 0.023 0.011 0.018 12
2009 1% 0% 0.012 0.017 0.029 0.017 0.012 0.020 13
2010 0% 1% 0.012 0.011 0.029 0.017 0.014 0.016 11
2011 0% -1% 0.014 0.012 0.017 0.002 0.015 0.013 9
2012 0% -1% 0.011 0.006 0.013 0.002 0.014 0.007 5
2013 0% -1% 0.012 0.012 0.015 0.004 0.013 0.011 8
2014 1% 0% (0.003) 0.001 (0.002) (0.001) 0.003 (0.001) 0

A decade ago, catchers regularly posted a wRC+ about 15 points lower than league average, and this double digit deficit persisted through 2010. In 2011, the gap shrunk to nine points and has stayed in single digits for the last three years. Through the first few weeks of 2014, there has been no difference; catchers have hit at a level equal to the average of all other positions.

From the third section of the table, you can see that almost the entire change in catcher offense relative to position player offense can be explained by ISO. In graph form, here is average ISO for both catchers and all position players since 2002.

CatcherISO

The differences between catchers and other positions have been pretty stable in BB%, K%, and BABIP, but the gap has consistently diminished in ISO since 2002. The 20-30 point gap that persisted from 2002 to 2010 basically just disappeared in 2011, and for the first few weeks of 2014, catchers actually have a very slightly higher ISO as a group (.146) than the average of all position players (.145). The downwards trend in power at other positions has intersected with an upwards trend in power from the catching position, for the last few years, there’s been little to distinguish catchers from hitters at other positions other than a 10 point BABIP gap.

A upwards fluctuation in catcher BABIP over the first few weeks of 2014 is why catchers have caught up with the league average wRC+, and that shouldn’t be expected to continue, so odds are that catchers will again finish with a below average batting line when all is said and done. However, we’re probably looking at another year of catchers posting something like a 95 wRC+ instead of the 85 wRC+ that was the old norm.

This brings up a few questions, with the obvious one looking for an explanation as to why catchers haven’t suffered from the effects that have driven down offensive levels at other positions. The easy explanation is that teams have moved towards prioritizing offense over defense behind the plate, and as Mark showed in his post last year, the rate of runners getting gunned down trying to steal supports the idea that there has been a change in catcher’s defensive skills.

CS

The league average caught stealing rate so far this year is just 24%, which would easily go down as the lowest CS% in Major League history if it stayed that low for the entire year. And this recent era of mid-20% average caught stealing rates are historically unprecedented; runners have never gotten thrown out trying to steal as rarely as they have over the last 10 years.

However, the catcher isn’t the only variable in throwing out runners — Max Weinstein has argued here, in fact, that pitchers are the primary variable in whether a runner is thrown out or not — so we can’t simply conclude that reduced caught stealing rates mean that catchers are worse defenders now than they used to be. It seems intuitive that better hitting catchers would also be worse throwing catchers, but a reduced CS% isn’t enough to conclude that today’s catchers really are worse defensively than they used to be.

In fact, even if the total reduction in caught stealing rate was due to weaker armed/slower release catchers getting more playing time, we still couldn’t conclude that today’s catchers are overall weaker defenders simply because it is possible that the reduction in caught stealing rates is being offset by a different kind of defensive value; pitch framing.

For instance, guys like Brian McCann, Jonathan Lucroy, and Hank Conger have rated very well by framing estimates, and all have been below average at throwing out runners over the last few years. There are certainly some defensive specialists who are great at everything that has to do with receiving and throwing — Ryan Hanigan and Yadier Molina, for instance — but not every good framer is also a good thrower. And while I remain skeptical about the spread in runs saved or allowed based on current framing estimates, it is almost certainly true that the spread in framing is larger than the spread in throwing out attempted base stealers. If given a choice between a weak-armed framer and a strong-armed guy whose glove bounces all over the place, you probably want the weak-armed framer.

So the decline in caught stealing rate could be attributable, in part, to a shifting emphasis on what catcher defense actually is. And if arm strength is being de-emphasized — without a complete measure of catcher “pop times”, we can’t say for sure that it is — in favor of receiving skills, it is possible that the pool of potential catchers has grown, and some players who would have been moved off the position for low caught stealing rates are now being allowed to stay behind the plate because of their receiving value.

As Jeff noted last night, it is apparent that framing can be taught, and if that skill is as or more valuable than gunning down runners, than perhaps MLB can now select from a better hitting crop of players to stick behind the plate while teaching them to receive well enough to offset their mediocre arms.

This is heavily speculative, of course; what we’re seeing could simply be the result of baseball’s cyclical talent distributions. This could just be an extraordinarily talented group of offensive catchers, with guys like Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, and Brian McCann representing an unusual wave of good hitting backstops all playing at the same time.

Maybe in a few years, this will all reverse, and we’ll get back to catchers hitting like middle infielders, as has been the norm in baseball for a very long time. However, if the catcher profile is changing, and the pool of potential catchers has grown, there could be a shift in offense to the position away from players who would have been moved to other spots on the field. And if that’s the case, we may need to consider a new replacement level baseline for catchers. The positional adjustments that go into WAR assume that catchers can’t hit; now that they can, you could make an argument that WAR might be actually overrating catchers relative to other positions.

We don’t have enough information to make any strong conclusions here; just theories and hypotheses. But the data certainly makes it look like the catcher profile is changing, and this trend doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon.



Print This Post



Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Steve
Guest
Steve
2 years 1 month ago

What’s interesting is that Posey, McCann, and Molina are all also good on defense while hitting snot out of the ball. So teams haven’t had to sacrifice defense for offense, at least if they have one of these guys.

Jerk
Guest
Jerk
2 years 1 month ago

That is actually not interesting

BurleighGrimes
Guest
BurleighGrimes
2 years 1 month ago

Why did you type this?

Steve
Guest
Steve
2 years 1 month ago

Jerk, I offer an exquisite rebuttal in the form of an actual Jeff Sullivan Fangraphs comment, made on June 6, 2013:

“Take up yoga and maybe in time you’ll be flexible enough to satisfy yourself.”

He has a point
Guest
He has a point
2 years 1 month ago

All these thumbs down for telling the truth? It’s not interesting.

Gary Cherone
Guest
Gary Cherone
2 years 1 month ago

Hey buddy the jerk store called, they’re running out of you!

The other guy
Guest
The other guy
2 years 1 month ago

What’s the difference, you’re their all-time best seller!

George C
Guest
George C
2 years 1 month ago

yeah? ….well I slept with your wife!

Zack
Guest
Zack
2 years 1 month ago

You named yourself Jerk, so at least you’re self-aware

The Human Brain
Guest
The Human Brain
2 years 1 month ago

It’s ok everybody. I like humor- it’s not the enemy like many of you think.

JSprech
Guest
JSprech
2 years 1 month ago

I’m a little shocked that Jonathan Lucroy didn’t come up in this article.

Great framer and also a solid batter.

JSprech
Guest
JSprech
2 years 1 month ago

Apparently I’m blind, nevermind.

Kevin S.
Guest
Kevin S.
2 years 1 month ago

“For instance, guys like Brian McCann, Jonathan LuCroy, and Hank Conger have rated very well by framing estimates, and all have been below average at throwing out runners over the last few years.”

Emphasis mine.

Jason B
Guest
Jason B
2 years 1 month ago

Good thing you posted this after he realized his own mistake.

Josh M
Guest
Josh M
2 years 1 month ago

First thought upon reading the title was AJ Pierzynski

cs3
Member
cs3
2 years 1 month ago

Offensive indeed

DNA+
Guest
DNA+
2 years 1 month ago

I’ll bet a good part of catchers being less successful throwing out base stealers doesn’t have to do with the catchers or pitchers at all. Teams are much less reluctant to give away outs than they used to be. Base runners are probably just staying put if they aren’t sure they are going to make it.

Stage Dad
Guest
Stage Dad
2 years 1 month ago

I favor the theory that when a position is perceived as ‘weak’ at the major league level, the best youth prospects are pressured to play that position to boost their personal marketability to big league clubs. It happened with the wave of hyper-athletic Shortstops in the 90’s, and lest we forget, Bryce Harper was a Catcher coming up.

That Guy
Guest
That Guy
2 years 1 month ago

Hasn’t it always been true that kids who played catcher, shortstop, and centerfield (at least through high school) make up the vast majority of position players drafted? Anecdotally, the best players in my high school years played those positions…

Pirates Hurdles
Guest
Pirates Hurdles
2 years 1 month ago

How does this “trend” hold up to normal variation over a sample size larger than 12 years? Are these things cyclical or is this really a new thing?

Also, maybe median wRC+ would be better to avoid skewing by elite hitters currently present.

dang
Guest
dang
2 years 1 month ago

It’s a little silly to show wRC+ for the entire league over the time period. By definition, wRC+ is adjusted for 100 as league average. It’d make more sense to remove catchers from the “All Hitters” table.

dang
Guest
dang
2 years 1 month ago

On that same note, looking at wOBA, it seems like the entire league’s wOBA has been decreasing, and that catcher’s wOBA is remaining steady. Should that be interpreted as “offensive catcher” or as “steady catcher, declining league”?

Anon
Guest
Anon
2 years 1 month ago

I noticed this as well. It seems the league started declining around 2010 while catchers remained relatively steady. I’d be interested to see a follow up showing how each other position fared compared to league average to see if catchers are the only ones not declining.

Wally
Guest
Wally
2 years 1 month ago

This was my exact thought as I was reading the first few paragraphs. Might it be that what ever forces are driving down hitting in the league are essentially working from the top down. Meaning that better hitters are effected more by this effect, what ever it is, and that worse hitters are escaping much of it?

Fibi
Guest
Fibi
2 years 1 month ago

I had this thought as well; If PEDs are being flushed out of the game, is there any reason to believe that catchers were less likely to take and/or benefit from them?

BX
Guest
BX
2 years 1 month ago

How much of that could be attributed to more effective platooning and fewer “true” backup catchers? Baseball teams are getting smarter, and better data is more readily available.

For teams that don’t have a Yadier, Lucroy, McCann, Posey, etc., playing/tailoring their catcher tandem due to handedness splits as opposed to the conventional “have one guy that starts 5 days a week, and one backup guy who catches the day game after the night game, and acts as a true “backup””. The A’s with Jaso/Norris would be a textbook example of that.

Brian Snyder
Guest
Brian Snyder
2 years 1 month ago

Could it be that catching isn’t as difficult as we like to make it seem? Evan Gattis played very little in the minors and had a much harder time playing left field than catcher. (And with SSS, isn’t a horrible catcher)

scruddet
Member
scruddet
2 years 1 month ago

Outfield requires different skills (speed, agility, acceleration) that he lacks. Can’t really extrapolate a difficult-of-position analysis there. Frankly, I think he’s terrible at both positions defensively, just “less bad” at catcher.

Brian Snyder
Guest
Brian Snyder
2 years 1 month ago

Interesting you say that when it looks like he is already one of the best “framers” in the league. (SSS of course)

BMarkham
Guest
BMarkham
2 years 1 month ago

Posey’s rookie year was 2010, and Yadi’s first very good offensive season was 2011. I wonder how much of the increase can be from just Posey making it to the majors and Molina’s late blooming offensive skills.

DNA+
Guest
DNA+
2 years 1 month ago

In that same sense, we are losing Joe Mauer as a catcher this year.

Reptar
Guest
Reptar
2 years 1 month ago

I’m tempted to blame the entirety of this phenomenon on the retirements of Brad Ausmus and Mike Matheny.

nsacpi
Guest
nsacpi
2 years 1 month ago

Evan Gattis leading catchers in wOBA. The Janitor is having an effect on the catcher stats.

scruddet
Member
scruddet
2 years 1 month ago

He’s a custodian, dick

TK
Guest
TK
2 years 1 month ago

YEAH! He holds the door for no man!

walt526
Guest
walt526
2 years 1 month ago

My inclination is that it’s just a coincidence that we happen to have several great hitting catchers in their prime. In the late 1990s, we saw a similar thing with offense from shortstops.

ddietz2004
Member
ddietz2004
2 years 1 month ago

This increase in offense is happening despite JP Arencibia being included in the mix.

Rays Fan
Guest
Rays Fan
2 years 1 month ago

Rubbish, I have been in Tampa for 10 years and I have never seen any evidence of “Offensive Catchers” at the Trop… and thank goodness we didn’t draft that Posey guy, he has a .273/.333/.364 line with zero home runs here in Tampa.

Uncle Randy
Guest
Uncle Randy
2 years 1 month ago

You are SO good at your job

Barack
Guest
Barack
2 years 1 month ago

Thanks, bro.

Weirdo
Guest
Weirdo
2 years 1 month ago

I actually would have guessed the opposite. It seemed backing in the early-mid 2000s that catchers were some of the best offensive players. I remember Mike Piazza, Javy Lopez, and Ivan Rodriguez all being insanely good.

Matty Brown
Member
Member
Matty Brown
2 years 1 month ago

My thoughts are that the lower ISO and CS rates are both due to more athletic and defensive minded position players. Less power, but better at stealing. This emphasis on athletic players does not translate to catcher, who is basically immobile, therefore bigger and more powerful.

Aaron
Guest
Aaron
2 years 1 month ago

I think teams are just smarter with stolen base attempts. The new wave of sabermetrics allows teams to think about when to attempt a steal (ball strike counts, certain pitchers, various situations in games…) I think what we are seeing is an evolution in decision making process restricting stolen base attempts to high probability situations.

HotSpinachDip
Member
HotSpinachDip
2 years 1 month ago

Perhaps most impressive about this narrowed gap is the fact that on any given day, 20% of the catchers in the starting lineup are backups.

Zack
Guest
Zack
2 years 1 month ago

My theory is that it has more to do with the other position players. In the past 10 years or so, we’ve developed better metrics for measuring non-catcher defense. As confidence in those numbers has grown and teams have accepted that dWAR is at least close to as valuable as oWAR, teams have been running out more defense-oriented players at non-catcher positions. Thus, the offensive levels at those positions has dropped (due to worse hitters and better fielders).

However, during that same time period catcher defense remained somewhat of a black box, so the selection process for catcher remained somewhat the same as it had been. My guess would be that as we gain a better understanding and more confidence in pitch framing and other aspects of catcher defense, we’ll see a corresponding shift in catcher selection and perhaps a similar decline in offensive production. However, I don’t expect catchers to return to their previous levels relative to the other positions because the athleticism required to be a good defender at the non-catcher positions naturally leads to players of slighter build and lesser power potential at those positions.

Rikki
Guest
Rikki
2 years 1 month ago

Totally anectdotal, but I feel the mid-00s were the last years where teams liked the 35+ year old backup catcher who can’t bat type.

exxrox
Member
exxrox
2 years 1 month ago

Does Henry Blanco still have a job?

Dan Greer
Member
Dan Greer
2 years 1 month ago

He recently retired, to become, wait for it… a hitting coach.

EthanB
Member
EthanB
2 years 1 month ago

Red Sox have moved onto the 35+ year old starting catcher who can’t bat model.

guest
Guest
guest
2 years 1 month ago

Unfortunately PEDs probably play a factor. Catchers tend to be a bit smarter than other position players, on average, so they’re probably better at not getting caught. And catching is a very demanding position, so if anyone other than pitchers were to take PEDs to speed recovery time and help sustain themselves through a long season, it’d be catchers. And offense has been such a bonus from catchers for so long, no one would really look twice if a catcher who was a sub-par hitter suddenly became an average hitter, as opposed to the random center fielder or middle infielder who inexplicably bulked up between seasons and added 70 – 100 points to their SLG%.

Value arb
Guest
2 years 1 month ago

This makes total sense, if there were any evidence undetectable magic power enhancing drugs actually existed. Since league home run rates remained sky high for nearly five years after testing started, we learned its a trivial argument over a trivial effect.

Say wha?
Guest
Say wha?
2 years 1 month ago

“if there were any evidence undetectable magic power enhancing drugs actually existed.”

Indeed. Sosa, Bonds, McGwire, Brady Anderson, etc etc. weren’t using any magic fairy dust. Just a good diet and lotsa situps.

Mmhmm.

wpDiscuz