The Thinning Catcher Market

The Phillies re-signed Carlos Ruiz to a 3-year, $26 million deal. Also: Brayan Pena and Geovany Soto have locked down their 2014 teams (the Royals Reds and Rangers respectively). And now it appears Jose Molina is in the final stages of returning to St. Pete for another two years of expertly framed and eh, who cares about blocking? pitches.

So where does that leave the catching market? As far as I have seen, the Yankees, Red Sox, Rockies, Angels, Rangers (still), Blue Jays and Twins have all been connected with free agent catchers on MLBTR. Using their handy free agents leaderboards (with a few additions), we can examine the remaining free agent catchers and try our hand at predicting the right fits for each.

Catchers are a tough specimen to examine. Elite catchers are always in short supply, and identifying elite catchers has been a perpetually difficult task given the multifaceted nature of their defensive contributions. While we don’t have tools sufficient yet to adequately quantify game calling, we have moved much closer to accurately crediting catchers for pitch blocking, error prevention, range, running-game prevention and — thanks in this instance to Matthew Carruth’s StatCorner — pitch framing.

The Fangraphs WAR for catchers does an excellent job — in my humble, certainly unbiased opinion — of measuring a catcher’s contributions, and with the addition of Carruth’s framing data, we can fill its biggest gap. The following chart shows the remaining free agent catchers and their statistics through the previous three seasons. I have combined their framing contributions into their WAR at a 10 runs per win rate to create WAR*, which offers a more complete idea of their value:

Free Agent Catchers, 2011-2013

Player PA WAR Framing RAA WAR*
Brian McCann 1416 8.3 64.8 14.8
Jarrod Saltalamacchia 1304 7.0 18.0 8.8
Mike Napoli 1427 11.4 -27.2 8.7
Jose Molina 778 1.9 54.6 7.4
A.J. Pierzynski 1549 6.1 -7.9 5.3
Kelly Shoppach 625 2.7 -9.3 1.8
Chris Snyder 401 -0.1 14.3 1.3
Dioner Navarro 541 1.8 -6.0 1.2
Hector Gimenez 183 0.7 2.0 0.9
Jesus Flores 387 -0.3 3.8 0.1
John Buck 1359 3.9 -38.2 0.1
Yorvit Torrealba 833 0.7 -7.8 -0.1
Kurt Suzuki 1273 2.3 -23.9 -0.1
Humberto Quintero 556 1.2 -13.0 -0.1
Wil Nieves 349 -0.5 2.3 -0.3
Ramon Hernandez 579 1.5 -19.5 -0.5
Henry Blanco 329 0.6 -11.0 -0.5
Taylor Teagarden 162 -0.5 -2.0 -0.7
Ronny Paulino 312 -0.2 -15.1 -1.7
Miguel Olivo 910 0.0 -22.1 -2.2
Koyie Hill 253 -1.1 -20.1 -3.1

Clearly, in raw production, Brian McCann takes home the victory Bundt cake. He hits, he frames, he fields, he gets injured, but hey!, everyone gets injured, right?

At a 110 wRC+ since 2011, McCann is arguably the best hitting catcher remaining. Mike Napoli is obviously a superior hitter, but he is a full season removed from his dish days, and I don’t expect he’ll be strapping the shin guards on again in 2014. His services are demanded enough without having to catch.

So since 2011, McCann has a wRC+ 8 points lower than Carlos Ruiz’s, but 6 points higher than the next closest hitter (the unforecastable Dioner Navarro). There’s little doubt McCann is the top catcher in free agency right now. But we can get a better glimpse of the value of the next tier of players by examining their contributions in divided and prorated perspectives:

Player WAR* WAR*/3 WAR* / 500 PA
Brian McCann 14.8 4.9 5.2
Jose Molina 7.4 2.5 4.7
Jarrod Saltalamacchia 8.8 2.9 3.4
Mike Napoli 8.7 2.9 3.0
Hector Gimenez 0.9 0.3 2.5
A.J. Pierzynski 5.3 1.8 1.7
Chris Snyder 1.3 0.4 1.7
Kelly Shoppach 1.8 0.6 1.4
Dioner Navarro 1.2 0.4 1.1
Jesus Flores 0.1 0.0 0.1
John Buck 0.1 0.0 0.0
Kurt Suzuki -0.1 0.0 0.0
Yorvit Torrealba -0.1 0.0 0.0
Humberto Quintero -0.1 0.0 -0.1
Wil Nieves -0.3 -0.1 -0.4
Ramon Hernandez -0.5 -0.2 -0.4
Henry Blanco -0.5 -0.2 -0.8
Miguel Olivo -2.2 -0.7 -1.2
Taylor Teagarden -0.7 -0.2 -2.2
Ronny Paulino -1.7 -0.6 -2.7
Koyie Hill -3.1 -1.0 -6.1

The middle column, “WAR*/3,” is exactly what it says it is: Our friend WAR* divided by three, so a per season glimpse of the catchers’ numbers. The final column breaks prorates their WAR* numbers across 500 PA. Obviously, for some players, this is problematic. The aforementioned Napoli has a season at first base mixed in; Jose Molina simply cannot play a full 600 PA in a season; and Dioner Navarro has likely profited from platoon playing time, which has kept him from facing elite right-handers (though his hot start in 2013 did eventually result in more indiscriminate playing time late in the season).

So, prorated is not the best way to look at these players (or many players). I prefer the WAR*/3. And from that vantage we start to see a clear second tier of catchers: Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Mike Napoli and — a bit behind them — Jose Molina. Two of those guys (Napoli and Molina) are not really in the catcher market (maybe Napoli is in the “catcher” market, but not the catcher market).

Meanwhile, Salty is entering his age-29 season and coming off a career year. But he may not be approaching quite the payday we might expect. He has an enormous, Sicily-sized platoon split:

Split wRC+ vs LHP wRC+ vs RHP
2013 71 135
Career 56 110

So Jarrod Saltalamacchia has a big, known weakness. He is also an iffy fielder — not terrible, but enough of a liability that he needs to hit and frame well to be worthy of playing time. And given he can manage a 94 wRC+ — almost perfectly league average for catchers since 2011 — Salty appears to be the prototype of a league average starting catcher. Obviously, he would perform better if strictly platooned against righties, but his strong framing ability (averaging about 6 runs or half a win per season) makes him viable for more steady playing time. And a touch better than the next best option, A.J. Pierzynski.

The inscrutable, unspellable A.J. Pierzynski does not have much of a fan in me, but he is as durable as a petrified pine tree and not especially bad in any way. Moreover, he has a manageable platoon split and on a favorable side, since he’s a lefty. That makes finding a platoon partner a small task and makes him a solid fallback option for most teams.

Other than McCann, Salty and Pierzynski, the catching market is nothing but unknowns, gambles and Warning: Bridge is Out! signs. Dioner Navarro’s incredible 2013 season has put him on at least the Red Sox’ radar, but most teams would prefer to have him as a lefty-mashing platoon mate. Navarro, for all the promise of his 2013 hitting, is still a poor defender who struggles with almost every element of catcher defense other than throwing, where he is adequate.

After considering pitch framing, Kurt Suzuki and John Buck rank no better than replacement level. Miguel Olivo and Yorvit Torrealba have been in slippery declines for several seasons now, and after considering their poor pitch framing, they look more like minor league hopefuls than starting catcher options. Koyie Hill. Bless his heart.

So we have these teams, these seven teams, but only three, maybe four starting catchers on the market. Cue the bidding war! If market size dictated fiscal freedom (and it doesn’t always), then I would predict the market playing out this way:

Team Market Sign
Yankees Big Brian McCann
Red Sox Big A.J. Pierzynski
Angels Big Jarrod Saltalamacchia
Rangers Mid-Big Dioner Navarro
Blue Jays Mid SOL
Rockies Small SOL
Twins Small SOL

“SOL,” of course, is Latin for “Now you have to sign Kurt Suzuki or John Buck.” Latin is a nuanced language.

Of course, if market size was the key factor in free agent contracts, then Albert Pujols, Zack Greinke, and just about every other major free agent in the last five years would be in pinstripes. They are not. Still, I would not be surprised if the Yankees, who have a hand in almost every McCann rumor out there, do indeed catch their McCann fish — especially if the MLB and NPB cannot get a posting system sorting and Masahiro Tanaka drops out of the equation.

The Red Sox, however, seem to have failed in their earlier attempts to woo Salty back. And they clearly have no intention of using Napoli at Dish Town, so they get the next best thing: Mr. Never-Die, the ol’ A.J, Sir Playsalot.

That leaves a tasty helping of Salty catcher for the Angels, who have a park factor that’s death to lefties, making Hank Conger an ever more important (and useful) cog in their offense. The Rangers get the consolation prize, Dioner Navarro, who will split time with Geovany Soto until one of them out-terribles the other.

So the Twins, Blue Jays and Rockies will have to look to the trade market or replacement-level free agents. There could be some prudent fits among the free agents — for instance, John Buck has some decent pop in his bat and could turn a few extra fly outs into homers in Colorado, making him marginally more valuable to them than to, say, the Twins, whose park suppresses right-handed homers and encourages doubles (NOTE: Buck is not a doubles specialist). But all told, it’s a bleak free agent market for these teams if they don’t dole out cash beyond their usual comfort zone.

So however the catcher market ultimately shakes out, it is obvious that the teams needing starters considerably outnumber the quality starters available. Those looking to get the best catcher possible need to strike quick. The market is already drying up.

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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.

36 Responses to “The Thinning Catcher Market”

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  1. RMR says:

    Given that Ryan Hanigan is virtually a sure thing to be gone, I’d be curious to see where he’d slot in.

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    • Mr. Mojorisin says:

      4.5 WAR and 51.9 RAA for a 9.7 WAR* since 2011. 0 WAR in 2013 though.

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    • CubsOfTheNorth says:

      Blue Jays. It means Josh Thole will have to see more playing time since Hanigan can’t do the amount of games JPA did, but so it goes.

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  2. MadManx says:

    No love for the White Sox? Another year of Flowers/Phegley?

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    • Gabes says:

      I was thinking the same thing, but I’d almost prefer another year of terrible production for basically no cost given the team isn’t going to compete this year, and then when the window to compete opens (hopefully 2015/2016, maybe, please…) then go out and sign [read: overpay] a better backstop.

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      • MadManx says:

        They could use a defensive catcher/ good pitch framer to raise the value of their most tradable asset (pitching).

        Hanigan might be a good fit, at the right price. Molina might have been a good fit, if they were looking to go full rebuild.

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    • I considered adding them to the list, seeing as how their catching situation doesn’t seem… great. But I simply did not see them tied to any rumors about free agent catchers.

      I’m guessing they’re not looking at the FA market for catching options, or maybe they’re going to give the F/Ph option another go. I mean, both guys were kinda prospects as recently as a few years ago, right?

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      • I should mention: If the White Sox do get into the catcher fray, I see them as hunting the Navarro-SOL options, given both their payroll and (presently, apparently, perceivedly) limited chances in 2014.

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  3. Saint Paul Apostle says:

    I think you have Salty’s splits backwards. In 2013, he had wRC+ of 135 against righties, not lefties. He is actually a great platoon partner for Ross.

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  4. nsacip says:

    Saltalamacchia to the Angels? Did I miss something? Seems rather unlikely given their need for starting pitching and desire to avoid the luxury tax.

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  5. Bill says:

    Where does George Kottaras fall here, especially with regard to pitch framing? To me, he’s better than some of the other SOL options, given his pop and ability to get on base. For a team like the Red Sox, who already have Ross under contract, a guy like Kottaras for practically nothing seems to make sense to me.

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    • someone says:

      From StatCorner, his pitch framing comes in at -10.8 over the last 3 years. So his numbers are something like:

      2011-13: 458 PA, 2.4 WAR, ~1.3 WAR*

      Thus a WAR*/500 PA of 1.4.

      Also, he is better vs RHP, so a perfect complement for Cervelli on the Yankees. He’s no McCann, but a hell of a lot cheaper

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    • Mr Punch says:

      The Red Sox already had Kottaras, and didn’t like him much.

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      • Bill says:

        Since then, Kottaras has gone from walking in 10% of his plate appearances (and a .306 OBP) to walking in 19% of his plate appearances (and a .349 OBP). I think he’s a better player, overall.

        And I do think McCann is clearly a better player, but he’s going to take a lot of years and a high AAV.

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  6. Nate G says:

    I vote McCann.

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  7. coldseat says:

    Expect Pierzynski to be the next to be snatched up. He’s the only buy left that can be had on a “reasonable” deal. I predict Salty to be on the market the longest, as he requires big/long contract & has the highest risk of being a marginal player.

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  8. Joe F. says:

    Surprised the Mariners aren’t considered in here as team with a need, since the only ones they’ve had worth a damn since Dan Wilson is the oft-maligned Johjima and *maybe* the my-clutch-bat-saves-me Jaso.

    Not surprised they aren’t considered in here as a team with a need, since you got your list from current MLB trade rumors, and I’m sure the M’s aren’t in serious conversations. It wouldn’t surprise me if they’re just going to scrape together scrubs, 4th-stringers and the undead like they have the last few years.

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    • Basebull says:

      I was thinking this as well. Did Zunino show significant L/R splits in college/minors? If only the M’s had some sort of lefty hitting catcher with solid OBP skills, preferably bearded.

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  9. KMiB says:

    Brayan Pena signed with the Reds, not the Royals.

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  10. James says:

    On what planet is Toronto, North America’s fourth largest city, not a big market franchise? Not only are they owned by one of Canada’s most profitable corporations, it’s a national telecommunications giant with a vertically integrated national broadcast platform.

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    • s_t_w says:

      Toronto is in a big market. But for almost two decades up until last year, the team has behaved as a small market team. It will be interesting to see what they do this off season.

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      • pft says:

        They are losing revenue sharing dollars though, so they must compete to make up for the loss. They have the dollars to spend like a big market team since the revenue potential is there.

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  11. Big Nate says:

    Teams are about to throw money at Salty and AJ, while a more productive catcher (Jose Molina) will go to the Rays for pennies. When will teams wake up and appreciate anything besides a bat?

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  12. James R says:

    Pinto showed well for Twins in late season callup. Mauer moves to 1Base. With all the needs in Minn. will Pinto get another shot?

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  13. Chris C says:

    Rangers have Chirinos as a potential backup. I think they would go with him before signing anyone other than McCann.

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  14. BritDawg says:

    With the emergence of Yan Gomes last season, the Indians would surely consider offers for Carlos Santana for the right price. Santana is only 27 and has an extremely team-friendly contract, which includes four more years of club control. All the indications are that he isn’t keen on the idea of playing mainly as a DH (given that Swisher has 1B locked up).

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  15. Purple Jesus says:

    Blue Jays >_<

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  16. joecatz says:

    Where would Ruiz rank on this list?

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    • His pitch framing has been a mixed bag these past few years, but overall, he’s about solid ~8 WAR* since 2011. Just another reason that his contract (in this thin catcher market) looks good.

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  17. Joe Durant says:

    Gonna go ahead and cast my doubt on that StatCorner site. How do they come up with their pitch framing numbers? Because they don’t even come close to numbers I’ve seen from reputable guys like Fast or Marchi. It looks like they just did what that guy over at Prospectus was doing and it’s just a simple difference between ball in zone and strikes out of zone, and even those numbers look a little ridiculous.

    For instance, Marchi’s top 5 was J Molina, Y Molina, A Avila, D Norris, and B McCann. Very different list.

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  18. pft says:

    Salty is not a bad defensive catcher, he improved quite a lot last year, and while he struggles against LHP’ers, it makes it easy to find playing time for your back up. Its not like Salty or most catchers can catch more than 120 games a year

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  19. Oh God, Catchers says:

    Steamer 2014

    Salty: .230/.301/.414 96 wRC+ 2.4 WAR/500 PA

    Navarro: .254/.321/./.398 98 wRC+2.4 WAR/500 PA

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