Unexpected wOBA Leaders: Catchers

When pressed to name the top offensive catchers in the league, names such as Mike Napoli, Miguel Montero, Brian McCann, Yadier Molina, Carlos Santana, and Alex Avila immediately come to mind. That is only natural, as all six of those players were in the top ten amongst catchers for wOBA last season (min. 100 PA). In addition, young, up-and-coming catchers, such as Matt Wieters and Buster Posey, also likely make the list for many people.

This season, however, none of those catchers listed above lead the league in production at the plate. Surprising names have risen to the top of the rankings through the first month and a half of the season. In fact, none of the top four catchers in wOBA this season (min. 100 PA) had a wOBA above .350 in 2011.

Players 2012 wOBA 2011 wOBA
Carlos Ruiz .426 .332
Jonathan Lucroy .406 .310
A.J. Ellis .402 .346
Jarrod Saltalamacchia .377 .319

What exactly is going on here?

Carlos Ruiz is a 33-year-old catcher with a career .333 wOBA, so it is only natural to expect his production at the plate to regress significantly as the season progresses. The vast majority of his production has been predicated upon a .346 BABIP and a HR/FB that currently sits at an unbelievable 21.9%.

His approach does not appear to have changed much, at least not for the better. He has begun swinging at more pitches. His swing rate has jumped to 47.5% this season, while his career average is 41.2%. That has resulted in more swings at pitches outside the strike zone, fewer walks, and a career high swinging strike rate.

As some of those fly balls become harmless outs instead of souvenirs and his BABIP regresses closer to his career .290 BABIP, expect Carlos Ruiz to fall from the upper echelon of offensive catchers. His unexpected production has been a huge benefit to the Philadelphia Phillies, however, as they continue to maintain a record above .500 despite significant injuries to key offensive producers.

Jonathan Lucroy regularly posted wOBAs in the minor leagues north of .370, though his career wOBA through his first two big league seasons was only .314. That has changed in a big way this season, highlighted by his performance on Sunday against the Minnesota Twins, which featured three hits, two home runs (one of them a grand slam), and seven RBI.

The obvious red flag is his .374 BABIP, though his 25.2% line drive rate suggests that number may not regress as much as it otherwise would appear at first glance. His ISO has also jumped to a level that is unprecedented for Lucroy. Throughout his minor league career, he only posted an ISO over .200 once, which was a .201 ISO with Class-A West Virginia. This season, however, he has a .208 ISO. One can reasonably expect that number to come down.

Although much of this performance is unexpected from Lucroy, his high line drive rate is consistent with that of last year, his swinging strike rate is down to 5.0%, and he has done a great job using center and right fields. Not to mention the 25-year-old was hitting .310/.353/.496 through the end of May last year. Perhaps this season, he figures out how to maintain the majority of that production into September and continues to be a bright spot in what has been a disappointing year for the Milwaukee Brewers.

A.J. Ellis has been absolutely tremendous for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He is perhaps most well-known for his 17.4% walk rate and his refusal to swing at pitches outside the strike zone; his O-Swing% this season currently sits at 18.0%. The surprising aspect of his game is that he is starting to show a little pop at the plate, as his ISO is a career-high (including the minor leagues) .170.

Much of that is due to a career-high 22.9% line drive rate. That partially explains his .388 BABIP, though he has consistently produced a high BABIP throughout the minor leagues and in his two brief major league stints, so it’s difficult to ascertain just how much that BABIP can be expected to drop.

Of the four players atop the wOBA rankings for catchers, Ellis is perhaps the least surprising in some ways. His walk rate and on-base percentage have always been above average for a catcher. As soon as he had a season with a little bit of power, his wOBA was assuredly going to climb the rankings in a hurry. He continues to be supremely selective at the plate, and if he can maintain his line drive rate and continue to collect some doubles and finish the season with 10-15 home runs, he should remain a highly productive catcher at the plate.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia was long expected to be a run producer at the big league level. He was a Top 50 prospect in all of baseball in 2006 and 2007, but his career wOBA is only .316 in 1393 big league plate appearances. Perhaps this is the year the expectations finally become realized.

Much of the production at the plate for Saltalamacchia has come via the extra-base hit. He has ten doubles, seven home runs, and a .301 ISO through his first 32 games. His power numbers have always been solid, but this season has really seen the 27-year-old take it to another level.

Whether that power spike is sustainable or not, though, is another question. His .328 BABIP sits right around his .323 career average, though his 19.4% HR/FB is well above his career average. The patience at the plate has also significantly eroded, as evidenced by his career-low 3.7% walk rate. He is swinging at 35.8% of pitches outside the strike zone, and his swinging strike rate is the second-highest amongst catchers at 13.0%. It’s tough to imagine his batting average not regressing back toward his .247 with as much swing-and-miss as he has, especially mixed with the lack of plate discipline. His career-high wOBA will not be able to be sustained if his batting average regresses that significantly.

The first month or two of the season always results in some unexpected league leaders. Perhaps the most interesting offensive league leaders, however, have been at the catcher position. It appears doubtful that any of the four catchers highlighted above will end the season in the top four wOBAs amongst catchers, but a couple — namely Jonathan Lucroy and A.J. Ellis — are displaying skills that hint at a modicum of sustainability. Even then, expect Lucroy and Ellis to see their wOBAs to drop to some degree through the last four months of the season and some of the more traditional offensive powerhouses at catcher to start climbing the rankings.

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J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

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