How MLB Catchers Perform After Finally Switching Positions

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How MLB Catchers Perform After Finally Switching Positions
(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer will officially make the switch from catcher to first baseman next season.

As Mike Axisa of CBS Sports writes, the move was based on health concerns surrounding Mauer:

The Twins are moving Joe Mauer out from behind the plate and transitioning him to first base in 2014, the team announced. The move was made due to long-term health concerns, though he is now free of concussion systems [sic] and working out with restrictions.

"After consultation with doctors from Mayo Clinic and team doctors, and given the inherent risks of future injury at the catcher position, the organization and Joe determined that it would be in the best interest of both him and the Twins for a position change," said the club in a statement.

Catchers have certainly been going down at an alarming rate, as Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today has said. The position brings with it dangers that other positions simply don't have.

We've seen many catchers make the switch to other positions to stay healthy and prolong their careers, but has it really worked? Have they actually stayed healthy and been productive, or were they already damaged goods?

Let's take a look at some examples.

 

Yogi Berra

Games Played as Catcher: 1,699

Games Played as Other Positions: 421

Yogi Berra was among the best catchers in the game when he played, but he was moved to left field so Elston Howard could become the primary catcher for the New York Yankees.

While Berra's move was not primarily because of injury risk, the four-time All-Star was forced to move and continued to produce.

Yogi Berra Careers Numbers By Position
Position GP BA HR/162 G RBI/162 G
C 1,699 .280 25.9 104.1
Other 421 2.73 19.2 74.7

Baseball-Reference

Berra still dealt with injuries after moving at the ripe old age of 36, but his production did not drop off too much.

In Berra's case, he was already damaged goods when he made the switch, and the change didn't help or hurt the aging star.

 

Joe Torre

Games Played as Catcher: 903

Games Played as Other Positions: 1,306

Joe Torre played his final game as a catcher in 1970 at the age of 29 before switching to the two corner infield positions.

He was a good catcher, winning two Gold Gloves and being very productive at the plate. However, the best year of his career came right after he made the switch, when he won the NL MVP award at the age of 30.

Joe Torre Careers Numbers By Position
Position GP BA HR/162 G RBI/162 G
C 903 .300 21.5 57.4
Other 1,306 .295 15.9 87.1

Baseball-Reference

Torre's power numbers declined after making the switch, but that was to be expected, as he didn't make the switch until he turned 30.

While his power decreased, he remained relatively healthy other than the wear and tear that comes with old age. Torre was also a solid contact hitter until he retired and remained productive until his last game.

For Torre, the move was beneficial, as it likely extended his career by a couple of years, and he won his MVP award after doing it.

 

Ted Simmons

Games Played as Catcher: 1,771

Games Played as Other Positions: 685

After making the switch from full-time catcher in 1982, Ted Simmons' power numbers dropped off the face of the earth.

He hit just 39 home runs over the last six seasons of his career. While that could have to do with the fact that he was 33 when he switched positions, he was damaged goods when he changed.

Ted Simmons Careers Numbers By Position
Position GP BA HR/162 G RBI/162 G
C 1,771 .294 17.8 97.1
Other 685 .235 12.5 78.3

Baseball-Reference

Simmons had one good season after making the switch to first base, batting .308 in 1983 with the Milwaukee Brewers. However, he struggled from that point on.

In the case of Simmons, he was simply too old and too worn down to make a productive change, and the Twins are hoping that Mauer's adjustment will be nothing like this one.

 

Mickey Tettleton

Games Played as Catcher: 872

Games Played as Other Positions: 613

Mickey Tettleton was a full-time catcher until 1993, when he became a first baseman, outfielder and designated hitter.

The three-time Silver Slugger behind the plate maintained his pace with his new positions, being named to one All-Star team.

Mickey Tettleton Careers Numbers By Position
Position GP AVG HR/162 G RBI/162 G
C 872 .242 126 389
Other 613 .240 31.4 91.2

Baseball-Reference

Tettleton wasn't a star before or after his change, but he remained consistent with his production throughout his career, which lasted until he was 36.

The change didn't really affect Tettleton all that much, but if anything, it prolonged his career by about a year or so.

 

B.J. Surhoff

Games Played as Catcher: 991

Games Played as Other Positions: 1,322

B.J. Surhoff started his MLB career as a catcher but played his final game behind the plate in 1995 after nine seasons.

The switch for Surhoff took a few years, but he enjoyed a long career (19 years) because he avoided injuries.

B.J. Surhoff Careers Numbers By Position
Position GP BA HR/162 G RBI/162 G
C 991 .268 4.7 22.6
Other 1,322 .288 19.5 102.3

Baseball-Reference

The only year Surhoff was named an All-Star was in 1999, when he primarily played left field. He played all 162 games that season, batting .308 with 28 home runs and 107 RBI.

After turning 37, Surhoff dealt with injuries over the last four seasons of his career. However, there's no way he could have played until he was 40 if he hadn't switched positions, and the change was a very helpful one for him.

 

Brian Downing

Games Played as Catcher: 675

Games Played as Other Positions: 1,669

Brian Dowling made the switch from full-time catcher to part-time catcher in 1980, eventually playing his last game behind the plate in 1981.

His injury-shortened season in 1980 (30 games) was what forced him to switch, and it was a great move for him.

Brian Downing Careers Numbers By Position
Position GP BA HR/162 G RBI/162 G
C 675 .260 9.4 56.2
Other 1,669 .269 22.9 82.2

Baseball-Reference

In five of his first six seasons after giving up catching, Downing played in at least 150 games. He was also very productive after making the switch, as the outfield suited him nicely.

Downing would close out his career as a DH, producing solid numbers until he retired at the age of 41. For him, the move was possibly the best decision of his career.

 

Victor Martinez

Games Played as Catcher: 856

Games Played as Other Positions: 452

Victor Martinez was a full-time catcher through the 2010 season, after which he joined the Detroit Tigers and became a designated hitter and first baseman.

While Martinez still missed the entire 2012 season due to injury, he played 145 games in 2011 and 159 in 2013.

Victor Martinez Careers Numbers By Position
Position GP BA HR/162 G RBI/162 G
C 856 .299 108 538
Other 452 .310 17.5 106.1

Baseball-Reference

V-Mart has been very productive since making the switch, and it looks like he should be able to stay healthy from now on.

It's difficult to judge if the change helped Martinez since he is still playing and made the switch a short time ago, but for now it looks like it should help him.

 

The Verdict

At the end of the day, making the switch away from catcher has helped many players in the past.

Moving to a position with less risk of injury certainly helps players enjoy longer careers.

Some players are damaged goods when they make the switch, which results in poor numbers. However, the rest typically play much longer because of it.

The jury is still out on whether or not Mauer is damaged beyond repair, but the Twins certainly made a smart decision to take the injury-prone star out of harm's way.

 

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