2014 Season Proving Catcher Will Continue to Be Dynamic Offensive Position

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2014 Season Proving Catcher Will Continue to Be Dynamic Offensive Position
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We're used to thinking about good-hitting catchers as being a rarity. And if I had to take a whack at guessing the popular opinion, it's probably that they're even rarer in today's game.

But you'd be surprised.

The 2014 season definitely feels like a bleak one for offensive catchers. Brian McCann is struggling mightily in his first year with the New York Yankees. Houston Astros All-Star Jason Castro is also struggling. Colorado Rockies power source Wilin Rosario is yet another struggler. Goodness, if Joe Mauer and Carlos Santana were still catching, things would feel even worse.

The actual reality, however, is nowhere near as bad as the apparent reality.

We're going to consider a stat called OPS+. It's a version of OPS that's adjusted for parks and leagues and set on a scale where 100 is "average," making it useful for pinpointing below-average and above-average performers.

Through play on Wednesday, a search on Baseball-Reference.com returned nine catchers who own an OPS+ over 100 (i.e. above average) and are qualified for the batting title. If this total holds, it will be the largest collection of above-average qualified catchers since 1977.

True story.

But those aren't the only good-hitting catchers out there. If we include guys with at least 100 plate appearances, the collection of above-average offensive catchers doubles and looks like this:

Above-Average Offensive Catchers in 2014
Player Team Age PA OPS+
Devin Mesoraco CIN 26 172 183
Derek Norris OAK 25 201 158
Jonathan Lucroy MIL 28 318 153
Evan Gattis ATL 27 238 146
John Jaso OAK 30 209 131
Matt Wieters BAL 28 112 131
Russell Martin PIT 31 181 129
Buster Posey SFG 27 281 124
Chris Iannetta LAA 31 175 122
Kurt Suzuki MIN 30 244 119
Miguel Montero ARI 30 303 115
Salvador Perez KCR 24 282 113
Yan Gomes CLE 26 259 108
Jarrod Saltalamacchia MIA 29 205 108
Hank Conger LAA 26 129 108
Mike Zunino SEA 23 243 107
Carlos Ruiz PHI 35 267 105
Yadier Molina STL 31 291 104

Credit: Baseball-Reference.com

Even if you remove Baltimore Orioles catcher Matt Wieters—who's out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery—from the equation, you still have 17 above-average offensive catchers. That's enough for more than half the league, which is pretty good.

And it's not all usual suspects. A few guys—the big notables being Russell Martin, Buster Posey, Miguel Montero, Carlos Ruiz and Yadier Molina—fit that description, but then there are the other guys.

Cincinnati Reds former top prospect Devin Mesoraco is having a huge breakout season. Derek Norris has taken his game to a new level for the Oakland A's. After a promising rookie campaign in 2013, Evan Gattis is helping the Atlanta Braves forget about McCann. In his first full big league season, Mike Zunino is giving the Seattle Mariners good production.

Without guys like these, 2014 wouldn't look like such a great year for offensive catchers. To that end, well, it would be par for the course, right?

Once again, you'd be surprised.

Credit: MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Since we're only halfway through 2014, maybe you read all that thinking we're making too much of a small-sample-size fluke. What it really is, however, is a continuation of a trend.

Last March, FanGraphs' Mark Smith noted that catchers had quietly been catching up (pun kinda-sorta intended) with the rest of the league offensively. Dave Cameron, also of FanGraphs, took things from there and noted this April that the trend was holding steady.

And it still is.

While the league's catchers aren't hitting as well now as they were when Cameron checked in, FanGraphs has their collective wRC+—which does basically the same thing OPS+ does except with a base stat (wOBA) that's slightly more accurate than OPS—at 95.

That's technically below-average, but it ties 2012 for the highest mark for catchers since 2002. And all told, the last five seasons represent five of the six-best offensive seasons for catchers since then:

Catcher wRC+ Since 2002
Year Catcher wRC+
2014 95
2012 95
2013 92
2011 91
2006 90
2010 89
2008 88
2004 87
2009 87
2003 87
2005 85
2007 84
2002 83

Credit: FanGraphs

We can turn back to OPS+ for additional support. Minus Wieters, this year's collection of 17 above-average offensive catchers with at least 100 plate appearances makes it five years in a row there have been at least 17 of them. There were only two such seasons between 1998 and 2009.

It's happening somewhat quietly, but good-hitting catchers becoming plentiful is a real thing. It could have died this year with Mauer and Santana moving off catcher and guys such as McCann, Castro and Rosario falling off the radar, but MLB clearly has enough good-hitting catchers to sustain such a blow.

And that doesn't seem to be an accident.

Credit: MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

In discussing the reasons why catcher offense has been on the rise, Cameron noted a coinciding trend: the decline of the league's caught-stealing percentage. Not much has changed there, as Baseball-Reference.com tells us this year's 26.4 CS percent is on track to be the third-lowest ever recorded.

There are a number of factors at play there. But as Cameron noted, one of them could be that teams de-prioritized finding catchers who can throw.

It would have made sense to do so in the not-so-distant past. After all, why bother finding catchers who can throw out base stealers when nobody's stealing bases?

Here, check it:

Credit: Data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

It's easy to draw a line from the decline in stolen bases from 1999 to 2005 to the rise in power hitting that, for some players, involved taking various substances. In the offensive environment of the time, the stolen base was obsolete.

Thus was there incentive to de-prioritize looking for catchers who could provide value with their defense in favor of catchers who could provide value with their bats. And given that the stolen base didn't make a dramatic comeback after 2005, this still would have been the case as recently as a couple of years ago.

That's around when some of today's catchers were beginning their pro careers. And if you go back and look at old scouting reports, you will find ones that saw more offensive potential than defensive potential.

Ralph Freso/Associated Press
Yup, baseball's best framer once had "decent" receiving skills.

Take Milwaukee Brewers should-be All-Star Jonathan Lucroy. Back in 2007, Baseball America (subscription required) applauded him for being "an offensive-minded catcher" with an "average at best" arm and receiving skills that were—and this'll make close followers of Lucroy chucklemerely "decent."

Then there's the 2007 scouting report on Norris, which noted his "above-average power potential" first and foremost before noting he "needs more experience" behind the plate.

Even Posey wasn't a slam dunk as a catcher after the San Francisco Giants drafted him fifth overall in 2008. Baseball America loved his "quick bat" and "gap power" but also noted Posey was new to catching and would "need time to develop behind the plate."

You can do this with some of the guys who have come along more recently, too.

In 2011, Gattis was praised for his bat while also being knocked for having "a lot of work to do behind the plate." In 2012, quietly productive Cleveland Indians catcher Yan Gomes was praised for his bat speed while being knocked for an "average arm" and just "solid" defensive potential. Also in 2012, Zunino was a powerful catcher with an average-ish arm and a passed-ball problem.

Not all the scouting reports read like this, mind you. Wieters was touted as the real deal in every department. So was Mesoraco. Elsewhere, underrated Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez was definitely known as a defense-first catcher as a prospect.

But it's guys like these who come off as the exception to the general rule. Offensive catchers have been a better idea than ever recently, and catchers with better offensive skill sets than defensive skill sets are the players teams have targeted and developed.

And while it feels like it should be more of a deal-breaker now with stolen bases kinda-sorta back in vogue, I wouldn't expect the current status quo to change any time soon.

Reason No. 1: It's not like good defense behind the plate can't come with enough time.

Reason No. 2: With offense continuing to decline on a yearly basis, offensive catchers have gone from being a good idea to more of a necessity.

Reason No. 3: The notion of what qualifies as "good" catcher defense could be changing anyway.

That last point is one Cameron brought up, arguing that it's better for teams to have catchers who can frame strikes than catchers who can throw out runners. This makes sense, as a team is going to get more outs in a season with extra strikes than it is with thrown-out baserunners.

It so happens that a few of the guys on our radar are pretty good pitch framers. According to BaseballSavant.com, in the top 15 in called strikes outside the strike zone this season are Lucroy, Montero, Gomes, Zunino, Perez, Ruiz, Molina, Gattis and Posey.

We've come quite a ways to say it, but here it is: The catcher position is undergoing a transformation. Due to various circumstances, it's more about offense than it used to be. And due to various circumstances, it should be staying that way for a while.

Consider that one former rarity that's now plentiful. Here's hoping baseball brings back pure contact hitters next.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

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