Catching Bad Luck: The Ill Effects of Keeping Elite Players Behind the Dish

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Catching Bad Luck: The Ill Effects of Keeping Elite Players Behind the Dish
Rob Carr/Getty Images
Buster Posey may need to hang up his catcher's gear for good following his injury.

Buster Posey’s season appears pretty much over; that much we know for sure.

What is still up in the air is whether or not Buster Posey should ever be the full time catcher again In Major League Baseball.

Catching is a difficult position, and certainly the most physically grueling job in baseball. Pitchers have sore arms every five days, but catchers are bombarded every inning by foul balls and wild pitches. Those turn into concussions, sprains or a case of "grit your teeth and swear you feel fine."  

Freak injuries happen anywhere on the field—you can break a wrist diving for a ball or take a knee to the head while sliding—but it’s the accumulation of wear and tear which is the most difficult on the catcher.

Major League Baseball is finding itself with a few cases of elite players who are stuck in the grueling job of catching. There’s a number of reasons why that’s a bad idea.

General Managers have to look at what’s best right now, and what’s best later on. Putting an outstanding player in as catcher as opposed to any other position on the field loses at both. 

Catchers are bombarded nightly, and just the natural wear and tear on their body is not conducive with keeping that outstanding player on the field every night.

Jorge Posada, one of the most durable catchers of recent times, only played more than 145 games once in his career. In several seasons, he played as few as 111 games. That’s between 17 and 51 games each season that you keep that player on the bench. 

For a team like the Giants or the Twins, who have a catcher hitting in the heart of the order, that’s 17 to 51 games each season you need to shuffle the lineup and remove an outstanding hitter. 

Move them out of catcher, keep them in the lineup. It’s best for the ball club.

The other issue facing GM’s is trying to win in the future. Joe Mauer has been an outstanding catcher for the Twins for many years. They signed him to a lucrative longterm deal, and this year they’re really feeling the effects.

In the first year of his eight-year extension, he’s only batted .235 in the nine games he’s been healthy enough to play in. When he went on the disabled list, the claim was that his tired legs were linked to a viral infection. 

A month and a half later, and people are still wondering what’s up with Joe Mauer. In the first year of an eight-year extension, it is not what you want to be seeing.

Of course, Mauer is just one name, and there are plenty of others for catchers who have been able to catch for a long time. But most of those names are ones like Greg Zaun, the Molina family, Varitek and a multitude of other great defensive catchers who weren’t expected to be offensive catalysts for their team.

Even Jorge Posada was never usually a three or four hitter for the Yankees, more often in the fifth or sixth spot on their teams. The Yankees of the past 16 seasons usually had enough weapons in their lineup to get by on a day off for their catcher.

For every HOF catcher who you can recall from decades ago who could catch and hit at the elite level, there are hundreds more examples of catchers who could just do one or the other. Players like that are pretty unusual.

Even the Washington Nationals are starting to see this. Their number one overall draft pick, Bryce Harper, has been moved from catcher to the OF. Partly this was done to fast-track his career to the Majors as he had less to learn about OF than catching, but also it was to protect their investment. Millions of dollars are already invested in him, and they don’t want to see a potential franchise star athlete and league MVP fall short of potential because of leg issues. 

For the Yankees and Jose Montero, it’s something to consider down the road as well. For the Giants, they’re going to have to make the move now that a freak injury has happened to Buster Posey.

Naturally, this will be a case by case argument. GM’s will need to look at their players, and evaluate whether they need their added boost in the catcher position immediately, ala the 2010 Giants with Buster Posey, or whether a long term move to a different position would be best. 

Teams already have to make this choice, and players are already showing the ill effects of what can happen by catching for too long. It’s hard on the body and if players manage to avoid the long term freak injury. they’ll still be bogged down by the short term nagging ones that will hurt their output.

For teams on small budgets who are throwing lots of money at these elite players, they need to get the best return on their investment that they possibly can. It’s better to have a player like that for many years of full seasons rather than ending up with a broken down old catcher who can’t perform.

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