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What's Behind the Decline in MLB Catchers at the Plate?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJuly 26, 2016

Yadier Molina isn't the hitter he once was, and other tales from a struggling offensive position.
Yadier Molina isn't the hitter he once was, and other tales from a struggling offensive position.John Minchillo/Associated Press

Things were looking dicey for a while, but offense has come back to Major League Baseball. Almost everywhere you look, hitters are hitting again.

But why the "almost," you ask? Because behind the plate is a place, and it's where hitters are still in a rut.

It's easy to miss that in light of how much offense has come roaring back in 2015 and 2016. The league followed a .700 OPS in 2014, its lowest since 1989, with a .721 OPS in 2015. In 2016, the league's OPS is up to .739, its highest since 2009.

But catchers aren't pulling their weight. Excluding pitchers and including designated hitters, it's the only offensive position that's not managing an OPS safely above .700:

The good news, such as it is, is that the .694 OPS catchers have in 2016 is actually an improvement over their .682 mark from 2015. But this is still slated to be the fourth straight season in which the catcher OPS finishes below .700. They regularly topped a .700 OPS between 1993 and 2012, so that's not good.

Also, that .694 OPS isn't actually an improvement when put into proper context using weighted runs created plus (wRC+). It's a metric that puts offensive production on a scale where league average is denoted by an even 100 and anything lower than that is below average. As far as it's concerned, the progression for catcher offense since 2011 looks like this:

  • 2011: 92
  • 2012: 95
  • 2013: 92
  • 2014: 93
  • 2015: 85
  • 2016: 84

It's nothing new for catchers to lag behind league average on offense, but they're now lagging way behind. The struggle was superficial. Now it's real.

One problem is the old guard of good-hitting catchers isn't there anymore. Yadier Molina, Matt Wieters, Russell Martin, Carlos Ruiz, Miguel Montero and Yan Gomes are still catching, but no longer hitting. Mike Napoli, Joe Mauer and Carlos Santana are still hitting, but no longer catching.

Matt Wieters averaged a .754 OPS between 2011 and 2014. He's at .709 in 2016.
Matt Wieters averaged a .754 OPS between 2011 and 2014. He's at .709 in 2016.Nick Wass/Associated Press

This was bound to happen eventually. Good-hitting catchers are easy to appreciate in their time, but their time doesn't last that long. Simply playing the position beats the hell out of them. That might have been a badge of honor for catchers in the past. But now it's something to be realistic about.

Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman John Jaso, a former catcher, explained to Fernando Perez of Vice Sports: 

Catching isn't for everyone, it's a lot to ask of a player. If I was a GM and I had a catcher who had a chance to be a really great hitter, I'd make him change positions. Why put those miles on his body? What are the chances you'll get a catcher who'll be Yadier Molina behind the plate and also hit like Yadi?

Regardless, the fading of the old guard puts baseball in a position to welcome a new guard of good-hitting catchers. The problem is that's just not happening. 

Buster Posey, Jonathan Lucroy and Brian McCann are still getting it done, and Wilson Ramos, Salvador Perez and Stephen Vogt are having nice seasons as well. But none of them are young up-and-comers, which is something the league badly needs at catcher.

Here's a look at how many catcher plate appearances have gone to catchers ages 25 and younger, and how they've done relative to their peers: 

Young Catcher Production: 2011-16
Year25-and-Under PA%All C wRC+25-and-Under wRC+
201124.492104
201222.895100
201320.69289
201420.49389
201521.08575
201614.58479
FanGraphs

Between 2011 and 2014, young catchers accounted for a decent amount of the plate appearances for all catchers, and were generally capable of keeping up. But now young catchers are scarce and unproductive to boot.

This is in contrast to what's going on everywhere else, as young hitters are outproducing older hitters in 2016. But at catcher, 25-year-old Miami Marlins backstop J.T. Realmuto is the only young everyday player who's hit well while catching exclusively.

It's a situation that makes it look like the flow of good-hitting catchers from the minors to the majors got squeezed somewhere along the line. And that may not be a mirage.

Consider what happened in 2010, for example. That was the year Posey arrived and began carving out his reputation as the game's best catcher, but it was also the year the Washington Nationals got Bryce Harper out of the crouch immediately after drafting him No. 1 overall. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo cited the Jaso defense.

"We're going to take the rigor and the pressures of learning the position, the difficult position of catcher, away from him," Rizzo said, per the Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com), "and really let him concentrate on the offensive part of the game and let his athleticism take over as an outfielder."

That kind of attitude is one thing barring the position from getting good young hitters. Beyond that, there's also a different emphasis on what kind of defense is needed to keep a good hitter in the crouch.

Willson Contreras is a good-hitting young catcher who may not be cut out for catcher.
Willson Contreras is a good-hitting young catcher who may not be cut out for catcher.Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Take Willson Contreras, for example. Chicago Cubs skipper Joe Maddon told Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune that Contreras is still a part of the team's plans at catcher, but he's played a lot of left field and some first base. And it's no surprise that he has.

Contreras is a fine hitter with a lethal arm, which might have made keeping him at catcher a no-brainer in years past. But as Dave Cameron covered at FanGraphs in 2014, today's emphasis on strike framing is coinciding with a steady decline in caught-stealing rate. That suggests teams would rather have a good receiver than a good thrower behind the plate.

It so happens that poor receiving has been a knock on Contreras. It's also one of the knocks on Kyle Schwarber, who the Cubs also moved off catcher after promoting him to the majors. Same goes for Blake Swihart, whose future with the Boston Red Sox may be in the outfield.

Similar futures may await some of the top catching prospects in the minors. Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds farm hands Reese McGuire and Tyler Stephenson, respectively, are regarded as well-rounded catchers. But for Gary Sanchez (New York Yankees), Jorge Alfaro (Philadelphia Phillies), Max Pentecost (Toronto Blue Jays) and Jacob Nottingham (Milwaukee Brewers), defensive questions may one day lead their parent teams to move their quality bats out from behind home.

Things might be different if teams needed to worry about getting as many quality bats into their lineups as possible, as was the case while offense was getting harder to find between 2010 and 2014. But for reasons discussed above, it's not anymore. With offense back up elsewhere, teams can afford to treat the catcher spot like what it is: the sport's most important defensive position.

What's happening now looks like a perfect storm of circumstances conspiring to kill catcher production. But don't assume the storm will last forever.

Although the shift in what teams are looking for behind the plate seems like a bad thing for catcher offense right now, the Cameron article referenced above actually highlighted it as a good thing. The new demands could be just as likely to attract good bats to catcher as they are to drive them away. We need more time to pass before we can tell one way or the other.

Besides, virtually nothing in baseball is permanent. It was just last year that shortstop seemed to be a dying offensive position. Now shortstops are having their best offensive season in a century.

So, just wait. Catcher offense is dead, but it doesn't have to stay that way.

   

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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