MLB Position Power Rankings: B/R's Final Top 20 Catchers of 2017

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterOctober 5, 2017

MLB Position Power Rankings: B/R's Final Top 20 Catchers of 2017

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    After starting with the top first basemen, Bleacher Report's final position power rankings for the 2017 MLB season continues with catchers.

    The cast of characters behind the dish wasn't as star-studded as the one at the not-so-hot corner. As such, catchers will account for only 20 of the final 300 players in this year's rankings.

    Here are the ground rules:

    • Players must have logged at least 50 percent of their games at catcher.
    • Players were ranked both on the quantity and the quality of their work.
    • Hitting, defense and baserunning fall under the "quality" umbrella.
    • Defense was particularly relevant, as catcher is the most important position on the diamond. Baserunning, on the other hand, is so unimportant that it wasn't worth mentioning for most backstops.

    The rankings were a simple judgment call. Baseball Reference's version of wins above replacement is useful in this respect, but will be treated more as a guideline than the word of the baseball gods.

    Lastly, this is neither a far-reaching retrospective nor a gaze into the future. Only what happened in 2017 counts.

A Few Statistics to Know

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    In the year 2017, it's ill-advised and arguably irresponsible to talk about players in detail without using statistics to contextualize their talents and shortcomings.

    So, be warned: There are indeed statistics in these rankings.

    Many stats will simply be alluded to via links that go to relevant data at Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball and Baseball Prospectus. But a few to know are...

                                  

    Wins Above Replacement (WAR): As a stat that puts a number on a player's hitting, baserunning and fielding contributions, WAR is a good go-to in any circumstance.

    On-Base Plus Slugging Plus (OPS+): This takes a player's OPS, adjusts it for league and ballpark factors and puts it on a scale where 100 represents average. It shows how well a hitter performed relative to his peers.

    Defensive Runs Saved (DRS): It sounds like a measurement of a player's defensive quality, and that's what it is. It's the main defense component for Baseball Reference's version of WAR. Some play multiple positions, but the DRS listed for them here is that of their primary position.

    Launch Angle: This Statcast specialty measures the angle of the ball off a hitter's bat. It provides a snapshot of the shape of a hitter's swing—i.e. whether it's flat and tailored for ground balls and line drives or lofty and tailored for fly balls. The MLB average in 2017 was 11.1 degrees.

    Exit Velocity: Another Statcast specialty that measures the speed of the ball off a hitter's bat. As you'd expect, there's a strong correlation between high speeds and hitting success. The MLB average in 2017 was 86.6 miles per hour.

    Plate Discipline: Although they'll rarely be mentioned explicitly, Swing% (percentage of swings at all pitches), Z-Swing% (in-zone swing percentage) and O-Swing% (out-of-zone swing percentage) paint a picture of a hitter's approach. These figures are found at FanGraphs.

    Pull Percentage (Pull%): Also from FanGraphs, this shows the rate at which hitters pull the ball—to left field for righties and to right field for lefties. Pulling the ball is a double-edged sword: It can make a hitter vulnerable to shifts but is also by far the best avenue to power.

    Framing, Blocking and Throwing: These form the backbone of catcher defense, and Baseball Prospectus offers handy guidelines for how well catchers do with each. Framing talents can be contextualized further with catchers' in-zone (MLB average is 84.2 percent) and out-of-zone (MLB average is 7.6 percent) strike percentages.

20. Manny Pina, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

    Age: 30

    Key Stats: 107 G, 359 PA, .279/.327/.424, 95 OPS+, 9 HR, 13 DRS

    WAR: 2.6

                   

    2017 Player Report

    Was Manny Pina as big a defensive revelation as DRS suggests? Yes and no.

    "Yes" to the extent that he didn't perform poorly in any particular respect. His laser arm was his best asset, producing a 36 CS%. Meanwhile, his blocking and framing were solid. He was quite good at stealing strikes, in particular.

    But also, "no" to this extent: Apart from his throwing, nothing really jumps out about Pina's defense. Even more than others on this list, this is an excuse to take DRS with a grain of salt.

    It's no surprise that Pina's offense tailed off after his hot start. He was too aggressive to sustain that for long. But between his high launch angle and pull habit, he at least maintained a solid foundation for slugging that ultimately resulted in a respectable power output.


    Honorable Mentions: 
    James McCann (DET), Jason Castro (MIN), Caleb Joseph (BAL), Russell Martin (TOR), Evan Gattis (HOU), Brian McCann (HOU), Roberto Perez (CLE)

19. Chris Iannetta, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Age: 34

    Key Stats: 89 G, 316 PA, .254/.354/.511, 114 OPS+, 17 HR, -2 DRS

    WAR: 1.8

               

    2017 Player Report

    The Arizona Diamondbacks gave Chris Iannetta the bulk of the starts behind the dish this year. He rewarded them with one of his better offensive seasons.

    The 27.5 K% he finished with is the residue of an at-times overly patient approach mixed with a longstanding problem of not making contact against anything with spin.

    Nonetheless, Iannetta's ever-excellent eye helped him draw walks to the tune of an 11.7 BB%. He's also always been a fly-ball hitter with decent pop. Not a guy you want to make a mistake against, and his home run chart is proof that he was good about exploiting those in 2017.

    On the other side of the ball, Iannetta's defense was more reliable than flashy. He secured strikes in the zone just fine and had enough arm to do a passable job controlling the running game, posting a 24 CS%.

18. Kurt Suzuki, Atlanta Braves

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    Mark Tenally/Associated Press

    Age: 34

    Key Stats: 81 G, 309 PA, .283/.351/.536, 130 OPS+, 19 HR, 4 DRS

    WAR: 2.8

                   

    2017 Player Report

    In sharing the Altanta Braves' catching duties with Tyler Flowers in 2017, it turned out to be Kurt Suzuki's job to provide the thunder.

    After spiking in 2016, his power outright exploded this year. He made a seemingly minor mechanical tweak that made him a whole new player. He swung much more aggressively and hit the ball with a higher launch angle and with more frequency to his pull side

    That can be read as Suzuki "selling out for power," but the veteran also retained his always-reliable ability to put the ball in play. He finished with a rock-solid 12.6 K%.

    Defensively, he did Atlanta pitchers the courtesy of stealing strikes outside the zone at an elite rate. But with a low in-zone rate, 10 passed balls and a modest 24 CS%, he didn't offer many other courtesies.

17. Alex Avila, Chicago Cubs

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Age: 30

    Key Stats: 112 G, 376 PA, .264/.387/.447, 119 OPS+, 14 HR, 3 DRS

    WAR: 2.7

                   

    2017 Player Report

    Alex Avila's bat was unsustainably hot out of the gate, so the cool-down he experienced throughout 2017 was nature taking its course. Even his ever-present platoon advantage couldn't save him.

    All the same, his effort to keep his numbers afloat was twofold. For one, he was the most disciplined swinger (minimum 300 PA) in MLB with an O-Swing% of just 14.3. For two, he averaged 90.7 mph in exit velocity and registered a higher hard-hit rate than anyone except J.D. Martinez.

    Swinging almost exclusively at strikes is one reason Avila made so much solid contact. But he was also healthy for a change, which allowed him to tap into pop that was always there.

    It's harder to sing the praises of his defense. He was a reliable presence but brought little with his throwing and even less with his receiving. He rated among the worst in MLB at both securing and stealing strikes.

16. Robinson Chirinos, Texas Rangers

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Age: 33

    Key Stats: 88 G, 309 PA, .255/.360/.506, 122 OPS+, 17 HR, 4 DRS

    WAR: 2.7

                    

    2017 Player Report

    Albeit in a small sample size that came from sharing time with Jonathan Lucroy for much of the year, Robinson Chirinos was one of the best offensive catchers of 2017.

    He got more selective with his swings back in 2015 and has kept the habit up. This year it helped earn him an 11.0 BB%. Ostensibly due to good health, he also achieved the other parts of a typical power profile: a career-best launch angle and career-best exit velocity.

    For his defense, Chirinos got points from Baseball Prospectus for both his blocking and framing. The former is hard to dispute. The latter, less so.

    He was roughly average at securing strikes with a called-strike rate of 84.1 percent on pitches in the zone and one of MLB's worst at stealing strikes outside the zone. Between this and his modest 25 CS%, there are a few nits to pick with his defense.

15. Christian Vazquez, Boston Red Sox

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Age: 27

    Key Stats: 99 G, 345 PA, .290/.330/.404, 92 OPS+, 5 HR, -3 DRS

    WAR: 1.1

                  

    2017 Player Report

    Despite what DRS indicates, Christian Vazquez was actually one of the better defensive catchers of 2017.

    His arm finally back at full strength following a 2015 Tommy John operation, he gunned down 42 percent of would-be thieves. And while his 11 passed balls are evidence that he would sometimes get careless, his framing was above average both inside and outside the zone. 

    On the other side of the ball, Vazquez showed here and there how he was capable of putting a charge into the ball. But he mostly focused his hitting on making contact and knocking the ball to center and right-center. It didn't make for explosive offense, but his consistency was a nice trade-off.

    Since he was an excellent defender and an OK hitter, really the only knock on Vazquez is that he wasn't an everyday player. Otherwise, he'd place higher.

14. Martin Maldonado, Los Angeles Angels

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    Age: 31

    Key Stats: 138 G, 471 PA, .221/.276/.368, 74 OPS+, 14 HR, 10 DRS

    WAR: 1.7

                    

    2017 Player Report

    Martin Maldonado finally got a chance to show off his defense on an everyday basis in 2017. He didn't disappoint.

    It was easiest to be mesmerized by his Statcastable throwing mastery, which produced a 39 CS%. But not to be overlooked is his receiving. Despite eight passed balls, he mis-framed few pitches inside or outside the zone. Look a little closer, and you'll see he secured an elite 51.9 percent of borderline pitches for strikes.

    At the plate, Maldonado ditched his patient approach in favor of an aggressive one. That killed his walk rate and, by extension, took a big bite out of his OBP. 

    But, hey, at least he got under the ball more often with a higher launch angle and set a new career high in homers. You have to take the good with the bad, you know.

13. Austin Barnes, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Mark Cunningham/Getty Images

    Age: 27

    Key Stats: 94 G, 239 PA, .289/.414/.467, 133 OPS+, 6 HR, -2 DRS

    WAR: 2.6

                     

    2017 Player Report

    Austin Barnes was one of the Los Angeles Dodgers' secret weapons in 2017. On both sides of the ball.

    His average arm produced just a 23 CS%, sure. But he was a dandy of a target to throw to, rating well with both his blocking and his framing. In regards to the latter, only two catchers secured in-zone strikes at a higher rate than his 88.9 percent.

    Offensively, it didn't hurt that the righty swinger often had the platoon advantage when he went to the plate. But he finished with a better OPS against righties (.902) than lefties (.886), With an extremely patient approach, a great eye and an ability to spread his knocks around, Barnes was a good hitter, period.

    The biggest knock against him is that he was far from an everyday catcher. If not for that, it would be hard to view him as anything short of a star.

12. Tucker Barnhart, Cincinnati Reds

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Age: 26

    Key Stats: 121 G, 423 PA, .270/.347/.403, 96 OPS+, 7 HR, 21 DRS

    WAR: 3.4

                   

    2017 Player Report

    Don't mess with Tucker Barnhart. He's got a cannon.

    Figuratively speaking, of course. He's quick out of the crouch and makes throws that are both strong and accurate. By way of an NL-high 44 CS%, he saved more runs with his throwing than any other catcher.

    Barnhart was also in the black with his blocking, but he did have one defensive weakness in his framing. It was the most inconvenient kind of weakness, too, as he got strikes in the zone only 83.1 percent of the time. That'll frustrate any pitcher.

    Offensively, Barnhart has power that even Great American Ball Park could only amplify so much. But with a sharp eye that kept walks (9.9 BB%) coming and a contact habit that kept strikeouts (16.1 K%) at bay, he at least had the distinction of being a tough out.

11. Welington Castillo, Baltimore Orioles

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    Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

    Age: 30

    Key Stats: 96 G, 365 PA, .282/.323/.490, 115 OPS+, 20 HR, -3 DRS

    WAR: 2.1

                

    2017 Player Report

    The catching situation in Baltimore this year was such that Caleb Joseph occasionally provided the D while Welington Castillo more frequently provided the O.

    He doesn't swing a lot, and it's more so a mark of passivity than selectivity. This was another year in which he didn't walk (6.0 BB%) much or avoid strikeouts (26.0 K%). As always, it was common to see Castillo going down looking.

    Power was once again Castillo's saving grace. Though he got a big boost from Oriole Park at Camden Yards, he generated pop with a high launch angle and above-average pull rate. He kept the left field bleachers stocked with souvenirs.

    Castillo's DRS is off the mark to at least one notable extent, as he cut down runners to the tune of an MLB-best 49 CS%. He did have an issue with his framing, though, as he secured just 82.7 percent of pitches in the zone for strikes.

10. Austin Hedges, San Diego Padres

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Age: 25

    Key Stats: 120 G, 417 PA, .214/.262/.398, 74 OPS+, 18 HR, 7 DRS

    WAR: 0.9

                          

    2017 Player Report

    His DRS be damned, Baseball Prospectus' metrics present a compelling argument for Austin Hedges as the best defensive catcher of 2017.

    That's largely thanks to his framing. He secured in-zone strikes at an 89 percent clip and was also one of the best at stealing strikes outside the zone. Quick actions and a strong, accurate arm helped him nab 37 percent of would-be thieves. His athleticism made him a good blocker, to boot.

    Hedges' next goal must be improving his offensive approach. He swung and chased way too often in 2017, resulting in 122 strikeouts to just 23 walks.

    The mashing can stay, though. Hedges broke out with 21 homers at Triple-A in 2016 and showed how he does it in cranking 18 homers in the majors this year: a high launch angle an ability to drive the ball to both sides of center field.

9. Salvador Perez, Kansas City Royals

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Age: 27

    Key Stats: 129 G, 499 PA, .268/.297/.495, 105 OPS+, 27 HR, 6 DRS

    WAR: 2.5

                 

    2017 Player Report

    Salvador Perez hit the disabled list with an intercostal strain in August, so 2017 ended up being a rare year in which he wasn't an immovable object behind the dish.

    On the bright side, he showed more power when he did play. There's plenty of power baked into his 6'3", 240-pound frame, and he unleashed it with the help of a high launch angle and a career-high pull rate.

    However, trying to pull everything in the air is a dangerous way to live if you're not careful. In light of his extreme swing and chase rates, "careful" isn't a good word to describe Perez's approach.

    And despite his blocking and throwing abilities, Perez's defense continues to come with a major flaw. He was once again one of MLB's worst framers, mainly due to his struggles to secure strikes. It doesn't help that umpires have to see over his big frame, but the low strike in particular is one that often escapes him.

8. Willson Contreras, Chicago Cubs

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    Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

    Age: 25

    Key Stats: 117 G, 428 PA, .276/.356/.499, 119 OPS+, 21 HR, 7 DRS

    WAR: 3.9

                 

    2017 Player Report

    Even despite a hamstring injury that took him off the field for a while, Willson Contreras went from being a solid player before the All-Star break to a full-on star after the break.

    He more consistently targeted pitches in the strike zone and watched his performance improve across the board. His BB% rose from 8.3 to 14.7. His K% fell from 25.9 to 17.3. His exit velocity ballooned from 86.1 mph to 89.1 mph.

    In short, the youngster became the offensive force he was supposed to become in his first full major league season. Now all he needs to do is work on his defense.

    He has quick actions and a terrific arm, but his nine throwing errors underscores an accuracy issue. He also must get better at framing, starting with an in-zone habit that produced just an 81.3 called-strike percentage in 2017.

7. Mike Zunino, Seattle Mariners

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    Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    Age: 26

    Key Stats: 124 G, 435 PA, .251/.331/.509, 123 OPS+, 25 HR, 1 DRS

    WAR: 3.3

                            

    2017 Player Report

    Mike Zunino tries to obliterate everything he swings at, which comes with both bad news and good news.

    The bad news is encapsulated in the 36.8 K% with which he finished. He was disciplined enough, but that only matters so much when you're one of the worst in MLB at making contact inside the strike zone.

    That, however, was partially because of the ingredients necessary to produce his power. Maintaining one of MLB's highest launch angles barred him from being direct to the ball, but it kept his batted balls off the ground and resulted in frequent displays of his pop. Hence, 52 percent of his hits going for extra bases.

    Zunino's defense wasn't great, but it was good enough for the Seattle Mariners to justify keeping his bat in the lineup. Keeping balls in front of him was his big weakness, but he made up for it with passable throwing (24 CS%) and framing, particularly inside the zone.

6. Yasmani Grandal, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Age: 28

    Key Stats: 129 G, 482 PA, .247/.308/.459, 100 OPS+, 22 HR, 5 DRS

    WAR: 2.2

                

    2017 Player Report

    Yasmani Grandal was a different hitter in 2017, and not in a good way.

    Pitchers lived on the outer half against him, forcing him into a more aggressive approach that dropped his BB% to 8.3. One would hope that more power would be the trade-off, but his launch angle didn't budge and his exit velocity got worse. That led to a step down from last year's 27 dingers.

    Credit where it's due, though: Grandal remained a solid hitter by catcher standards. And he continued to do good work behind the plate as well.

    He did allow an MLB-high 16 passed balls, but his elite framing more than made up for that. And while Chris Anders of SB Nation pointed out that Grandal only deserved so much credit, he did up his CS% to a career-high 32 percent.

5. Tyler Flowers, Atlanta Braves

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    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Age: 31

    Key Stats: 99 G, 370 PA, .281/.378/.445, 117 OPS+, 12 HR, -9 DRS

    WAR: 2.2

                

    2017 Player Report

    Never mind Tyler Flowers' negative DRS. Though he can be criticized for his throwing and blocking, he did more good than harm because of his framing.

    He accounted for the most framing runs of any catcher at Baseball Prospectus, and it checks out. He was elite at both securing and stealing strikes, and his MLB-high 54.4 called-strike rate on borderline pitches proves he didn't only get easy calls.

    "You don't know which pitch is going to change the game, but I know one of them is going to change the game," Flowers told Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer.

    The veteran also had a career year on offense. He became more proactive attacking pitches in the strike zone, and it helped cut his K% down to 22.0. Given that he already had a talent for exit velocity, that's really all he needed to do to take off.

4. Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Denis Poroy/Getty Images

    Age: 35

    Key Stats: 136 G, 543 PA, .273/.312/.439, 96 OPS+, 18 HR, 3 DRS

    WAR: 2.0

               

    2017 Player Report

    Catcher is a position that'll chew guys up and spit them out. Yadier Molina, however, just keeps going.

    This was yet another year in which the veteran was a multitalented defensive stalwart. His legendary arm rebounded from a down 2016 to post a 36 CS%. He also rated well as a blocker and framer, faring especially well at stealing strikes outside the zone.

    On the other side of the ball, Molina retained his usual balance of aggression and contact. But the intriguing storyline is the power surge that resulted in his most homers since 2012. He claimed it was simply because he was healthy, but upping his launch angle and pull rate also helped.

    The obligatory "Yeah, but" is that neither Molina's defense nor his offense are in peak condition any longer. But the fact that he can still play as often and as well as he does is nothing short of astounding.

3. J.T. Realmuto, Miami Marlins

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Age: 26

    Key Stats: 141 G, 579 PA, .278/.332/.451, 109 OPS+, 17 HR, -2 DRS

    WAR: 3.6

        

    2017 Player Report

    Here's one thing J.T. Realmuto has that other catchers don't: athleticism.

    With an average sprint of 28.6 feet per second, he was easily the fastest catcher of 2017. And, thus, arguably the best baserunner. And because he pairs his quick legs with a strong arm, he can register some eye-popping pop times. That's where his 32 CS% came from.

    Meanwhile, Realmuto is also developing real power. He has decent pop, and his increasing launch angles and pull rates are two reasons why the 17 homers he hit this year won't remain a career high for long.

    This doesn't mean Realmuto is devoid of nits to pick. He's too aggressive at the plate. On defense, his receiving lags behind his throwing. He blocks balls well but was roughly average at securing and stealing strikes in 2017.

2. Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees

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    Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    Age: 24

    Key Stats: 122 G, 525 PA, .278/.345/.531, 126 OPS+, 33 HR, 0 DRS

    WAR: 4.1

               

    2017 Player Report

    The extreme power tear that Gary Sanchez went on in 2016 turned out to be a sign of things to come.

    He went fishing more often than is recommended but otherwise had all the ingredients for extreme power: a higher launch angle, excellent exit velocity and a way-above-average pull rate. He did crush some balls to right field, but he mostly spent the season crushing pitches to left.

    It can't go unmentioned that Sanchez's defense got him benched in August. His 16 passed balls reflect poorly on him. This was allegedly caused by decreased flexibility after a winter of pumping iron but often seemed to be simple carelessness.

    Yet his defense wasn't a disaster. He used his arm cannon to post a 38 CS%. And while there's room for improvement with his framing, he did secure a solid 85.6 percent of in-zone pitches for strikes.

1. Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Age: 30

    Key Stats: 140 G, 568 PA, .320/.400/.462, 129 OPS+, 12 HR, -1 DRS

    WAR: 4.0

                     

    2017 Player Report

    Once one of MLB's most celebrated players, Buster Posey is now one of MLB's most underappreciated players.

    He may not be getting in on MLB's power craze, but any guy who can rock an average over .300 with a .400 OBP is living right in his own way. In 2017, Posey's way involved fine-tuning his approach to produce nearly as many walks (61) as strikeouts (66) with swings that produced solid contact to all fields.

    Elsewhere, don't put too much stock into that number in the DRS column.

    Posey's framing did take a tumble, as he just couldn't get strikes outside the zone like he did in 2015 and 2016. But he allowed only one passed ball and also controlled the running game with a 38 CS%. And as per usual, he played a solid first base when he wasn't catching.

    Let there be no debate about it: This guy is the best catcher there is.

                  

    UP NEXT: The Top 25 Second Basemen on Tuesday, October 10