2020 Positional Power Rankings: Catcher

After Dan Szymborski and Craig Edwards surveyed the state of second and third base yesterday, our positional power rankings continue with a look at catcher.

Catcher is a hard position to project even at the best of times — though we are getting better at it — and that difficulty is compounded this year by a short season and the availability of ever-more roster spots at which to stash a backup or two. Taking those complications together, I’d encourage you to take these rankings with a dollop of salt. There’s value in taking a close look at the particular mix of players each team is bringing into this campaign, but it’s probably best understood as an effort to document the catching situation league-wide, bucket teams into tiers, and sketch out the rough outlines of teams’ depth at this position. As such, try not to dwell overly long on the ordinal rankings or the team WAR figures that fuel them; the differences are quite small in some cases.

So what is the league-wide situation at catcher? Given the continued presence of true standouts like Yasmani Grandal and J.T. Realmuto it isn’t all bad, but I think it’s fair to characterize the overall situation as a bit of an ebb tide. As recently as a few years ago, we were treated to career seasons from the likes of Yan Gomes, Rene Rivera, Russell Martin, Buster Posey, and Jonathan Lucroy, with Salvador Perez and Yadier Molina not far off their peaks as well. Now, Martin is unsigned, Posey has opted out, and the rest of the players who were so recently putting up five-win seasons are shadows of their former selves. Catchers as a group generated just 54.3 WAR last year, which, while a five-win improvement over 2018’s figure, was lower than any other season in the last 12.

Meanwhile, the improvement in WAR last year wasn’t accompanied by any major shift in offensive performance (2019’s catchers posted an 85 wRC+ virtually indistinguishable from 2018’s 84), as teams have continued to double down on their strategy of running defense-first framers out for enough of their overall plate appearances to send you screaming to a few Mike Piazza YouTube highlights. That trend will likely change soon, when automatic strike calling comes to the league, but for now teams seem sufficiently convinced of the value of stealing strikes that they’re willing to put up with relatively anemic offensive performance from the position.

Still, squint at the next five years and you’ll find some hope. Adley Rutschman, Joey Bart, and Luis Campusano are all reasonably likely to make their debuts in 2021 (or 2022 at the latest) and a few somewhat lesser lights like Sean Murphy, Tyler Stephenson, and Keibert Ruiz could get time as soon as this year. Outside of Rutschman and Bart, there probably aren’t any big stars in the upcoming cohort, but that’s the kind of statement that only takes one developmental leap to disprove. 2020 will be remembered as an extraordinarily strange year in baseball for a lot of reasons, and as a transitional year for the league’s backstops.

Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he works with communities around the world to end homelessness.

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Cave Dameron
3 years ago

I like to catch up 😉 on these power rankings with my morning coffee.