2021 Positional Power Rankings: Catcher

Yesterday, RJ McDaniel and Jason Martinez examined the league’s second and third basemen. Today, we wrap up the infield positions, starting with catcher.

It’s all in the framing. The baseball industry’s ability to quantify catchers’ skill at converting borderline pitches into strikes has had a noticeable effect on the player pool, weeding out good-hit, bad-defense backstops — where have you gone, Ryan Doumit? — while lowering the bar for what constitutes acceptable offense. The short season, with its small samples, was particularly weird in this regard, as Jeff Mathis, the majors’ worst hitter over the past decade or so, outhit eight catchers who had at least 60 PA.

Short-season anomalies aside, the change in offensive expectations has been particularly noticeable during the Statcast era. While catchers as a group combined for about a 91 wRC+ from 2008 (the start of the PITCHf/x era) through 2014, that average dropped a full four points from 2015-19 as teams became more focused upon this area, though last year’s 92 WRC+ probably owed to short-season weirdness. As that offensive bar has been lowered, the gap between the majors’ best framer and the worst has shrunk; where it was nearly 98 runs in 2008, and an average of 57 runs from 2009-14, the gap was about 34 runs from 2017-19, and just 9.2 runs last year. Prorating that last figure to 24.8 runs over a full season, here’s the picture:

All of which is to say that true studs at the position are harder to find. In our regression-heavy rankings, only Yasmani Grandal and J.T. Realmuto project to top 3.0 WAR, with just five other catchers topping 2.0 including the relatively young Sean Murphy and Will Smith. Where we’ve seen a lot of under-25 talent let loose at other positions, we appear to have a dearth of that at catcher, with only four such players getting 60 PA last year, compared to five 35 and older.

Help is on the way, however, with the Orioles’ Adley Rutschman (number three on our Top 100 Prospects list, and 23 years old) likely to debut this year and six other Top-100 prospects having already gotten their feet wet last year; the Giants’ Joey Bart needs more seasoning but the Twins’ Ryan Jeffers will share the starting job, and the Blue Jays’ Alejandro Kirk seems likely to stick due to his bat.

With the electronic strike zone being tested in the Low-A Southeast League (gah, the generic names) and possible in the majors by 2023, it may not be long before we’re forced to confront another sea change in catcher evaluation, but for the moment, here’s how things stand.

2021 Positional Power Rankings – C
1. White Sox
Yasmani Grandal 461 .230 .347 .438 .336 6.1 -2.1 3.3 4.0
Jonathan Lucroy 109 .237 .303 .359 .285 -3.3 -0.2 -0.5 0.1
Zack Collins 64 .200 .316 .370 .298 -1.2 -0.0 -0.4 0.2
Yermín Mercedes 6 .246 .306 .415 .304 -0.1 -0.0 -0.0 0.0
Total 640 .228 .336 .417 .323 1.5 -2.3 2.3 4.3

Despite the age gap between the 32-year-old Grandal and the 30-year-old J.T. Realmuto, the White Sox backstop gets the top spot here primarily on the basis of pitch framing. Roughly speaking, Grandal had a two-run advantage over Realmuto in terms of our 2020 framing data, which by itself means less than his 11-run advantage over the past two seasons and 20-run advantage over the past three; that consistent gap finds its way into the projections. Grandal’s framing should continue to help the young White Sox rotation, but it’s worth noting that his offense offers some causes for concern, including last year’s drops in barrel rate (from 11.3% to 7.6%) and xwOBA (from .369 to .313) and his spiking strikeout rate (from 22.0% to 29.9%).

Lucroy didn’t take a single plate appearance and played all of two innings in 2020, his age-34 season and his first after undergoing surgery to replace a herniated disc in his neck, a problem he believes caused a drastic three-year decline on both sides of the ball; our single-season framing runs record holder (41.5 in 2011) dropped nearly 30 runs in that department from ’14 (18.2) to ’17 (-10.1). If he’s healthy again, he could open up more DH time for Grandal, who until last season had been one of the majors’ most heavily worked catchers in recent years. Collins, a 26-year-old lefty swinger, and Mercedes, a 28-year-old righty, are vying for a bench role as a part-time first baseman who can DH and spot at catcher, albeit with defensive abilities charitably described as “suspect.”

2. Phillies
J.T. Realmuto 467 .267 .330 .477 .337 4.2 1.0 3.6 3.5
Andrew Knapp 141 .223 .333 .353 .301 -3.2 -0.1 -1.6 0.1
Jeff Mathis 32 .180 .234 .298 .229 -2.7 -0.0 -0.1 -0.1
Total 640 .253 .326 .442 .324 -1.6 0.9 1.9 3.6

Career highs in barrel rate (13.6%), walk rate (8.2%) and on-base percentage (.349), plus near-highs in slugging percentage (.491) and wRC+ (125) helped Realmuto lead NL catchers in WAR (1.7) for the third year in a row. Defensively adept if not elite, he leads all major league catchers in that span, with a 2.5-WAR margin over Grandal (12.4 to 9.9), so it’s fair to quibble with the rankings here given the pair’s ages. Anyway, in a weak free agent market, he returned to the Phillies while netting the highest average annual value of any contract for a catcher ($23.1 million), and while there’s always reason to be concerned with such investments, it’s worth pointing out his comparatively low mileage — 648 games caught through his age-29 season — at this stage. Note that he fractured his right thumb on February 18, making his Grapefruit League debut just yesterday (he went 1-for-2 with a walk and an RBI), though the team is still optimistic about his Opening Day availability.

Knapp, the owner of a 78 wRC+ through his first three seasons, somehow managed a 133 wRC+ in all of 89 PA last year. A subpar defender by multiple measures, he’s facing a challenge for backup duties from Mathis, the ultimate no-hit, good-glove receiver.

3. Dodgers
Will Smith 358 .240 .331 .475 .337 5.2 -0.4 1.7 2.0
Austin Barnes 230 .224 .326 .347 .295 -5.0 -0.1 0.6 1.1
Keibert Ruiz 51 .256 .308 .392 .299 -1.0 -0.0 0.0 0.2
Total 640 .236 .327 .422 .319 -0.7 -0.5 2.3 3.3

After an exceptional debut in 2019, Smith found ways to improve last year, starting with his already-outstanding plate discipline, as he swung at a Votto-esque 18.2% of pitches outside the zone, and whiffed on just 5.7% of his swings. Thus his walk rate rose over five points to 14.6% while his strikeout rate dropped over 10 points to 16.6%. His .401 OBP and 163 wRC+ led all catchers, while his .579 SLG ranked second; underlying that, his barrel rate, hard-hit rate, xSLG, and xwOBA ranged from the 84th to 95th percentiles. Defensively, his framing tied for a major league-worst -4.5 runs, and he nabbed just 23% of stolen base attempts, which give him some things to work on. But this is a star in the making.

Barnes had a comparatively good year both at the plate and behind it. His 94 wRC+ was his highest since his rookie season, and while he slugged just .314, his 12.% walk rate boosted his OPB to .353. Meanwhile, his 3.2 framing runs placed sixth despite his ranking 25th in innings caught, and he didn’t have a single passed ball. Ruiz, who ranked 80th on our Top 100 Prospects list, is an excellent pitch framer and receiver, with a contact-centric approach at the plate that doesn’t offer a ton of power. He profiles as an everyday catcher, and may be a trade centerpiece in the making.

4. Red Sox
Christian Vázquez 416 .261 .313 .419 .310 -6.8 -1.1 4.2 2.6
Kevin Plawecki 192 .256 .327 .401 .312 -2.8 -0.5 -0.5 0.5
Chris Herrmann 19 .208 .296 .346 .280 -0.8 -0.0 0.0 0.0
Connor Wong 13 .223 .279 .386 .282 -0.5 -0.0 -0.1 0.0
Total 640 .257 .316 .411 .309 -10.9 -1.6 3.6 3.1

For the second year in a row, Vázquez topped a 100 wRC+, hitting for a career-best 115 (.283/.344/.457). His contact stats are nothing to write home about, but he’s become a more disciplined hitter who elevates the ball with greater frequency. Pair that with his strong framing (a big league-best 4.7 runs in 2020 and a tie for third in three-year rankings at 27.0 runs) and you’ve got a top-five catcher.

Plawecki’s .403 BABIP last year, which fueled a .341/.393/.463 line in 89 PA, belongs in the annals of unsustainable performances, particularly given his 20th-percentile sprint speed. As light-hitting replacement level catchers go, he’s not much of a framer, 10 runs below average over the past four years. Hermann is a journeyman with a career 67 wRC+ and framing rates consistently in the red, while Wong, who was acquired from the Dodgers in the Mookie Betts trade, is a going-on-25-year-old prospect with some multipositional capability; he spent all of last year catching at Boston’s alternate site after reaching Double-A in mid-2019.

5. Blue Jays
Danny Jansen 352 .233 .322 .414 .315 -2.1 -0.2 0.0 1.9
Alejandro Kirk 179 .272 .340 .445 .332 1.6 -0.1 0.1 1.0
Reese McGuire 109 .224 .282 .365 .276 -4.3 -0.0 0.0 0.2
Total 640 .242 .320 .414 .313 -4.8 -0.4 0.1 3.1

The Blue Jays are awash in young catchers, with Jansen and McGuire heading into their age-26 season and Kirk, who made the leap from A-ball to the majors last year, just 22. Jansen’s offense disappointed in 2020, but for different reasons than in ’19. His 33.3% pull rate represented a 20-point drop, and he produced an anemic 85.1 mph average exit velocity, with his BABIP and batting average both slipping below the Mendoza Line (.183/.313/.358). But even so, improved pop and patience helped him boost his wRC+ 18 points, to a mark of 86. He still projects well on both sides of the ball, even after an eight-run dip in framing runs from 2019 to ’20.

Kirk, listed at 5-foot-8, 265 pounds, is often described in terms that mention bowling balls or absolute units, and while there’s “skepticism regarding his long-term athletic viability” according to Eric Longenhagen, the dude can really hit, with an all-fields, doubles-oriented approach. He’s passable enough as a defender to profile as an everyday player, and could overtake McGuire, a glove-first backup whose offense is at least better than last year’s 3-for-41 ordeal suggests; that McGuire is out of options could keep him in the majors to start the season, however.

6. Athletics
Sean Murphy 410 .241 .314 .436 .317 0.2 0.2 1.8 2.5
Aramis Garcia 166 .205 .258 .350 .260 -8.1 -0.2 0.2 0.2
Austin Allen 64 .236 .290 .412 .294 -1.2 -0.1 -0.2 0.2
Total 640 .231 .297 .410 .300 -9.1 -0.1 1.8 2.9

A 55 Future Value prospect heading into last season, Murphy improved upon his 2019 cup of coffee with a strong rookie campaign, hitting .233/.364/.457 (132 wRC+) while showing exceptional plate discipline en route to a 17.1% walk rate, and placing in the 91st percentile in both average exit velocity (92.2 mph) and hard-hit rate (49.4%). His throwing — graded as plus-plus as a prospect — wasn’t great, but his framing was above average. If he can buck his minor league injury trend, he’s a future All-Star, but it’s worth noting that he got a late jump this spring due to late-January surgery to repair a collapsed lung.

Garcia, a 2014 second-round pick by the Giants who was acquired from the Rangers in the Elvis AndrusKhris Davis trade, has whiffed in 46.8% of his 111 major league PA thus far and is third-catcher-on-the-40 material. Allen, a 27-year-old ex-Padres prospect, is a bat-first backstop whose longer-term future is at first base or DH if he can solve major league pitching; his 42 wRC+ with a 34.0% strikeout rate in 103 PA thus far makes clear that he’s got a ways to go.

7. Royals
Salvador Perez 442 .261 .294 .486 .322 -1.1 -1.0 5.2 2.4
Cam Gallagher 147 .246 .307 .366 .291 -4.4 -0.2 0.4 0.4
Meibrys Viloria 51 .226 .289 .327 .269 -2.5 -0.1 0.1 -0.0
Total 640 .255 .297 .447 .311 -8.1 -1.3 5.7 2.8

After missing all of 2019 due to Tommy John surgery and contracting COVID-19 in early July, Perez went bananas in his return on the offensive side, barreling the ball at a 13.9% clip (89th percentile) and outdoing his previous career BABIP of .283 by 92 points. He finished at .333/.353/.633, leading AL catchers with a 162 wRC+ and all catchers with 1.9 WAR. He won’t sustain that, of course, and his 1.9% walk rate suggests the OBP drop could be steep. Behind the plate, his throwing was fine and his framing around average, no small feat given both the recency of his surgery and the fact that he was 74 runs below average in framing from 2011-19. He’s fresh off a four-year, $82 million extension, in case you were wondering how committed the Royals are to the going-on-31-year-old backstop.

Rarely used except when Perez is down, Gallagher isn’t much of a hitter, but he’s an above-average defender, and you should see him smash watermelons. Viloria is a 24-year-old lefty swinger who could really use more time in the minors given just 63 games above High-A. Contrary to some reports, it appears that he does have a minor league option remaining.

8. Twins
Ryan Jeffers 320 .249 .313 .415 .310 -3.6 -0.2 0.5 1.4
Mitch Garver 294 .236 .321 .442 .323 -0.2 -0.4 -2.3 1.1
Willians Astudillo 26 .283 .314 .453 .321 -0.0 -0.1 0.1 0.1
Total 640 .245 .317 .428 .317 -3.9 -0.6 -1.8 2.7

A 2018 second-round pick who had just 24 games of Double-A experience, Jeffers acquitted himself well amid Garver’s misery and enters the year ranked 59th on our Top 100 Prospects list. A 6-foot-4, 230-pound behemoth, he has above-average power but closer to a fringe-average hit tool; he took to the organization’s one-knee style of receiving, frames the ball well, and profiles as an everyday catcher. It appears as though he and Garver, both of whom swing righty, will share the starting job.

Garver enjoyed quite a breakout in 2019, clubbing 31 homers and slugging .630 in 359 PA while improving subpar framing by 10 runs. Practically everything went wrong in his follow-up; he scuffled mightily even before missing a month due to an intercostal strain, and finished with an anemic .167/.247/.264 line and a 45.7% strikeout rate. He actually maintained his plate discipline and hit the ball hard when he made contact. That, the fact that his skid was just 81 PA, and the possibility of better health give him reasonable hope for a rebound. Astudillo is still around as an entertaining jack-of-all-trades who can catch, though he doesn’t figure to get much time behind the dish.

9. Padres
Austin Nola 326 .249 .328 .392 .309 -3.8 -0.1 -0.6 1.4
Victor Caratini 205 .250 .328 .388 .308 -2.5 -0.2 -0.3 0.8
Luis Campusano 109 .253 .314 .395 .303 -1.8 -0.1 -0.2 0.3
Total 640 .250 .326 .391 .308 -8.1 -0.4 -1.1 2.6

Nola’s rise from a late-blooming, second-division utilityman who could catch to starting backstop on a potential powerhouse is dizzying. After establishing himself with the Mariners in 2019, Nola was impressive in his first substantial major league time behind the plate at age 30, ranking among the game’s top 10 in framing via FanGraphs’ stats and tied for second in overall catcher defense by Baseball Prospectus’ numbers. He showed that his solid introduction at the plate was no fluke either, more than doubling his barrel rate as his xwOBA shot from .301 to .361. A fractured middle finger on his left hand puts his Opening Day status in doubt; he can catch but hasn’t returned to taking swings yet, though he is tracking pitches in the batter’s box.

Caratini became Yu Darvish’s personal catcher in Chicago, catching 31 of his last 43 starts and 26 in a row including all 12 in Darvish’s Cy Young-caliber 2020 campaign. The relationship figures to continue in San Diego, along with more work backing up Nola. Caratini is an above-average receiver, but the power he showed in 2019 (11 homers, .447 SLG) deserted him last year. Righties ate the switch-hitter’s lunch; he owns an 85 wRC+ against them for his career, compared to 101 against lefties. Campusano, a 22-year-old 2017 second-round pick, homered in his major league debut, which happened to not only be his only major league game thus far but his first game above High-A.

10. Giants
Buster Posey 397 .261 .330 .371 .303 -6.6 -1.1 3.2 2.0
Curt Casali 154 .230 .314 .366 .295 -3.6 -0.1 -0.7 0.3
Joey Bart 77 .242 .290 .398 .292 -2.0 -0.1 -0.3 0.2
Chadwick Tromp 13 .229 .285 .375 .281 -0.5 -0.0 -0.0 0.0
Total 640 .251 .321 .373 .299 -12.7 -1.4 2.3 2.5

Between a career-worst 2019 season in the wake of surgery to repair his right hip labrum, and then an opt-out due to the pandemic last year, Posey — who turns 34 on March 27 — is surrounded by more questions than ever, particularly as he’s been slowed by stiffness in that same hip this spring. Can he offset his fading power (.105 ISO and .375 SLG in 2018-19)? Can he restore the discipline and contact skills that deserted him as his strikeout-to-walk rate nearly doubled in that two-year span? Can he withstand the grind of catching, where his still-excellent framing (9.6 runs, tied for sixth in 2019) offset his fading bat? We’ll see, but last winter’s renovations to Oracle Park could at least help in the power department.

The 24-year-old Bart is Posey’s heir apparent, but with just 22 games at Double-A in late-2019, last year’s debut was premature, and it showed given not just his meager .233/.288/.320 line but his 36.7% strikeout rate and 2.7% walk rate in 111 PA. He’ll get the needed minor league seasoning this year. Meanwhile, Casali will back up Posey; the 32-year-old righty can hit (.260/.345/.440, 106 wRC+ from 2018-20 with the Reds) and hold his own behind the plate. Chadwick Tromp, besides being a great excuse to say the name “Chadwick Tromp,” is third-catcher material.

11. Angels
Max Stassi 333 .225 .310 .398 .304 -5.1 -0.9 -0.8 1.8
Kurt Suzuki 275 .256 .319 .419 .314 -1.8 -0.7 -4.4 0.4
Anthony Bemboom 32 .202 .279 .330 .264 -1.6 -0.1 0.2 0.0
Total 640 .237 .312 .404 .306 -8.4 -1.7 -5.0 2.3

After an abysmal season in which he hit for a 5 wRC+, Stasi rebounded to hit .278/.352/.533 (137 wRC+) with seven homers in 105 PA, an uptick supported by his Statcast numbers and drastically improved strikeout rate. The projections still say he’s most likely to wind up as something closer to the league-average hitter that he was in 2018. Pair that with his valuable defense — fifth in framing runs over the past three seasons, and number one on a prorated basis (22.6 runs per 1,000 innings, 3.6 ahead of second-ranked Austin Hedges) — and you’ve got a pretty solid catcher. After undergoing surgery to repair a torn left hip labrum, he’s returned to the field and should be good to go for Opening Day.

Though his SLG slipped to .396, Suzuki hit for a 101 wRC+ last year, his fourth straight season of average or better offensive production, but on the other side of the ball, his framing was in the red for the 12th straight year, which, considering we only have 13 years of framing data, is… something. He’s raked at a 134 wRC+ clip against lefties over the past three seasons, which gives him a decent lane towards playing time. Bemboom did go boom three times in 60 PA last year, but he’s a 31-year-old with a minor league SLG of .355, so don’t get your hopes up for more.

12. Cleveland
Roberto Pérez 378 .204 .291 .352 .279 -15.4 -1.0 6.8 1.6
Austin Hedges 198 .209 .273 .384 .277 -8.5 -0.2 1.1 0.7
Beau Taylor 64 .193 .288 .296 .260 -3.7 -0.1 -0.3 -0.0
Total 640 .205 .285 .357 .277 -27.6 -1.2 7.7 2.3

Let’s not mince words: these are three terrible hitters. Pérez, the best of them with a career wRC+ of 78, did get his wRC+ up to 99 in 2019 thanks to a 24-homer outburst, but he apparently promised not to do it again, and his .165/.264/.216 line last year marked his third out of five below the Mendoza Line and with a sub-.300 SLG. Thankfully, he’s a good defender, a two-time Gold Glove winner who’s sixth in framing runs over the past three seasons, and better than average at blocking and throwing according to BP’s catching metrics.

Hedges is the framing king, tops with 33.3 runs over the past three years (and second in prorated runs). He’s hit just .171/.248/.307 for a 47 wRC+ over the past two seasons, so unless he runs into one — which he did every 30.7 PA over that stretch — he’s pretty much hopeless at the plate. Taylor, who’s 31 years old, has just 60 major league plate appearances to this point; a solid framer in the minors, he mixes things up by (not) hitting from the left side.

13. Braves
Travis d’Arnaud 442 .262 .324 .441 .323 -2.3 -0.7 -2.4 2.2
William Contreras 147 .234 .284 .361 .276 -6.7 -0.1 -0.4 0.0
Alex Jackson 51 .204 .268 .399 .280 -2.2 -0.0 -0.1 0.0
Total 640 .251 .310 .419 .309 -11.2 -0.7 -2.9 2.2

After passing through the rosters of three teams in 2019, d’Arnaud found a new home on a two-year, $16 million deal and spent the season scalding the ball and implicitly taunting the Mets, who released him in May ’19. His 57.2% hard-hit rate ranked second in the majors among batters with 100 batted ball events, his 144 wRC+ third (via a 321/.386/.533 line), his 93.4 mph average exit velo, nine homers and — behind the plate — 3.8 framing runs all fourth. He did strike out a career-high 27.2% of the time, so maintaining that .411 BABIP is a pipe dream.

Jackson, a 25-year-old former first-round pick of the Mariners in 2014, homered 28 times at Triple-A Gwinnett in ’19 while posting one of the minors’ highest hard-hit rates (51%), but he also posted strikeout and walk rates of 34.2% and 5.8%. Even with that iffy contact rate, his plus arm and decent framing skills make him solid backup material with potential to play every day down the road. Contreras, the 23-year-old younger brother of the Cubs’ two-time All-Star, is the better prospect, a stronger defender with some power, but as he split his 2019 season between High-A and Double-A, more time in the minors may be in order.

14. Diamondbacks
Carson Kelly 378 .242 .323 .412 .312 -5.5 -0.4 0.5 1.7
Stephen Vogt 166 .225 .289 .396 .291 -5.5 -0.3 -2.2 0.0
Daulton Varsho 83 .248 .318 .422 .314 -1.1 0.1 -0.1 0.3
Bryan Holaday 13 .228 .292 .350 .275 -0.6 -0.0 0.1 0.0
Total 640 .238 .313 .408 .306 -12.6 -0.6 -1.6 2.0

For as much as Kelly, who was acquired in the Paul Goldschmidt trade, looked like a steal in 2019, he looked like a lemon last year, as he took a step backwards in practically every conceivable offensive metric. The collapse of his walk rate (from 13.2% to 4.7%) at least makes some sense as he was no longer hitting in front of the pitcher, but it doesn’t explain his fall-off in contact frequency or quality, the latter of which led to a .267 xwOBA, placing him in the fifth percentile. On a positive note, his framing was good enough to crack the majors’ top five (3.3 runs), and at 26, he’s young enough to merit another chance.

Vogt caught whatever it was that ailed Kelly’s bat and struggled like never before, hitting too many popups and harmless fly balls; in fact, his xwOBA on fly balls was .093. He’s probably better than this, but at age 36, you start to wonder. Varsho, a 24-year-old who can catch (in a fringy sort of way) and play the outfield, hit just .188/.287/.366 in 115 PA, but his speed and athleticism give him an intriguing collection of skills that will keep him around.

15. Cubs
Willson Contreras 422 .250 .345 .441 .335 3.4 -1.3 -1.0 1.9
Austin Romine 173 .243 .282 .376 .280 -6.9 -0.3 0.2 0.1
P.J. Higgins 45 .230 .297 .328 .274 -2.0 -0.0 -0.0 0.0
Total 640 .247 .325 .414 .316 -5.5 -1.7 -0.8 2.0

After setting career bests with a .533 SLG and 128 wRC+ in 2019, Contreras backslid considerably, to a .407 SLG and 110 wRC+, but his Statcast numbers make the case that he should have been about as productive as the year before; his xSLG only dropped from .478 to .440, while his hard-hit rate rose by over six points to 47.8%, and his xwOBA improved by 11 points to .356. Long story short, he still projects to be one of the position’s top hitters, and he improved markedly in the framing department in 2020, posting his first positive mark since his rookie season in ’16.

After graduating from a long stint as the Yankees’ backup, capped by two pretty solid offensive showings, Romine completely fell apart as the regular in Detroit. Not only did he hit just .238/.259/.323 with two homers in 135 PA, he stuck out a honking 34.8% of the time while walking just 3.0%, and his framing went downhill as well. It’s back to backing up for him.

16. Yankees
Gary Sánchez 429 .218 .305 .468 .323 0.2 -0.7 -6.0 1.4
Kyle Higashioka 147 .222 .271 .419 .288 -4.4 -0.1 -0.2 0.5
Robinson Chirinos 32 .206 .301 .362 .288 -0.9 -0.1 -0.0 0.0
Rob Brantly 32 .233 .295 .362 .281 -1.1 -0.0 0.0 0.1
Total 640 .219 .297 .446 .311 -6.3 -0.9 -6.2 2.0

Sánchez’s work to improve his defense may or may not have paid off, depending upon which set of metrics you look at, but it was completely overshadowed by his offensive collapse, which had more to do with his problems making contact, given his 36.0% strikeout rate, than what happened when he did connect; his 17.4% barrel rate ranked in the 97th percentile, and his hard-hit rate and average exit velo were in the 89th percentile or above. He was just helpless against breaking balls (.115 AVG/.213 SLG), and anything in the upper third of the strike zone. It’s increasingly difficult to wave off his struggles given two abysmal seasons out of three, but his extreme raw power and multiple All-Star performances make him tough to quit. The Yankees remain fully committed to him as their starter.

Higashioka is a solid backup who frames pitches well (7.2 runs in 484 career innings) and runs into one occasionally (10 homers in 204 PA) but his 3.9% walk rate, 28.9% strikeout rate, and 53 wRC+ make it nearly impossible for Sánchez to lose his job for long. Chirinos, whose power- and patience-driven string of five straight seasons with a 100 wRC+ or better was broken last year, is ailing from a broken right wrist that required surgery. He’s out of action for the first 4-6 weeks of the season, lessening the possibility of him having an impact as an alternative to Higashioka, who’s out of options.

17. Pirates
Jacob Stallings 371 .251 .315 .377 .296 -9.4 -0.6 2.9 1.6
Michael Perez 160 .230 .296 .367 .285 -5.6 -0.4 1.2 0.3
Tony Wolters 109 .224 .308 .307 .270 -5.2 -0.2 0.9 0.1
Total 640 .241 .309 .362 .289 -20.1 -1.2 4.9 1.9

At the ripe old age of 30, Stallings took over the starting duties in Pittsburgh for the first time and acquitted himself reasonably well. Though he didn’t exactly tear the cover off the ball — indeed, his .278 xwOBA placed him in the ninth percentile — his improved plate discipline helped him boost his walk rate to 10.5%, which in turn compensated for his spiking strikeout rate. He fared well behind the plate, too, not only ranking seventh in framing runs (2.3) but leading the majors in BP’s blocking runs measure (1.1).

Perez spent three years as a backup in Tampa Bay, showing flashes of offensive productivity, but through 228 major league plate appearances, he owns a 28.5% strikeout rate and a .314 slugging percentage, which is to say that he doesn’t appear to be a diamond in the rough. He can’t help but be a better option than Wolters, whose last 1,002 plate appearances covering 2017 onward have produced four home runs — remember, he’s been playing at Coors Field! — and a 53 wRC+. Last year, he reached the nadir, with a 37 wRC+ and -0.6 WAR.

18. Reds
Tucker Barnhart 410 .234 .319 .377 .299 -11.3 -1.5 5.5 1.4
Tyler Stephenson 198 .236 .312 .382 .299 -5.3 -0.1 0.7 0.5
Deivy Grullón 19 .229 .294 .412 .299 -0.5 -0.0 -0.2 0.0
Kyle Farmer 13 .240 .294 .369 .284 -0.5 -0.0 -0.1 0.0
Total 640 .235 .316 .380 .299 -17.6 -1.6 5.9 1.9

Over the past five years, Barnhart is seventh among catchers in plate appearances (including their time at other positions) but tied for 41st in wRC+ (85), and tied for 39th in WAR (2.6). He’s never hit for higher than a 90 wRC+ or been worth more than 1.0 WAR including the value of his defense, which has now netted him two Gold Gloves (in 2017 and ’20), though to be fair, an uptick in his framing skills had him headed past 1.0 WAR last year.

Stephenson, a 6-foot-4, bat-first catcher, has 65-grade raw power that he showed off by homering in his major league debut last year. His throwing needs work despite a strong arm, and with 89 games at Double-A and none at Triple-A, he could benefit from more development time, but appears on track to be Barnhart’s backup. Grullón, who has some pull power and arm strength, has five games of big league experience. Farmer, now that he’s in the middle infield mix, is probably in the emergency catcher stage of his career given that he didn’t take any reps behind the plate last year.

19. Nationals
Yan Gomes 320 .243 .307 .416 .305 -6.7 -0.4 1.1 1.0
Alex Avila 269 .202 .336 .363 .305 -5.7 -0.7 2.2 0.9
Welington Castillo 45 .236 .286 .407 .293 -1.4 -0.1 -0.2 0.0
Tres Barrera 6 .232 .293 .366 .283 -0.3 -0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 640 .226 .318 .394 .304 -14.1 -1.2 3.1 1.9

Gomes split the catching duties pretty evenly with Kurt Suzuki last year but is apparently in line to get the larger share of work here. Given his lefty-mashing skills (128 wRC+ in 238 PA over the past three seasons) and Avila’s left-handedness, that segment of the playing time should be no mystery; Gomes has managed just an 81 wRC+ against righties in that span, but he was in the 93-94 range in both 2018 (311 PA) and ’20 (90 PA) so there’s hope. His defensive metrics have gone downhill since leaving Cleveland, though, and not just in the framing department.

Avila’s defensive skills are adequate enough. His offensive value is in standing there, making pitchers throw strikes, and waiting for the birds to land on him if they don’t. Over the past three seasons, his 16.2% O-Swing rate and 35.2% swing rate are both the majors’ third-lowest out of 404 players with at least 400 PA, while his 16.9% walk rate is fourth behind Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Juan Soto. Castillo, who opted out last year and has been slowed by a shoulder injury this spring, was once a good hitter for the position, though his framing skills were consistently subpar.

20. Astros
Martín Maldonado 371 .210 .289 .358 .280 -11.8 -1.0 2.6 1.1
Jason Castro 250 .200 .294 .353 .282 -7.5 -0.7 0.5 0.7
Garrett Stubbs 19 .227 .296 .342 .277 -0.7 0.0 0.1 0.0
Total 640 .207 .291 .356 .280 -20.0 -1.7 3.3 1.9

In 2017-18, Maldonado chased 36.4% of pitches outside the zone and walked just 3.5% of the time. Last year, he cut down to a 26.2% O-Swing rate, walked 16.4% of the time, and did enough damage to post an above-average wRC+ for the first time (110, on .215/.350/.378 hitting). Whether he can maintain that given his career 75 wRC+ is an open question as he doesn’t hit the ball hard all that often. His framing numbers were in the red for the first time, but that may have owed to the extent to which the Astros relied upon rookie pitchers; he’s been strong in that area in the past.

Castro’s an Astro again after four years away. Though he’s finished below the Mendoza Line in two years out of the past three, his patience and raw power — maximum exit velos in the 110-ish range — make him a decent enough hitter to go with his defensive skills (93 wRC+ career, 88 from 2018-20), particularly for a backup.

21. Cardinals
Yadier Molina 403 .257 .301 .378 .290 -11.0 -1.4 2.9 1.3
Andrew Knizner 205 .256 .310 .391 .299 -4.0 -0.2 1.1 0.5
Tyler Heineman 32 .237 .302 .349 .283 -1.1 0.0 0.2 0.1
Total 640 .256 .304 .381 .293 -16.0 -1.5 4.2 1.8

Molina may or may not be a future Hall of Famer, but at 38 years old, he’s clearly in decline on both sides of the ball. Last year’s .262/.303/.359 line represented his lowest OBP since 2006, while his SLG and 82 wRC+ were his lowest since 2015, and his 84.7 mph average exit velo his lowest of the Statcast era. His framing has gone downhill, though it’s still a couple runs above average annually; he works well getting the inside and outside strikes, less so when working up and down.

Knizner, a 26-year-old former seventh-round pick, is a latecomer to catching and rates as a poor receiver in terms of both scouting grades (30 present, 35 future) and framing stats (-4.5 runs in 156 major league inning). The Cardinals can hope that Molina’s experience rubs off on him, because he profiles as an above-average hitter for the position, even if he has yet to get there in his brief career. Heineman, a switch-hitting 29-year-old with 62 career plate appearances, is something of a Triple-A lifer, having spent parts of six seasons at the level.

22. Mariners
Tom Murphy 320 .217 .272 .413 .287 -8.1 -0.3 0.0 1.1
Luis Torrens 294 .247 .306 .376 .292 -6.2 -0.3 -0.5 0.4
Cal Raleigh 26 .220 .279 .410 .290 -0.6 0.0 -0.1 0.1
Total 640 .231 .288 .396 .290 -15.0 -0.6 -0.7 1.6

After breaking out for an 18-homer, 126-wRC+ season as a 28-year-old, Murphy missed all of last year due to a broken bone in his left foot, and now appears bound for a job share with the 24-year-old Torrens, at least in the early going. Murphy certainly has enough power to offset the swing-and-miss in his game (31.0% strikeout rate in 2019), and he’s revealed himself to be a good defender as well; his 4.1 framing runs placed 15th in 2019 while his 576 innings ranked 33rd.

Torrens, acquired in the deadline deal that sent Austin Nola to San Diego, fared well in his late-season trial, hitting the ball hard (93.0 mph average exit velo, 57.1% hard-hit rate) but all too often on the ground (41.8% groundball rate). He may merely be the bridge to the 24-year-old Raleigh, a 2018 third-round pick who split ’19 between High-A and Double-A; his raw power and improving defense cast him as a potential Top-100 prospect next year.

23. Rays
Mike Zunino 365 .195 .264 .388 .276 -12.7 -0.7 1.3 1.0
Francisco Mejía 224 .237 .288 .394 .288 -5.4 -0.1 0.0 0.5
Kevan Smith 51 .256 .314 .376 .297 -0.9 -0.1 -0.5 0.1
Total 640 .214 .276 .389 .282 -19.0 -0.8 0.8 1.5

Zunino’s stat lines always offer good entertainment value. Last year, when he wasn’t missing about three weeks with an oblique strain, he struck out 44% of the time — higher than everybody with at least 80 PA save for Mitch Garver — and collected a grand total of 11 hits, of which four were doubles and four were homers. Kids, that’s how you hit .147/.238/.360. Given his minimal playing time, his slippage into the red in framing (-1.1 runs) might charitably be waved off; if that’s truly the way his skills are going, however, he may not have long in the majors.

Mejía, famous for the 50-game hitting streak he put together at High-A in 2016, showed some competence with the stick as a Padre in 2019 (265/.316/.438, 96 wRC+) but has otherwise struggled in the scraps of playing time he’s gotten in the majors. He still profiles as a better hitter than Zunino, but that’s not saying much, and his defense has been shaky as well, including -6.3 framing runs in just 660.2 innings. Smith, a bat-first backup with his own defensive question marks, offers an additional option if the Rays want Mejía to spend more time in Triple-A or at the alternate site.

24. Brewers
Omar Narváez 282 .242 .334 .389 .313 -3.5 -0.5 -3.5 0.6
Manny Piña 205 .236 .303 .386 .294 -5.9 -0.3 2.1 0.8
Jacob Nottingham 128 .200 .275 .361 .273 -6.0 -0.0 -0.6 0.0
Luke Maile 26 .196 .259 .303 .246 -1.8 0.0 0.1 -0.0
Total 640 .230 .309 .379 .296 -17.2 -0.9 -2.0 1.4

Narváez was the majors’ second-worst framer in 2018-19 (-20.4 runs), but he worked to improve his technique; lo and behold, he ranked third in the majors last year at 3.9 runs. The bad news is that his offense deteriorated in drastic fashion, from a 120 wRC+ in 2018-19 to 60 in ’20. His plate discipline abandoned him, with his O-Swing rate increasing from 28.9% to 35.7%, and his strikeout rate jumping nearly 12 points to 31.%. His already-meager average exit velocity lost four clicks, to 81.6 mph, placing him in the first percentile, while his 21.7% hard-hit rate was in the second percentile and his .269 xwOBA in the sixth. The good news is that he’s shown enough in the recent past to be an above-average player, but putting it all together is another matter.

Piña fills a niche as an above-average defender who can hit lefties (98 wRC+ over the past three years, compared to 85 for the lefty-swinging Narváez). Nottingham, who played regularly over the 2020 season’s final month after Piña suffered a knee injury, homered four times in 54 PA but also struck out 37% of the time. Thanks to improved defense, he’s got a future as a solid backup who can occasionally pop one over the fence.

25. Tigers
Wilson Ramos 301 .275 .329 .427 .320 -1.2 -1.3 -2.6 0.9
Grayson Greiner 192 .204 .273 .349 .268 -9.5 -0.0 0.2 -0.0
Jake Rogers 122 .203 .281 .369 .279 -4.9 -0.1 1.5 0.3
Dustin Garneau 26 .208 .287 .367 .281 -1.0 -0.1 0.1 0.0
Total 640 .238 .301 .391 .295 -16.5 -1.6 -0.9 1.2

After a solid 2019 season during which he was heavily used, Ramos suffered his worst season at the plate in half a decade, hitting just .239/.297.387 (89 wRC+). While his quality-of-contact stats were quite similar as the year before, he suddenly struggled against breaking pitches, and his strikeout rate spiked from 13.2% to 20%. Given his defensive woes — which, to be fair, weren’t as bad in 2020 as ’19 according to multiple metrics — the 32-year-old veteran can’t afford not to hit.

Which isn’t to say the Tigers have a better alternative at the ready. Rogers, a 2016 third-round pick, classifies as their catcher of the near future, but he was eaten alive (.125/.222/.259 in 128 PA) in his first taste of major league pitching in 2019, and spent last year at the alternate site. He’s an excellent defender, but contact woes limit his utility beyond backup duty. Greiner, a 28-year-old former third-round pick, was Rogers-esque in limited duty in 2020 (.118/.182/.333 in 55 PA). He’s 6-foot-6, which helps him stand out in a crowd. Garneau is on his sixth team since 2017, including two trips through Oakland, but “have bat, will travel” overstates things considerably given his career 61 wRC+.

26. Mets
James McCann 435 .234 .294 .389 .291 -10.5 -0.9 1.8 1.1
Tomás Nido 179 .222 .265 .362 .265 -8.4 -0.2 -0.5 0.2
Patrick Mazeika 13 .219 .288 .353 .277 -0.5 -0.0 -0.1 0.0
Caleb Joseph 13 .203 .250 .329 .248 -0.8 -0.0 -0.0 -0.0
Total 640 .230 .285 .379 .283 -20.1 -1.1 1.2 1.2

McCann landed a four-year, $40.6 million deal despite a short track record for above-average play, as he was 0.7 wins below replacement level as recently as 2018, and netted -0.1 WAR from 2014-18 while hitting for just a 75 wRC+. Even so, his 3.7 WAR over the past two seasons is sixth among catchers, while his 115 wRC+ is seventh. Underlying his offensive gains is a significant uptick in his barrel and hard-hit rates, which have added 57 points of BABIP and another 72 points worth of ISO. Meanwhile, he posted his first above-average framing numbers in 2020 (2.3 runs, up from -9.0). If any of the improvements stick, he could rank 10-15 rungs higher here.

Always a good pitch framer, Nido swung a hot bat during his brief slice of playing time before contracting a season-ending bout of COVID-19. Neither Joseph, who’s 34 years old and on his fourth organization in as many years, nor Mazeika, who’s 27 and has never played above Double-A, appear likely to unseat Nido as the backup, but free agent Tyler Flowers, in whom the team is rumored to be interested, could eventually pose a threat.

27. Orioles
Chance Sisco 282 .227 .327 .384 .310 -3.0 -0.5 -2.5 0.3
Pedro Severino 262 .241 .307 .395 .299 -5.2 -0.3 -1.3 0.4
Adley Rutschman 83 .229 .291 .373 .284 -2.7 0.1 0.6 0.2
Austin Wynns 13 .233 .292 .341 .275 -0.5 -0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 640 .233 .314 .386 .302 -11.5 -0.6 -3.2 0.9

Looking past the meager batting average, the lefty-swinging Sisco hit for a career-best 113 wRC+ (.214/.364/.378) thanks to a hefty 14% walk rate, which offset his 33.9.% strikeout rate. He’s reached double digits in his barrel rate for two seasons in a row (12.3% in 2020), but his offense is offset by dreadful framing (a major league-worst -4.5 runs in just 184 innings) and subpar blocking.

Severin, who’s hit for a 96 wRC+ in back-to-back seasons, fits best as the short half of the platoon, his 103 wRC+ against righties last year notwithstanding. His framing numbers are pretty grim, alas; somehow, he was the majors’ fourth-worst (-3.3 runs) last year despite splitting time with Sisco.

Rutschman, the first pick of the 2019 draft, is number three on our Top 100 Prospects list and knocking at the big league door after an impressive performance at Baltimore’s alternate site last summer. He’s a 23-year-old switch-hitting backstop with the tools to be a force on both sides of the ball, including a strong arm, advanced receiving skills, plus power, and excellent plate discipline. He’s never played above A-ball, so at best he’ll be up later in the year.

28. Rangers
Jose Trevino 346 .233 .267 .354 .264 -21.3 -0.5 2.7 0.1
Jonah Heim 237 .240 .296 .359 .282 -11.0 -0.2 2.5 0.4
Drew Butera 38 .197 .269 .310 .252 -2.8 -0.0 -0.1 -0.1
John Hicks 19 .222 .265 .371 .270 -1.1 -0.0 -0.0 -0.0
Total 640 .233 .278 .354 .270 -36.2 -0.8 5.1 0.4

Trevino spent about four weeks as the Rangers’ regular catcher last year and showed signs of progress before a left wrist sprain ended his season in early September. Most notably, he trimmed his O-Swing rate from 42.9% to 28.3% and produced a 12.5% barrel rate in his 83 PA. That’s a small slice of playing time to bank upon, but when combined with his above-average defense, it’s enough to get a longer look on a rebuilding team.

Heim, a 6-foot-4 switch-hitter, is just 25 (26 on June 27) and already on the fourth organization of his professional career, having finally gotten his feet wet during the second half of last season. Though he lacks impact power, he profiles as a better hitter than Trevino thanks to his on-base skills. He’s a strong defender, a better framer and thrower than Trevino, and it appears he’ll start the year on the major league roster, which suggests he’ll get enough playing time to justify his presence. Thus, Butera will to wait to continue the 8-for-82 hot streak he started in 2019.

29. Marlins
Jorge Alfaro 320 .232 .286 .370 .279 -11.1 -0.7 -2.0 0.1
Chad Wallach 262 .207 .276 .330 .264 -12.5 -0.2 0.3 0.2
Sandy León 58 .194 .271 .309 .255 -3.2 -0.1 0.2 0.0
Total 640 .218 .281 .348 .271 -26.8 -1.0 -1.6 0.3

It wasn’t too long ago that Alfaro was considered among the brightest young catchers in the game despite his propensity to swing at everything this side of a blowing hot dog wrapper. In 2018, his age-25 season, he ranked third among catchers at 3.2 WAR thanks to a 95 wRC+ and 11.1 framing runs, but since then it’s been downhill, or down in the dirt, as his failure to elevate the ball with consistency prevented him from papering over a 4% walk rate and 36% strikeout rate in 2020; his 70-grade raw power yielding a .344 SLG is just a waste. Meanwhile, in two years’ time he’s gone from ranking sixth in framing runs to third-to-last (-3.6, his second subpar showing in a row). He’s got to tighten up his game.

Wallach hasn’t gotten more than 54 PA in any of his four seasons, yet he’s somehow pulled two-plus years of service time, though to be fair, he missed a big chunk of 2019 with a concussion and last year’s calendar whizzed by. He’s a light-hitting catch-and-throw guy. Léon’s the lightest hitter in baseball this side of Jeff Mathis, having “raked” at a .177/.248/.280 (39 wRC+) clip in 560 PA over the past three seasons. He’s netted all of 0.1 WAR in that span, so no, his defense doesn’t make up for it.

30. Rockies
Elias Díaz 358 .270 .321 .393 .306 -13.0 -0.2 -2.2 -0.2
Dom Nuñez 243 .220 .310 .392 .300 -10.0 -0.1 1.0 0.4
José Briceño 38 .225 .269 .378 .274 -2.5 -0.0 0.1 -0.0
Total 640 .249 .314 .392 .302 -25.4 -0.3 -1.0 0.2

After non-tendering Tony Wolters, the Rockies have turned to Díaz, who failed to distinguish himself in either Pittsburgh or Colorado, sliding below replacement level in three of the past four seasons. His solid 2018 (10 homers and 114 wRC+ in 277 PA en route to 1.8 WAR) feels like a fever dream, as he’s hit for a 60 wRC+ since. While he has some raw power and can barrel the ball, he doesn’t do it often enough, nor is he selective enough at the plate. If there’s good news it’s that after ranking dead last in framing runs in 2019 (-13.1), he was average in his minimal playing time (126 innings), albeit on a staff with the majors’ lowest strikeout rate.

“He can catch, he walks, and the rest of his tools are 40s,” wrote Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel about Nuñez in 2019, when he was in the midst of slugging .559 at Triple-A Albuquerque. Note that slugging percentage was over 100 points higher than what he managed from 2016-18 at High- and Double-A and move along, please; there’s nothing to see here. Briceño, who’s now 28, hit .239/.299/.385 with five homers in a 128-PA run with the Angels in 2018, that with slightly above-average framing. Just sayin’.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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2 years ago

Dodgers should be #1 due to depth.