2023 Positional Power Rankings: Catcher
Earlier today, Meg Rowley introduced this year’s positional power rankings. As a quick refresher, all 30 teams are ranked based on the projected WAR from our Depth Charts. Our staff then endeavors to provide you with some illuminating commentary to put those rankings in context. We begin this year’s series at catcher.
As usual, we begin our annual positional power rankings examining the position that’s the most clouded in mystery, the one where our best baseball praxis still leaves us with the most unanswered questions. Catchers remain unique in their significant and meaningful interaction with pitchers and the art of pitching. We’ve come a long way in evaluating much of the job of catching, with pitch framing statistics the most recent and one of the most valuable developments (at least until the inevitable day when balls and strikes have their locations called by a brigade of cameras and computers), but there are still things we can’t yet quantify. Still, that skills might be hard to capture with numbers doesn’t necessarily mean they’re nonexistent, just that they’re difficult to measure. Even if baseball didn’t collect a single statistic, teams would still need to consider how and why and whether player X helps them win games more than player Y, while fans would still argue over who is better than who. Our framework for evaluating catchers may be imperfect, but there’s still a lot we can say about those who don the tools of ignorance, and we get a little better at it every year.
With the retirement of Yadier Molina after the 2022 season, I think we’ve entered a new era of big league catching. All of the best catchers who came up in the first decade of the 21st century are now retired, their cases for Cooperstown immortality already made. In a five-year period, Molina, Joe Mauer, Buster Posey, Russell Martin, and Brian McCann all left the field for the last time. Yasmani Grandal is the current active WAR leader among catchers at 37.5 and only one other backstop, J.T. Realmuto, has accrued even half of that figure. With just two full, normal seasons on their résumés, Will Smith and Sean Murphy already rank 10th and 11th among active catchers in career WAR; Adley Rutschman, who debuted late last May, is already in the top 20!
It took a long time for starting pitching to shift from one guy throwing a ton of innings every year to the sizable staffs (and diminished starter workloads) that we see today. We’re seeing a similar evolution when it comes to the role of catcher, though the shift in usage has been surprisingly swift by comparison. If you rank all catcher seasons since 2002 by innings caught, you won’t see a single catcher from the last five seasons until Realmuto’s 2019 season at no. 44. Only Realmuto started 120 games at the position last year, and only Salvador Perez managed that in 2021. In contrast, 10 catchers did so in 1983, nine in 1993, nine in 2003, and five in 2013.
As a result, our decision to rank teams based on their collective WAR at a given position is arguably more important here than it is for any other group of position players. Even the best catchers in today’s game are going to cede defensive innings to other backstops at least a quarter of the time, so the primary backups and even the third-stringers take on increased importance in determining a team’s fate.
With all that said, let’s get to the rankings, with the usual apology to the Martín Maldonado fans out there.
If you’re looking for a better example of my insistence in the introduction that catcher ought to be considered more of a tandem position than it ever has been before, you won’t find it.
The conventional wisdom before the last year or two was that Alejandro Kirk was the bat and Danny Jansen was the glove, but both have largely disproven that idea. Kirk’s offense continued to shine in 2022, but he’s also been better defensively than most expected he’d become when he was a prospect, posting good framing numbers and avoiding both errors and passed balls at a solid rate. He’s one of the rare catchers who can legitimately play the position while also being good enough offensively to not be a drag on the lineup on the days he moonlights as a designated hitter.
Of course, all that DH rest would be hard to come by if not for the emergence of Jansen as an all-around threat. The skepticism surrounding his 2021 power surge has largely faded, as the thump continued last season despite the more pitcher-friendly environment. Of the 49 catchers who made at least 200 plate appearances in 2022, only five put up a better hard-hit rate than Jansen, with one of those being his teammate Kirk.
If you broke up all the teams and re-drafted, it’s unlikely that you would take Jansen or Kirk first, but the combination is enough for Toronto to take the top spot in our projections.
Everybody loved Adley Rutschman as an amateur and then loved Adley Rutschman as a minor leaguer, and without the triceps injury that cost him most of last April, he might have made it a tougher fight for Julio Rodríguez at the top of the AL Rookie of the Year pack (because he placed second in the voting, he still got a full year of service time due to the new CBA).
In any event, Rutschman didn’t disappoint on any level in 2022, playing solid defense (especially for a rookie) and giving Baltimore the big bat that the similarly hyped Matt Wieters wasn’t able to a decade before. A 133 wRC+, 5.3 WAR rookie season naturally shoots a player into the top tier of projections at any position. He’s the team’s franchise player, and it’s going to be too late for the Orioles to get much of a discount on a long-term contract if they tarry much longer.
James McCann kind of got a bad rap in New York. Yes, he was terrible with the Mets, especially offensively, but it’s not really his fault that the team drastically overrated his skills based on just over a year of solid contributions in 2019 and 2020. If a team offered me a four-year, $32 million deal to bring my 65-mph fastball and 50-mph palm ball to an unfortunate mound near you, I’d take it — it’s the franchise that ought to get the blame if they actually put me in the game.
McCann is probably a better offensive player than what he showed in Queens, but he’s back in the best spot for his abilities (backing up a much better catcher), though it wouldn’t be a huge problem if he had to start for a few weeks. The Mets picked up $19 million of the $24 million left on his contract when they traded him to the O’s.
Walker Buehler‘s elbow injury and Cody Bellinger’s decline and eventual departure have left Will Smith as the best young, homegrown star on the Dodgers. As a prospect, Smith was mostly in the shadow of Keibert Ruiz, who was then considered the future of the position for Los Angeles. But the younger Ruiz’s development stalled while Smith earned a promotion to the majors in 2019 after putting up a .268/.382/.603 line for Triple-A Oklahoma City. Smith quickly made Ruiz expendable and the former top prospect eventually went to the Nationals in the trade for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner.
Smith is one of the most well-rounded catchers in baseball, without any glaring weakness in his game, and he’s a pretty safe bet to stay in the top five for a long time. While some might be concerned that his walk rate (and on-base percentage) have declined in each of the last two seasons, he’s still elite at avoiding swinging at bad pitches, and with his power and well above-average contact numbers, Smith is incentivized to be aggressive at the plate.
Austin Barnes has always been one of my favorites. He’s one of baseball’s top backup catchers, with the added ability to convincingly cosplay as a second baseman in a pinch. At 33, he’ll probably never land a full-time starter role, but he’s a plus contributor as a backup and an excellent fit with the Dodgers. He’s good enough to allow Smith rest or DH days but not so good (or so young) that another team is likely to lure him away with a big contract offer.
Travis d’Arnaud had his best season as a major leaguer in 2022, hitting .268/.319/.472, good enough for a career-best 3.9 WAR while almost setting a new mark for the most games he’s played in a season. That being said, the Braves have clearly prioritized getting a young lineup in place and under contract for the rest of the decade, and at 34, d’Arnaud doesn’t have a ton of runway left, especially given his lengthy injury history.
Enter Sean Murphy. Murphy put up the third-most WAR among catchers in 2022, behind only J.T. Realmuto and Adley Rutschman. At 28, it’s the kind of performance Atlanta no doubt hopes to see for a long time to come and indeed, the Braves wasted no time in inking Murphy to a six-year, $73 million contract with a club option for 2029. Murphy’s a plus-plus defensive player who is hitting way better than he was expected to as a prospect; he posted a .250/.332/.426 line with a 122 wRC+ for Oakland last season.
There will still be at-bats for d’Arnaud, so all is not lost for the veteran. The Braves didn’t make any offseason waves in left field or at DH, so both Murphy and d’Arnaud should end up with plenty of DH time to keep them rested and healthy. In the end, d’Arnaud may not even lose any plate appearances from last year.
Of the top catching situations in baseball, the Phillies are the closest to having an old fashioned starter-backup combination.
The NL MVP race was close enough last season that I thought Realmuto was just on the edge of having a case for the top spot, though I probably would have put him third or fourth in the end if I’d had a vote. It’s possible that Realmuto might actually still be a bit underrated at this point. I was looking at his ZiPS rest-of-career projections and even though the computer has him declining fairly steadily — he is a 32-year-old catcher, after all — it has him inching into the top 20 in Jay Jaffe’s JAWS by the end of his career. Now, plenty of people know that Realmuto is good, but I bet many would be surprised to learn you can already make a case for him being a top-30 catcher all-time. I certainly no longer have the misgivings I did in 2015 when ZiPS picked him as the no. 41 prospect entering the season.
Plus, catchers who steal bases are cool. I like cool stuff.
Garrett Stubbs has a name that sounds like a backup catcher’s and that’s what he is, the Phillies’ clear no. 2 catcher, not 1-B to Realmuto’s 1-A. Like Realmuto, Stubbs is surprisingly athletic for a catcher, but nobody’s really tested him at other positions much to increase his defensive flexibility. Stubbs hit quite well in 2022, but that’s the life of a catcher getting 125 at-bats a year: small sample volatility will make you look far more up-and-down than you actually are.
I suspect that Jonah Heim’s placement here (and by extension the Rangers’) may be the first that really surprises some readers. After being drafted out of high school by the Orioles in 2013, Heim didn’t get much attention as a prospect for the better part of a decade despite his solid defensive credentials. This was hardly surprising; hitters with a sub .700 OPS in the minors tend not to generate a lot of hoopla. Nor can I claim that ZiPS was prescient here — the computer saw him as a player who would struggle to get his wRC+ much above 80, unimpressive even by the lower bar catchers need to clear.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t note that the prospect side here at FanGraphs did a bang-up job with Heim, at least so far, praising his defense and seeing potential for significant offensive growth. That’s basically what happened in 2022; Heim grabbed the full-time job after Jose Trevino’s departure, playing excellent defense and handily beating expectations at the plate.
So, where now? The projection systems don’t see any regression in his line and thanks to a BABIP that was a little under what you’d expect from his peripherals, they mostly see continued growth from Heim, who has turned out to be an important player in the Khris Davis–Elvis Andrus trade.
Mitch Garver provides a good deal more offense than the typical backup catcher, though he doesn’t possess Heim’s defensive skills. Garver would project as a pretty good starter in his own right, so naturally, the position looks to be on firm ground. The catchers are an unsung highlight of this lineup.
How could you not love a player with the nickname Big Dumper? Coined by teammate Jarred Kelenic in recognition of the catcher’s, err, plentiful posterior (though the dumper itself was attracting attention before Kelenic’s sobriquet), Cal Raleigh was one of 2022’s most unexpected stars. Hitting 27 home runs (including the one that sealed Seattle’s spot in the postseason) and playing better defense than he had any right to, Raleigh became beloved by Mariners fans. And given the 4.1 WAR he posted, he certainly deserved that love in 2022.
Can he do it again? The projection systems naturally expect some regression toward the mean, but the rude computers still see Raleigh as a solid starting catcher, though one below the majors’ top tier of receivers. Raleigh is also young enough that he ought to have first dibs on the M’s catching job for several years, unless Harry Ford shows considerable improvement with the leather.
Tom Murphy was the team’s previous out-of-nowhere power-hitting catcher, hitting 18 round-trippers in just 75 games in 2019. He missed the shortened 2020 with a broken foot, then had an underwhelming 2021 season in a platoon role; he only played 14 games in 2022 before needing season-ending shoulder surgery. His role will mainly be as Raleigh’s backup. Murphy has exploitable platoon splits, so he ought to get backup jobs and the occasional start to mash a lefty for several more years to come.
Jose Trevino was one of the league’s big surprises in the first half of the 2022 season, putting up a .714 OPS to pair with his typically sterling defense. It all led to him making his first All-Star roster. Somewhat predictably, his bat didn’t hold up anywhere near as well in the latter portion of the season, but he still managed to finish with 3.7 WAR on the year. His solid offensive performance is unlikely to repeat, as he swings at a bonanza of bad pitches and doesn’t hit the ball particularly hard, but his glove means he doesn’t really need to hit all that well to contribute in the majors. Trevino has no real defensive weaknesses. Indeed, he’s so good at framing that it’s almost criminal he hasn’t quietly picked up an endorsement deal with an eyeglasses company.
Kyle Higashioka will again take on the lesser role in the catcher timeshare. A pretty good defensive player in his own right, he’s not in Trevino’s league there, but what he can do is swing very hard and, when he does make contact, make baseballs go very far. That’s a nice skill to have in your backup catcher.
ZiPS might be the most optimistic about Carson Kelly bouncing back from last year’s rather poor offensive season, but all the projection systems are generally pretty bullish about him enjoying a better campaign in 2023. Kelly has outlasted the other two players in the Paul Goldschmidt trade, Luke Weaver and Andrew Young, in Arizona, but his time may be running out. He has developed into an averageish catcher, albeit an inconsistent one, but Arizona is clearly hoping for more. After all, a team that’s ecstatic about its catching situation doesn’t trade a 26-year-old outfielder coming off a 4.6 WAR season for a top young backstop.
Now normally, when a top prospect like Gabriel Moreno hangs around in the high minors longer than they need to, we throw a bit of shade at the team. In this case, however, the Blue Jays already had two very good starting catchers in Kirk and Jansen, and there was literally no good opportunity to get Moreno a full serving of plate appearances in Toronto (though Moreno did manage to exhaust his rookie eligibility based on active roster days). The Varsho-Moreno trade was one of my favorites in recent years, as both teams get huge upside value while swapping a surplus for a need. If Moreno works out, he may more than flip that plate appearance total with Kelly in 2023.
Moreno likely doesn’t have the same overall offensive upside as Francisco Álvarez, but he’s more polished defensively and makes quite a bit of contact. Jason Kendall, Joe Mauer, Ray Fosse, and B.J. Surhoff are all among his top 10 comps in ZiPS. As I said, if the D-backs like what they see from Moreno, he should eat into Kelly’s playing time very quickly, so long as his current hand injury doesn’t become an ongoing issue.
2022 brought its share of disappointments to Guaranteed Rate Field, with Yasmani Grandal’s season ranking quite prominently on the list. Lingering knee problems and back issues plagued him all season, and when he was healthy, he posted what were easily the worst offensive numbers of his career, with an alarming .570 OPS and a 68 wRC+.
Grandal isn’t so ancient that he should be written off, but a catcher in his mid-30s with recurring knee problems is a player who comes with a lot of risk. The projection systems actually see a relatively robust comeback, though given the contours of the situation, they aren’t expecting a full return to his previous elite levels of play. Grandal remained a plate discipline machine through all his struggles elsewhere, but plate discipline loses a lot of value when you’re not using it to crush baseballs, sending them to explore far and distant lands.
Seby Zavala was surprisingly solid at the plate in 2022, but the projections don’t expect him to repeat the performance. Still, I can’t help think of Jonah Heim here. There have been times as a minor leaguer when Zavala has hit quite well. And given that he hit well last year, I can’t completely dismiss the possibility that he’s a better overall player than generally believed. The White Sox could certainly use a pleasant surprise in their starting lineup for a change.
The uncertainty around Grandal’s health means that there’s likely some playing time to be had for his backup catcher’s backup catcher, Carlos Pérez. This Carlos Pérez, the brother of a different backup catcher who is also named Carlos Pérez and played in the majors from 2015-18, is a competent defensive catcher with a strong arm and just enough pop to be a viable backup option.
Christian Vázquez is a good example of my long-term contention that catchers frequently have very odd development curves. Through his first 1,000 plate appearances in the majors, covering up through age 27, Vázquez only posted a 67 wRC+, a bottom-of-the-barrel figure even for a catcher. His defense is what saved him from being a Quad-A tweener, especially his arm, which has been talked about since his early days as a prospect. And that’s a nice thing to have in a division that features the Guardians, one of the best basestealing teams in 2022, and the Royals, who are probably more willing to go small ball than most modern organizations.
Vázquez’s framing numbers have dropped off a bit in recent years, but his offensive development has made up for that deficit. From that 67 wRC+, he’s been at a 95 since, though the 23 homers he hit in 2019 appear to be a one-time thing. He’s not a star, but he’s a solidly average to above-average catcher.
If you believe projections — and the average FanGraphs reader probably does to some degree — there’s still some offensive upside left in Ryan Jeffers. All the projection systems think he’s been slightly robbed in the BABIP department. If the prophecies of an uptick there prove accurate, Jeffers and Vázquez look to be a sort of poor man’s Jansen/Kirk, which is still pretty good!
When the Marlins acquired Jacob Stallings, who had long had a solid defensive reputation and was coming off his first Gold Glove award, the club surely hoped that he was just the catcher to shepherd Miami’s stable of interesting-yet-raw young pitchers. By that standard, his first season with the Marlins was a disappointing one. His just-good-enough offense in Pittsburgh swooned to unacceptable levels in 2022 (he posted a 71 wRC+), and the parts of catcher defense we can measure all took similar dips. It would be a mistake to write Stallings off after one poor season, but it would be equally foolhardy for Miami to put all its eggs in his basket; Stallings is 33 and is coming off a very poor showing.
Nick Fortes looks poised to get a healthy share of the playing time, at least until Stallings demonstrates he’s still the player he was in 2020 and 2021. Fortes represents a nice fallback position for the Marlins. While he doesn’t really have any star upside, he makes a decent amount of contact and is a good defensive player, with an arm that I think is stronger than Stallings’. He’s certainly better at controlling the run game.
Miami’s catching situation isn’t exciting, but it should get the job done.
Mets fans were naturally pleased when the James McCann era ended, with the embattled catcher shipped off to the land of delicious Old Bay seasoning this winter. The team has one of the top prospects in baseball (and with Gabriel Moreno’s graduation, almost certainly the best catching prospect) in Francisco Álvarez, who scored a brief cup of coffee at the end of 2022. But while the transition from McCann to Álvarez seems like a natural one, his ankle surgery last fall left the Mets uneasy about going all-in on him as the team’s catcher in 2023; he’ll spend a significant portion of the season in Syracuse honing his craft behind the plate. The Mets are expected to be in a serious battle with the Braves and the Phillies are lurking as well, so the team understandably wants to minimize its risks after years of catcher issues.
Omar Narváez signed a one-year deal with a player option for 2024 to do just that. Narváez has made great strides defensively in recent years, performing the rare feat of going from being one of the worst framers in the league to regularly one of the better ones. His offense lagged a bit in 2022 in large part due to a BABIP about 50 points below his career norms. The projection systems generally believe he’ll be right around league average in 2023. After what the Mets have gotten out of the position in recent years, I’m sure they’ll be happy with that. Narváez is just about the perfect caretaker.
Tomás Nido returns as the backup. Thrust into being the team’s de facto starter last year due to the Mets having no better options, Nido was stretched beyond his abilities. Returning to a complementary role, he’ll provide solid defense and little offense as a respectable backup.
Mike Zunino must be an incredibly frustrating player to employ, as he has never had a wRC+ over a full season between 83 and 117. Some years, Zunino’s a star; others, he’s barely a major leaguer. As a rule, volatility isn’t really a projectable thing — I didn’t believe in Bret Saberhagen’s even-year curse, for instance — but I’m wondering if it’s true in this very specific case. Z is always going to be a low-average hitter, but he’ll hit home runs in massive bursts in his good years, peaking at 33 in fewer than 400 plate appearances in 2021, a Barry Bonds-esque rate. Last year, thoracic outlet syndrome in his non-throwing arm almost mercifully ended his sub-.500 OPS season in June.
Bo Naylor is Cleveland’s catcher of the future, and if Zunino, who is only signed to a one-year deal, has one of his down seasons, Naylor could easily double his projected plate appearances here. Naylor emerged in 2022 as a top catching prospect by exploding to a .263/.392/.496 line in the high minors and appears to finally be fulfilling the promise that made him a first-round draft pick and the third catcher taken in 2018. Unlike the team’s former catcher of the future, Francisco Mejía, Naylor has made great strides defensively and looks to be a long-term fixture rather than trade bait.
Willson Contreras is as fine player, though it does look absolutely bizarre to see a Cardinals depth chart without Yadier Molina on it after he spent nearly 20 years with the club. Carson Kelly, once the heir-apparent, is long gone from St. Louis and Iván Herrera wasn’t quite developed enough to claim the mantle, so the Cards signed Contreras to a five-year deal to man the wheel. Sure, Contreras will be 35 in the final year of his contract, but the Cards haven’t had a younger starting catcher since 2017!
The Cards aren’t a team that has a knack for crazy gambles — it’s an organization that values a steady, rock-solid roster, with the opportunities for nasty surprises limited. Some organizations might have waited around for Herrera and sought a pure stopgap option, but would Herrera really become a better catcher than Contreras actually is now? Contreras has never been a star, but he’s also never been a scrub, and accumulating a multitude of players who dependably hover somewhere between 2.5 and 3.5 WAR is as much a part of this team’s DNA as tired sarcasm is part of mine.
One thing the Cards will miss, however, is Molina’s defense. Even in Yadi’s last hurrah, which was partially marred by injury, he still threw out a good share of runners, only allowed a single passed ball, and put up positive framing numbers. Contreras isn’t a butcher, but he’s a bit below-average in most aspects of the job, and while he’ll be a positive overall, his defense is sure to occasionally look awkward compared to what Cards fans have gotten used over the last two decades.
The catchers here are definitely not in the timeshare situation that a lot of other teams are in. Andrew Knizner got an extended audition of sorts when a knee injury knocked Molina out of the lineup for six weeks during his farewell season and the returns were not promising. Knizner didn’t hit or play particularly effective defense, and he isn’t guaranteed to even be the backup catcher this year. He’s in a battle with former Nat Tres Barrera (there’s just one of him), who likely won’t hit either but is probably the superior defensive player.
Herrera remains an excellent prospect, but if he works out, having too many good players isn’t exactly a bad problem to have. If he has a big year at Triple-A, he might get a starting job, it’ll just involve wearing a different team’s uniform.
Francisco Mejía hasn’t developed into the star he appeared on track to be as a prospect in Cleveland then San Diego. But it would be a mistake to fall into the Gregg Jefferies trap and start underrating a top prospect just because they ended up an ordinary, average player. ZiPS at least still thinks there’s some possible upside remaining, but Mejía has been hindered by a lack of significant development defensively, which limits just how good he can be. Now 27, he’s probably not going to become an offensive superstar.
Christian Bethancourt struggled enough offensively as a young catcher that he tried his hand at becoming a young pitcher. While I’m a believer in giving every strong-armed veteran minor leaguer a shot on the mound, Bethancourt’s control wasn’t good enough for the change to be viable. He ended up as a utility player for the NC Dinos in the KBO, but was waived in 2019 and didn’t find a suitor for his services in the majors in 2020.
Normally, that would be the end of the story, but Bethancourt scored a minor league job with the Pirates in 2021 and showed career-best power, which led to the A’s taking a flyer on him to back up Sean Murphy and Seth Brown. The Rays picked up Bethancourt when Mike Zunino was injured and the former didn’t disappoint, continuing to hit for power. It’s far from a Cecil Fielder-type comeback to the US, but Bethancourt looks like a valuable role player, and if stolen bases do increase considerably with the larger bases, Bethancourt’s strong arm makes him even better.
There are a lot of reasons why the Oakland A’s are likely to be at the bottom of the AL West in 2023, but it’s not the fault of this solid, and likely overlooked, catcher pairing. I admittedly have a conflict of interest here in that ZiPS ranked Langeliers as its no. 50 prospect in 2022 and everyone likes to look smart, but I felt he was under-appreciated as a prospect and was clearly the best player acquired from the Braves in the Matt Olson trade.
That being said, his debut wasn’t especially great, and Langeliers was way too aggressive at the plate for a player who isn’t really a contact hitter. But his defense plays, his offensive upside remains intact and, perhaps most importantly, the A’s have all the reason in the world to give him every chance to succeed. Cristian Pache may be having a nice spring, but it’s far more likely that Langeliers is the player who makes the Olson trade look OK-ish in the long run. He doesn’t have forever, though; Tyler Soderstrom might not stick at catcher, but the no. 19 pick in 2022, Daniel Susac, could be a danger in a few years.
Manny Piña’s job is to be the well-rounded veteran backup, something he ought to do quite successfully assuming his current wrist injury doesn’t prove to be a continuing issue. If Piña is out, I wouldn’t expect Oakland to put that much effort into finding another veteran caretaker given the team’s probable last-place status.
As a noted Brandon Marsh skeptic, I found the Angels swapping him for Logan O’Hoppe in a quiet deadline trade to be one of my favorite baseball moves of the 2022 season. Los Angeles basically acquired a 50 FV catching prospect for a player none of the projection systems see as an average starter in the outfield. O’Hoppe was a solid hitter for average in the minors and showed unexpected power last year, hitting 26 homers at two stops in the high minors. He’s not a defensive wizard, but there’s also little question he’ll stick back there, and he’s easily the team’s best chance to fill the catcher job long-term.
After a string of solid seasons at the plate for Max Stassi, his bat went AWOL for most of 2022, as he did little but hit the occasional homer. Some kind of comeback for Stassi ought to be expected, but he’s now uncomfortably on the wrong side of 30 and if O’Hoppe works out, he’ll see his playing time decrease. For now, though, he’ll still have at least a timeshare to avenge last season’s struggles.
Christian Vázquez was traded to the Astros as a part of Boston’s re-tooling last trade deadline. To replace him, at least in the short-term, the Red Sox picked up Reese McGuire from the White Sox for reliever Jake Diekman. McGuire has three years until he reaches free agency and has been right on the precipice of being a starter, but he found himself the odd man out in Toronto; the White Sox picked him up in a trade last April to take some of the workload off Yasmani Grandal. McGuire never really developed any power, but he’s a good enough contact hitter and can play defense, and could be a good bit better than simply a stopgap option.
Connor Wong spent most of the first half of 2022 in the minors, where he put up one of his better lines as a prospect, a .288/.349/.489 triple-slash for Triple-A Worcester. That outburst of offense didn’t continue in the majors when he split time with McGuire down the stretch, and the more experienced McGuire has the inside track for getting the plurality of at-bats.
Jorge Alfaro is one of the most fun players to have around and was quite popular with Padres fans, leading to a delightfully notorious mural of him. Unfortunately, he’s also a player who’s somewhat of a tweener; he’s not really good enough defensively to stick as a catcher and he doesn’t hit quite enough to be a good option at first base or designated hitter. He has an opt-out clause if he doesn’t make the major league roster out of camp, so hopefully he’s the league’s most enjoyable backup to watch somewhere this year even if it isn’t in Boston.
Willson’s little brother made a name for himself in 2022, posting an .860 OPS with the Braves while backing up Travis d’Arnaud and getting a bunch more playing time at DH. As solid as William was last year, Atlanta saw the opportunity to snag Sean Murphy without having to strip what was left of their minor league system and took it; Contreras headed to Milwaukee as part of the three-team trade.
That’s worked out well for Contreras, who would be the third-best catcher in Atlanta if he hadn’t been included in the trade. In Milwaukee, he’ll get to play top banana, with Victor Caratini, his brother’s former backup with the Cubs, filling a similar role here.
The projections still aren’t totally convinced by Contreras. There’s generally skepticism about him sustaining a BABIP in the .340s and the computers would like to see him continue to supply last year’s level of power for a longer stretch. Contreras’ plate discipline is merely OK, but he’s most decidedly not a contact hitter, with a career contact percentage only a couple of points better than that of Javier Báez. He’s also a mediocre defender, but then again, the Brewers did good work with Omar Narváez, who had more problems with the glove. And at 25, there’s still time for Contreras to grow as an all-around catcher.
Caratini will serve as the dependable caddy, good enough to spot Contreras and give him plenty of rest days at DH, but not so good that he ought to seriously threaten Contreras’ status as the starter.
Austin Hedges is Pittsburgh’s latest all-glove, no-hit catcher, the successor to Roberto Pérez, Michael Perez, and Jacob Stallings. Hedges showed a little bit of life with the bat in 2018 with the Padres, but that turned out to be short-lived. Of the 342 players with at least 500 plate appearances in the majors over the last three seasons, Hedges has the worst wRC+ at 41. It’s not particularly close, either, with Hedges possessing a 20 point “edge” over Gregory Polanco’s 61 wRC+. Hedges is a good defensive catcher, but he’s really testing the limits of how poorly a good defensive catcher can hit and still be a major league starter.
The hope for the Pirates is that Endy Rodriguez scorches Triple-A and gets installed as the full-time starter sometime in midseason. Henry Davis may challenge him for playing time someday, but given that he has yet to be successful in Double-A, Rodriguez ought to get sufficient time to stake his claim to the job. He’s played a lot of first base, second base, and left field, but I hope that the Bucs treat that as a bonus rather than an excuse to pigeonhole him into a utility role.
Kevin Plawecki is the favorite to get the backup job out of spring training, as it makes little sense for the team to have Rodriguez or Davis sit on the bench watching Hedges play. Rodriguez’s versatility might even mean that when he reaches the majors, Plawecki is able to stick around as the third catcher.
There’s probably no player in baseball who has more reason to dislike the emergence of catcher framing metrics than Salvador Perez. If you subscribe to the notion that framing is an important skill, at least until the robo-umps take over, Perez is a fun, aggressive, power-hitting backstop with serious defensive flaws that make him a rather ordinary player in terms of WAR. If you don’t, that’s a whopping 107 runs added back to his defensive totals, or about 10 WAR, basically putting him within range of possibly being a borderline Hall of Fame candidate when all is said and done.
I’m not particularly optimistic about Perez aging well; his aggression at the plate is entertaining, but I think there’s a tipping point where he’ll lose enough bat speed that pitchers start eating him alive rather quickly. Going from his surprising 161 wRC+ in 2020 to a 126 in 2021 to a 108 last season might mean that process is already happening.
I’m still not sure what to make of MJ Melendez. As much as the Royals love Perez, it would be in their interest to give Melendez as much time at catcher as they can so they’re able to evaluate whether he can stick at the position. But the Royals do what the Royals do, so Melendez will have to demonstrate his abilities and somehow improve behind the plate despite getting most of his playing time at DH.
The Reds would rank higher, but it’s generally believed — because, well, the manager said it — that Stephenson will only get 60-70 starts behind the plate as part of a three-heading catching tandem in 2023. Young enough, and more accurately, inexpensive enough, to survive the fire sale in Cincy, I remain optimistic that if he proves he’s healthy, he’ll be given every chance to stick as a full-time catcher. I don’t think his bat is quite good enough to stick at DH or at first base as a possible future Joey Votto replacement, so catching still represents the position where he has the best chance at a long career.
Luke Maile and Curt Casali are adequate backups, though given the similarity of their profiles, they may effectively be redundant on the roster. This is especially true given that the Reds are likely to face a roster crunch at some point due to their impressive stable of position player prospects. There’s little harm in having both on the roster now, but I’m not sure having two veteran backup catchers makes a ton of sense for a losing team.
I think the best outcome here involves Stephenson proving to be healthy, the Reds upping his catching time to 100 games, and one of the vets getting traded to a contending team in July.
Jake Rogers appeared to be on the verge of solidifying his place as Detroit’s starting catcher before a late-2021 Tommy John surgery put him on the shelf for an extended period. Eric Haase acquitted himself very well in Rogers’ absence, hitting 36 homers in just over 700 PA over the last two seasons. He’s not as defensively minded as Rogers, so it seems likely the latter will get the majority of playing time behind the plate while Haase racks up a good number of plate appearances at DH and possibly in the outfield.
How this plan shakes out probably depends on whether Rogers’ defense has remained intact after missing a year due to injury, but with the Tigers not expected to make a run at the playoffs this year, the team isn’t under any urgent pressure to sort out the position.
If he has a big minor league season, I can see Dillon Dingler actually robbing some playing time from all three catchers listed here in late summer.
The Nationals are certainly believers in Keibert Ruiz, recently signing him to an eight-year, $50 million contract with two additional team options that will keep him with the team for what will likely be the best part of his career. In a further display of confidence, the Nats also refrained from picking up any veteran catchers to complement Ruiz at the plate. While he’s been a prospect for a very long time, he was also a very young one, and at 24, he isn’t even old for a catcher breaking into the majors. Will Smith leapfrogged Ruiz with the Dodgers in 2018 and 2019, but Ruiz’s bat came back to life the last two seasons in the minors and he has the ability to beat these projections convincingly.
One of the reasons Washington ranks so low here is that the backups, Riley Adams and Israel Pineda, don’t bring a lot to the table, either offensively or defensively. Adams’ power never really developed in the minors as hoped, so he’s basically the team’s number two option by virtue of simply being around and on the roster. For a club just trying to avoid losing 100 games in 2023, maximizing performance from their backup catchers ought to be very far down the team’s list of concerns.
I’m a believer in always letting minor league players, no matter how old, change your opinion of them. For a long time, it seemed unlikely that Austin Nola would have any kind of major league career outside of maybe a stray garbage time cameo or two before he headed overseas or assumed a coaching role. A minor league infielder without impressive tools or any track record of performance to prove scouts wrong, Nola originally got the idea to try catching at age 26 after a conversation with coach and former journeyman catcher Paul Phillips.
Not many major league catchers tried the position in a game for the first time at age 27, but it worked out surprisingly well. Just being a catcher may not have been enough, but Nola developed offensively, too. He followed up a .279/.370/.376 line in 2018 with a .327/.415/.520 effort for Tacoma in 2019 that made it next-to-impossible for the Mariners not to give him a shot; he managed nearly an .800 OPS in a half-season with Seattle that season. It has led to a nice little career in the majors where one hadn’t looked likely.
However, when you debut at 29, you’re basically starting off at the beginning of your decline years. Nola’s offensive numbers have gradually eroded every season, a normal and unsurprising course for players as they get a decent way into their 30s. Nola’s still a respectable catcher, good enough to make the Padres comfortable trading Francisco Mejía. But he’s aging and the team wants to see what Luis Campusano can do, with Nola going from the late-coming student to the veteran mentor.
As we were preparing this piece for publication on Sunday, a wayward Michael Fulmer pitch hit Nola in the face; he appears to have suffered a broken nose. It seems as if he escaped anything career-threatening or season-ending, but there’s a good chance he’ll miss the start of the season. Campusano projects similarly to Nola on a per-plate appearance basis, so it doesn’t shift San Diego’s rank too wildly (they were 24th going into Sunday), but it’s still something to watch.
The second player taken in the 2018 draft, the Giants expected Bart to be the heir-apparent to Buster Posey, but that plan went awry fairly quickly. After an excellent pro debut, Bart’s 2019 was derailed by a hand injury, and he hasn’t really hit enough since to recapture that top prospect status. The short 2020 season certainly didn’t help matters; he needed playing time and to get it, the Giants promoted him to the majors, where he was clearly outmatched. He posted an anemic 68 wRC+ and a terrible 41/3 K/BB ratio.
Posey’s sudden retirement left Bart the obvious choice to take the starting mantle, but his .215/.296/.364 line did little to solidify his hold on the job. The Giants would be foolish to give up on him — as I said earlier, catchers can have weird developmental patterns — as he’s had a lot of interruptions to his career. The team has hedged its bets (though not with Austin Hedges) by signing Roberto Pérez to pair with Bart. Pérez won’t impress anyone at the plate, but he’s a dependable catcher with the glove.
Tucker Barnhart has long had a better reputation than his defensive numbers suggest he’s earned, and he had a nice run as a starting catcher with the Reds. Brought in during the 2021-22 offseason to stabilize Detroit’s catching situation after the Jake Rogers injury, Barnhart had an abysmal season at the plate, a performance that would have gotten more attention if most of the rest of the roster hadn’t been dealing with a similar experience last year. Barnhart signed a two-year deal with Chicago this past December. He’s a pure stopgap for the Cubs, who didn’t have a good immediate replacement handy after Willson Contreras hit free agency.
Yan Gomes had struggles similar to Barnhart’s in 2022 backing up Contreras in Chicago. But he has actually hit in recent years, enough that the projections generally see some sort of bounce back as likely. My hypothesis is that we’ll see a fairly even timeshare in 2023 as the team sorts out if either of its veteran catchers still has anything left in the tank. By the time the Cubs are back in serious contention, it’s doubtful that either of them will play much of a part in it.
Despite being one of the worst offensive catchers around, Martín Maldonado seems to have a vice-like grip on the catching spot in Houston. He works well with Houston’s large corps of young pitchers, which is important given the team’s developmental strategy of letting expensive veterans walk while accumulating raw pitchers with intriguing repertoires who are then refined in the high minors and majors.
I suspect that if the Astros were a team that struggled to score runs, they’d prefer Maldonado to be the lighter side of a catching tandem and would pair him with a more offensively-minded backstop. But with Houston’s lineup awash in run generation, they’re able to afford this luxury.
And unlike a lot of defensive skills erroneously cited as impossible to measure (like first base scoops), handling a pitching staff is something that’s very hard to capture with stats. I’m not sure if it’s right or wrong, but since our rankings are determined by the cruelty of the numbers, Houston’s tandem ranks near the bottom here.
It’s doubtful that Korey Lee will change that or seriously threaten Maldonado’s playing time. Lee can hit the occasional round-tripper — he bopped 25 home runs in Triple-A in 2022 in an offensive-friendly environment — but he’s not a very well-rounded hitter otherwise.
Part of me wants to claim to be confused why the Rockies seem so committed to Elias Díaz, a 32-year-old catcher with a sub-replacement level career line (his -1.1 WAR is the worst career mark for any catcher with a starting job in 2023). But most of you are probably aware enough of my frustration with how the Rockies have been run for the last decade to know that I’d be lying.
Díaz has had (very) brief spells of offensive relevance, but unlike Maldonado, there’s little evidence, even of the circumstantial variety, that he’s making enough of a defensive contribution to compensate when he struggles at the plate.
Brian Serven is hardly a star-in-waiting, but he’s almost certainly a better defensive player than Díaz, so it would likely be in the team’s best interest to give him every opportunity to push the incumbent into a backup role and serve as the caretaker glove until prospect Drew Romo reaches the majors or Colorado finds a better option. I am skeptical that will happen, however, because Rockies veterans in their 30s with guaranteed deals (Díaz is entering year two of a three-year contract) are allowed to hold their jobs tighter than a ring-bearer holds the One Ring.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.
Thank you Dan, very cool!