Positional Power Rankings: Catcher by Eric Seidman March 5, 2012 For an explanation of this series, go ahead and read the introduction. All the posts in the series can be found here. We’re going to kick off the series with a look at how teams fare behind the plate. The catcher position is one of the most important on a team, and it’s unfortunately one of the toughest to evaluate given our limitations in measuring defensive value. Ranking teams at the position proved interesting since some of the best overall players who happen to catch are not going to derive their entire value from behind the plate. Mike Napoli might tally 5 WAR this season, but how much of that comes from time spent DH’ing or at first base? Teams also get boosts from having solid backups, as the goal here isn’t to rank the 30 starters, but to determine how much overall value is expected out of the position itself. 30. Los Angeles Dodgers Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter A.J. Ellis R 400 .240 .356 .317 -1 1.0 Reserve Matt Treanor R 100 .220 .312 .301 -1 0.0 Prospect Tim Federowicz R 200 .236 .289 .345 1 0.5 The Dodgers made a conscious decision to get younger behind the plate this season, implying that they will allocate the bulk of the playing time between Ellis and Federowicz. Treanor will play on occasion but the Dodgers are going to spend the year seeing what they have in these two youngsters. Ellis has always displayed a patient eye at the plate, even translating to an 11.5% walk rate in ~200 major league plate appearances, but he doesn’t offer any power. Federowicz has shown more power in the minors, but too much remains unknown about he and Ellis to get a handle on who will play and how they will perform. Conservative projections aren’t too keen on either standing out, so while the Dodgers might rank towards the top in other areas, nobody should expect much out of their backstops this year. 29. Pittsburgh Pirates Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter Rod Barajas R 450 .251 .291 .440 -1 1.0 Reserve Michael McKenry R 250 .227 .294 .355 1 0.5 Barajas is going to do what he always does: hit 10-15 home runs, field relatively well for someone his size, and struggle to get on base. He hasn’t caught over 100 games in three seasons, so McKenry will likely play more than a typical backup. That doesn’t necessarily bode well for the Pirates, who are essentially bridging the gap until Tony Sanchez is ready. Barajas is perfectly serviceable as a one-year stopgap but he is 36 years old and can’t be expected to sustain his power — his only real major league skill — forever. 28. Seattle Mariners Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter Miguel Olivo R 425 .225 .263 .374 -1 0.5 Reserve John Jaso L 225 .249 .336 .359 -2 0.5 Reserve Jesus Montero R 75 .257 .322 .438 -3 0.5 Olivo is a lot like Barajas in that his home run output makes him seem like a better hitter. Olivo has a career 4.1% walk rate, .279 OBP and .299 wOBA, but he has hit 12+ dingers for the last six seasons and typically rates well in the field. He isn’t going to platoon with Jaso — even though they bat from the opposite side and each has a case for starting — so the Mariners have to hope he hits similarly to his 2008-10 numbers instead of the putrid .273 wOBA produced last year. The wild card is Montero, who might already be the best major league hitter on the Mariners roster. The problem is he won’t catch much this season, and his value is primarily attributable to his DHing and a few games here and there at first base. 27. Tampa Bay Rays Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter Jose Molina R 350* .237 .296 .353 2 1.0 Reserve Robinson Chirinos R 200* .237 .309 .358 0 0.0 Reserve Jose Lobaton S 150* .228 .305 .345 1 0.5 The Rays have a strange catching situation. Joe Maddon put a 90-game cap on Molina to avoid fatiguing his starter. On top of that, there is no sense of whether Chirinos, Lobaton, or even Gimenez will log backup duty, which requires more playing time in this case given the limits imposed on Molina. Unfortunately, none of these catchers, including Molina, is all that talented or worthy of playing time. The Rays have a very inexperienced group of backup catchers set to backup a career backup thrust into starting duty. Perhaps one of the youngsters sets himself apart from the rest, but the more likely scenario is catcher representing a significant weakness on an otherwise solid team. 26. Houston Astros Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter Jason Castro L 400 .235 .309 .335 -1 0.5 Reserve Chris Snyder R 250 .226 .341 .389 -3 1.0 Reserve Humberto Quintero R 100 .236 .264 .323 3 0.5 Hey! The Astros aren’t dead last in something! The team is committed to giving Castro every opportunity to prove that he can start, but one has to wonder if they can resist the urge to start Snyder if he struggles out of the gate. With a smartypants like Jeff Luhnow steering the ship, it’s likely that the Astros will stick with Castro through thick and thin, which bodes well for both Castro and the organization. He missed the entire 2011 season after tearing his ACL but is still penciled in as the everyday starter. With no expectations whatsoever for the player and the team, this is the perfect situation for the Astros to see what they have in Castro. 25. Oakland Athletics Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter Kurt Suzuki R 550 .259 .315 .393 1 2.0 Reserve Anthony Recker R 150 .220 .286 .354 0 0.0 Prospect Derek Norris R 50 .177 .333 .322 1 0.0 Suzuki has effectively defined the league average over the last two seasons by being a starting catcher and by not being awful. Oakland isn’t the easiest place to produce offensively but it feels like ages ago that he posted 3.5 WAR and was on the verge of becoming one of the best catchers in the game. Signed through next season, and with a relatively inexpensive option for 2014, Oakland will keep him through his prime years, but there isn’t a lot to love with their catching situation. If Norris or Recker can prove they are capable of starting, Suzuki becomes a valuable trade chip as an expendable piece on a mediocre team. 24. Chicago White Sox Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter A.J. Pierzynski L 525 .277 .309 .394 -2 1.5 Reserve Tyler Flowers R 225 .215 .328 .393 1 0.5 Pierzynski doesn’t have much left in the tank but it’s hard to argue with his projection. Since joining the White Sox, he has posted 1.9, 2.1, 1.1, 1.1, 2.1, 1.2 and 1.4 WAR. Unless he completely falls off of a cliff, another season in the 1.5 WAR vicinity is reasonable. His consistency suggests he won’t break out or plummet, and while he won’t produce 1.5-2 WAR forever, he should prove somewhat effective this season. The White Sox don’t seem to have a long-term answer at the position, but Kenny Williams is nothing if not creative. 23. Florida Marlins Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter John Buck R 525 .239 .309 .391 -3 2.0 Reserve Brett Hayes R 225 .229 .276 .356 0 0.5 Buck is similar to Barajas and Olivo, except he hits for more power and has a better walk rate. That isn’t to say he is a patient hitter, as he has a career .303 OBP, but he isn’t a complete and utter OBP sinkhole like the aforementioned backstops. He has averaged 2.5 WAR and a .253/.315/.424 line over the last two seasons. Even if his walk rate drops this year — he isn’t going to get intentionally walked seven times again — he should still produce another 2 WAR. Hayes is your generic backup catcher: light-hitting and a better defender than the starter. With so much money invested elsewhere on the diamond, this tandem suits the Marlins well, but it’s important to note that hitting 20 HR doesn’t automatically render a catcher valuable. 22. New York Mets Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter Josh Thole L 500 .271 .342 .363 -3 2.0 Reserve Mike Nickeas R 250 .225 .295 .295 1 0.5 Thole has always seemed like a backup catcher forced into starting duty. He is a talented player — you don’t consistently post .350+ OBP marks by accident — but there is just something missing from his game. He doesn’t strike out and he has a good eye, but he doesn’t run or field all that well and he has virtually no power whatsoever. He seems more suited for a catching platoon, but enters the season as the undisputed starter given the lack of other options more than his own skills. 21. Toronto Blue Jays Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter J.P. Arencibia R 525 .229 .281 .442 -3 2.0 Reserve Jeff Mathis R 150 .209 .262 .321 1 0.0 Prospect Travis D’ Arnaud R 75 .253 .299 .421 1 0.5 The Blue Jays are in a tricky position as far as catchers go, as Arencibia is a starter with offensive limitations and d’Arnaud is the up-and-comer in need of some more minor league seasoning. While Arencibia is certainly a useful starter, red flags are raised when no projection system thinks he is capable of OBP’ing over .300. It’s too early to put stock in Arencibia’s poor fielding mark last season as being indicative of his true talent level, but 2012 will be an interesting season for Toronto catchers. By this time next year we’ll know whether or not Arencibia falls into the Buck/Olivo/Barajas bucket, or if he is a legitimate long-term solution. 20. Colorado Rockies Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter Ramon Hernandez R 400 .279 .336 .418 1 2.0 Reserve Wilin Rosario R 300 .252 .285 .431 0 0.5 Hernandez is a perfectly solid league average catcher whose limitations were somewhat masked in Cincinnati due to his splitting time with Ryan Hanigan. The Rockies will look to use him in a similar capacity, with rookie Rosario playing two or three times per week. Rosario is a wild card here, as his readiness will determine whether or not the Rockies should have fared more favorably in these rankings. Hernandez could start on an everyday basis, but as his 2010-11 seasons with Reds showed, he is more effective at this stage of his career in a time share. 19. Milwaukee Brewers Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter Jonathan Lucroy R 550 .254 .313 .375 1 2.0 Reserve George Kottaras L 200 .239 .316 .401 -1 0.5 Lucroy isn’t a household name but he’s capable of a league average slash line. Throw in well-reputed defense and that’s a recipe for an everyday starter. Kottaras has him beat in career walk rate, isolated power, slugging percentage and wOBA, but his defense isn’t as strong. Lucroy probably shouldn’t play as much while Kottaras probably deserves to play a bit more. A platoon might extract maximum value out of both players, but until that happens, Lucroy is entrenched as the regular starter. While that isn’t the worst thing in the world, it does hold the Brewers back here. 18. Boston Red Sox Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Start v. R J. Saltalamacchia S 425 .228 .294 .410 1 1.5 Start v. L Kelly Shoppach R 250 .214 .309 .376 0 1.0 Prospect Ryan Lavarnway R 75 .243 .316 .405 0 0.5 The Red Sox catching situation is very interesting in the aftermath of Jason Varitek’s retirement. Bobby Valentine will look to platoon Salty and Shoppach, but Lavarnway is knocking on the door. The platoon is a novel approach here, especially since Saltalamacchia creates his own platoon advantage through switch-hitting. This is a situation where projections don’t tell the whole story given the context in which the players will produce. Shoppach has a career .389 wOBA against lefties with respective marks of .397, .442, .366 and .349 over the last four seasons, and a poor .289 career rate against righties. Salty has a career .336 wOBA against righties, but has struggled against lefties. Though splitting time reduces their individual values, the aggregate value has the chance to exceed the 3 WAR projected above. Then again, both players could falter in their roles and lead the team to recall Lavarnway. 17. San Diego Padres Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter Nick Hundley R 500 .243 .306 .406 2 2.5 Reserve John Baker L 200 .224 .317 .339 -1 0.5 Hundley hit .288/.347/.477 for a team with a combined .237/.305/.349 line last season. He even managed a .395 wOBA at home, including a gaudy .562 slugging percentage in a home run suppressing park. Among catchers with at least 200 plate appearances last season he posted the fourth highest wOBA. Some regression is in order but Hundley is the very definition of a sleeper. Baker is a solid backup catcher that could probably produce decently as a starter on a bad team. Ranking the Padres #17 is somewhat conservative, as Hundley has the chance to become a consistent 4-WAR catcher. Injuries are a concern, as he hasn’t played more than 85 games in a single season, but if he puts it all together and stays healthy, the Padres will rank much higher next year. 16. New York Yankees Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter Russell Martin R 550 .249 .346 .382 2 2.5 Reserve Francisco Cervelli R 150 .255 .321 .343 -1 0.5 Martin plays a lot and the concerns remains the same: can he continue to produce with such a strenuous workload, and can he stay healthy for a full season given his prior ailments? Cervelli spits in the face of Nichols’ Law of Catcher Defense by being a light-hitting backup who Yankees fans know to be a poor fielder. The Yankees are better off playing Martin less in the regular season to keep him fresh for the playoffs, but in doing so they would make a noticeable sacrifice in overall catcher value. 15. Kansas City Royals Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter Salvador Perez R 550 .274 .303 .393 4 3.0 Reserve Brayan Pena S 200 .267 .310 .380 1 0.5 Perez signed an extension that will keep him in Kansas City through at least 2019, but while he has the potential to become a special catcher, he still needs to develop at the major league level. His .361 wOBA was inspiring, but he barely walked and is unlikely to sustain a .360+ BABIP. That isn’t to say he can’t or won’t make adjustments, but rather that it’s worth a step back before we anoint him the next elite catcher. There is far more long-term potential here than absolute value in the coming season. 14. Philadelphia Phillies Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter Carlos Ruiz R 525 .269 .360 .383 4 3.5 Reserve Brian Schneider L 175 .233 .309 .327 1 0.0 Carlos Ruiz has the reputation as one of the best defensive catchers in the game. When arguably the best rotation in the game constantly lauds his work, it’s easy to see where that comes from. The numbers back up his reputation but where he has really surprised observers is with his patience at the plate. Then again, his OBPs have been inflated due to his spot in the lineup: he is intentionally walked an inordinate number of times relative to his skill level since he bats in front of the pitcher. Regardless, Ruiz is a consistent 3-WAR catcher. Schneider doesn’t have much of anything left and is primarily used to help youngsters like Kyle Kendrick and Vance Worley. While Ruiz has plenty of value, his and Schneider’s injuries have forced replacement level catchers like Dane Sardinha into action for more than a cup of coffee, which deflates the Phillies overall value here. 13. Chicago Cubs Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter Geovany Soto R 500 .244 .336 .429 2 3.0 Reserve Jason Jaramillo S 150 .232 .297 .323 0 0.0 Prospect Welington Castillo R 100 .243 .294 .395 1 0.5 Soto is tough to peg, as he has two very good years out of his four as a starter, and has been average in the other two seasons. If we’re following trends, then his 2012 season is going to prove very productive. Trends like that aren’t actually trends, however, so averaging his last two years is far more reasonable than expecting 3-4 WAR because that’s what happened in 2008 and 2010. Castillo is one of the few catching prospects expected to contribute at the major league level this year, and Jaramillo is likely more of a placeholder than anything else. 12. Washington Nationals Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter Wilson Ramos R 500 .266 .338 .453 2 3.0 Reserve Jesus Flores R 200 .226 .266 .366 1 0.5 Ramos is a legitimate breakout candidate and it shouldn’t come as a surprise if he hits the 4-WAR mark this season. He has all the requisite tools to succeed for a very long time. He tallied 3.5 WAR as a 23-year old last year, hitting .267/.334/.445 and throwing out almost one-third of opposing base-stealers. Flores is a big question mark, as he has shown flashes in the past mostly erased by the annual news of a new injury. He has a career .141 ISO and certainly has pop, but the former catcher of the future will now look for success as a backup. 11. Cincinnati Reds Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter Devin Mesoraco R 425 .248 .322 .432 -1 2.0 Reserve Ryan Hanigan R 325 .267 .358 .355 2 2.0 The Reds boasted one of the more underrated catching tandems over the last two seasons with Hanigan and Ramon Hernandez, both of whom could start on a number of teams, but who complemented each other nicely and helped mask the other’s limitations. Hernandez has moved onto Colorado, but the Reds will look to replicate the platoon by replacing him with the rookie Mesoraco. Given regular playing time, Mesoraco has all the tools to produce at the major league level. Don’t be surprised if, by season’s end, this is no longer a platoon and Hanigan is instead backing the rookie up. Regardless, the duo is capable of surpassing the 4-WAR threshold if expectations are met. 10. Los Angeles Angels Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter Chris Iannetta R 600 .223 .348 .390 1 3.5 Reserve Bobby Wilson R 150 .245 .296 .353 1 0.5 I have long drank the Iannetta kool-aid, and once again firmly believe that he will put it all together with consistent playing time. The only potential dent in that plan is Mike Scioscia, who once thought that Jeff Mathis was a more useful starter than Mike Napoli. 9. Detroit Tigers Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter Alex Avila L 550 .254 .348 .420 -2 4.0 Reserve Gerald Laird R 200 .237 .298 .340 1 0.5 Avila essentially came out of nowhere to produce 5 WAR last season and will look to establish that his production wasn’t fluky. His .366 BABIP leaves room for regression, but even a slightly lesser version of last year’s success would make him one of the best starting catchers in the game. His minor league walk rate translated to the majors and the various systems believe in his power, projecting ISOs in the .170-.200 range. His defense has never rated favorably but perhaps working with Laird will improve his behind-the-plate skills. Laird won’t provide much aside from that, but Avila’s talent gets the Tigers in the top ten. 8. Baltimore Orioles Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter Matt Wieters S 600 .268 .334 .429 5 4.5 Reserve Taylor Teagarden R 100 .197 .264 .345 0 0.0 Wieters probably won’t ever become the offensive monster many once foresaw, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t, and can’t continue to be, a very valuable player. Regarded as one of the best defensive catchers in the game, he finally took a step forward offensively, hitting 22 home runs and posting a .339 wOBA. At just 26 years old, he may continue to improve at the plate. If those improvements are realized and he sustains his defensive wizardry, then he will live up to the hype bestowed upon him, despite getting there by different means. 7. San Francisco Giants Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter Buster Posey R 575 .287 .358 .440 4 4.5 Reserve Eli Whiteside R 175 .219 .274 .344 -1 0.0 The Giants were one of the tougher teams to rank. They are clearly the Posey show behind the plate, but while he is one of the best in the game, it’s too early to tell if last season’s injury will hamper his production. Then again, when 4.5 WAR represents a relatively conservative estimate, we’re clearly dealing with an elite player. The issue with Posey as it pertains to these rankings is just how much of his overall value is derived from catching. Given the injury, the Giants will likely start him at first base throughout the season, making it entirely possible that he is a 5-WAR player and a 3-3.5 WAR catcher. 6. Texas Rangers Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter Mike Napoli R 450 .272 .361 .538 -2 4.0 Reserve Yorvit Torrealba R 300 .263 .309 .370 1 1.0 Ron Washington has said he is going to use Napoli behind the plate more often and for that reason alone the Rangers catching unit ranks in the top six. Without Washington’s statement, Napoli remained a tremendous player, but only a portion of his value was attributable to catching. If he catches for 500-550 PA instead of 400-450, the Rangers likely move up, but it’s hard to envision a scenario where he becomes the exclusive starter behind the plate. 5. Arizona Diamondbacks Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter Miguel Montero L 575 .265 .336 .438 2 4.0 Reserve Henry Blanco R 150 .243 .307 .388 4 1.0 While Montero clearly gets the Diamondbacks towards the top of the list, we’re getting into the area where backups can make a big difference in the rankings. Despite playing for what feels like 312 seasons, Blanco is still a valuable backup catcher with strong defense and some pop to boot. Montero is a great all-around talent, but last year was the first season he surpassed 3 WAR and played in more than 130 games. He still has some question marks regarding durability, though there is no question at all about his talent. 4. St. Louis Cardinals Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter Yadier Molina R 550 .284 .340 .397 8 4.5 Reserve Tony Cruz R 200 .237 .287 .352 0 0.5 Molina may go down as the best defensive catcher in history when all is said and done and his improved offense bumped him from defensive wizard/offensive liability to one of the top players, let alone catchers, in the sport. Even the +8 fielding mark might be too conservative, and few would bat an eye if that read +10 or +12. 3. Cleveland Indians Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter Carlos Santana S 500 .246 .361 .449 1 4.5 Reserve Lou Marson R 200 .231 .313 .319 4 1.0 Santana hit 27 home runs, posted a 15% walk rate and managed a .350 wOBA despite a .263 BABIP. Yeah — he’s a stud. His value behind the plate won’t really take a hit, either, as with Casey Kotchman at first base there will be fewer games to play Santana at a non-catching position. But when he does play first or DH, Marson is a perfectly capable backup catcher and a very strong defender. He can’t hit, but he does plenty right behind the plate. 2. Minnesota Twins Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter Joe Mauer L 500 .302 .380 .432 3 4.5 Reserve Ryan Doumit S 75 .256 .319 .404 -3 1.0 Reserve Drew Butera R 150 .216 .263 .311 1 0.0 Mauer is only going to catch 70 percent of the time this season, but the Twins made a concerted effort to ensure they still get some value from their backstops by acquiring Doumit. While he, himself, is going to DH more often than he catches, the combination of these three players makes for one of the best catching units in baseball. 1. Atlanta Braves Role Player Bats PA ZIPS BA ZIPS OBP ZIPS SLG Fielding WAR Starter Brian McCann L 550 .270 .354 .458 4 5.0 Reserve David Ross R 200 .239 .333 .413 4 1.5 McCann can stake a claim as one of the best, if not THE best, offensive catchers in baseball. Despite his portly nature he is also an excellent and underrated defender. When he rests, the Braves get to play the best backup catcher in baseball, who has tallied 1.9, 1.6 and 1.4 WAR as a backup over the past three seasons, without ever topping 180 PAs. Previously locking up McCann — he even has a $12 million option for 2013 — and complementing him with a top-notch backup has helped ensure that the Braves extract more value out of their catchers than any other major league team.