The Phillies re-signed Carlos Ruiz to a 3-year, $26 million deal. Also: Brayan Pena and Geovany Soto have locked down their 2014 teams (the
Royals Reds and Rangers respectively). And now it appears Jose Molina is in the final stages of returning to St. Pete for another two years of expertly framed and eh, who cares about blocking? pitches.
So where does that leave the catching market? As far as I have seen, the Yankees, Red Sox, Rockies, Angels, Rangers (still), Blue Jays and Twins have all been connected with free agent catchers on MLBTR. Using their handy free agents leaderboards (with a few additions), we can examine the remaining free agent catchers and try our hand at predicting the right fits for each.
Catchers are a tough specimen to examine. Elite catchers are always in short supply, and identifying elite catchers has been a perpetually difficult task given the multifaceted nature of their defensive contributions. While we don’t have tools sufficient yet to adequately quantify game calling, we have moved much closer to accurately crediting catchers for pitch blocking, error prevention, range, running-game prevention and — thanks in this instance to Matthew Carruth’s StatCorner — pitch framing.
The Fangraphs WAR for catchers does an excellent job — in my humble, certainly unbiased opinion — of measuring a catcher’s contributions, and with the addition of Carruth’s framing data, we can fill its biggest gap. The following chart shows the remaining free agent catchers and their statistics through the previous three seasons. I have combined their framing contributions into their WAR at a 10 runs per win rate to create WAR*, which offers a more complete idea of their value:
Free Agent Catchers, 2011-2013
Clearly, in raw production, Brian McCann takes home the victory Bundt cake. He hits, he frames, he fields, he gets injured, but hey!, everyone gets injured, right?
At a 110 wRC+ since 2011, McCann is arguably the best hitting catcher remaining. Mike Napoli is obviously a superior hitter, but he is a full season removed from his dish days, and I don’t expect he’ll be strapping the shin guards on again in 2014. His services are demanded enough without having to catch.
So since 2011, McCann has a wRC+ 8 points lower than Carlos Ruiz’s, but 6 points higher than the next closest hitter (the unforecastable Dioner Navarro). There’s little doubt McCann is the top catcher in free agency right now. But we can get a better glimpse of the value of the next tier of players by examining their contributions in divided and prorated perspectives:
|Player||WAR*||WAR*/3||WAR* / 500 PA|
The middle column, “WAR*/3,” is exactly what it says it is: Our friend WAR* divided by three, so a per season glimpse of the catchers’ numbers. The final column breaks prorates their WAR* numbers across 500 PA. Obviously, for some players, this is problematic. The aforementioned Napoli has a season at first base mixed in; Jose Molina simply cannot play a full 600 PA in a season; and Dioner Navarro has likely profited from platoon playing time, which has kept him from facing elite right-handers (though his hot start in 2013 did eventually result in more indiscriminate playing time late in the season).
So, prorated is not the best way to look at these players (or many players). I prefer the WAR*/3. And from that vantage we start to see a clear second tier of catchers: Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Mike Napoli and — a bit behind them — Jose Molina. Two of those guys (Napoli and Molina) are not really in the catcher market (maybe Napoli is in the “catcher” market, but not the catcher market).
Meanwhile, Salty is entering his age-29 season and coming off a career year. But he may not be approaching quite the payday we might expect. He has an enormous, Sicily-sized platoon split:
|Split||wRC+ vs LHP||wRC+ vs RHP|
So Jarrod Saltalamacchia has a big, known weakness. He is also an iffy fielder — not terrible, but enough of a liability that he needs to hit and frame well to be worthy of playing time. And given he can manage a 94 wRC+ — almost perfectly league average for catchers since 2011 — Salty appears to be the prototype of a league average starting catcher. Obviously, he would perform better if strictly platooned against righties, but his strong framing ability (averaging about 6 runs or half a win per season) makes him viable for more steady playing time. And a touch better than the next best option, A.J. Pierzynski.
The inscrutable, unspellable A.J. Pierzynski does not have much of a fan in me, but he is as durable as a petrified pine tree and not especially bad in any way. Moreover, he has a manageable platoon split and on a favorable side, since he’s a lefty. That makes finding a platoon partner a small task and makes him a solid fallback option for most teams.
Other than McCann, Salty and Pierzynski, the catching market is nothing but unknowns, gambles and Warning: Bridge is Out! signs. Dioner Navarro’s incredible 2013 season has put him on at least the Red Sox’ radar, but most teams would prefer to have him as a lefty-mashing platoon mate. Navarro, for all the promise of his 2013 hitting, is still a poor defender who struggles with almost every element of catcher defense other than throwing, where he is adequate.
After considering pitch framing, Kurt Suzuki and John Buck rank no better than replacement level. Miguel Olivo and Yorvit Torrealba have been in slippery declines for several seasons now, and after considering their poor pitch framing, they look more like minor league hopefuls than starting catcher options. Koyie Hill. Bless his heart.
So we have these teams, these seven teams, but only three, maybe four starting catchers on the market. Cue the bidding war! If market size dictated fiscal freedom (and it doesn’t always), then I would predict the market playing out this way:
|Red Sox||Big||A.J. Pierzynski|
“SOL,” of course, is Latin for “Now you have to sign Kurt Suzuki or John Buck.” Latin is a nuanced language.
Of course, if market size was the key factor in free agent contracts, then Albert Pujols, Zack Greinke, and just about every other major free agent in the last five years would be in pinstripes. They are not. Still, I would not be surprised if the Yankees, who have a hand in almost every McCann rumor out there, do indeed catch their McCann fish — especially if the MLB and NPB cannot get a posting system sorting and Masahiro Tanaka drops out of the equation.
The Red Sox, however, seem to have failed in their earlier attempts to woo Salty back. And they clearly have no intention of using Napoli at Dish Town, so they get the next best thing: Mr. Never-Die, the ol’ A.J, Sir Playsalot.
That leaves a tasty helping of Salty catcher for the Angels, who have a park factor that’s death to lefties, making Hank Conger an ever more important (and useful) cog in their offense. The Rangers get the consolation prize, Dioner Navarro, who will split time with Geovany Soto until one of them out-terribles the other.
So the Twins, Blue Jays and Rockies will have to look to the trade market or replacement-level free agents. There could be some prudent fits among the free agents — for instance, John Buck has some decent pop in his bat and could turn a few extra fly outs into homers in Colorado, making him marginally more valuable to them than to, say, the Twins, whose park suppresses right-handed homers and encourages doubles (NOTE: Buck is not a doubles specialist). But all told, it’s a bleak free agent market for these teams if they don’t dole out cash beyond their usual comfort zone.
So however the catcher market ultimately shakes out, it is obvious that the teams needing starters considerably outnumber the quality starters available. Those looking to get the best catcher possible need to strike quick. The market is already drying up.
Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.