Best of the Decade: Catcher

I miss baseball. I’m pretty sure that’s how my last post, which I published in April, began (I just doubled checked—I started it the same way) because it’s the first thing that I can think of when I sit down to write up a post on Musings of a Baseball Addict. There’s nothing new to talk about. It’s a sad existence for an addict experiencing withdrawal.

Because there’s nothing new to talk about, I figured now is as good a time as any to take a look back at my first full decade as a baseball fan. That’s not to say I didn’t love baseball from 2000-2010, I just can’t really remember much from my years as an infant and toddler. I’m sorry about that. I’m not perfect and I hope you can forgive me for it.

I’m going to go around the diamond and review the best of the best from each position over the last decade (2010-2019). It’s going to be more of a monologue than a ranking, and I’m hoping to invite some discussion with my takes. Let’s go!

Catchers

Fangraphs Top 30 by WAR (2010-2019)

Baseball Reference Top 30 by WAR (2010-2019)

A few notes before we dive in:
wRC+ is an adjusted stat that attempts to quantify offensive production in one number. It controls for park effects and run environment and credits each hitter for each of their hits weighted appropriately (using wOBA, which is essentially a better version of OPS). Click here for more.
DEF measures defensive value relative to position. More here.
FRM attempts to quantify a catcher’s value in terms of runs saved by “stealing” strikes: getting pitches that are balls to be called strikes. More here.

Now, let’s hop to it.

The Best of the Best

Any conversation about the best catcher of the 2010s has to start with Buster Posey. Since 2010, when Posey took home National League Rookie of the Year honors, Posey has accumulated the most wins above replacement of all catchers in baseball by a healthy margin. Baseball Reference and Fangraphs don’t agree on the exact number of wins Posey has accumulated (Fangraphs pegs Posey around 50 WAR and BR has him around 40) but they do agree that the gap between Posey’s overall production and #2 catcher Yadier Molina‘s production is about equal to the production of catchers 25-30 over the last decade. I would certainly classify that as elite.

Posey ranks first among catchers in a number of conventional statistical categories such as runs batted in (RBI), batting average (BA), and on-base percentage (OBP), as well as more advanced metrics like weighted on-base average (wOBA) and wRC+. He also has an MVP award and three rings to his name in the last decade. On top of all this, he was the second-best player in all of baseball from 2010-2017 according to Fangraphs WAR. The only player better than him over that time frame was Michael Nelson Trout (duh). So you wouldn’t be remiss to argue that not only has Posey been the best catcher of the past 10 years but also one of the best players in all of baseball.

If you think there was a catcher better than Posey over the last decade, feel free to disagree with me. My handle on Twitter is @metsfanmax and I’d love to get a tweet or DM from you. You’re wrong, but I’d love to tell you personally why that’s the case.

Baseball Reference and Fangraphs also recognize Cardinals’ ironman Yadier Molina as the second-best catcher of the decade. Like Posey, Molina has won a World Series in the last decade and leads all catchers in a handful of statistical categories—games played, plate appearances, steals, strikeout rate, Fangraphs’ defense—over the past ten years. Also like Posey, Molina has been the face of his franchise over the past decade, so I think he and Posey are the clear one-two punch atop the list of catchers since 2010.

The Runners- (or Catchers-) Up

After the clear-cut first two is where things begin to get interesting. BR and Fangraphs disagree on who the third-best catcher was over the last decade; BR thinks that it was Joe Mauer and Fangraphs thinks it was Jonathan Lucroy. The divergence is primarily due to defensive value; Fangraphs places a much higher value on defense than Baseball Reference does. Looking at the last two columns of the Fangraphs leaderboard should give you a glimpse into where the disparity lies: Lucroy was, according to Fangraphs, over 200 defensive runs better than Mauer over the past decade, and saved over 100 more runs via framing.

Another difference between Lucroy and Mauer is that Lucroy has played the majority of his games this decade as catcher whereas Mauer, who retired after the 2018 season at the age of 35, caught zero games in the last five seasons of his career (2014-2018), presumably due to the toll the position had taken on him previously. With that being said, Mauer was still one of the best at the position offensively, ranking seventh in wRC+ among catchers with at least 350 PA (~100 games played) from 2010-2019. Lucroy, for comparison, ranked 21st.

In addition to Mauer and Lucroy, I think there are three other catchers who belong in the second tier of catchers over the past decade: Brian McCann, Russell Martin, and Yasmani Grandal. McCann was arguably the best power-hitting catcher over the past decade and certainly was the best power-hitting catcher in the first half of the decade. From 2010-2014, McCann’s 108 home runs were first among players who were primarily catchers. McCann was also a great defensive backstop, receiving marks for framing on par with the marks of the aforementioned Molina. His defense was a step down from the Posey-Molina-Lucroy tier, but he was a great hitter for a backstop and good on defense, so he certainly belongs in the conversation for top-five.

Russell Martin and Jonathan Lucroy were very similar over the last decade though Martin was more of an all-or-nothing hitter. Martin struck out about 6% more while walking about 4% more. He hit 30 more HR but his batting average was over 40 points lower. Defensively, Lucroy has a slight edge. Martin and Lucroy were cut from the same cloth over the past decade, so if Lucroy gets a nod in this tier, Martin must as well.

Yasmani Grandal, who debuted in 2012 for the San Diego Padres but gained notoriety as an elite framer for the Dodgers from 2015-2018, has arguably been the best of the five catchers in this tier. Though Grandal has played between 250-300 fewer games than his counterparts in this tier over the past decade, he has the highest wRC+ (118) and walk rate (13.9%) among the group and his 141 HR rank third. He has also been the best framer in baseball since over the past decade, which includes the first two seasons of the 2010s in which he did not play a single game. One could easily make the case for Grandal as the third-best catcher over the past decade despite the number of games played. I’d certainly rank him third, but you can’t go wrong with any of the five in this tier.

Remember These Guys?

Okay, maybe “Remember These Guys?” is a cavalier heading for this section because a handful of the following gentlemen are still in the big leagues. The ones who aren’t still in the league are not names that get brought up in a “best of” anything conversation unless it’s “best of guys that were pretty good for a few years.”

The first guy I want to mention is Salvador Perez who hasn’t appeared in a major league game since 2018. He was a pretty solid hitter in the 2010s, debuting in 2011 and slashing .233/.282/.397 which was just 3% below an average catcher’s offensive production over the decade. He was a solid defensive catcher and could throw out baserunners but is rated as a miserable framer which is why he hasn’t gotten more love in this article. He won a World Series with the Royals in 2015, but we don’t talk about that on this blog.

The next guy is Francisco Cervelli who was a good defensive catcher, so he checks in at the back end of the top 10 on Fangraphs’ WAR leaderboard from the decade. At his peak with the Pirates, Cervelli was an OBP machine that could steal strikes at a good clip. He never got the chance to shine in a full-time role until 2014 (he was the Yankees’ secondary catcher for three seasons before moving to Pittsburgh) and once he did finally get that role, he was somewhat injury-prone due to his concussions. A respectable decade for the Italo-Venezuelan, though.

Carlos Ruiz, professional Met killer, triple-slashed .286/.368/.422 in the first five years of the decade and was instrumental in the Phillies’ 102-win season in 2011. He was never a home run hitter and framing metrics now indicate that he was a pretty poor framer, but he was a solid catcher who at least deserves to get his name dropped in this article.

One more for you: Wilson Ramos. Ramos is not an afterthought at this point—he’s actually the starting catcher for my favorite team—but he hasn’t been a stalwart at the position over the past ten years. Still, I think he deserves a mention on account of the fact that after his laser eye surgery, he has slashed .294/.346/.463 with 62 homers in 447 games (1687 PA). He grades out as a good defensive catcher and an average framer. Fangraphs and Baseball Reference both have him as the 13th-best catcher of the decade, which I think is a pretty fair assessment. Moving on.

Current Tops

There are two guys who fall into this category: J.T. Realmuto and Gary Sanchez. Neither of these guys has been around long enough to get into the conversation for best of the best but they are also still relevant and currently at the top of the sport in terms of catchers. Realmuto, since the start of his first full-time season in 2015, is top five among catchers in nearly every offensive category—1st in runs (343) and steals (40, which is a lot for a catcher), 3rd in average (.279), 4th in HR (84), and 5th in RBI (317). He’s not an outstanding defensive catcher but he’s solid and more than makes up for any defensive shortcomings with his bat. Realmuto is also first in games played in that timespan (674) and as I have said time and again, the best ability is availability.

Gary Sanchez is about as different from Realmuto as one can be while still being at the top of the game. Sanchez is 20th in games played since his debut in 2016 (370) but has been the best offensive catcher in baseball since his debut without question. Sanchez’s 105 homers and .518 slugging percentage pace all catchers since the start of the 2016 season and if he’s not leading in the other offensive categories, he’s close to the top. The one knock on Sanchez is that he is not a good framer, which teams are placing a larger emphasis on as of recent. Still, Sanchez continues to catch more than he slots in at DH which is a positive for the Yankees because it means they can stick another prolific bat at DH.

Quick Hits

Matt Wieters, Mike Zunino, and Travis d’Arnaud have each had some solid seasons with their respective clubs but none of the aforementioned catchers have quite lived up to their top prospect status (Wieters was even #1 overall).

It’d be a crime to write an article about catchers in the 2010s without mentioning David Ross AKA Grandpa Rossy. Ross was instrumental in the Cubs’ 2016 title run and is now the skipper for his former club.

Fangraphs gives Jose Molina, the lesser-known Molina brother, a lot of love for his defensive prowess. He was the 8th-best framing catcher over the past decade despite playing in about one-third as many games as the other elite framing catchers. Keep in mind that framing runs is a counting stat, so more games means more opportunities to rack up framing runs.

Miguel Montero, another Cubs postseason legend, was a great defensive catcher and an average offensive catcher, which made him an asset over the past decade. Unfortunately, after a 2017 start in which he blamed Jake Arrieta for the seven stolen bases given up by the battery, the Cubs designated him for assignment and he never really latched on anywhere else.

In The Wings

Now that we’re done recapping the 2010s, we can look to the future. Aside from the aforementioned Realmuto and Sanchez, who will likely continue to be the best catchers in the game over the next few seasons, there are some intriguing youngsters who will debut soon.

The first is Danny Jansen who, after an intriguing 31-game cup of coffee in 2018, disappointed offensively in 2019. Still, he was good defensively, so if he can turn it around at the dish, he can become a force to be reckoned with.

The next is Will Smith who, in 54 games in 2019 triple-slashed .253/.337/.571. He was about average defensively so if he can continue to swing the bat like he has, I can easily see him soon attaining the title of best catcher in the game.

The final two names to watch in the coming years are Adley Rutschman and Joey Bart. Rutschman, who was drafted #1 overall by the Orioles in 2019, is being hailed as the next Posey in scouting circles except Rutschman can switch hit. He reportedly has excellent feel for calling a game behind the dish and has hit .254/.351/.423 in 37 professional games. Keep in mind, he’s a switch hitter. He also has great plate discipline, boasting a 20:27 BB:K ratio during his nascent career.

Joey Bart, another wunderkind and the #2 overall pick by the Giants in 2018, also has sky-high potential but is not as polished as Rutschman. He’s improved as a receiver but still needs to work on being more disciplined at the plate. Still, he has all-fields power and can potentially be a 25-HR hitter at the big league level. The Giants have their Posey replacement in Bart and Rustchman and Bart may very well be Posey-Molina combo of the 2020s.

Click here to continue reading about the best of the decade (First Basemen).

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Follow Max on Twitter: @metsfanmax

Header Image: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

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