With pitchers (Starters and Relievers) already ranked, our attention turns to the other half of the battery. Finding a catcher who makes an offensive impact is getting easier, with better conditioning easing the toll of the position. 17 catchers had an OPS above the league average last year, that number was only 12 in 2009 (min 250 PA). And while it’s still tough to quantify some of the value that catchers bring to a ballclub – with their leadership and management of a pitching staff – new measurements of defensive performance help clubs to see a well-rounded picture.
(BA/OBP/SLG and FanGraphs dWAR)
1. J.T. Realmuto (.275/.328/.493 / 2.8)
Finally getting the national recognition he deserved in 2019, the former Marlins star established himself in Philly with an accolade-laden (accoladen) season. He was named to his second All-Star team, won a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger, and received eight MVP votes. The best part is: statistically, 2019 was essentially identical to his 2016-18 seasons. J.T. Realmuto hits .275 and OPS’s .810. That’s just what happens. Significantly fewer people took notice before the Phillies were in the process of swinging a trade for him.
But wait, there’s more! Realmuto was the best defensive catcher in the bigs last year. In addition to gunning down 47.3 percent of potential base-stealers, J.T. saved eight runs just with his framing. It’s hard to imagine that the Phillies have any money left to sign him to the extension he deserves after the 2020 season. Bryce Harper is making it clear he wants that to happen. If not, the bidding war for his long-term services should be ridiculous.
2. Mitch Garver (.273/.365/.630 / 0.4)
Garver’s nuclear power stroke may have been overlooked amongst all the raking going on in Minnesota, but it was historic for a catcher. Mitch hit 31 homers in 311 ABs, for a 10.03 AB/HR ratio. That figure ranks #22 on the all-time leaderboard, and #1 for catchers. Of course, 400 at-bats are required for “officialness,” and Garver fell just short there. But still. Wow.
Garver also falls way short of Realmuto in defensive ability, with his framing and arm strength around the league average. But there’s no denying his offensive strengths. 2019 seems like a fluke, but even a regression to 14 AB/HR has him next to seasons from Mike Trout, Hank Aaron and Albert Pujols. That’s good company there.
3. Yasmani Grandal (.246/.380/.468 / 2.3)
One of the most patient hitters in baseball, Grandal set full-season career highs in OBP and OPS in 2019. His 28 homers led NL backstops. And his defense continued to shine, ranking second overall and third in framing. All those strengths were enough to convince the White Sox to sign him for $73 million over four years.
Grandal should help improve a Sox offense that ranked 22nd in OBP and 24th in SLG last year. Not to mention that the man he’s replacing behind the plate – James McCann – was by far the worst framing catcher in the bigs. Another telltale stat: Grandal had a .890 OPS away from Miller Park last year. He’ll play all but four games in other stadiums this season.
4. Gary Sanchez (.232/.316/.525 / -0.1)
Creeping closer to a “three true outcomes” hitter in 2019, nearly 45% of Sanchez’s PAs ended in a K, BB or HR. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, Sanchez has always been a power first player. He led all catchers with 34 taters last year, a career-high. And he still destroys the ball, with his hard contact rate up to 42 percent. Despite a climbing K-rate, The Kraken remains just as fearsome.
5. Will Smith (.253/.337/.571 / 0.3)
Whoa! Buying into the hype much? Smith only has 196 MLB plate appearances, but he’s a wrecking machine hungry for more. While Smith’s 2019 awesome 11.3 AB/HR rate might seem flukey, that rate is actually consistent with his minor league performance. For a relatively small guy (5-foot-10, 195lbs), Will creates excellent leverage and doesn’t get cheated. If this were a ranking for the next five years, Smith would be sitting just below Realmuto – only because he hasn’t proven himself defensively yet.
6. Robinson Chirinos (.238/.347/.443 / 0.3)
Flying under the radar on Texas teams, Chirinos has been one of baseball’s most valuable catchers over the past few years. Offensively, Robinson had his best year in 2019, hitting 17 homers and 22 doubles with a career-high walk rate. And behind the plate, he showed great improvement from 2018. Instead of costing his team, Chirinos was in the green with 3 DRS.
Best of the Rest
Willson Contreras is a close seventh to Chirinos. Omar Narvaez and Tom Murphy put up loud years for the Mariners, but can they do it again? Roberto Perez broke out with modest offense with sparkling defense. Wilson Ramos remains one of the most consistent hitters in MLB. Carson Kelly projects like the next Grandal. And Austin Hedges put up a monstrous defensive year, but Francisco Mejia can actually hit the ball, so he’ll take over in San Diego this year.
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Featured Image Courtesy of NBC Sports
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