Sunday, February 13, 2011

Predicting the Top Seven Catchers of 2011

Much like the shortstop position, there is a bit of a swoon in Major League Baseball when it comes to catchers. You have top of the line guys like Joe Mauer and Brian McCann and then the ranks start thinning out very quickly. And yet even the worst catcher in the majors last year had a positive WAR value simply because of how important the position is the the game. If you really stop and think about it, there never has been any great era for catchers, has there? The top catchers of all time stand out so much because there was so much mediocrity everywhere else. For every Johnny Bench, there was a Rich Gedman. The thing about catching is that there is this tie to the pitching staff that's never really been measured. Rick Dempsey was the Orioles catcher for so many years because his pitchers swore by him. Jason Varitek can say the same thing. Maybe some day there will be this measurement us amateurs can go to that's called a catcher's pitching index or something. But for now, all we have is WAR and at least that component has fielding and hitting built into it's algorithm. Based on those flawed figures, here are the Fan's top catchers for 2011.

Joe Mauer - Of course you have to start with Mauer. He's a  batting champion and has that sprawling, heads-up tag he made against the Yankees last year to sink our teeth into. According to Fangraphs, he wasn't the best overall catcher last year. Fangraphs listed Brian McCann ahead of him in WAR. But you can never bet against Mauer retaining the top spot in 2011. The only question from year to year is his health. He hasn't been a rock of health like Ivan Rodriguez over the years. Plus, his defense has been questioned of late. Fangraphs gave him a negative figure last year. That may be due to some of the nagging injuries he played with all year. But again, if you were in a school yard and picking teams, Mauer would be your first pick.

Brian McCann - As mentioned, McCann had the highest WAR of all catchers last year. He's been hailed as an offensive catcher his entire career, but his scored well for his defense last year, which is what pushed him ahead of Mauer. Both Mauer and McCann have been entrenched for years now which is a nice anchor for their pitching staffs. If there was some sort of catching pitching index, McCann would probably score very highly. But what makes McCann so good is his offense. McCann's slash line for the last five years reads: .290/.361/.496. If there wasn't a Joe Mauer, McCann would get a lot more attention. He's one of the best.

Buster Posey - It seems impossible for Buster Posey to have dreamed a better debut season. He came in and along with some improbably contributors, helped the Giants win a World Series. Posey also displayed remarkable dexterity and nimbleness behind the plate that wasn't expected (take heart Montero fans) and scored very well for his defense as well as his offense. The real question for 2011 is whether he can increase his patience when batting. His 6.8 percent walk rate leaves a lot to be desired. Also to be seen is whether NL pitchers make adjustments when facing him and how the young catcher handles those adjustments. But this guy is very, very good and with a bump in all his offensive numbers, could be the top of the class of 2011 catchers. He's that good.

Yadier Molina - The youngest of the Molina brothers turned out to be the best catcher of the bunch. There is no question that he is the best defensive catcher in baseball. Plus, you can't argue with the success he's had catching St. Louis pitching. The only question concerning Molina is his offense, which has hit hard times of late. If he could just hit his slash line of the last five years (.271/.333/.362), then he'll easily be the third best catcher in the game in 2011. But the problem with Molina is that he doesn't walk enough, which when he isn't hitting, can't give him any impact in the line up. Molina doesn't strike out much either. No catcher has struck out less often in the last five years than Molina. But he has to hit better than 2010. The Fan is betting that he will.

Russell Martin - This pick may surprise you. But Martin had, by all accounts, a really bad year last year, which ended abruptly with a bad injury. But even his "bad" abbreviated season garnered him a 2.1 WAR, higher than a lot of starting catchers around the league. Martin will take over for Jorge Posada, who catching days have passed him by. Posada was rated the second worst defensive catcher in 2010 (behind only Doumit). Martin might turn out to be one of the most unheralded improvements any team has made this off season. The Fan believes he will handled the pitching staff better and his defense will certainly be the best the Yankees have had for years. Of course, he has to be healthy to make this prediction work out. But no worries. Even if he can't stay healthy, Jesus Montero is a pretty darned good Plan B.

Carlos Ruiz - The Phillies catcher had a bust out season in 2010. With a slash line of .302/.400/.447 along with solid defense, Ruiz has become the focus of the Phillies and their great run. Plus, he is going to have fun handling what looks to be a great pitching staff. The thing with Ruiz for the Fan is just how much was 2010 a fluke or a progression? He was very good in 2009, but not good like 2010. Even if he slides back a bit, he's a rock for the Phillies and is certainly among the best in baseball. The Fan isn't sure he shouldn't be rated higher. If Martin rounds back to his old form, he's the better catcher. But if not, Ruiz is better than the 2009 and 2010 versions of Martin.

Geovany Soto - Would you have guessed that among all MLB catchers, Soto had the highest walk percentage in 2010? This Fan wouldn't have. Soto's season was hidden by the Cubs falling out of the race so fast last year. But he had a great offensive season. The difficulty with Soto is that he doesn't rate out well as a defensive catcher. Soto rates as one of the poorer defensive catchers in the game. But, darn, he is a good offensive catcher with a high OBP (obviously), a solid .280 batting average that can improve and good power (.497 slugging percentage in 2010). Now he just has to get better with the mask on.

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