Monday, April 16, 2012

Are we living in the "Golden Age" of catchers?

There has been an influx of contract extensions for catchers in recent weeks with Carlos Santana of the Indians being the latest to sign on the dotted line. Some think the Indians might have locked up baseball's top catcher but that title can be debated with players from both leagues coming out on top. The Twins already have Joe Mauer their MVP catcher and hometown hero locked up to a huge deal but there are plenty of other big name catchers across the baseball world. There are players behind the plate in the American League and the National League who have already become stars or who are well on their way to becoming big name players.

Here is a look at some of the top catchers in each league and even a few young players who could move from top prospect lists to being in the discussion for top catcher in their league.

American League (2011 Baseball Reference WAR)
Mike Napoli, Rangers (5.5)
Alex Avila, Tigers (5.4)
Matt Wieters, Orioles (4.0)
Carlos Santana, Indians (3.9)
Joe Mauer, Twins* (1.7)
Salvador Perez, Royals (1.1)
Jesus Montero, Mariners (Top 10 Prospect by Baseball America)
Travis d'Arnaud, Blue Jays (Top 20 Prospect by Baseball America)
*Injury shortened season

National League (2011 Baseball Reference WAR)
Miguel Montero, Diamondbacks (4.5)
Yadier Molina, Cardinals (3.9)
Wilson Ramos, Nationals (2.5)
Brian McCann, Braves (2.5)
Buster Posey, Giants* (1.5)
Devin Mesoraco, Reds (Top 20 Prospect by Baseball America)
*Injury shortened season 

The hardships of catching on a star player have been well documented in Minnesota with Joe Mauer and in San Fransisco with Buster Posey. Both of these star players missed large chunks of last season because of catching related injuries. Bob Harkins of NBC Sports wrote a couple of weeks ago that catching is the toughest job in all of sports. As he wrote in the article,
"The catcher is a different kind of animal altogether. He's a scout and a coach. He's a psychiatrist and a self-help therapist. He's the first one to sacrifice his body and the last line of defense. And if he wants to make big-time money, he's going to have to hit, too."
All of this pressure on catchers has forced some of the names listed above to find time playing other positions on the field. The Twins have used Mauer at first base on a more frequent basis to start the season and this has allowed his bat to be in the line-up for every game in 2012. Santana had a very good year with the Indians last year and he found himself on the field at first base for 66 games. Top prospect Montero is at the start of his first full season in the big leagues and the Mariners have only let him catch in one game so far. Many of these high level catchers are good enough from the offensive side of the game that their managers need to find ways for them to play almost everyday.

After considering all of this information, it is easy to wonder if we are living in one of the best era's in history for players at the catching position. There have been many very good catchers in the past but the plethora of quality catchers seems to be very high across the baseball world. Could we be in the middle of the "Golden Age" of catchers?

In an article written for ESPN's SweetSpot Blog, Dave Schoenfield examined every season since 1969 where there was a surplus of catchers with a WAR of 3.5 or higher. The two best seasons on this list were in 1977 and 1978 with nine and ten catchers that had a 3.5 WAR or higher. This was the era of Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, and Ted Simmons. Last season there were six catchers who reached this level in MLB but that didn't include some notable stars like Mauer, Posey, and McCann.

The closest recent season with six catchers with over a 3.5 WAR was in 2004. Javy Lopez, Ivan Rodriguez, Jason Kendall, Jorge Posada, Jason Varitek, and Victor Martinez played well enough to easily make the 3.5 WAR mark. It is eight seasons later and many of these players will not be playing in baseball this year. Martinez is injured and some of the other prominent names have already hung up their catching gear and called it a career. It was time for a new era of catchers and they might have been the predecessors to one of the best crop of catchers in history.

When it comes to catchers, it is hard to predict how the season will stack up at the end of the year. There can be injuries that push players to the disabled list for large pieces of the schedule or there can be sub-par play from players that are expected to do more on the field. Perez of the Royals will already miss a big chunk of the 2012 season so there is not much of a chance that he will reach the 3.5 WAR mark. But even with Perez out of the equation, there are 12 other catchers that could have a WAR of higher than 3.5 at the end of the year. As mentioned above, the record for any season since 1969 is 10 players and this means we could be in the middle of a very special season for catchers in 2012.

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