Framing catcher quality, count on offense

A lot of apologies are made for catchers, and it’s easy to understand why. Whether it’s the busted-up knuckles or the beating their knees take from a career spent crouching half the time, the physical demands of the job inspire automatic sympathy. Finding guys who can withstand that and contribute on offense doesn’t sound easy, and historically it hasn’t been. Whether you want to talk about all-time historically inoffensive players like the dead ball era’s Bill Bergen (career OPS+ of 21) or more recent catch-and-throw heroes like Jose Molina (64) and Jeff Mathis (52), we accept that there are guys whose careers depend on their catching skills and little else. And now, thanks to catcher framing statistics, we’re better prepared than ever before to value those contributions fairly.

So if I told you we’re seeing catchers contributing more on offense in recent years than we have at any point in the past 20, you might be understandably surprised. But if you look at where catcher performance at the plate is relative to the rest of baseball, that’s where we find ourselves today. Taken from Baseball-Reference.com, tOPS+ is just a comparison of how someone or a bunch of someones do compared to the league average, where 100 is average. So, looking at their collective performance season by season, in recent years catchers have been closer to big league average as hitters than at any other time in the past two decades:

Get into naming names, and you can understand why we have a better hitting crew of catchers today. The National League has its incomparable trio of Buster Posey, Yadier Molina and Jonathan Lucroy, the best three catchers in the game today, all of them outstanding offensive players with OPS marks north of .800 across the past four years, and all of them understandably parked atop our position rankings in BBTN 100. Molina has been the Cards’ regular for a decade, and will be for at least the next four years he’s under contract; I’m not going to have a problem calling him a Hall of Famer come the day we get to look back at his career … and he isn’t Posey. Four years as a regular, and the Giants’ backstop has a Rookie of the Year trophy, an MVP and three rings. Who’s that calling, Johnny Bench? Bill Dickey? Either way, that guy wants his cachet as the championship-caliber catcher back. So you can imagine how Lucroy feels as third wheel in this contest, a dominant player and MVP candidate in his own right.

If not for those three guys up front, the NL’s B-list of backstops is replete with guys you want to play. Devin Mesoraco with the Reds came into his own last year, banging out an .893 OPS and 25 homers, and he’s headed into his age-27 season. Wilson Ramos makes for an interesting pick at No. 10, a guy who has lost big chunks of the past three years to injuries, but with a career .749 OPS, he’s primed for a big year in his age-27 season if he can stay healthy. And that’s without naming Derek Norris with the Padres (just 26, .727 OPS career); Yasmani Grandal with the Dodgers (projected for a .760 OPS via ZiPS); and Travis d’Arnaud of the Mets, who is expected by many to break out big in 2015 after last year’s second-half .787 OPS.

The American League might have nothing to compare to the NL’s top trio, but it still features a strong catching cadre. Russell Martin joins the Blue Jays as another one of the few 30-somethings on the BBTN Top 10 list, sure to provide OBP as well as defense, and fellow graybeard Brian McCann’s 87 home runs across the past four years leads all catchers. But players like Matt Wieters, Yan Gomes, Salvador Perez and Jason Castro of the Astros are all parked in the prime of their careers, producing at the plate as well as behind it.

Admittedly, the less happy way to think about the chart above is that catchers as a whole, already a crew populated by specialists, perhaps didn’t have as far to fall in the first place. With MLB-wide offense dropping from the .782 OPS in 2000 that was highest in the past 20 years to the .700 OPS that was league average last year, the floor for performance is now closer for everybody. Since catcher as a position has always been among the worst-hitting positions, this could be interpreted as everyone falling toward the offensive basement catchers have always been in. If that’s where you’re at, I’m guessing you’re a cup-half-empty type.

On the half-full side of things, I’d argue that we keep league-relative performance in mind while acknowledging today’s current crop of good-hitting backstops in their prime or just entering it. My exercise in name-checking gave us 14 guys that you -- or your team -- would be pretty excited about having around, and that’s without getting into the Cubs’ trio of quality catchers, or the Pirates’, or the A’s probable platoon, or Mike Zunino’s power, and so much more. So even in today’s bigger big leagues with 30 teams, somebody’s obviously doing something right on the player development side of things if we have that much talent to talk about behind the plate.

And with all that catching talent, it’s worth noting the other thing that you don’t see all that much of these days: the guy who’s hanging around as a regular catcher because he can catch, beyond the point when his bat has had it. Take a wonderful catcher from the past like Tony Pena: a great regular with the Pirates from 1982-86, his bat quickly started slowing down in his 30s. By the time he put in his four years as the Red Sox’s regular receiver (his age-33 to age-36 seasons), he hit a combined .234/.290/.313 with an OPS+ of 64. His bat had already died its natural death, but because he could catch, Pena’s career lasted another four years beyond that as a reserve. In contrast, as much as the Rays loved and had a handle on Jose Molina’s value as a receiver, they didn’t mistake him for an every-day player. These days the only truly “old” regular catcher is 36-year-old Carlos Ruiz of the Phillies, and he’s still an asset behind the plate -- and he’s still hitting.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.