Catching talent at highest level in years

Are we in a golden age for catchers? In the wake of the Carlos Santana contract extension, there was some debate on where he ranks among the game's elite backstops. My colleague Eric Karabell called him the best catcher in the game.

I'm not sure Santana is in that class yet, although his power/walks combo could make him one of the most valuable players in the game even if he hits just .260. What makes that declaration difficult to make is we have so many good catchers right now. In 2011, we had six that posted a 3.5 WAR or higher (via Baseball-Reference.com):

Mike Napoli, Rangers: 5.5

Alex Avila, Tigers: 5.4

Miguel Montero, Diamondbacks: 4.5

Matt Wieters, Orioles: 4.0

Yadier Molina, Cardinals: 3.9

Carlos Santana, Indians: 3.9

And that list doesn't include six-time All-Star Brian McCann (2.5 WAR), Nationals rookie Wilson Ramos (2.5) or Joe Mauer and Buster Posey, who battled injuries. On top of that are promising Royals youngster Salvador Perez, who will miss the first half of the season with a torn meniscus in his knee; plus Reds rookie Devin Mesoraco and Blue Jays prospect Travis d'Arnaud, two of Keith Law's top 10 prospects entering the season. What's even more remarkable about this list is Napoli is the oldest of the 13 at 30 years old.

Is this much catching talent unusual? I looked at all seasons since 1969 with at least six catchers who posted 3.5 WAR or better.

I think there's an argument that we have the most catching depth in the majors since the late '70s. Looking at the 1977 guys, Ferguson, Tenace and Munson were the oldest of the group, each 30. Ferguson was a guy who had been a backup catcher/outfielder with the Dodgers but got a chance to play more for the Astros in '77. He was never a full-time player again. Munson declined precipitously in 1978 before his early death in 1979. Johnny Bench was only 29 but only had a couple more good seasons left. Of the younger guys, Gary Carter, of course, developed into a Hall of Famer catcher, but the Mets' John Stearns (25 years old) and Butch Wynegar (21) never really grew from here. Stearns battled injuries and Wynegar's skill set never advanced beyond a guy who would take some walks. (Jon Shepherd of the Camden Depot blog looked at the number of 125 OPS+ seasons by catchers by decade.)

Still, you have an impressive group for 1977: Three Hall of Famers in Carlton Fisk, Bench and Carter; a borderline Hall of Famer in Ted Simmons; Gene Tenace, a Santana-like player who drew a ton of walks and hit home runs; a former MVP winner in Munson; and a longtime defensive ace in Jim Sundberg, comparable to Yadier Molina.

Unless Mauer bounces back or one of the younger guys turns into a superstar, our current crop may lack the top-end caliber of Fisk, Bench and Carter. But the depth is phenomenal, and the youth means these guys are going to around a long time. Enjoy them. It's a special group.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.