August 30, 2012
In A Pickle
Carlos Santana, and the Choice of a Generation
At the risk of being branded some kind of weird catcher fetishist, I would like to point something out:
(All statistics in this article are through Monday night's games.)
This data goes back to 1963, which is neat because that means that 2012 is the 50th year in the sample, and 50 is a round number. So: in the last 50 years, only four times have catchers hit better than they are hitting this season. Now, given that there are 10 hitting positions in baseball, maybe the odds aren't so tremendously low that one of them would be in the top five in overall hitting in the last 50 years. I guess I'm not selling this very hard. Let me try again: this is the best catchers have hit in 35 years. HISTORY IS BEING MADE.
I think it'll be instructive or interesting or both to look at how these leagues have achieved such results. Or, at the very least, I'll probably make some jokes that you might find funny.
You've heard of those guys, right? That's basically a list of the baddest dudes around.
Specifically, that's eight catchers, none past their age-30 season at the time, the worst of whom (Sundberg) finished his career with over 30 WARP, all playing in the league at the same time. As if that wasn't enough, Joe Ferguson, Butch Wynegar, Steve Yeager, Bob Boone, Jim Essiah, John Stearns, and Biff Pocoroba all managed seasons with above- or well-above-average hitting lines. Add it all up and you can see why there's a three-point difference from first place to second in the first table at the top of the article. This was simply a massive year for catchers.
Which, really, what'd you expect when a couple of dudes named Butch 'n' Biff were hanging around the league?
The best offensive catcher in the league that year was Earl "Driving Me" Battey, who had a nice peak with the Twins from 1960 to 1965, but was done as a good player at 31 and didn't appear in the majors after 32. It would turn out that 1963 was his career season, a year in which he traded a bunch of doubles for homers and thereby slugged .476, helping him put up the best TAv of his career by 24 points. In a similar vein was John Orsino, who posted a .309 TAv in 430 PA in 1963 yet saw that season represent over a third of his career PAs.
Elston Howard's age-34 season (for which he won the MVP Award) and Joe Torre getting his career going at 22 helped put 1963 on the map, too, of course, but among the top 20 catchers in the league in plate appearances (this was a 20-team league), just two (Dick Bertell and John Bateman) had TAv figures below .240.
In other words, while the catchers in 1963 aren't Hall of Famers or even Hall of Very Gooders for the most part, they all banded together to hit the snot out of the ball. Just 'cause, one assumes. They felt like it. Got sick of the all-glove no-bat stereotype. I don't know, man. I'm just hypothesizing here.
However, where both 1963 and 1977 saw significant depth at the position, 1970's standing in the catcher-hitting record books derives from the truly excellent performances of a relatively few players at the top of the list—namely, the five listed above plus Manny Sanguillen, who was in the beginning of a nice eight-year peak before flaming out at 33. By contrast, John Bateman, Johnny Edwards, and Jerry Grote all finished in the top 10 in PAs for catchers while having TAvs below .240, a sharp contrast to the infinite list of good catchers in '63 and '77.
At this point, I'm just naming the same names over and over again. The mid-'60s through the mid-'70s were a good era for catchers. Can we just say that? Johnny Bench, Bill Freehan, Ted Simmons, Dick Dietz, Manny Sanguillen, Ray Fosse, Tim McCarver, and Thurman Munson were eight of the top 10 catchers by plate appearances in 1971. The ninth was Earl Williams, who only had three good years, but 1971 was one of them. (The 10th was John Bateman again. What's the deal with John Bateman? Was he the Jeff Mathis of his day?)
We're finally to the main attraction:
In addition to those eight, Brian McCann is having a down year but is still just 28 and Matt Wieters is ever a tease at 26. The only old dudes adding real weight to the catcher batting line this year are Ryan Doumit (31, hasn't actually played catcher that often), the fluky great A.J.'s, Pierzynski and Ellis, and ol' Cot For Choice himself, Carlos Ruiz, who is tied for second in catcher WARP despite being just 14th in plate appearances due to injury.
The comparison to 1977's list of all-timers is tantalizing. Joe Mauer being the same age as Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk is especially salivation-worthy for those of us who want to be able to tell our grandbabies about how we saw X or Y Hall of Famer when they were young. And Buster Posey outstripping everybody on either list! Well, that's just absurd. You would be forgiven for dreaming on these guys.
You will, on the other hand, note some things:
It seems to me, then, given the above factors, and barring Wilin Rosario advancing to the first rank of catchers and/or Brian McCann returning to form and/or Matt Wieters living up to his massive offensive promise, that 2012 represents more of a blip, an "it's been 35 years since the last time there was a big year for catchers, we're due" season, than any signpost for a new era for backstops.
Indeed, given recent research suggesting the sheer magnitude of catcher defense (e.g. Mike Fast showing the best and worst catchers adding and subtracting double-digit runs by framing pitches), one might expect a decline in catcher offense to be coming. Catchers, of course, have always been selected for characteristics other than their bat. Even without being able to quantify the effect of game-calling, psychology, pitch-framing, and ball-blocking, teams have clearly valued such skills. It seems entirely possible, however, that statistical confirmation that these skills are of the utmost importance will renew teams' interest in drafting and developing players who possess them, putting even less emphasis on their bats than they have in the recent past.
The next Carlos Santana might not catch even the relatively small number games that Santana himself has been allowed to catch, in other words. Indeed, the treatment of Jesus Montero might be seen as some evidence of a move in this direction, though of course the decisions of one team (or two teams, if the Yankees trading Montero in the first place can be seen as an implicit statement that they didn't believe he was a catcher) are hardly dispositive of the issue.
One would be forgiven for hoping that teams go the other direction, though, and favor a bunch of thunderbats with decent receiving skills for the foreseeable future. Defense is exciting when it's played at shortstop and center field. Even a smooth first baseman can bring a smile to the face of those with an appreciation for the beautiful things in life. But a catcher? Nobody's going to write an ode to the catcher who can fool the umpire into a strike zone 3 percent larger than league average or call the perfect pitch in every situation. Catcher defense is barely visible in the statistical record, requires close attention while watching on TV, and is more or less impossible to see from any seats but the ones directly behind home at the ballpark. Offense strikes me as the main way that catchers contribute to the sensory experience of baseball, so offense, more and more and more offense, that's what I'll be wishing for from our Ignorant Heroes.
Many thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance.