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August 6, 2012

What You Need to Know

Monday, August 6

by Daniel Rathman

The Weekend Takeaway
Elite offensive catchers used to be like perennial Cy Young contenders—a luxury only a handful of major-league teams enjoyed. Two months ago, Jon Paul Morosi of FOX Sports penned a column that ran with the headline “Era of great offensive catcher is gone,” declaring that with the decline and retirement of Mike Piazza, Jorge Posada, and Ivan Rodriguez, teams had become increasingly willing to settle for premium receivers, blockers, and throwers, and to get their run production from other positions.

In that column, Morosi quoted Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd, whose franchise is blessed with a ballpark that can turn scrubs into sluggers, as saying that “It is really hard and getting harder to find catchers who can contribute with their (offensive) ability …” But is it? Taking True Average (TAv) as a measure of overall offensive ability, the 2012 season actually suggests the opposite.

A TAv above .300 is considered “great,” and more than a decade has passed since at least three regulars (min. 400 plate appearances) reached that mark in the same year. That year was 2000, and the trio was Piazza, Charles Johnson, and Posada. In 2004, not a single starting backstop got there, with Pudge coming closest at .299. Last year, only Mike Napoli (.360) and Alex Avila (.318) did.

But two-thirds of the way through the 2012 campaign, six catchers with at least 300 plate appearances rank among the league’s “great” hitters. Buster Posey (.339) and Carlos Ruiz (.338) are comfortably above that benchmark, while Yadier Molina (.305), A.J. Pierzynski (.302), Joe Mauer (.302), and Miguel Montero (.300) are teetering on the brink. If any of them falter, A.J. Ellis (.299) and Carlos Santana (.294) have a chance to take their places.

That means at least one-fifth of the league can currently claim to have a great hitter at the catcher position. And that group does not include Brian McCann or Matt Wieters, two of the most talented offensive backstops, or Napoli, last year’s TAv leader.

ESPN’s Jorge Arangure described the winding path that led to Ruiz’s breakout season—which is currently on hold because of plantar fasciitis in his left foot—in his column last week, chronicling his ascent from diminutive second baseman to All-Star catcher. Posey, just 13 months removed from an injury some believed would end his days behind the plate, is 34-for-75 (.453 average) with six home runs since the All-Star break and “on the periphery” of the Most Valuable Player race. Mauer, finally back to full health, ranks among the American League leaders with a .317 average and more walks than strikeouts. Pierzynski, who smacked a game-winning, two-run shot in the seventh inning yesterday, has gone deep in a franchise-record five straight games. Molina, arguably the best defensive catcher in the league, has already set a career high with 16 homers. And Montero, who signed a five-year, $60 million extension in late May, has hit .309 with 11 big flies since June 1.

Thus, the scarcity of run producers among the league’s current catcher crop is overstated. And that crop may soon grow even richer, with Yasmani Grandal, Devin Mesoraco, and Wilin Rosario learning the ropes, and top prospects like Travis d’Arnaud and Mike Zunino on the way.

Longevity is another matter entirely. As Morosi noted—and as Molina, Ruiz, and Ellis can attest—catchers often bloom late, and very few are able to maintain their peak levels of production for more than a few years. In that regard, the 2012 season, like the 1993 season—the last time five catchers reached the .300 TAv plateau—may be an outlier.

On the other hand, the talent pool at the catcher position is as deep as it has been in recent memory—at least since Piazza, Posada, and Rodriguez were in their primes. So perhaps this is not, as Morosi and O’Dowd suggested, the end of an era. Perhaps, instead, it’s a passing of the torch.

What to Watch for on Monday

  • If you are a left-handed pitcher, seeing Paul Goldschmidt step into the batter’s box might be construed as cruel and unusual punishment. After yesterday’s solo shot off of Cliff Lee, the Diamondbacks first baseman now owns a .381/.442/.796 triple slash against southpaws this season, and that 1.238 OPS ranks second in the majors to Andrew McCutchen’s 1.266. Goldschmidt will see another lefty in the series opener at PNC Park, where Erik Bedard—who has lost seven of his last eight starts—is scheduled to take the mound for the Pirates. Arizona enters tonight’s contest 6 ½ games behind Pittsburgh for the second National League wild-card spot, so this four-game set is vital to its post-season hopes (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • There are painful ways to lose your ninth straight game, and then there is the torture the Indians put their fans through on Sunday afternoon. Manny Acta’s squad coughed up early 2-0 and 3-1 leads, and squandered a 5-4 edge in the seventh inning, but all of that might have been forgiven had closer Chris Perez been able to protect an 8-5 gap in the bottom of the 10th. Two hits and two walks later, Miguel Cabrera had other ideas, and the Tribe traveled back to Progressive Field carrying the albatross that is an 0-9 road trip. Zach McAllister will be asked to play stopper when the Twins come to Cleveland tonight (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • Yu Darvish, who is ninth in the majors with 145 strikeouts in his rookie season, takes on the man with the fewest strikeouts—among both starters and relievers with at least 20 innings of work—in the league. Aaron Cook has allowed six runs in each of his past two starts, and if he does not find a way to miss more bats, the Rangers are likely to extend his losing streak to four. Meanwhile, the series opener will mark Darvish’s first meeting with the Red Sox and his first visit to Fenway Park (7:10 p.m. ET).
  • The White Sox elected to be cautious with their young left-hander, Chris Sale, giving him 10 days of rest to recover from what the team termed a “dead arm,” even though Sale said he “couldn't care less” about the dip in his fastball velocity. The 23-year-old Sale ranks second among American League starters with a 2.61 ERA, and he tossed eight innings of one-run ball in a win over the Royals on July 15. Kansas City will counter with Luis Mendoza in game one of the three-game set at U.S. Cellular Field (8:10 p.m. ET).
  • The American League West was not supposed to be a three-horse race entering the month of August, but the Athletics can shed the “pretender” tag by taking at least two of three from the visiting Angels this week. Jarrod Parker, who was charged with only one run in seven innings in a no-decision against the Halos on May 23, will look for more run support in his series-opening matchup with Jered Weaver. The Angels ace is 7-7 with a 2.63 ERA lifetime against the A’s (10:05 p.m. ET).

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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