Now that the Super Bowl is over and sports fans can turn their gaze southwards, toward Florida and Arizona, we are going to have to find a group of underrated, hard-working everymen to laud even as we overlook them. Sorry, Saints offensive linemen, your brief moment of hagiography is over. Before their knees begin to creak and their backs begin to spasm, let us consider for a moment the path of a catcher. The catcher aesthetic is gritty, dirty, achy, and inglorious. Not pretty-in the face or with the bat? No problem, catchers, Nichols’ Law of Catcher Defense has got your back, offsetting your failure in other, less tangible ways.

Obviously, Joe Mauer Hasn’t Read Much Vonnegut

But what about the rare orchid, as captivating as it is delicate, that dares rise above the swampy waters? Catchers who can hit and field the position well are one of the scarcest commodities in baseball. Part of the explanation is that catchers who hit well are often moved off the position in order to guarantee a spot in the lineup. Todd Zeile and Craig Wilson are classic examples of players who shifted to infield corners shortly after reaching the majors because their bat developed faster than their skills behind the plate.

This raises an interesting problem. Recall the defensive spectrum, which describes the general difficulty of each position and suggests in which direction players can move as they age. No doubt familiar to most readers, the defensive spectrum begins at one end with shortstop and runs all the way to designated hitter. But where along this line do catchers fit? In the 2009 National League, catchers hit .255/.325/.385, which of course includes the traditional benefit of intentional walks, as subtracting them reduces the OBP to .315. Shortstops, on the other hand, hit .268/.327/.396, and removing their intentional walks drops their OBP to .321. This at least must be indirect evidence that catchers are harder to find than shortstops, mustn’t it?

But it’s here that the catcher position represents a sort of discontinuity in the defensive spectrum. Most catchers, when they move off the position, transition either to first base (like Carlos Delgado) or to third base (like Zeile or Brandon Inge). Occasionally, an athletic oddity will move to second base or center field, but such things appear not to happen in the absence of Hall of Fame talent. The strange thing is that catchers, when they move, drop to the middle of the defensive spectrum. However, if they manage to stay at the position, they represent an improvement on what is often the league’s least productive spot.

That means productive catchers who can stay at the position are perennially hot prospects. A player like Joe Mauer, the first catcher to win two, never mind three, batting titles, is one of the most valuable commodities in the league. When speculative reports surfaced last week that Mauer and the Twins were close to signing a long-term deal, many wondered about his ability to stay behind the plate. Other than his size (6-feet-5, 220 pounds) and the everyday rigor of catching, there is nothing in particular to suggest that Mauer can’t stick it behind the plate. And yet, the sheer terror he inspired in the hearts of pitchers in the American League Central perversely lowers the chances he has to become the greatest catcher of all time.

Last season, Mauer recorded 28 games as the designated hitter, which was a career high. Mauer missed the entire month of April due to injury, but returned to the league like Tim Raines returning from collusion. Paradoxically, the better Mauer gets as a hitter, the less likely he may be to remain a catcher. The flexibility of the designated hitter position only increases the chances that Mauer will play fewer and fewer games behind the plate. It is possible that the DH helped mitigate the injury that just robbed us of witnessing the greatest catcher season in history, but it may also prop up Mauer’s replacement level going forward, since each game he plays at DH could be played by Jason Kubel or Jim Thome or some other competent hitter without defensive virtue.

Perhaps a more disturbing specter for Twins fans is that Mauer loses the potent bat. If any Minnesotans have gazed into Sean Forman’s palantir at the bottom of each Baseball-Reference page, they’ll notice that Mauer’s third-most similar player through age 26 is Jason Kendall. However, the last word from Deadly Accurate gives comparables of Terry Kennedy, Mike Scioscia, Victor Martinez, and Ed Bailey. That’s three guys from the John Madden Everyman’s School of Gritty Sports Athletes plus another in Martinez, who is already spending a significant amount of his time without a chest protector.

By way of impossible comparison, Johnny Bench‘s fifth full season of 1972 was his career year. He boasted a .336 EqA and a 10.5 WARP3. Mauer, missing a month of his fifth full season in ’09, notched a .346 EqA and an 8.8 WARP3. (That’s 9.1 rWAR for Bench and 7.9 for Mauer, if you’re curious.) You can chalk the difference up to Bench’s status as the greatest catcher in history, or to the flukiness of Mauer’s injury, or to the time spent at DH, but the fact is Mauer could not yet cast off the weights put on him by his innate gifts and the Handicapper General. While Mauer has tremendous promise going forward (PECOTA projects 142 games and a 5.3 WARP for 2010), he may never again have a chance like he did in 2009.

Won’t Somebody Think of the Children?

There is currently a bumper crop of top catching prospects chomping at the bit for a chance to receive in the majors. Among them, Buster Posey, Jesus Montero, Jason Castro, and Carlos Santana lead the way. Yet, before any of these prospects have won a starting job in the major leagues, half of them seem doomed to exile from behind the plate. Montero’s size (like Mauer, he’s 6-5, but heavier) leads scouts and our own prospect expert Kevin Goldstein to all but guarantee a move to first base or designated hitter in the near future with the Yankees, despite apparent improvement in his formerly execrable defensive skills. The simply logic is that Montero’s bat is ready well before his glove, and like Wilson or Zeile, that will seal his fate.

Posey, on the other hand, finds himself bafflingly blocked by the eldest Molina. The Giants may settle this problem of their own creation by trying Posey at first base, although they remain adamant that Posey is their catcher of the future. Unlike Montero, nobody questions Posey’s ability to field the position. Instead, circumstances have conspired to push Posey down the rabbit’s hole and defensive spectrum simultaneously.

Santana, whose bat is nearly ready for the Indians‘ lineup, is really hampered only by some of the ancillary aspects of catching, like English language skills and game-calling. Luckily for Santana, these are the sort of last-mile problems typically solved in short order by everyone except cable companies. As for Castro, the merry band of mischief makers that replaced Brad Ausmus‘ production behind the plate in Houston appear not to be any serious impediment to his development. In short, Castro, the one most agree has the worst bat, is almost certainly the one most likely to become the everyday major-league catcher.

Question of the Day

If I told you a player made it all the way to Double-A playing catcher, but I didn’t tell you anything else about him, how likely do you think he would be to stay at the position? Essentially, all four of the young prospects considered above have done just that. In other words, how strong is your prior probability and how much weight should be put on posterior evidence when evaluating young catchers?

You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
As a former gargantuan (terrible) catcher myself, I look at Mauer and wonder what matters more--his possible GOAT status at catcher, or his value to Minnesota regardless of position. Minnesota has a set of competing incentives to reconcile: 1) His value at the backstop both defensively and offensively, without any real catching prospects in sight who can do even 60% of what he can; 2) His status as 'The Franchise,' even with Morneau at first--Target Field should be Joe Mauer Field in all honesty, as his hometown deity status along with his production and help from his buddy has propelled that franchise from the jaws of contraction. The competing incentive is that Mauer's bat needs to be preserved, even if it means moving him to left field or third. I keep him at catcher unless his bat just collapses a la Roberto Alomar; but there's ample reason to move him--and soon.
This is an excellent overview of the Mauer Question, and I appreciate your humility in never quite laying down a solution. I submit for consideration the strong possibility that NOBODY KNOWS what to do with Mauer. He is a singular athlete who has already set new standards of excellence for the position. I suspect his achievements are meaningless to Mauuer, except as a means to an end- to get his team to the World Series. No player can do this alone- the challenge to Twins ownership is to surround Mauer with a cast of characters fit to help him get the team there. Thus I think Mauer will resist any solutions which he thinks not in accord with this goal. Such a solution would be one that results in a player inferior to Mauer catching for the Twins. Not very likely in Mauer's lifetime- or so long as he is with the Twins. If he signs the contract being proposed, I suspect one goal of Mauer's under that contract will be that he remains the Twins' catcher so long as he wishes to do so (and is capable of playing). So the Mauer Question is immensely interesting, but largely academic. Mauer's in charge of the answer.
I think you're right that he's in charge of the answer in large part, in that what will be determinative is Mauer, not any other player. But not all of it is within his control. If his knees degrade to the point that he simply can't take the daily punishment, there's very little doubt in my mind that he would be forced to first base or designated hitter. Injury is always a risk, and Mauer has not been immune thus far in his career.
Interesting article as far as it goes, but what about the rest of the catchers? Any analysis or speculation, for example, regarding Weiters and his future at catcher, or his likelihood to be an impact hitter?
It's hard to fathom now that the Twins received for so much negative press for passing over Mark Prior in order to draft the hometown guy, Mauer.
Worth pointing out that Santana didn't really move behind the plate until 2007, his third season of pro ball, which explains why his game-calling skills lag behind the rest of his game.
Sure, and language is perhaps another issue, but for early-career transitions, it's worth noting that Terry Steinbach didn't start catching as a pro until 1985, his third year after being drafted, 1986 was his first year as a full-time catcher, and 1987 was his rookie season in the majors. Admittedly, early in his big-league career a lot of pitches were being called from the dugout, and it's probably the case that working with a generally veteran staff coached by Dave Duncan helped him early on. Santana's situation is, of course, very different: new manager, new coaches, a lot of young pitchers, on top of the rest.
Does pulling out Mauer's 3rd comparable (Kendall) really have anything at all to do with Mauer's future? I mean, he's comparable because, like Mauer, he had a great start to his career as a catcher. And then Kendall suddenly became rather mediocre (I don't know his story, injuries or just degrading, doesn't matter). But I don't really see that Kendall means that having a great start to your career as catcher means that you are then going to suddenly become mediocre. It's just that Kendell happened to. With comparables it seems you're trying to statistically devine some predictive similarities using a big batch of possibly comparable players, not that you can point to an individual and say: Look out, he's destiny! I understand that comparables add predictive power to the overall model, but (a.) I doubt it's really a huge amount of additional predictive power compared to more elementary statistical prediction methods and (b.) I wouldn't necessarily expect comparables to add significant predictive power for any particular player, let alone if you're talking about only 1 of the particular player's comparables, let alone comparable #3. Correct me if I'm wrong here. Enjoyed the article. The Twins have an excellent more defense-oriented catching prospect in Wilson Ramos coming quickly up the ranks (some speculation he may backup Mauer this year), so this question will certainly be out there. But then BP has been predicting disaster for Mauer as a catcher for a long time now. He certainly won't move until we see either a dramatic decline in his currently strong defense or significant catcher-related injuries. So we just wait and keep our fingers crossed.
What about the other end of the spectrum? What do we do with the Taylor Teagarden types who are great defenders but struggle with the bat? Is he doomed to the career of Brad Ausmus?
The main premise of the Mauer section seems to be that if a catcher is a good hitter, he is less likely to remain behind the plate. Even if you can demonstrate that correlation historically, it doesn't mean there is a simple cause-and-affect relationship. For instance, a player promoted to the position of MLB catcher is likely there because of a combination of abilities. If his hitting is very good, it is more likely he could achieve that position without tremendous defensive tools. So it shouldn't surprise us that many of those players end up moving to other positions during their career. Obviously, that wouldn't apply to Mauer who seems to be excellent defensively. I'm afraid I can't comment on the rest of the catchers you mention, but Victor Martinez would certainly seem to fall into that camp. Frankly, finding Martinez and Mauer comparative defensively seems to invalidate the method. They're nothing alike, and never have been, except they both hit. It seems like a limitation of the historical method of player projection, because defensive metrics are still in their infancy and not widely used. It's not the first time that historical comps have showed their limitations with regard to Mauer. Mauer has an extreme height, which caused BP (Sheehan, if I remember correctly) to declare him an injury risk behind the plate before his MLB career even began. Comps like this simply must be less accurate for players on the extremes, since there are so few people to accurately compare them to. That's probably something we (and I'm including myself) don't remember enough when using comparable player tools.