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.
The greatest catcher-hitting year in the last 50 is easy as pie to explain. Check this out:
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?
Where 1977 was largely The Year of the Great Catchers, 1963's backstop-hitting leaderboards are full of names that might make even our good friend and great baseball-history maven Steven Goldman rub his beard in thought. (Does Mr. Goldman have a beard? I would appreciate input on this point.)
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.
The season exactly halfway between 1963 and 1977 provides an interesting blend in terms of how the catcher hitting wound up so good as a population. Joe Torre, who hit well in 1963, as you'll recall, was still around, while the great Johnny Bench and Thurman Munson were each beginning their careers. Besides some all-time greats, though, you also had Dick Dietz destroying his career norms and Ray Fosse having a promising first full season that would, sadly, end up representing almost half of his career WARP.
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.
Hey, what do you know? This was the year after 1963, which we covered above. Joe Torre and Elston Howard dominated again, supplemented by Bill Freehan, the best 40-WARP catcher I've never heard of, Tim McCarver (who is better known for playing a long time (or for broadcasting, really) than playing really well, but he did have a nice peak from '64 to '71), and Johnny Roseboro (who is of course more famous for being battered by Juan Marichal than anything he did with the bat, though he was an above-average player for a number of years with the Dodgers). It's not really worth going into detail given that the population of players was essentially the same as the previous year, though of course the performances fluctuated.
The year after 1970!
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:
Obviously we cannot, in this season, proclaim anything about the Hall of Fame status of any of the players on the leaderboards, but it is striking how many of 2012's good catchers are young:
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:
- Joe Mauer has already had injury issues and, despite being a wonderful defensive catcher, may not last as long at the spot as Bench and Fisk did simply due to his size. He has also split his time nearly 50/50 between catcher and first base/DH. We can hardly expect that to change as he ages further.
- Buster Posey cannot hit like this again because nobody can.
- Carlos Santana is visibly bad at defense and is already, like Mauer, playing significant games at first and DH.
- Miguel Montero and Yadier Molina are 29 and the latter in particular, while he his having his second straight great offensive year, should not be counted on to keep this pace.
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.