Leading into the 2015 season, The Outside Corner will be ranking the ten best players and units in baseball at nine positions – catcher, first base, second base, shortstop, third base, outfield, bench, starting pitcher, and relief pitcher. The infield positions will be ranked on an individual basis, while the group positions will be ranked by team. First up – baseball’s ten best catchers.
In recent years, the role of the backstop in baseball has evolved. It’s no longer about simply providing offense and being able to throw out baserunners. Catchers are being counted on more and more for things like plate blocking and pitch framing, and their abilities are being scrutinized like they never have before. It’s becoming more and more difficult to find a catcher with the complete package of a rocket arm, a dynamite bat, and a fantastic skillset behind the plate, so when a player is able to shine in even two of those categories, they become a superstar in today’s game.
Anyway, here’s our ranking of the ten best catchers in baseball heading into the 2015 season.
1. Buster Posey. Rumors of Posey’s decline have been *greatly* exaggerated. After a down year in 2013 following an MVP-winning 2012, Posey did what Posey does in 2014 – he hit .311/.364/.490 with 22 homers. Behind the plate, he rated as the best pitch framer in baseball, and was a top 15 plate blocker as well. He gunned out nearly 30% of opposing base stealers. His long-term future remains a question mark because of his value to the Giants and the presence of top prospect Andrew Susac, but until that move happens, it’s going to take a lot to knock Posey off of his perch at the top of the catching hierarchy.
2. Jonathan Lucroy. Talk about a breakout year. But even after everything Lucroy did in 2014, he couldn’t pry the top spot from Posey. Lucroy has reduced his strikeout rate and improved his walk rate in every year since 2011, turning himself into a vicious offensive force at the plate. Lucroy’s power stroke also changed in 2014 – he hit five fewer homers and four fewer triples, but more than doubled his total of two-baggers from 25 to 53. Combine that offensive profile with fantastic framing and plate blocking skills, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a backstop. The one knock on Lucroy’s game – he’s not all that great at controlling the run game. He’s thrown out at least 20% of opposing baserunners in each of the last four seasons, but has also allowed at least 70 steals in each of those four years. The only player to allow more than Lucroy’s 310 stolen bases in those four years in Jarrod Saltalamacchia of the Marlins.
3. Russell Martin. Martin wins the award for “guy most likely to completely fall off this list in a year”. After getting a rich five-year deal from the Blue Jays, expectations are sky-high for Martin after an MVP caliber 2014. But he’ll turn 32 in two weeks, and will be playing half of his games this season on artificial turf – that can’t be all that great for a catcher. After a sad end to his Dodgers career and a couple of underappreciated seasons with the Yankees, Martin came into his own in Pittsburgh, developing into one of the best framers in baseball and an on-base machine at the plate. If Martin’s BABIP regresses in 2015, is he still a top five catcher with a .320 OBP instead of a .400 OBP? Maybe, but a lot of that depends on the players surrounding him. But right now, after the 2014 he had, he’s unequivocally a top give catcher in the league.
4. Yadier Molina. I know I’m going to get some grief from Cardinals fans for ranking Molina so low. He’s still a fantastic catcher. Teams don’t bother running on him all that much because of his cannon arm – he’s thrown out 46.6% of attempted base stealers over the last three seasons. But I can’t help but feel that Molina’s best days are behind him. In 2014, after three excellent seasons at the plate, Molina’s offense dropped off to a league average level, as he hit just .282/.333/.386 with seven homers. From 2011-13, he hit .313/.361/.481 and averaged 16 homers a year. Molina’s typically fantastic framing and blocking numbers also fell off in 2014, ranking as merely “great”. A lot of that decline may have had to do with the July thumb surgery that cost Molina 40 games in the midst of the Cardinals’ run to the NL Central title. If Molina responds in 2015 by having another prime season, we can look back at 2014 as a one-year drop off. But if he continues to decline, maybe we’ll look at it as the beginning of the end.
5. Yan Gomes. The evolution of Yan Gomes has been staggering. Two years ago, he was an ex-Blue Jay first baseman that was dumped on the Indians for an extra reliever in Esmil Rogers. Today, he’s turned into a pretty damn good defensive backstop (with some holes in his game, of course) and an above average hitter. Perhaps the most encouraging thing about Gomes is this – he’s got the hard parts of catching down. He’s an excellent framer. He’s a great blocker. He’s got a cannon for an arm and has nailed nearly 35% of attempted base stealers with the Indians. However, he made 14 errors a year ago – hopefully Cleveland’s improved infield defense can help corral some of those throws and white out one of the few red marks left on Gomes’ resume.
6. Devin Mesoraco. This might be a bullish ranking of Mesoraco following his incredible 2014 season, but I’m willing to stand behind it if he falls back to Earth in 2015. Mesoraco was arguably the best-hitting catcher in baseball this season, hitting an absurd .273/.359/.534 with 25 homers in just 440 plate appearances. He’s a former top prospect for Cincinnati, and while nothing about his defensive performance (framing, blocking, controlling the run game) really stands out, offensive numbers like we saw from Mesoraco in 2014 don’t come around too often for a backstop. Simply being able to hit like that *and* play a premium defensive position (no matter the actual quality of his defense) makes him a top ten catcher in the league. If his defensive skills can evolve into something that could be considered above average, the Reds could be getting a huge bargain with their four-year, $28 million extension.
7. Carlos Ruiz. Even at 36, Ruiz keeps on trucking behind the plate for the Phillies. He’s been a staple with the club since 2007, and his bat really began to blossom after the club’s 2008 World Championship. Aside from his 27-game MLB trial in 2006, his OBP for a season has never dipped below .320. He’s not a high strikeout player. He’s consistently walked at an above average rate. He’s quite a poor framer, but is a fantastic pitch blocker and throws out at least 25% of attempted base stealers with shocking consistency. The bottom could fall out at any moment, but that consistency has resulted in him being ranked where he is.
8. Salvador Perez. Perez is quite a productive player, but I think he gets a bit overrated by his cheap contract, his age, and his ludicrously good major league debut in 2011. While his ISO has remained constant (ignoring a blip up the charts in 2012), Perez has seen his strikeout rate rise, his walk rate drop, and his batting average and on-base percentage continue to fall. In 2014, he hit .260/.289/.403, a far cry from even the .301/.328/.471 line he put together in 76 games during the 2012 season. He’s a good plate blocker and has a cannon for a right arm, but his framing still could use a lot of work. But remember – Perez won’t be 25 until May, and is a three-year MLB starter. Even with the holes in his game, he’s still quite a valuable player.
9. Wilson Ramos. Ramos is an extremely talented catcher that just happens to be very injury prone. He’s only caught as many as 90 games in a season once, and that was back in 2011. 2015 will actually be a bit of a make or break season for him because of all those injuries and declining performance. Throughout his career, Ramos’ abilities against base stealers has been variable, but when he’s healthy, he’s brutal to opposing runners. I think I’m still betting on potential and health here, because Ramos really is the complete package when he’s actually on the diamond.
10. Matt Wieters. Wieters is a question mark going into 2015. He played in just 26 games in 2014 because of an elbow injury that eventually required Tommy John surgery. As a result, he nabbed just one attempted base stealer out of 12 in his 22 games behind the dish. But Wieters is a brick wall behind the plate, and he’s also a decent enough framer with a solid bat, belting 20 homers in each year from 2011-13. If he’s healthy in 2015, his final year before free agency, he could finally end up putting it all together for the Orioles.
Honorable mentions: Travis d’Arnaud, Yasmani Grandal, Brian McCann, Jarrod Saltalamacchia