Since 1976, the total fWAR accumulated by all catchers has been higher than that totaled in 2011 only once. That was in 1977, when catchers in both leagues totaled 86.1 fWAR. Last season in nearly an extra 500 games, catchers had an fWAR of 84.3. Considering that 2011 includes FanGraphs base running skill, but pre-2002 years do not, the comparison is even more impressive for the seasons after 2002, since in no year have catchers had a base running value higher than -45.8.
During the span from 2004 to 2009, only Ivan Rodriguez was among that group in fWAR and he was the only one largely included for defensive value. That group was always the best of the best, with Mauer being the far and away best. Then, in the span of two seasons, we saw an influx of talent both at the plate and behind the plate.
In 2010 the majors saw seven players top 3 fWAR at catcher including Buster Posey in his first full season. There were also a few random blips in the cases of Miguel Olivo and Carlos Ruiz, who were not young players and had little history of being that level of catcher. Olivo benefited from a solid season defensively to reach this level. This seemed like a nice season from the backstops, but what happened next was a boon of catchers.
Last season 11 players totaled more than 3 fWAR; not one was by benefit of an above-average defensive value. This new group included Mike Napoli (pictured) in a breakout season, Alex Avila, Matt Wieters, Yadier Molina, Carlos Santana, Nick Hundley, Chris Iannetta and Wilson Ramos. Surprisingly Mauer and Martinez missed this group, making this influx of new talent even more impressive.
That list also misses Posey after his gruesome leg injury and 2012 will welcome Jesus Montero to the majors. Although playing in Seattle might hurt his overall numbers offensively, his Oliver projections give him enough to enter this group in 2012 with a projected WAR of 3.2. A few players might come down to earth or play less time behind the plate, but 2012 looks to continue the elite play at backstop.
Explaining the new catchers
This sudden boom of catching talent seems to coincide with many teams and analysts trying to put a value to catching defense and most finding the value is quite a bit less than had been thought. Sure, there are some butchers with the glove, but the highest lost value in most seasons is 10 runs or one win. So a player like Napoli is going to cost you a few runs behind the plate, but spending a majority of his time there still makes him a better team asset than at first base or DH.
So teams are willing to slide even poor defenders behind the plate to see their offense carry a poor glove. Dave Cameron did a look at this value when reviewing where to put Montero. Even his theoretical worst catcher makes sense behind the plate over the DH spot. That’s not to say someone like David Ortiz should have been playing catcher all these years, but perhaps the Red Sox should not view Ryan Lavarnway as a future DH just to keep Jarrod Saltalamacchia behind the plate.
Lavarnway is an excellent example of the new catcher. He played outfield in high school and his early college career until 2007 when he moved to catcher. His defense has grown in the two college years and three minor league seasons since, but he still is labeled most often as future DH. If his glove and arm do just enough not to embarrass or draw negative attention to himself, then he is exactly the type of catcher the majors have seen emerge recently.
So the new catching group is allowed to make some defensive gaffes because the offense at that position is so valuable. This seems to come with a fan and manager limit, though. If a player like Martinez just can’t throw anyone out, then the manager and fans just can’t agree with any numbers. The same is true when you look at Napoli—his label as defensive liability has pushed him to limited catching duty.
As many have said, there are plenty of ways we could be discounting the defensive value or cost. Regardless, the consensus is that one to one-and-a-half wins is the limit for any catcher to gain or lose for his team. If you can find someone who is passable behind the plate, it’s a lot simpler to find another bat to fill your DH spot than the other way around.
According to Oliver forecasts, seven catchers are headed for WAR totals over three. That includes Montero at the position and another season of Napoli at catcher for at least most of his games. There doesn’t seen to be a benefit to moving catchers away from the position and teams have started to take advantage of that. The 2011 season was arguably the best by catchers in 35 seasons and with last year’s catchers expected to stay behind the plate in 2012, there is no reason we shouldn’t see another great year from catchers.