Leandre: Top 10 Catchers Ahead of 2022by Jordan Leandre February 20, 2022 5 comments
Baseball is such a beautiful game of randomness. Hypothetically speaking, everyone we know today could do a complete 180-degree spin in terms of production. We have a vague understanding of who the best players in the league are, but stacking them up against their peers is difficult.
How much do you value recent success or failure? Does one bad season undo three years of elite play? How do prospects factor into the equation? How much should defense matter? All of these questions, plus more, are difficult to answer with 100% consistency throughout player evaluations.
However, the process of positional rankings is one of the most fascinating things in sports. Trying to answer all aforementioned questions is hard enough, then you have to face the music as you deal with biases from fan bases across the league. Yet, the fun of it is too enticing to ignore. Even for volatile positions such as catcher.
Mileage, sped-up physical breakdown, etc., make ranking them difficult. On top of that, they’re baseball’s defensive coordinator. Their goal is to call a game that keeps the opposing team from scoring. That responsibility is massive, on top of pitch framing and managing the opposition’s baserunning gameplan.
Oh, and they have at least three plate appearances a game.
So who are the top 10 catchers in MLB right now?
Perez is a counting stats darling, especially coming off of a record-setting power campaign for a catcher. Many rankings love Perez as a top-three catcher, and many rank him as high as No. 1.
However, there are deep flaws to Perez’s game. For starters, there are 74 catchers with at least 1,000 defensive innings since 2016; Perez ranks dead last in FRM (-57.0). On top of that, 77 catchers received 1,500 pitches and posted a rating for fielding runs above average (FRAA). Perez ranked 77th at -13.3 FRAA. Lastly, Perez ranks 40th among catchers with at least 500 plate appearances in OBP (.303) since 2018.
Despite not being a proficient on-base maestro, he ranks fourth among catchers in that span in wRC+ (116). That number goes up to 134 since 2019 (third), where he also ranks tied for second with 59 home runs. Keeping him out of the top 10 because of his defense is unfair, considering he’s certainly a massive run producer in that Royals lineup. However, he ranks 10th because his defense rates so poorly.
Normally, prospects should be excluded from top 10 lists. However, catcher is a shallow and volatile enough position that Rutschman can be included despite no big-league experience. The switch-hitting catcher out of Oregon State slashed .285/.397/.502 with a 144 wRC+ in 543 plate appearances between AA and AAA last season. On top of an impressive triple-slash, he rates very highly as a defensive backstop. Like most, he may struggle immediately upon entering the majors, whenever the time comes. However, there’s no reason to believe his defense will suffer enough to not make up for any learning curve there may be with the bat.
What keeps Stassi from ranking higher is just sheer volume. He compares fairly well with a couple of other catchers I have higher but has roughly 50 fewer games than them. That said, the Angels’ backstop is one of the best defensive catchers in the league, as he was tied for fifth among qualifying catchers in RES last season. On top of that, he led all catchers with 12.0 FRM despite being 24th in defensive innings. He’s elite behind the dish and has seen an uptick in offensive prowess since 2020 –– 114 wRC+. The only thing separating him from the top five is volume.
7. Jacob Stallings – Miami Marlins
Stallings isn’t the best hitting catcher in the league, but his defensive prowess remains top tier, and he has the volume to boot. Since 2020, Stallings ranks seventh in fWAR among catchers (3.6), and he tied for second in FRM in 2021 and was third in defensive value. He and Stassi compare fairly well, but Stallings has the volume to keep himself ahead of Stassi for now.
Murphy didn’t quite break out offensively as I anticipated in 2021. However, his xwOBA was 26 points higher than his actual. Defensively, though, the Athletics’ backstop is one of the best in the business. Among all catchers with at least 500 defensive innings last year, Murphy ranked second in FRM with 9.7. He also tied for second in RES, eighth in xwOBA, and sixth in barrel rate (minimum of 350 plate appearances). The breakout for Murphy feels like more of a when and less of an if at this point. He’s one of the best backstops in the league already, with a batted ball profile to match.
From potential DFA candidate to All-Star, Zunino did a complete 180 from 2019 and 2020 to 2021. By doing so, he catapults himself into the No. 5 slot on my catcher rankings. While Zunino still has a knack for striking out, he finally showed the promise he had coming up with the Mariners. Last season, he slashed .216/.301/.559 with a 134 wRC+ and the third-best fWAR among catchers. Might he be a flash in the pan? Maybe, but there’s nothing to suggest his 2021 was a fluke.
His barrel rate was 8% higher than second-place Salvador Perez. His hard-hit rate was above 40% as well. Zunino’s defense was already top-notch, always has been. He just needed to put it together with the stick for a full-162. He did that in 2021 and was rewarded in a big way.
This may be hypocritical because Garver isn’t much of a high-volume catcher. But the Twins’ primary backstop is someone I’m very high on. Defensively, he leaves some to be desired. He’s hardly a bad defender, but he’s not quite Stassi or Zunino or Murphy. Offensively, he’s créme of the crop, despite never posting more than 360 plate appearances in a season.
Since the start of 2019, Garver has had a 135 wRC+, 46 home runs, 32 doubles, and a walk rate of 11.6%. He’s never had the volume to truly break out, but the man has a knack for pummeling the baseball. Ranking him fourth is, admittedly, a bit ambitious. However, I am very high on the Twins primary catcher.
We’re not too far removed from Realmuto being the best catcher in the sport. However, he’s regressed slightly since becoming a Phillie. His defense remains elite, but his wRC+ has dipped six percent towards league average –– from 116 his final two seasons in Miami, to 110 as a Phillie –– allowing some to catch up to him. Realmuto remains a top-three catcher, though. He’s not the best anymore, but that’s more a testament to the two guys ahead of him.
Smith is a superstar lost on a roster full of superstars. He’d always been a top-tier hitting catcher, but he made great strides defensively in 2021. In 2020, Smith was a -4.8 FRM and -5 RES. Those numbers jumped to 1.8 and two, respectively. He’s gone from elite hitting, but outperforming expected stats, to elite offense and borderline bad defense, to elite offense and good defense. He’s put it all together, and he’s still only 26 years old.
Grandal rounds out my top 10 catcher rankings as the best catcher in the league. He’s not the same kind of defensive mastermind as he was with the Dodgers and Brewers, but he’s an elite on-base guy with above-average defense. Posting 3.7 fWAR in 93 games as a catcher is quite impressive as it is, putting him fifth among catchers in the 26th-most games. He even posted a higher fWAR in 2021 than Salvador Perez did, despite playing nearly 70 fewer games. Grandal is on a Hall of Fame path, albeit unlikely to reach that given his 33-year-old age. He might not be the best catcher exiting 2022, but he’s the best catcher entering it.
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