Pose(y) Colored Glasses
by Jim Silva
Has there been a golden age of catching – a time when great catchers were falling from the sky and bumping into each other on the bus? It is such a difficult position to fill at the major league level that having one man who has mastered catching and can also hit is like finding candy that is actually good for you. The ‘70s produced a lot of great catchers – Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, and Gary Carter all played at the same time in the mid-70’s and all three are in the Hall of Fame. But from sheer volume, the true Golden Age of Catching was during the 1930s when Ernie Lombardi, Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane, Rick Ferrell, and Gabby Hartnett wore the tools of ignorance – and those were just the Hall of Fame members! There are only 18 catchers in the Hall, so to have 27% of them playing at the same time is uncanny, even if you take into account that players from the ‘20s and the ‘30s are vastly overrepresented in the Hall.
Part of the blame for the dearth of catchers in the Hall Of Fame falls on the perceived value of defense, and that is at least partially the fault of the lack of an easy way to measure defensive value. Even now with the availability of mountains of statistics that are readily available, there isn’t consensus on how to measure defense – especially from catchers. Sure, there is some disagreement over offensive measures, but by comparison the fight over defensive stats makes the disagreement about offensive stats look like a hug festival! And since catcher has been a defense first position maybe forever, it might at least partially explain why there are so few catchers in The Hall.
One thing that IS certain is that this is not the golden age of catching, so catchers like Yadier Molina and the Giants catcher, Buster Posey, stand out. They are likely the only two catchers currently in the majors, with a reasonable chance of making the Hall of Fame. Posey has an edge on Molina because his bat is excellent. Molina has been the gold standard for defense for years, but Posey is no slouch.
In 2015, Gerald (yep, that’s Buster’s real first name), completed his 4th straight season playing at least 147 games. In each of those seasons he caught at least 100 games, spending part of his time at 1st base or in the DH spot during inter-league games. Catching is incredibly taxing and the Giants have done a good job of getting Posey out from behind the plate to protect him, which will hopefully prolong his career. By contrast, Molina has caught at least 130 games each season since 2009, except for his 2014 season when he missed significant time to a thumb injury. Molina is older than Posey, but they are interesting to compare because they are the two top catchers in the game, and their usage is so different. Molina is almost exactly five years older than Posey, and has caught 1436 games in the majors to Posey’s 576. That is a significant amount of wear and tear.
Molina has always been better known for his glove than his bat although he can hit some – maybe not like Posey – but he definitely adds value to the team with his bat. From 2011 through 2013 Yadier racked up 12.6 points of oWAR (a comprehensive measure of offense relative to a replacement level player). 2014 and 2015 were a disappointment for Molina on offense, but he still contributed 2.1 oWAR even though his power numbers dipped. When you have a glove man like Molina and you aren’t as worried about his bat carrying the team, do you play him at his most valuable position or do you try to make sure you protect his bat? Here you have the tale of two catchers. The Giants have protected Posey because his bat is arguably the best bat in their lineup and his catching skills are gravy. The Cardinals have played Molina into the ground because his bat is gravy, but his glove is perceived as game-changing.
To put Posey’s young career into perspective, his career slash line through May 1st, 2016 was .310/.374/.483. He has accumulated 27.2 oWar which is already more oWAR than Hall Of Fame catcher Ray Schalk accumulated in his entire 18 season career (23.7). After only two full seasons in the majors, Posey had won the Rookie of The Year Award, a Silver Slugger, and the NL MVP. To date he has won a total of three Silver Slugger Awards, received MVP votes in each of his full seasons (winning in 2012) and appeared on three All Star teams. And you know that magical even-year thang the Giants have goin’ on? Well, Posey’s top three slugging years happen to be 2010, 2012, and 2014 – as Posey’s bat goes, so go the Giants?
As for Posey’s work behind the plate, Buster has averaged 12 DRS (defensive runs saved) for the last six seasons, and in 2015 won the Fielding Bible Award as the best defensive catcher in all of baseball with 17 runs saved. Posey’s throwing is good – he nailed 36% of the runners foolish enough to attempt to steal on him last season and has already caught 44% this season to add to his career 33% caught stealing rate – but his framing is unearthly. Mr. and Mrs. Posey’s son has saved 19.4, 23.6, and 12.7 runs with his framing skills in each of the last three seasons alone. Enough said.
The last couple of seasons, the Giants have had the luxury of having a backup catcher in Andrew Susac who would likely start for many teams in baseball. Susac has some home run power and has historically been a good pitch framer with at least an average arm. In 2013 and 2014 he saved 7.3 and 13.3 runs with his framing skills at triple-A and has maintained a 35% caught stealing rate during his minor league career. He also has 34 homers (in a season and a half worth of at bats) and a slash line of .255/.363/.427 – again – these are minor league career numbers. If stats from the minors always carried over to the majors then predicting what prospects will do would be easy – which it clearly is not. Still, Susac only has 221 big league at bats and his numbers aren’t too far off from his minor league stats. He won’t hit for average, but with a full-time gig you could expect 10-15 home runs and an on-base percentage north of .320. Who wouldn’t want that from their strong armed, pitch framing catcher?
Last season Susac was a hot mess, putting up sub-par framing numbers and hitting only .218 with a .368 slugging percentage. His walk numbers kept his offensive value barely in the positive, but he will be caught and passed by other prospects unless he can adjust to playing infrequently – or the Giants decide to play Posey at first more often, or even exclusively, in order to maximize his offense allowing Susac to play regularly and develop.
The other guy trying to make the roster out of spring training is Trevor Brown. The 10th round pick got his cup of coffee at the end of last season when the games didn’t count – well, they didn’t count for the Giants who were out of the race by then. Brown actually hit a bit better than you’d expect him to hit based on his minor league career slash line of .244/.300/.316. In only 39 at bats he hit three doubles but sculpted a limp .231/.279/.308 line. On the defensive side of the plate, Brown has a minor league career rate of nailing 30% of base thieves. During his call up 7 of 9 runners stole on him for a 22% caught stealing rate – a small sample size that left him below the league average. He had a great year at triple-A in terms of pitch framing saving his club 6.4 runs, so his small sample size in the majors where his framing cost the Giants 1.8 runs should be taken lightly. While Susac’s star is waning, Brown’s solid start has his waxing. Susac started the season at triple-A and Brown has managed three home runs and a .258/.343/.581 slash line, but has only caught two of the eleven runners who have attempted steals off of him to date. While it is still a small sample size, if Brown continues to allow steals at that rate, then Susac will likely earn his job back as Brown’s bat begins to cool – which it will.
If first baseman Brandon Belt is healthy and plays well again like the Giants always thought he would, it will be tempting to leave him at first and catch Posey more in spite of the success they’ve had by moving the catcher to first about a third of the time. It must be incredibly hard to rest a future Hall of Fame player who is also your best player. In that sense Andrew Susac and Trevor Brown are very important men to the Giants because they make sure it doesn’t hurt too much when Posey rests. Giants fans, wrap Susac and Brown in bubble wrap when you see them on BART and enjoy the prime of your Hall of Fame catcher while you still can.