Catchers are often judged on their intangibles. Ability to handle a pitching staff. Framing pitches. Calling a game. Knowing when to let pitchers shake him off. In dealing with the sometimes fragile emotional beings that are major league pitchers, a catcher is often as much psychologist as athlete.
Since I don’t know how to judge any of that stuff, I’m going to rank the NL West catchers on two things: How well they throw out base-stealers, and how well they can rake. I’ll leave the more esoteric stuff to the guys who have actually played the game.
The men who strap on the “tools of ignorance” for the teams in the NL West are Miguel Montero of the Diamondbacks, the Giants’ Buster Posey, A.J. Ellis of Los Angeles, and Wilin Rosario of the Rockies. The Padres will likely start Nick Hundley at the start of the season, but will cede the duties to Yasmani Grandal once he is healthy. Since catchers take more time off than other position players, let’s also look at the backups for each team.
Old-timey baseball note: The phrase “tools of ignorance,” describing the catcher’s gear, was coined by Muddy Ruel. Here’s a good (long) article about Muddy Ruel, written by Dwayne Isgrig over at sabr.org: http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/cd44a05b
1. Buster Posey (SF) – Where to begin with Buster Posey? The fact that he was installed as San Francisco’s cleanup hitter in his 40th major-league start, and has lived there virtually ever since? That he was rookie of the year in his first season? That he was MVP in his second full season? That he’s a catcher with a batting title (.336 in 2012)? That his MVP year came the year after he suffered one of the more gruesome injuries in a home-plate collision in recent memory (which was probably largely responsible for the new rule change)? Or should we go with two World Series rings in his first two full years? The man is a winner. As we said, Buster can rake. Career .308/.377/.486. Between 15 and 24 homers each year, and he’s not yet 26, so we can expect that power to increase. Good arm? He’s better than average. He’s thrown out 32% of baserunners while the league average has been 28%. And those who can judge that kind of thing say he handles a pitching staff like few others do.
Who’s the backup? Hector Sanchez. .248 BA, 3 HR in 129 AB. 22% CS. The Giants backup doesn’t matter as much as the average backups for some other teams, because Buster Posey plays more than the average catcher. Last year, he routinely played 10-14 games in a row, while other catchers get a day off once a week or more. When you’ve got a young superstar like Buster in your lineup, you get him 600 plate appearances, especially when you’re in the playoff hunt.
2. Miguel Montero (AZ) – Back injuries limited his production in 2013, but Montero has been a dependable middle-of-the-order run producer over the course of his career. He was actually the Dbacks cleanup hitter on Opening Day last year. That’s right, not Paul Goldschmidt. Pre-2013 career numbers were .275/.351/.448, and assuming he’s healthy this year, he will be right in the middle of the Prado-Hill-Goldschmidt-Trumbo lineup the Snakes will be trotting out there every day. And behind the plate, he’s thrown out 40%, 42%, and 33% of attempted stolen bases since becoming a starter, while the league average was 28%. Outstanding.
Who’s the backup? The backup is Tuffy Gosewich. Two things about Tuffy Gosewich: First, wow, how about that name? Tuffy Gosewich? That’s spectacular! In a division with a guy named Buster Posey, it’s tough to have the most interesting name, but Tuffy Gosewich pulls it off. Second, in his 13 games played last year, Tuffy Gosewich (yes, I’m going to say his full name every time), in an 18-inning game, had the dubious distinction of making two outs in the same inning against two different position players who were called in to pitch. He lined out against OF Casper Wells, and struck out against SS John McDonald. He got sent back to AAA two days later, Tuffy Gosewich did. (But that was actually because Montero came off the DL that day.) Henry Blanco is also in the hunt for the backup position. But how many times can you say his name without getting bored? Like, twice, maybe.
3. Wilin Rosario (COL) – Not yet 25, Wilin already has two 20+ HR, 70+ RBI seasons. A power hitter at Coors Field can make for some impressive numbers. And indeed, two years ago, Rosario’s home/away splits heavily favored Coors Field, where he hit .297 vs .242 on the road, while 18 of his 28 bombs came at home. Last year though, things evened out, and his home and away numbers in both BA and HRs were virtually the same. So Rosario now seems to be as dangerous in other parks as he is at home. The man doesn’t like to take pitches, though. Not even a little bit. In 466 plate appearances, he drew only 15 walks. 333 players in the majors drew more walks than that. That’s an average of 11 players per team. So, pretty much every starter and 3 bench players per team drew more walks than Rosario. With freeswingers like Rosario, Nolan Arenado, and DJ LeMahieu in the Rockies lineup, with a combined 57 walks in 1400 plate appearances, opposing pitchers can throw the ball just about wherever they want.
Who’s the backup? Tough to say. Right now, it looks like it could be Jordan Pacheco. Pacheco had himself a nice year in 2012, putting up a .309 BA with 32 doubles in over 500 ABs, mostly as a third baseman with a sprinkling of games at first and catcher. But with Rosario and Arenado very clearly the Colorado’s 3B and C of the immediate future, it looks like he’ll again be limited to backing up Rosario and Justin Morneau at 1B.
Defense? C’mon, they play half their games at Coors. OK, Wilin’s at a decent 31%, and Pacheco has thrown out 1 of 12 runners.
4. Nick Hundley/Yasmani Grandal (SD) - The Padres situation at catcher isn’t ideal. The team signed Nick Hundley, a career .237 hitter, to a 3-year deal after a strong 6-week stretch at the end of 2011. He then proceeded to hit .157 in 2012, and was pretty much replaced as the starter once Yasmani Grandal was ready to face big-league pitching after hitting .310/.408/.487 in the minors. Grandal continued to rake for 60 games in the bigs, hitting .297 with 8 HR, before it was discovered that he was taking testosterone and was suspended for 50 games. Post-suspension, Grandal hit .216 in limited time before having season-ending ACL surgery after a home-plate collision. His return schedule is uncertain, and even once he returns, it may be August before he is fully recovered. Defensively, Hundley is a bit better, throwing out a league-average 28% of baserunners, while Grandal has only thrown out 20% in his young career. The Pads will spend the first half of 2014 handling Grandal with kid gloves, and hoping Hundley shows some of that late-2011 hitting form. In other words, let’s not expect too much out of the catcher position early in the year. But once Grandal is healthy, assuming he can still hit without PEDs, he’ll be the Padres starter.
Who’s backing up? If Grandal isn’t healthy enough at the start of the year, the Padres have a capable defensive backstop in Rene Rivera. Read more about the catching situation in Jason Green and Bernie D’Amato’s article on the Padres catching depth.
5. A.J. Ellis (LAD) – Ellis followed the route of many major league catchers, spending a lot of time learning the craft in the minors, then working as a backup in the bigs until he was 30 years old, and then finally earned a starting role in 2012. Ellis, like many catchers who follow this route, is stronger crouching behind the plate than he is standing next to it. Ellis has a gun for an arm, throwing out 35% of baserunners in his career, improving year-by-year until hitting his career high last year, when he threw out 44%. That’s a high enough percentage to change an opposing team’s base-stealing strategy. He’s a career .256 hitter with a little bit of pop, totaling 23 HRs over the last two years with 52 RBI each year. But he saw a significant drop in OBP last year, from .373 to .318, and that’s not a good sign. With these numbers, he’d be ranked higher than Nick Hundley, but behind Yasmani Grandal.
There is some really good talent at catcher in this division, with Montero, Rosario, and Grandal able to hit, and Ellis able to throw. But Buster Posey is really just the best thing since sliced bread. Does anyone say that anymore? Maybe he’s the best thing since Twitter. #oldguyreference #atleastIdidn’tsaymyspace
Next up: Outfielders!