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What Makes an All-Star Catcher?

Salvador Perez of the Kansas City Royals; CC by License 2.0

As we know, baseball is a game of statistics. Statistics and metrics are used for many different kinds of player evaluation, but all stats lead back to value. The question is, what are scouts and evaluators looking for to determine a player’s value to a team and organization? The most basic form of scouting is watching for the five tools: hit for average, hit for power, run, throw, and field. Some (myself included) believe that there is a secret sixth tool, mentality, but that is not widely accepted, so let’s stick to the original five. Depending on a prospect’s position, certain tools may be more important than others. For example, one might favor hitting for power over the other tools when looking at a potential first baseman, while prioritizing speed and fielding in a center fielder. Old-school, eye-test scouts will preach that the five tools are the end all be all when it comes to player evaluation and that all five tools are weighted as equally important, but in today’s game, especially at the professional level, that is not the case.

The catcher position is ostensibly the most important position defensively, but fans are wildly inconsistent when it comes to choosing the best catchers in the game. If someone came up to you and said, “Would you rather have Salvador Perez or Austin Hedges as your favorite team’s catcher,” it is not far-fetched to assume you would say Salvador Perez. You also would not be wrong, as Salvy is widely believed to be one of the best backstops in MLB. But this is where the problem lies. Perez is one of the best hitters at the position, setting the record for most home runs in a season by a catcher in 2021 and consistently ranking highly among offensive leaderboards since 2020. Despite his five Gold Glove Awards, however, Perez has been one of the worst framers in baseball throughout his career. The accolades can largely be attributed to his elite pop-time in his younger years, but since turning 30, that has disappeared as well.

When compared to Perez, Austin Hedges’s surface stats make him look like one of the worst players in baseball. Hedges, now with the Pirates organization, has had a hard time keeping a major league roster spot and has not played enough to qualify for most percentile rankings on Baseball Savant. However, the last time he did qualify, that being 2019, he held rankings in the 96th percentile for pop time and sat in the 100th percentile for framing. So why is he not an obvious superstar, much less a fringe major league player? The answer is that Hedges is one of the absolute worst hitters in the game. He had his best season in 2017, hitting a respectable 18 home runs in 120 games, but his .214 batting average, .262 on-base percentage, and .660 OPS made him a liability at the plate for the San Diego Padres, who traded him to Cleveland in 2020. Since then, he has trended downward in each of the last few seasons.

One of the best metrics to place value on catchers is catcher framing runs. Catcher framing runs essentially boil down to how many runs a catcher saved by turning a ball into a strike, or how many they gave up by turning strikes into balls. As of June 21, 2023, the MLB leader in catcher framing runs is the aforementioned Austin Hedges with 8. Behind him are Texas’s Jonah Heim with seven and Atlanta’s Sean Murphy with five. Rounding out the top five are the Mets’ rookie phenom Francisco Alvarez and the American League’s 2022 Platinum Glove winner, Jose Trevino of the Yankees with four each. One might expect this group, based on their framing expertise, to receive the majority of the votes for the All-Star Game in July, but this is not quite accurate. Murphy leads the NL at the position and Alvarez ranks fourth, but Hedges is, of course, nowhere to be found. Instead, second place is held by the Dodgers’ Will Smith, who holds exactly zero catcher framing runs, and third place is the Phillies’ J.T. Realmuto, who has actually been worse, with his -3 putting him as one of the worst framers in baseball among qualified catchers. Why are Smith and Realmuto so far ahead of the best framer in the game? Because they can hit. The American League All-Star voting tells a similar story. Sitting in second place, behind Orioles backstop Adley Rutschman and his one catcher framing run, is our friend Salvador Perez with -3 framing runs to go with a horrid 2.00 second pop time. You have to look all the way down the list to number 9 to find Jose Trevino, the man who was voted as the best defender regardless of position in the AL in 2022.

There is an offensive metric that is based on runs as well, called Weighted Runs Created Plus (WRC+). This metric takes into account the runs that a hitter has created and places it on a spectrum where 100 is the league average. For example, 150 is 50% percent better than the league average.. Using this stat will give you an answer to the question, what makes an All-Star catcher? Of the 21 catchers with at least 170 plate appearances so far in 2023, 12 have a WRC+ above 100. These 12 include the top five vote-getters in the NL, number 10 in the NL, the top three in the AL, and number eight in the AL. Altogether, 10 of the top 12 catchers in WRC+ are also 10 of the top 20 All-Star vote-getters, including the top five total.

With the expansion of the bases from 15 square inches to 18 square inches, stealing bases has seen a dramatic leap in popularity, with the league leader, Oakland’s Esteury Ruiz, swiping 31 bags in just 67 games at the time of this writing. This uptick in aggressive base running has made it exponentially more difficult for catchers to throw out would-be base stealers. Many teams, including Perez’s Kansas City Royals, have essentially given up on catcher pop times and shifted their focus to maximizing the offensive production from their backstops. This shift in emphasis has made defense-first catchers like Hedges, as well as Houston Astros’ Martin Maldonado, Los Angeles Dodgers backup Austin Barnes, and recently DFA’d New York Met Tomas Nido, more or less obsolete.

Baseball is a beautiful ever-changing game, and that has been evident in 2023. The catcher position has been a very interesting case study, as the position is more talented than ever. However, just three catchers in the league are top 50 in OPS: Salvador Perez, Atlanta’s Sean Murphy, and Colorado’s Elias Diaz. This lack of offensive production is hardly surprising, as a catcher typically produces the least, but the lack of defense to make up for it has turned finding an elite catcher into a wild goose chase. A good catcher is vital to a successful team, so keep an eye out for the top teams in baseball to rely on their backstops on their road to a World Series championship.


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