2020 MLB Top Ten: Catchers

With most of the major free agents signing, and us being just over a month away from Spring Training, it’s time to start making projections for next season. Today, we’ll rank the top ten catchers in the MLB, based off of how they’ll perform this upcoming season. For years, Buster Posey and Yadier Molina owned the top two spots on this list, but as we turn to a new decade, we’ve started a new era- neither made this list. So, who’s overtaken them as the face of the catcher position? Let’s take a closer look. Projected statistics will be provided, but were not used in any way to formulate this list.

Stats Used (via Fangraphs, Baseball Savant, and Baseball Prospectus):

wrc+= Weighted Runs Created Plus; 100 is league-average (Ex: A player with a 111 wrc+ is 11% better than league average offensively, while a player with a 93 wrc+ is 7% worse)

xwOBA= Expected Weighted On-Base Average

drs= Defensive Runs Saved

ISO= Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average)

FRM= Framing Runs Above Average

BLK= Blocking Runs Above Average

BABIP= Batting Average Balls In Play

Before we start, let’s go over some notable omissions:

  • Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants: Posey’s defense remains elite, but he clearly hasn’t recovered from his hip injury, as his power and plate discipline have evaporated
  • Yadier Molina, St.Louis Cardinals: Molina’s WAR declined significantly last year, and at 37-years-old, is certainly not trending up
  • Tyler Flowers, Atlanta Braves: His defense is elite, but his offense regressed significantly last year
  • Christian Vazquez, Boston Red Sox: He didn’t make any significant changes, so I’m not sure if we can trust a second straight productive season offensively
  • Robinson Chirinos, Free Agent: I’m not sure his defensive numbers will be able to avoid regression away from the Astros, and his offense doesn’t compensate for that
  • Sean Murphy, Oakland A’s: A top prospect for the A’s who’ll fill their hole behind the plate, but he hasn’t shown enough for me to project him to be better than the players on this list

#10: Travis d’Arnaud, Atlanta Braves

d'arnaud
Photo Cred: MLB Trade Rumors

Age: 30

2019 Rank: N/A

2018 Stats: N/A (Injured)

2019 Stats (103 Games): .251/.312/.433, 98 wrc+, 0.6 FRM, -2.4 BLK, -3 drs, 1.6 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .260/.321/.456, 106 wrc+, 1.4 FRM, -2 BLK, -2 drs, 1.8 WAR

Once a former top prospect that was acquired by the Mets, alongside Noah Syndergaard, from the Blue Jays for R.A Dickey, Travis d’Arnaud appeared to be on his way to becoming a bust, as he struggled to stay healthy- he missed practically the entire 2018 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and was designated for assignment in May. However, after a brief pit stop with the Dodgers, he caught on with the Rays, and from there, caught fire with a 107 wrc+. Notably, the 30-year-old was able to stay healthy, playing in 103 total games, and in those games, made a lot of hard contact (41.5%); in fact, d’Arnuad’s .334 xWOBA is much higher than his .314 wOBA, so he actually was unlucky last season. Add in that d’Arnuad’s a slightly above-average defender, and there’s a lot to like about his prospects moving forward, which is why the Braves moved quickly to sign him to a two-year contract worth $16 million. Now, he’ll enter a platoon with Flowers, which could work out tremendously- he had a 130 wrc+ versus lefties. There should be legitimate questions about d’Arnuad’s durability, but that’s why splitting time with Flowers will be so beneficial for him, and as a result, I expect him to realize some of the potential that he always flashed as a member of the Mets; ironically, he’ll be doing so for a division-rival.

#9: Danny Jansen, Toronto Blue Jays

danny jansen
Photo Cred: CBS Sports

Age: 24

2019 Rank: N/A

2018 Stats (31 Games): .247/.347/.432, 116 wrc+, 1.2 FRM, 0.7 BLK, -2 drs, 0.8 WAR

2019 Stats (107 Games): .207/.279/.360, 68 wrc+, 8.1 FRM, 2.1 BLK, 12 drs, 1.4 WAR 

2020 Projected Stats: .239/.311/407, 97 wrc+, 7.5 FRM, 2.5 BLK, 10 drs, 2 WAR

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio get most of the attention in Toronto, but quietly, the team also has their catcher of the future in place. Danny Jansen, 24, didn’t have an ideal season last year, posting a 68 wrc+ in his first full year, but still, he should develop into one of the best catchers in the MLB. Between his .230 BABIP and the .039 difference between his actual wOBA (.275) and his .314 xwOBA, it’s clear he was very unlucky offensively; with a 40% hard-hit rate and a high launch angle, he should at least be an average offensive producer. If that’s the case, then he’ll be a very valuable player- he’s already proven to be an elite defender behind the plate. There’s a reason why Jansen was once a top-50 prospect, and even though the surface-level numbers weren’t up to standards last year, it’s paramount the Blue Jays don’t give up on him (he’s been in trade rumors). After all, finding an All-Star level catcher is so difficult to find, and that’s exactly what Jansen is on his way to becoming.

#8: Wilson Contreras, Chicago Cubs

contreras
Photo Cred: Bleed Cubbie Blue

Age: 27

2019 Rank: 6

2018 Stats (138 Games): .249/.339/.390, 100 wrc+, -18.2 FRM, 1.9 BLK, 2 drs, 0.7 WAR

2019 Stats (105 Games): .272/.355/.533, 127 wrc+, -8.9 FRM, 0 BLK, -1 drs, 2.7 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .254/.337/.487, 115 wrc+, -10 FRM, 0.6 BLK, 0 drs, 1.7 WAR

As the Cubs look to make a massive trade this offseason, one player that has consistently come up in trade rumors is Wilson Contreras. After all, with three years of club control, and rare offensive upside at the position, the appeal of him is definitely apparent, so Chicago could probably get a lot back in return. However, is Contreras really that valuable of an asset? For starters, he’s a well below-average framer, and considering the value of framing, that’s problematic. Yes, his framing improved last season, but it was still far from average, and even worse, it may have come at the expense of his blocking ability. Plus, there are also significant red flags with the 27-year-old offensively; he greatly outperformed his expected statistics, and for the second straight season, his offense declined massively in the second half of the season. Maybe an AL team could make a run at Contreras, as he could get more time at DH to keep him fresh, but still, his offensive value strictly comes off of being a catcher, and if his defense is going to be as poor as it’s been, he might not even be deserving of being on this list at all. His framing improvement and upside offensively keep him at #8 for now, but this needs to be the year where he is able to produce in sustainable fashion, whether for the Cubs or another team.

#7: Roberto Perez, Cleveland Indians

perez
Photo Cred: Let’s Go Tribe

Age: 31

2019 Rank: N/A

2018 Stats (62 Games): .168/.256/.263, 40 wrc+, 6.7 FRM, 1.6 BLK, 4 drs, 0 WAR

2019 Stats (119 Games): .239/.321/.452, 98 wrc+, 9.6 FRM, 8.8 BLK, 29 drs, 3 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .229/.311/.451, 97 wrc+, 9.5 FRM, 7.6 BLK, 20 drs, 2.7 WAR

After they traded Yan Gomes to the Nationals, I thought the Indians were setting up to have one of the worst catching situations in the MLB; how could they expect Roberto Perez, coming off of a 40 wrc+ season, to fill in for Gomes? So, naturally, Perez ended up being a major upgrade over Gomes, more than doubling his wrc+, and proving himself as the best defensive catcher in all of baseball. Now, can the 31-year-old sustain this production? Defensively, the answer is obviously yes, but offensively, it’s complicated. Perez’s expected statistics match up with his numbers, but outside of an increase in his barrel rate (11%), which regressed in the second half, nothing else changed. We’ve seen one-year wonders on several occasions, and with no obvious reason for improvement other than increased playing time, we must be careful to not completely buy into Perez’s stock. Still, his elite defense and offensive production last season cannot be ignored, and because of that, he slots in at #7 on this list, and with the chance to move up in the future.

#6: Carson Kelly, Arizona Diamondbacks

kelly
Photo Cred: rotoprofessor.com

Age: 25

2019 Rank: N/A

2018 Stats (19 Games): .114/.205/.114, -3 wrc+, -0.5 FRM, -0.3 BLK, -2 drs, -0.5 WAR

2019 Stats (111 Games): .245/.348/.478, 108 wrc+, 0.9 FRM, 2.6 BLK, 2 drs, 1.9 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .247/.350/.468, 104 wrc+, 1.5 FRM, 1 BLK, 2 drs, 2.1 WAR

Once upon a time, a young Carson Kelly was seen as the heir-apparent to Yadier Molina in St.Louis. However, he could never find his role with the Cardinals, and due to the team’s commitment in Molina, was shipped in a package to the Diamondbacks, in exchange for Paul Goldschmidt. The trade was very unpopular in Arizona, as it seemed like an underwhelming return for a franchise icon, yet, a case can be made that Kelly was better than Goldschmidt last year. Between his excellent plate discipline (13.2% walk rate) and propensity for hard contact (48.7%), the 25-year-old has enormous offensive potential, especially if his launch angle (14.3 degrees) can remain intact. Furthermore, he also ranked in the 88th percentile in framing, per Baseball Savant, so this isn’t a one-sided puzzle- he has the makings of an excellent two-way catcher. Kelly’s road to the majors may not have been what he anticipated it to look like, but heading into his second season in Arizona, he’s one of the faces of a very quick retooling period for the franchise. The best part? We haven’t seen the best of him yet.

#5: Will Smith, Los Angeles Dodgers

willsmith
Photo Cred: Los Angeles Times

Age: 24

2019 Rank: N/A

2018 Stats: N/A

2019 Stats (54 Games): .253/.337/.571, 132 wrc+, 0 FRM, 1.2 BLK, 3 drs, 1.7 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .231/.316/.476, 110 wrc+, 3.5 FRM, 4.2 BLK, 6 drs, 2.5 WAR

The Dodgers may not have the track record of postseason success that their fans may desire, but nevertheless, they’ve built a sustainable winner, and figure to be amongst the MLB’s best teams for years to come. They’ve been able to do so through elite player development, which has allowed them to build a contender with a lot of cost-controlled, young impact players. Their next gem? Will Smith, who was able to step into a pennant race and be the team’s starting catcher. In 54 games, the 24-year-old was incredible, and although that production certainly won’t be matched, his production this season should qualify him as a top-five catcher. In Triple-A last season, he broke out, upping his walk rate and decreasing his strikeout rate; the combination of his discipline and power gives him a very exciting outlook moving forward. Plus, he’s also been cited as an above-average defender in prospect reports, and in that small sample size in the majors, he backed up those claims terrific. It’s definitely risky to put someone with 196 career plate appearances in the top-five of this list. Still, Smith looks to be the complete package behind the plate, and this season, he’ll prove to be the latest of the Dodgers’ successful development stories.

#4: Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees

garysanche
Photo Cred: Newsday

Age: 27

2019 Rank: 4

2018 Stats (89 Games): .186/.291/.406, 91 wrc+, 2.6 FRM, -4.3 BLK, -2 drs, 1.7 WAR

2019 Stats (106 Games): .232/.316/.525, 116 wrc+, -6.8 FRM, -0.8 BLK, 6 drs, 2.3 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .244/.328/.547, 125 wrc+, -3.1 FRM, -1.8 BLK, 0 drs, 2.5 WAR

After dominating in the second half of the 2016 season and repeating that success in 2017, Gary Sanchez appeared to be one of the faces of the next era of Yankees baseball- the “Baby Bombers”. However, his progression has definitely taken a turn for the worse, and now, he’s clearly overshadowed by the rest of the Yankees’ star talent. Nevertheless, the 27-year-old is still one of the game’s best catchers, and this season, he’ll prove his merit. Over the past two seasons, it’s hard to find a hitter as unlucky as Sanchez, who hasn’t come close to matching his expected statistics; his .552 expected slugging percentage, for instance, ranks in the top 8% in the MLB. If there’s one concern with him offensively, it’s that he had worse plate discipline numbers, but as long as they don’t continue to get worse, they aren’t an issue at the moment. Now, most of the criticism for Sanchez is with his defense, and although they are some truths to it, they are also definitely overblown. His framing numbers did decline this season, but at the same time, his blocking was better, and given the unpredictable nature of defensive metrics at times, it’s likely he’s an average defender. That’ll certainly be enough considering how strong he is offensively, and although he clearly isn’t at the same level of the top 3 players on this list, he’s definitely much better than the previous five players on this list- he’s in his own tier, in a way.

#3: Mitch Garver, Minnesota Twins

garver
Photo Cred: Twinkie Town

Age: 28

2019 Rank: N/A

2018 Stats (103 Games): .268/.335/.414, 104 wrc+, -9.2 FRM, 0.2 BLK, -16 drs, 0.4 WAR

2019 Stats (93 Games): .273/.365/.630, 155 wrc+, 0.8 FRM, -0.3 BLK, 0 drs, 3.9 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .259/.351/.584, 144 wrc+, -0.9 FRM, 0 BLK, -3 drs, 3.9 WAR

Given that it tends to be an underwhelming and volatile position, there seems to be one to two breakout catchers every single season. In 2019, both came out of the AL Central, as not only did Perez have a 3 WAR season, but the Twins’ Mitch Garver emerged as one of the top catchers in the MLB, posting a 3.9 WAR in just 93 games- he split time with Jason Castro behind the plate. It’s always risky to buy into a player that didn’t have a previous track record of success, but Garver has always dominated in the minors, and most importantly, there were literally no red flags regarding his offense last season. Garver increased his barrel rate (15.5%) and launch angle (15.3 degrees), and combined with his 11.4% walk rate and elite hard contract rate, his expected slugging and xwOBA both ranked in the 91st percentile or better. Plus, with a new coaching staff, Garver’s defense was also dramatically better, and since there’s a clear cause for that improvement, it’s probably legitimate. At this point, the only factor holding Garver is his small track record, which is why the Twins made certain to add a strong backup catcher in Alex Avila. Similar to d’Arnaud in Atlanta, that not only will allow him to fill in at DH and first base, but also to get a lot of at-bats versus lefties; he posted an absurd 56.3% hard contact rate and 198 wrc+ versus southpaws last season. While some may be hesitant to trust Garver’s 2019 season, he appears to be the real deal, and as a result, he’s the third-best catcher in the MLB; that’s significant, as the top two players on this list are true game-changers.

#2: JT Realmuto, Philadelphia Phillies

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Chicago Cubs
Photo Cred: NBC Sports

Age: 28

2019 Rank: 3

2018 Stats (125 Games) : .277/.340/.484, 126 wrc+, 1 FRM, 0.9 BLK, -7 drs, 4.9 WAR

2019 Stats (145 Games): .275/.328/.493, 108 wrc+, 8 FRM, 4.9 BLK, 11 drs, 5.7 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .277/.330/.478, 113 wrc+, 6.2 FRM, 3.5 BLK, 6 drs, 5.4 WAR

Last offseason, the Phillies were extremely aggressive in trying to build a World Series contender, making many splashly additions. Though signing Bryce Harper was definitely the centerpiece, it was another acquisition that ended up paying off the most- JT Realmuto. The 28-year-old was acquired from the division-rival Marlins in exchange for a package headlined by top prospect Sixto Sanchez, and by trading for him, Philadelphia was expecting to get an excellent offensive catcher. In reality, that didn’t completely turn out to be the case, as Realmuto’s offense regressed slightly, but nevertheless, the former third-round pick transformed from a below-average defender to a superb defender, and consequently, provided even more value than in 2018. There’s nothing to suggest that Realmuto’s offense or defense will revert back to what it was as a Marlin, as his expected statistics were on par with his actual statistics. Now, he did improve in the second half, so perhaps he got comfortable in Philadelphia and is poised for better production in 2019. In the end, though, I expect a pretty similar season, and if that’s the case, Phillies fans certainly shouldn’t be disappointed- his 5.9 WAR led all catchers last season, as the pairing of solid offense and stellar defense for a catcher is atypical.

#1: Yasmani Grandal, Chicago White Sox

grandalsox
Photo Cred: New York Post

Age: 31

2019 Rank: 2

2018 Stats (140 Games): .241/.349/.466, 125 wrc+, 10.4 FRM, 0.8 BLK, 9 drs, 4.7 WAR

2019 Stats (153 Games): .246/.380/.468, 121 wrc+, 17 FRM, 1.8 BLK, 1 drs, 5.2 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .241/.375/.473, 128 wrc+, 14.4 FRM, 1.2 BLK, 6 drs, 5.4 WAR

In that same offseason where Realmuto was acquired by the Phillies, the Brewers also made a major catcher acquisition, albeit at a lesser cost- Yasmani Grandal settled for a one-year deal with the team. The 31-year-old was clearly betting on himself, and man, was the reward fantastic. Instead of signing a four-year, $60 million contract with the Mets, Grandal was able to go into the open market off an amazing season, and therefore, was able to secure a four-year, $73 million contract with the White Sox. What are the White Sox getting in Grandal? Well, for starters, they’re getting the best catcher in the MLB; his xwOBA skyrocketed to .363, as did his walk rate (17.2%) and hard contact rate (45.4%). In other words, he gets on base at a very high rate and is a major power threat, given the position he plays, and as a result, he’s probably the best offensive catcher (depending on how you feel about Garver) in the MLB; he did experience a power outage in the second half with a much lesser 39.9% hard contract rate, but that’s too small of a sample size to judge. Plus, as evidenced by his framing numbers, he’s a major asset for pitchers, as he steals strikes as well as any catcher in the MLB; his consistent eminence cannot be matched. So, will Grandal be worth the money? We can quibble about the back-end of the deal, but now that he’s in the American League and can be fresher, we perhaps could see an even better version of Grandal in 2020, and regardless, he’ll be at the center of what the White Sox are hoping is a very fruitful season.

 

2 thoughts on “2020 MLB Top Ten: Catchers

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