Ranking The A.L. Central Catchers
By John Verburg
The Silver Slugger award that was given to the Tigers Alex Avila yesterday, and that got me thinking about his place amongst the other Central Division catchers. While I could expand that it to the whole major leagues, I wanted to focus on a little more in depth on the why’s of the rankings, and it is difficult to do that for an expanded list of the 30 players.
There is some good catchers in the Central, so this isn’t as cut and dry as it would first seem for a Tigers fan. Even though A.J. Pierzynski of the White Sox is a free agent, I will use him, along with Carlos Santana, Joe Mauer, Alex Avila, and Salvador Perez.
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Given that I write for a Tigers blog, I want to take as much bias out of this as possible. So I am going to judge the catchers as fairly as possible on set offensive categories, and set defensive categories, and then allow for some manipulation given sample size, and the amount of games these 5 guys caught.
The offensive categories I will use are as follows: wOBA, BABIP, OPS, and WAR.
The defensive categories I will use are passed balls, SB%, wild pitches and given the variables surrounding number of games caught, I will have to take into account physical tools.
#5 A.J. Pierzynski- Chicago White Sox
This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. The again veteran has had some good years, and last year he hit .287. His wOBA however was just .314. A.J. doesn’t like taking walks, and doesn’t hit for much power, as he had an OPS of just .728. Defensively, Pierzynski is a little bit below average at this point as well. He threw out just 20% of runners in 2011. Given that he is the oldest guy of this group, I can’t move him up any at all for his physical skills and potential, as they have diminished enough to say, he is what he is. I don’t think Pierzynski is a bad catcher by any stretch. He finished with a WAR of 1.7, which in all of baseball is above average, but in the A.L. Central it will get you fifth place.
#4 Salvador Perez- Kansas City Royals
Perez is a young guy who came up the last month or so of the 2011 season. Just 21 years old, Perez is known for a guy that is going to be plus defensively in the future. He has a strong arm, and likes to use it. In his brief big league stint, Perez threw out just 21% of base stealers, but was rated just above average by Fangraphs. It may take him a few years, but the defensive tools are there to be an above average defender. Offensively, Perez surprised to the tune of a .331 BA and a wOBA of .361. Those are both well above average, but Kansas City fans should be cautioned that it was just 158 at-bats. Still he showed good power to straight away center and the opposite field as well. Given his lack of propensity to take walks and a .361 BABIP, there is likely a regression coming there. Still, Perez is talented, and he could see an increase in his stock. In just 39 games, he accrued 1.4 WAR. That is above average overall, and if he played the entire year in K.C. I imagine it could have been at least 3.
#3 Joe Mauer- Minnesota Twins
Oh, how the mighty have fallen! Mauer is constantly battling injuries, and at this point in a year or two, I might not even be able to call him a catcher. He only started 47 games as a catcher last year. Mauer did throw out 30% of runners in those games, showing that he still does have some good skills back there, but his knees won’t allow for as much mobility as before going forward. Offensively, Mauer is still a good hitter. His BB/K rate is the best for the catchers in the division, but he lacks power. His ISO of .081 is terrible, and his wOBA of .319 isn’t much more than Pierzynski’s of Chicago. Still, given the limited number of games, Mauer accumulated a WAR of 1.8, and it can’t be discounted that he could return to stardom as soon as next year. Right now though, I can’t count on that, and that makes him the 3rd best catcher in the division.
#2 Carlos Santana- Cleveland Indians
Santana is much like Mauer in one respect. He doesn’t catch all the time. Santana’s bat is such that Cleveland wants to keep it in the lineup as much as possible, so they have him playing a lot of 1B as well. It’s part of an effort to limit the wear and tear on his knee as well, as he had an ACL injury. In his 88 starts behind the plate, he threw out 24% of base stealers. Offensively, Santana’s potential is off the charts. He has a tremendous walk rate of 14.7%, has a good amount of power, posting a wOBA of .349 and an OPS of .808. Santana, despite the below average defense, posted a WAR on the season of 3.8. Santana is still relatively young at 25, and depending on how his surgically repaired knee is doing, could get back behind the plate for more games next year. His bat plays better at catcher, and we could see some improvement. His BABIP was below average at just .261, which if it normalizes, Santana’s offensive output should be even better next year.
#1 Alex Avila- Detroit Tigers
Alex Avila had a 2011 season that was the total package. Defensively, he was a Gold Glove candidate. Offensively, he was a Silver Slugger award winner. Of course he was going to top this list. I would have put Santana ahead of him though if he was a diminishing veteran. That isn’t the case though, and while we might expect to see a drop in some of the offensive numbers next year, the Tigers plan to give Avila a little bit more rest this season, and that might help him even more defensively. Avila, easily caught more games than anyone in the division, threw out 32% of runners, and has good range factors for a catcher. He could stand to learn how to block balls better, but at just 25 years old, he has potential to continue to improve. Offensively you can’t argue with the numbers, his wOBA of .383 and his OPS of .895 were amongst the tops of the position in all of baseball. Avila did sport a .366 BABIP, so it is likely we see a drop in some of the eye popping offensive numbers, but even if that is the case, he is still the best catcher in this division right now. His WAR of 5.5 was 2nd best in all of baseball to Mike Napoli of the Rangers, who plays a lot of 1B as well.