After debating a number of different options regarding how to frame this debate, well…I still didn’t really figure it out. It doesn’t help that there is no consensus to rate catcher’s defense — any of the range-based statistics like UZR, UZR/150, or range factors don’t really do us a whole lot of good. They’re imperfect to begin with, but there are a lot of aspects to being a solid defensive catcher in addition to the traditional numbers like fielding percentage and caught-stealing rate.
Which leaves us with offense. Much easier to look at, of course. So, I’ve decided that the best way to break this down is from three separate directions. For starters, who is the best offensive catcher in the majors? This season will carry the most weight, but keeping in mind that the 2013 season is barely at the halfway mark, we’ll take a look at recent seasons as well.
Secondly, we’ll consider defense. Yes, it’s a tall task when looking at the catching position, but I can guarantee that we’ll find a consensus.
And finally, we’ll look at the value of each players contract and their projected performance over the life of their deals, as well as the value that they’ve given their respective organizations to this point in their careers.
Oh, by the way — the only real debate is between the Twins’ Joe Mauer, the Cardinals’ Yadier Molina, and the Giants’ Buster Posey. The trio is truly head and shoulders above the rest, and there is not another player in the conversation.
This would have been a silly debate just a handful of years ago. Take 2009, for instance. Mauer was the A.L. MVP, hitting a ridiculous .366/.444/.587 with 28 home runs, while Molina was having his best-to-date offensive season for the Cardinals, hitting just .293/.366/.383 with 7 home runs. Posey had just 17 at-bats in 7 games as a rookie call-up for the Giants.
2013 is an entirely different story. Molina apparently figured things out in 2011, and for the past 2 1/2 seasons he has absolutely raked from the catcher spot. Following up an impressive .315/.373/.501 with 22 home run campaign in 2012, Molina is hitting .341/.386/.489 with 7 home runs to this point.
Mauer, on the other hand, has rebounded nicely in 2012 and 2013 after injury-plagued seasons in 2010 and 2011, leading the league in on-base percentage in 2012 at .416, and hitting .320/.402/.473 with 8 home runs thus far in 2013. Incredibly, Molina and Mauer have identical .875 OPS marks at the All-Star break.
As for Posey, his line of .325/.395/.536 is superior to the other two players. Most of that is his power, already clubbing 13 home runs and 27 doubles.
Posey gets the nod at the plate, but not by as much as you might think. Mauer has the most runs scored, hits, doubles, and walks between the three, and Molina has turned into an impressively consistent hitter. While Posey’s upside still shines through in what is just his age-26 season, it happens to be the same year in which Mauer’s offense peaked with his MVP season.
Guess what I hate? Yep, Gold Glove awards. They’re rarely correct (see: Derek Jeter for most of his career, Adam Jones of late, etc.), and incredibly unscientific. So I’ll mention the Gold Gloves quick and get them out of the way, but please believe me that they don’t matter. For the record, Mauer has three, Molina has five, and Posey has zero. And that’s all I’m saying about it.
A traditional stat that does carry some weight (or, at least more than fielding percentage does for catchers) is caught stealing percentage. Granted, it’s absolutely affected by the pitchers’ effectiveness at holding runners on and being quick to the plate. For what it’s worth, Mauer has thrown out a league-leading 46% of attempted base-stealers. Molina has thrown out 45%, and Posey has thrown out just 20%.
All things considered, Molina is the best. Hands down. Mauer is slightly above average, Posey is slightly below average, and Molina is the best. Pretty much all of the metrics bear that out, whether you want to use Defensive WAR, any form of UZR, Runs Saved, etc. The Fielding Bible folks have picked Molina five out of the last six seasons as the best defensive catcher in the game, and they are spot on.
The value of the contracts doesn’t technically play into who is the best player, but it’s an interesting piece that will help tell the full story. All contract figures are courtesy of Cot’s.
Mauer produced his best season in the third year of a four-year, $33 million contract signed before the 2007 season, making just $10.5 million during that particular campaign. In large part due to his monster 2009 year, the Twins were forced to overpay Mauer significantly to keep him in his home state, extending his contract in March of 2010. The contract took effect in 2011, and pays Mauer $23 million annually through the 2018 season. All told, an eight-year, $184 million pact.
Molina’s second contract extension was signed in March of 2012, with the Cardinals agreeing to pay him $75 million over the next five seasons. Interestingly, the contract pays Molina $14 million in 2013, 2016, and 2017, and $15 million in 2014, 2015, and in the 2018 mutual option.
The Giants elected to buy out Posey’s remaining arbitration years by handing out a 9-year, $167 million contract that eventually escalates to $21.4 million per season from 2017 through 2021, with a club option on 2022 at $22 million.
Value-wise, Molina and the Cardinals are the slam-dunk winner. Mauer would only be worth his contract if he continually put up 1.000+ OPS numbers like he did in 2009, but pretty much everyone understood that it had probably been a one-time thing. Posey isn’t a good enough defensive catcher to stick at the position much into his thirties, although he has enough power that he could get away with playing a corner position and holding his own offensively when the time comes.
So who’s the best catcher?
It’d be really easy to cop out on this one. I mean, look at what we have so far. Best hitter? Posey, Mauer, Molina, in that order. Best fielder? Molina, Mauer, Posey. Contract? Molina, Posey, Mauer.
Based on this season alone, it’d be hard to not pick Molina. His far superior defense and very good offense is enough to give him the title of the best present-day catcher in the MLB. Some may argue that defense at the catcher’s spot isn’t that important, and they would take Posey’s .536 slugging percentage all day long. Others would prefer the solid defense and top-flight on-base skills of Joe Mauer.
Overall, Molina gets the nod. In addition, Molina has the most team-friendly contract of the three players. Of course, Posey is the youngest, and retains the most upside as he is just now entering the prime years of his career.
But wait, here’s one for the road. I don’t think WAR is an all-encompassing metric by any means, but it does tell an intriguing story. Take a look at these charts from FanGraphs (below, but also here). The first one shows that everyone of Mauer’s best seasons were better than or equal to both of Molina’s and to this point, Posey’s:
This chart shows just how much Molina’s bat was lacking early in his career, and just how steady Mauer has been:
And finally, a representation of just how impressive Molina has been of late, and how close the three catchers are in 2013: