August 7, 2012; St. Louis, MO. USA; San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey (28) hits a three run home run in the first inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-US PRESSWIRE
Over at the ESPN SweetSpot blog, in an article about Buster Posey, Anna McDonald briefly suggested that 2012 could be the year of the catcher. And that got me thinking -- with guys like Joe Mauer, Carlos Ruiz, Buster Posey, and Yadier Molina (among others) raking at the plate, are we seeing the golden age of catchers? Probably not, but I'd say we're at a close second place.
As of now, among catchers that qualify for the batting title, ten have an OPS+ above 100. Maybe that figure doesn't jump off the page, but assuming it holds, it would be an expansion era record. Since 1961, only one year even had nine catchers with an OPS+ north of 100, and that was 1977.
But it's not just breadth -- it's depth as well. Eight of the catchers have an OPS+ above 115. Six are above 130. And remarkably, there's even a pair of catchers -- Carlos Ruiz and Buster Posey -- that are above 150 right now. That's only happened three times in the last fifty years. The aforementioned 1977 season didn't even see one qualified catcher exceed an OPS+ of 150.
Though 1977 didn't necessarily have a given catcher stand out in their performance to the extent that Ruiz and Posey have, they did, overall, get better total production out of the position. As of now, 2012 catchers have combined to hit .249 with a .320 on-base percentage and a .403 slugging percentage. By wRC+, they came out to 95 -- which is the second-best expansion era mark; it still falls a couple points short of that 1977 season, in which catchers produced a .260/.335/.398 line -- good for a 97 wRC+.
And there's one other important factor to consider: regression to the mean. There's still a lot of baseball left to be played, and chances are that 2012 catchers will see an overall, if minimal, decline in their performance. Specifically: Buster Posey (.396 wOBA) is projected by ZiPS to post a .359 wOBA over the rest of the season; Ruiz (.407 wOBA) is projected for a .361 rest-of-season wOBA; Joe Mauer (.374) is pegged for .357; Yadier Molina (.377) is pegged for a .343. And the list goes on and on...
That's not to suggest that all catchers are overperforming. There are several good catchers (Brian McCann immediately comes to mind) who should see an uptick in their production the rest of the way. As a whole, though, I don't think we should reasonably expect catchers to maintain a 94 wRC+ (or higher) through the end of the season.
It's also worth noting that 1977 saw an overlap of the careers of many Hall of Fame-caliber catchers, all of whom happened to hit well that season: Johnny Bench, Ted Simmons, Thurman Munson, Gene Tenace, Carlton Fisk, and Gary Carter are all members of Adam Darowski's Hall of wWAR.
For these reasons, I think the title of "Year of the Catcher," especially at this moment in time, has to go to 1977. That was truly a golden year for backstops. But in that vein, I'd certainly make the case that 2012 is the "silver year."