I didn't grow up with baseball as my favorite sport and it always confused me when I'd hear people arguing about the National League or the American League and the use or non-use of the designated hitter. The issue as a whole never really resonated with me until I started to follow the game more closely. I quickly learned that AL teams use a DH to hit for the pitcher and that NL teams don't. This seemed basic enough to me and I took it at face value. That is, until I started read more progressive, saber-slanted baseball writing.
What escaped me initially were the nuances and reverberations that having or not having a DH in the lineup caused. From a pitcher's perspective, this was easy enough to figure out. If I were on the mound, I'd much rather pitch to Bartolo Colon (yes, that's going to happen this year) than David Ortiz. As a manger, I'd rather have the DH in my lineup because it allows me to avoid complicated and occasionally costly substitutions in the latter innings of games.
But from the GM's perspective, this issue is a little more difficult to assess. For American League GM's they get the added benefit of putting another power bat in the lineup (don't tell the Mariners and Jose Vidro that) but have to send their pitchers out there to face a similar hitter about four times a game. For National League GM's, they are tasked with creating a strong offense without the benefit of the DH and have to take it in the teeth once every nine plate appearances when the pitcher takes to the batter's box, at least for the first few innings (although alternatives have been suggested).
So how do NL teams compensate for the lack of a DH? In a simplified sense, National League teams have two options in an attempt to compensate for not having a designated hitter: either pitch and play defense so well that the missing offense is of no consequence or maximize each of the eight spots in the lineup that aren't occupied by the pitcher to in an attempt to score the most runs possible. Focusing on option two, we need to realize that missing that one plate appearance each time through the order is a really big deal. Not only does the pitcher have to hit, but it also places more pressure on each of the remaining hitters knowing that the pitcher is looming and there are a limited number of bench options available. In essence, each batter has to be more efficient to keep relative pace with AL squads.
Where could we look to identify this increased emphasis on per-batter efficiency? Perhaps the perfect place to find this emphasis on productivity is in the catching department.
Catchers, as I'm sure you know, have an incredibly difficult job. They have to manage a pitching staff, know the ins-and-outs of the opponent's lineup, play the most physically demanding position on the field and attempt to help control the running game of the opposing team. Oh, and hit enough at the plate to justify a spot in a big league lineup. In short, nothing comes easy for catchers while they occupy the most specialized spot on the diamond.
Because of this specialization, it's hard to bend the rules and put just anyone behind the plate who isn't a true catcher. Wilin Rosario aside, there's just not enough room for error for a team in either league to put someone behind the plate who's not up to the task. Now, there may be an even shorter leash when it comes to the National League as NL teams hoping to truly contend can't just stick a defensive specialist back there and take a nearly-automatic out when the catcher comes up to hit. They've already got an automatic out in the lineup when the pitcher digs in, so compounding that with an offensively inept catcher would only exacerbate an already difficult situation.
With all of this said, we'd expect to see some observable effect when it comes to the on-field performance of National League catchers compared to their American League counterparts. To check for this, I ran a few comparisons, testing catchers from each league from decade to decade and looking for increased or decreased output. For the three decades I looked at (1980-1989, 1990-1999, 2000-2009), I set a plate appearance minimum of 1500 over a ten-year span to weed out anyone was truly a non-factor.
The results were interesting. For comparisons sake, every stat listed for each catcher is on a per-500 plate appearance baisi. WAR, Offensive Runs Above Average and Defensive Runs Above Average have to be normalized if we're going to compare players across time and leagues.
|American League Catchers, 1980-1989||National League Catchers, 1980-1989|
|Lance Parrish||3.34||7.25||8.45||Gary Carter||4.16||10.25||13.33|
|Carlton Fisk||2.84||5.91||4.66||Tony Pena||2.64||-3.92||13.00|
|Ernie Whitt||2.80||0.71||9.88||Mike Scioscia||3.04||-0.21||13.22|
|Jim Sundberg||2.43||-6.40||13.52||Terry Kennedy||2.49||-0.60||8.07|
|Bob Boone||2.09||-15.79||19.84||Jody Davis||2.26||-6.49||12.21|
|Ron Hassey||2.46||3.37||3.75||Bob Brenly||2.27||3.75||1.64|
|Butch Wynegar||2.77||-2.12||12.58||Darrell Porter||3.27||5.08||9.70|
|Rick Dempsey||2.56||-4.20||12.61||Bo Diaz||1.93||-9.04||11.65|
|Rich Gedman||2.19||-5.10||9.77||Alan Ashby||1.76||2.10||-1.90|
|Mike Heath||1.83||-6.14||7.52||Ozzie Virgil||1.99||0.95||1.64|
|Don Slaught||1.95||-2.14||4.11||Benito Santiago||2.62||-3.11||12.61|
|Mickey Tettleton||2.67||7.10||1.27||Bruce Benedict||1.24||-18.11||13.92|
|Rick Cerone||1.31||-11.52||7.73||Alex Trevino||1.42||-11.76||9.15|
|Ted Simmons||1.10||-1.19||-4.28||Milt May||2.09||-4.99||8.51|
|John Wathan||1.17||-7.11||2.16||Mike Fitzgerald||0.57||-9.56||-1.76|
|AL Average||2.01||-3.39||6.35||NL Average||2.25||-3.04||8.33|
In this era, we can see a slight trend that National League catchers were better across the board. They have small edge in the overall WAR component, but were also slightly better offensively and somewhat significantly better defensively, too. The offensive difference isn't huge, but it isn't nothing. Let's take a look at the next decade.
|American League Catchers, 1990-1999||National League Catchers, 1990-1999|
|Ivan Rodriguez||3.83||2.99||18.89||Mike Piazza||5.40||34.12||5.21|
|Chris Hoiles||3.74||13.53||7.07||Darren Daulton||3.59||15.27||3.11|
|B.J. Surhoff||2.11||0.41||3.98||Jason Kendall||3.79||17.07||6.41|
|Mike Stanley||2.78||16.12||-4.95||Benito Santiago||2.08||-4.78||9.14|
|Terry Steinbach||2.35||-1.67||8.26||Rick Wilkins||3.02||-1.97||15.68|
|Mickey Tettleton||2.40||14.21||-7.40||Javy Lopez||2.80||8.79||4.15|
|Mike Macfarlane||2.07||-0.65||4.40||Charles Johnson||3.21||-5.91||22.39|
|Sandy Alomar Jr.||1.95||-6.03||8.74||Todd Hundley||1.71||-0.53||2.19|
|Ron Karkovice||2.44||-10.46||17.81||Tom Pagnozzi||2.01||-13.36||16.89|
|Dan Wilson||1.89||-11.03||12.75||Don Slaught||3.18||8.70||5.06|
|Jim Leyritz||1.78||6.77||-5.81||Brad Ausmus||2.06||-10.11||14.59|
|Brian Harper||1.86||0.67||0.84||Eddie Taubensee||1.49||1.01||-1.68|
|Dave Valle||1.66||-7.67||7.87||Mike Lieberthal||2.00||-1.29||6.24|
|Chad Kreuter||1.44||-12.16||9.62||Kirt Manwaring||1.12||-21.02||15.59|
|Dave Nilsson||1.23||2.04||-6.56||Jeff Reed||1.47||-7.13||5.71|
|Matt Nokes||1.31||-2.50||-1.22||Joe Oliver||1.10||-14.41||8.70|
|Greg Myers||1.11||-12.76||6.86||Darrin Fletcher||1.22||-5.42||1.63|
|Pat Borders||0.72||-14.11||4.20||Scott Servais||1.06||-12.97||7.61|
|Brent Mayne||0.66||-18.18||8.50||Tony Eusebio||1.83||-4.80||7.34|
|John Flaherty||0.23||-26.13||11.06||Joe Girardi||0.37||-20.76||7.44|
|AL Average||1.69||-5.44||5.43||NL Average||2.23||-1.98||8.17|
Look at this ten-year span. National League catchers were significantly better acrosst the board. They were nearly ¾ of a win better per 500 plate appearance than catcher from the American League during the same time frame. Offensively, they were far superior, and even taking Mike Piazza out of the equation, they still have strong edge. Defensively, they were also better. Will the results carry over to the 2000's? Have a look.
|American League Catchers, 2000-2009||National League Catchers, 2000-2009|
|Jorge Posada||3.78||15.75||5.81||Mike Piazza||2.98||16.22||-2.08|
|Ivan Rodriguez||3.43||5.86||11.96||Jason Kendall||2.11||-1.88||7.12|
|Joe Mauer||4.58||23.50||5.78||Paul Lo Duca||2.11||-3.69||8.51|
|Victor Martinez||2.96||9.36||3.47||Brian McCann||3.37||8.39||8.98|
|Jason Varitek||2.24||-2.08||7.68||Russell Martin||3.12||4.66||10.30|
|A.J. Pierzynski||1.88||-6.46||8.27||Mike Lieberthal||2.17||-1.75||7.31|
|Ramon Hernandez||2.14||-7.00||11.64||Javy Lopez||3.31||7.05||10.41|
|Brandon Inge||1.56||-11.27||9.99||Damian Miller||2.03||-8.99||13.02|
|Gregg Zaun||1.93||-1.99||4.57||Yadier Molina||2.05||-14.42||18.37|
|Bengie Molina||1.50||-13.54||11.63||Jason LaRue||1.81||-10.83||12.36|
|Kenji Johjima||1.97||-9.64||12.57||Brian Schneider||1.48||-14.74||12.85|
|Rod Barajas||1.39||-15.71||12.73||Charles Johnson||1.97||-7.93||11.50|
|Gerald Laird||1.53||-15.69||14.02||Michael Barrett||0.88||-10.44||2.64|
|Jason Kendall||1.43||-11.25||8.46||Yorvit Torrealba||1.39||-14.11||11.54|
|Dan Wilson||1.26||-17.55||12.74||Chris Snyder||1.37||-12.96||10.23|
|Toby Hall||0.86||-19.62||10.98||Mike Matheny||0.81||-23.92||15.39|
|John Buck||0.90||-14.20||6.12||Benito Santiago||1.27||-9.74||6.14|
|Miguel Olivo||0.88||-16.08||7.79||Henry Blanco||1.10||-23.68||18.15|
|Jose Molina||0.83||-27.46||18.93||Bengie Molina||1.15||-12.39||7.38|
|Dioner Navarro||0.65||-18.74||8.30||Johnny Estrada||0.74||-14.62||5.53|
|AL Average||1.88||-7.69||9.67||NL Average||1.60||-9.84||9.53|
Okay, so we see an exception to the rule. From 2000-2009, American League catchers held a narrow edge, mostly due to offensive output. Joe Mauer and Jorge Posada were too much for the National League to overcome here. Defensively, they come out almost even. But what about the current decade, which is still in progress?
|American League Catchers, 2010-2013||National League Catchers, 2010-2013|
|Joe Mauer||4.02||19.80||1.79||Yadier Molina||4.99||15.54||15.91|
|Mike Napoli||3.59||18.04||-0.70||Buster Posey||5.07||22.48||9.93|
|Matt Wieters||2.94||-4.54||16.04||Miguel Montero||3.03||2.06||10.87|
|Carlos Santana||2.83||13.26||-2.76||Carlos Ruiz||3.85||9.93||10.98|
|Alex Avila||2.33||3.30||2.30||Jonathan Lucroy||3.08||5.92||7.60|
|Salvador Perez||3.79||3.39||15.72||Brian McCann||2.93||1.84||10.13|
|A.J. Pierzynski||1.73||-6.14||6.19||A.J. Ellis||3.13||4.07||9.90|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia||2.66||1.99||6.63||Wilson Ramos||3.18||4.26||10.43|
|Victor Martinez||1.92||7.91||-6.11||Nick Hundley||2.44||-8.93||16.26|
|John Jaso||2.45||9.36||-2.49||Ryan Hanigan||2.41||-9.84||16.90|
|Russell Martin||2.50||-1.14||8.58||Welington Castillo||3.25||-0.55||15.69|
|Kurt Suzuki||1.42||-12.94||10.13||Russell Martin||4.05||0.00||22.43|
|Chris Iannetta||2.53||1.92||5.21||John Buck||1.43||-10.89||8.90|
|Kelly Shoppach||1.93||-11.38||13.38||Wilin Rosario||1.84||3.06||-1.48|
|Derek Norris||2.31||-1.11||5.83||Geovany Soto||1.86||-10.43||12.59|
|Jose Molina||1.25||-12.23||7.49||Dioner Navarro||1.66||-6.28||6.28|
|Francisco Cervelli||2.03||-0.87||3.38||Michael McKenry||1.34||-10.20||7.19|
|Lou Marson||1.24||-17.62||12.72||Ramon Hernandez||1.30||-11.66||8.29|
|Tyler Flowers||1.49||-17.13||14.77||Rod Barajas||0.72||-14.26||5.23|
|Jose Lobaton||1.46||-8.96||6.40||Josh Thole||0.41||-18.31||6.42|
|Ryan Doumit||0.70||0.00||-9.71||Devin Mesoraco||0.17||-20.37||6.54|
|AL Average||1.56||-6.58||4.88||NL Average||2.48||-2.50||10.33|
*Note: the cut off for this group was lowered to 500 plate appearances for obvious reasons
Current National League catchers have a huge edge across the board. They are far better offensively and defensively when compared to American League catchers. Some of this can be attributed to sample size as we only have four seasons to look at, but four seasons worth of data is still a pretty decent amount to analyze. This comparison isn't even close thus far into the 2010's.
In four time frames represented, the National League holds a strong edge in two of them, a narrow edge in one and has a slight disadvantage in the other. While it's hard to definitively say that National League teams prioritize catching, I think we can make a reasonable case for it. Given the lack of a designated hitter in the NL, these teams have to get everything they can from each spot in the lineup. Because catchers are such a specific cog in the baseball machine, it's we can see that National League teams are maximizing their output, especially offensively, from their catchers.
A very simple way to see this exists in the number of catchers who made the cut off in each decade. Aside from 2000-2010, we can see that American League teams ran through a lot of backstops. They didn't have the consistent stars to stick behind the dish that National League teams did. NL squads were able to acquire a strong group and stick with them rather than mixing and matching to get the job done. As we know, effective players get substituted for less often and there was clearly less turnover in the catching department outside of one decade when there was an obvious lack of star power from NL catchers.
Reaching even farther, I went through the first 100 draft picks all the way back to 2005 to see if National League teams drafted more catchers, perhaps showing a bias on their part to obtain productive backstops. In that time span, National League teams drafted catchers nearly 10% more often inside the top 100 picks (35 NL, 29 AL). That's hardly a large bias and is more suggestive than definitive, but the fact still remains that National League teams have spent noticeably more top 100 picks on catchers than American League teams over the last eight years. Again, it's not huge, but it's not necessarily nothing either.
So, have NL catchers been historically better than AL catchers? The answer is seemingly yes, likely due to the attempts of National League GM's to maximize the output of their disadvantaged rosters. While there's plenty of ways to mitigate non-productive outfielders or infielders, catchers are a unique breed that have to be maximized all their own. Having a black hole in the lineup when the pitcher hits is bad enough, but to willingly put two of them in a lineup that you hope to keep relative pace with the American League is incredibly difficult and appears to be something that is actively avoided.
While every team in each league wants to have the best lineup possible, I would submit that when National League teams are building their rosters, they put extra emphasis on having a productive catcher in the lineup as history has largely shown.
. . .