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Is this a golden age of catching?

When it comes to greatness in baseball today guys like Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw grab the headlines, but there's some mighty fine catching talent out there that deserves some recognition.

Molina. A brand name you can trust.
Molina. A brand name you can trust.

Watching baseball in the present day, it's very difficult to predict how this era will be seen in the years to come. When the "Steroid Era" was playing out before our collective eyes, very few of us were thinking, "Well here's an exciting offensive outbreak that will be relegated to the dustbin of history as far as the Hall of Fame is concerned. This is technically happening but it doesn't realllllly count." If you were thinking that, you have an unbelievable combination of foresight and cynicism and I'd like very much to be your friend. My admiration for the cynics among us aside, it is very difficult to guess how this era will be seen going forward. We know how what is happening now relates to the past, but we don't know what it will lead to in the future, so at least half of its historical significance is lost on us.

What we can do is make some educated guesses about how these years of baseball will be perceived based on what seems most significant in this moment. There are a few players, like Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera and Clayton Kershaw that we can assume with some level of certainty will be considered to be significant to future generations of baseball fans. The future for big time talents with question marks like Matt Harvey, Bryce Harper and Giancarlo Stanton is little bit more unclear, but perhaps these players will be all-time greats. League-wide trends like the decrease in offense or increase in strikeouts will also be signature characteristics of the post "Steroid Era" years.

When the 2010's are all said and done, there will be a lot of great stories told, but some things will inevitably be forgotten. Yuniesky Betancourt playing first base for the Milwaukee Brewers will live on only in the nightmares of the staunchest Brewers fans. J.P. Arencibia's 2013 may live forever in infamy, but his production earlier on in the season and in season's past will likely be forgotten. No one will remember the name of any pitcher who was a left-handed one out guy. Life will move on.

Today I figured I would point out something about the current baseball landscape that this time is unlikely to be remembered for, but is important, nonetheless. As it happens right now, baseball fans are witnessing one of the best crop of catching talent this league has ever seen. Guys like Yadier Molina, Buster Posey and Joe Mauer are driving a generation of catchers that compares very favorably with men who have donned the tools of ignorance in the past.

Before we dig too far into this, it is worth being clear on a couple of things. First, we will be dealing in WAR here when making our comparisons and it is well known that WAR does not quantify catcher defense very well. In fact, there is no tool that quantifies catcher defense very well, although advances in pitch framing research are taking us in that direction. Given we are using an imperfect tool, the end result of this isn't definitive, but with any luck it is interesting.

When comparing the catchers of the present day with those of the past I noticed that modern-day catchers are getting a lot more credit for their positional adjustment than their predecessors. This is slightly problematic when it comes to comparing catchers across different eras, but it was somewhat mitigated by the addition of UBR to WAR in 2002. Since most catchers are hopelessly slow, the overall BsR from the position group is now usually heavily in the negative whereas before 2002 that base running score was rooted entirely in stolen bases attempted, of which there are normally relatively few from catchers. Although catchers today are getting more credit for their positional adjustment, that is being offset somewhat because they are being punished more significantly for their poor base running. In the interests of transparency in the comparison below, I have included a column that adds the total number of runs accumulated via positional adjustment and base running combined for each time period examined.

My comparison goes back to 1960 in increments of three years. As well as WAR, I have also looked at the number of above average seasons (as defined by a WAR greater than 2) and seasons with above average offensive output (as defined as a wRC+ greater than one hundred in at least 400 plate appearances) by catchers during each time period examined. Without further ado, the sortable chart below shows the strength of catchers over the last half century:

Years Seasons of >100+ wRC+ by Catchers Seasons of >2 WAR by Catchers Total Catcher WAR Positional Adjustment + Base Running (in runs)
2011-2013 35 44 233.2 675
2008-2010 26 37 190 717
2005-2007 26 33 168.4 780
2002-2004 25 32 174.4 808
1999-2001 23 36 189.2 959
1996-1998 23 30 184.2 773
1993-1995 22 33 157.9 627
1990-1992 18 34 166.9 630
1987-1989 18 35 146.2 642
1984-1986 22 40 180.1 666
1981-1983 20 33 173.2 592
1978-1980 34 41 203.1 634
1975-1977 26 34 202.8 619
1972-1974 32 40 183 613
1969-1971 19 32 172.7 660
1966-1968 16 28 131.8 553
1963-1965 20 29 138.6 558
1960-1962 14 30 119.4 495
Average 23.3 34.5 173.1 633

As you can see over the last three years, catchers have accumulated more WAR than ever before without relying a positional adjustment that far above the historical average. This is being accomplished largely due to offensive output as there have been more seasons by catchers with wRC+ numbers above a hundred than at any other time in recent memory.

While catchers have provided excellent offensive production in recent years, there is another factor here which these numbers don't account for: quantity of plate appearances. Over the last three seasons "catchers" have accumulated 63,948 PA compared to 56,223 PA between 1978 and 1980, the three year time period with the second highest catcher WAR. How is this happening? Where are the new 7725 plate appearances coming from? Baseball teams aren't playing two guys behind the plate at once or playing a vastly higher percentage of extra-inning games and the season is the same length today as it was in 1978.

What's occurring is that players are now being listed as catchers but playing a large percentage of their games at other positions in the field. For example, Carlos Santana and Mauer only appeared in a combined 159 games at catcher in 2013 but contributed 8.8 WAR as "catchers". Teams are investing more money in players these days and as a result of that investment, they are looking for ways to keep players healthy and productive longer. Given the physical demands of the catcher position a lot of teams are having their catchers split time behind the plate and giving them at bats at positions, like first base or DH, that are far less physically demanding. The statistics they accumulate at these positions count towards league-wide "catcher" stats, even though they were not produced by catchers.

To return to the earlier comparison with the 1978-1980 timeframe- a great one for catchers with stars like Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter, Ted Simmons and Johnny Bench, among others- if we even out the plate appearances, the comparison is fairer. If we add 7725 PA at the WAR/PA rate that those catchers were producing that would contribute 27.9 WAR and bring the total for catchers between 1978 and 1980 to 231.0, almost identical to the total from the last three years.

As I mentioned above, WAR is too flawed a statistic for catchers to make definitive cross era comparisons. However, it is apparent that we are dealing with a class of catchers at the moment that is pretty special. The fact we are seeing more C/1B and C/DH hybrids may well add to the longevity and productivity of the guys currently playing. With Joe Mauer leaving the ranks of the catching fraternity next year, this group doesn't look quite as stellar going forward, but there's still a lot of quality there. The present era is unlikely to be remembered for the excellence of its catching, but very quietly, it has been something of a Golden Age in that regard. The history of the 2010's in baseball is yet to be written but only so much of it can be written about Mike Trout, anything more than 84% would be excessive, and future baseball historians might be wise to add a footnote or two about the catchers we're seeing today because they are a fairly impressive bunch.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs

Nick Ashbourne is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Nick_Ashbourne.