For a few years now, the argument over who is the best catcher in baseball has revolved around Yadier Molina and Buster Posey. Molina has always possessed excellent defensive skills, and since 2011, he's been an excellent hitter as well. On the other hand, Posey made a big splash in 2010, as the 23 year-old helped lead the San Francisco Giants to a World Series title in his rookie season. His 2012 campaign produced an astounding 163 wRC+ and 7.6 fWAR and the Giants locked him up with a big long-term deal. However, there's a new sheriff in town in 2014. The Milwaukee Brewers have a solid five game lead in the National League Central, and Jonathan Lucroy is a big reason why.
One thing that I like to do is look at the last calendar year splits on the Fangraphs leaderboards. As there are still about 100 games left in this season, weird things such as Aaron Harang having the same fWAR as Max Scherzer are still happening.This season, Lucroy has compiled a .325/.394/.491 batting line for a 146 wRC+ and 2.4 fWAR, easily the highest mark among catchers. Over the last calendar year, he's managed a .306/.370/.480 line for a 135 wRC+ and 5.3 fWAR. That's a half win more than Molina and almost two full wins more than Posey. Of course, WAR in it's current version doesn't capture all the things catchers do, so let's pry a little deeper.
Lucroy, Molina and Posey all rate very highly with regards to pitch-framing. Of the three, Lucroy is clearly the best. Using the calculations from StatCorner, Lucroy has ranked in the top five in each of his five major league seasons. In those five seasons, he's ranged from 23 to 42 runs above average. Posey has come out between five and 23 runs above average, with the numbers showing improvement in recent years. Molina has been between 11 and 27 runs above average. This year, Lucroy is easily topping Posey and Molina with 11 runs above average compared to Posey's six. Surprisingly, Molina is one run below average. Given a sample of more than 3700 pitches received, his skills in this area may be declining, or perhaps he's just going through a slump. You might not accept those pitch-framing numbers at face value, but in any case Lucroy enjoys a large advantage in that area.
Another important thing that catchers do is call the games for their pitchers. This is all but impossible to quantify, and while your local broadcast team might try to convince you otherwise, catcher's ERA is not a worthwhile statistic. Molina's game-calling abilities are celebrated to no end, but a quick internet search reveals that all these catchers have received accolades for their game-calling. For what it's worth, the three teams have almost identical K-BB rates.
While it's clear that Lucroy HAS been the best catcher this year, it's important to look to the future in order to declare him the best catcher. ZiPS sees Posey and Molina providing +3 fWAR over the remainder of the season, while Lucroy checks in at +2.5 fWAR. That's a small enough gap that it can be overcome by his contributions in the pitch-framing department. Let's acknowledge that Lucroy is more than a pitch-framing wizard, he's the best catcher in baseball.
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Chris Moran is a former college baseball player and current law student at Washington University in St. Louis. He's also an assistant baseball coach at Wash U. In addition to Beyond The Box Score, he contributes at Prospect Insider and Gammons Daily. He went to his first baseball game at age two. Follow him on Twitter @hangingslurves