I was listening to the Wednesday edition of Effectively Wild, and Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller were in the midst of their weekly listener email show when -- gasp* -- someone brought up an absolutely fascinating question: if you could make a baseball team only out of 2014 MLB catchers, which catchers would you put at each position?
* - I gasp here sarcastically, because there's a great -- and often bizarre -- hypothetical question on almost every email show.
It's a fun question. If there's one thing I love, it's trying to put together a hypothetical team using arbitrary constructs. So first, we'll set a couple of ground rules for this exercise.
Ground Rule #1: To be eligible, a catcher must have spent 50% of their time in 2014 behind the dish.
Ground Rule #2: We need 10 players: pitcher, all eight other spots on the diamond, and a DH.
Ground Rule #3: We should write up with a compelling narrative reason why we'd need a team full of catchers in the first place.
It had been three gray weeks since the first ships appeared above the Bronx. We sent messages in every shade of language, peace offerings of gold and flowers and food. They responded to nothing, until a desperate Bill de Blasio sent a team of negotiators directly to the starship's main window. Among them: sweet prince of baseball Derek Jeter. Two days later, the conclave of negotiators returned confused, with nothing but blurry memories of their encounter, but safe. All except Jeter, who was never seen or heard from again. No gift basket, no nothing.
In hindsight, it should have been obvious from the stylized glove shape of their interplanetary vessels, or from the way the eventual communiques looked like 1950's box scores. Mike Trout revealed himself as one of them just a short while later, and he helped round up the rest of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, load them onto the cruiser perched above Orange County, and disappear into the void beyond. The only things they left behind were a vapor trail and a confused pair: Chris Iannetta and Drew Butera. They held in their battered, calloused hands a lineup card, torn from the side of the dugout.
In alien, scratchy handwriting "Your time is now. Rejoice."
We thought they had come to take baseball from us, to keep us from growing too powerful in terms of slugging percentage and strikeout rate. To prove that sabermetrics really had gone too far. Rob Manfred spat venom at the visitors' cowardice, and vowed that baseball would continue. That we would rebuild. That the few players left behind would prove that you may be able to take our starters, our rangy middle infielders, our closers and our third basemen -- but that no one could take our will to play ball.
MLB would soldier on as a catchers-only league.
We didn't realize until several years later that what we called "fighting back" was really what the Mirabellians wanted all along. Somewhere, out among the oceans of stars, they smiled, turned up the volume on the devices they used to watch our terrestrial sport, and offered the contented sighs of those who reveled in naught but their own power.
Anywho, the ground rules are established! Let's take a quick look at our catcher pool! Thanks to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, I was able to identify 98 possible catchers to fill our 10 positions in question. The best bet? Probably to fill the toughest positions first, and fill in the rest later. But there's a lot to try and explore here!
To start, how much can we possibly value defense on a team full of catchers? Would it be a better idea to almost punt defense entirely and focus on acquiring players who can really hit? What sort of skills would help one of our erstwhile catchers translate to another place on the diamond?
Let's get started.
Pitcher: Drew Butera
This one was posited by Ben and Sam on EW as the only real option, and of course, they're right. While there are several guys behind the dish with rocket arms and a background on the bump -- even several that pitched in 2014. Martin Maldonado has a career FIP of 3.13. Chris Gimenez has a career FIP of 1.13! But Drew Butera is the Warren Spahn of current catchers pitching. He's thrown THREE innings in his career, compared to Maldonado, Gimenez, or John Baker -- all of whom have only thrown one inning a piece.
No, Butera's been trusted with the ball more often than most catchers, and that counts for something. He's also struck out three out of his 11 batters faced, which counts for something too! That's a 27.3% strikeout rate! Who doesn't love a solid strikeout rate?
To me, this is the only easy choice. Well, aside from catcher. Butera can hurl, and with a DH in hand, if kind of doesn't matter than he can't really hit. Let's just hope he can go nine. The other options are worse, and that's saying something.
Shortstop: Buster Posey
With shortstop as the most important non-catcher position on the diamond, it's the first one I'd want to fill of the remaining slots. Buster Posey -- the Face of MLB -- is an easy choice for me at shortstop. Why? Because I have actually watched him play shortstop (back when I attended Florida State University), and he looked great in his action there. He's played everywhere. Now, of course, that was eight or so years ago, and Posey isn't the exact same player that he was nearly a decade ago.
But Posey is one of the most athletic and talented catchers in baseball, and his offense pretty much requires that he's a part of this team in some capacity. There aren't, in my opinion, a lot of contenders for the middle infield / center field slots on our team. Therefore, Posey's a definite pick for shortstop thanks to his youth, athleticism, and otherworldly talent.
Center Field: John Jaso / Derek Norris
Now's the time to get a little analytical. Our center fielder must have range, so I sorted all MLB catchers with 100 PA or more by Speed Score over at FanGraphs. I also took a look at them ranked by BsR -- the FanGraphs baserunning metric.
Jaso leaps out as the top catcher by Speed Score (4.6), and sits No. 12 in BsR. To me, that means we found ourselves the best of a bad bunch to anchor our outfield. Not only that, but Jaso is in the midst of converting to the outfield after years of damage taken behind the plate -- and early reports have him responding well to the conversion.
Jaso also offers a legit left-handed bat to our lineup -- one that's especially potent when paired with a platoon caddy. Funny enough, I felt as if the best platoon partner for Jason would be his former platoon partner: Derek Norris. Norris has upside with the bat, youth, and prior to 2014, he had solid speed score and SB numbers in the big leagues. With the idea that range may be the critical factor for our outfielders, having rest days or splitting time in center field seems to be a sound strategy.
I also gave some serious consideration to Russell Martin in center field thanks to his excellent athleticism, but I think his infield experience might prove more useful at ...
Second base: Russell Martin
Martin's made no secret about his desire to play infield, and so this is another one I'll snag wholesale from the Effectively Wild podcast's suggestions. Russell has the athletic ability to handle just about anything -- his previous life as an infielder seems not so far away, and he's perpetually in the best shape of his life.
Even before we take offense into account, Martin's a serious consideration to play second base. But with offense in play, Martin's probably the only choice here. Last year, he posted an out-of-character 140 wRC+, meaning he hit about 40% better than league average, despite posting up in front of the ump for an entire season. Without the wear and tear on his body from catching a full season, Martin will probably post solid offensive numbers like he has for most of his career. Maybe he'll even be a bit better than his career averages.
There was some mild consideration given to Jordan Pacheco -- the only catcher in our sample who actually played second base at all in the majors last season. He's not an overall good enough player to unseat Martin, in my view -- but if Austin Barnes of the Dodgers were up in the big leagues, I'd probably give him the shot here. Barnes is a fascinating guy, posting great offensive numbers in Double-A last year, while providing average-or-better defense at both second base and catcher. Fun stuff!
Third base: Yan Gomes
In early 2013, I wrote a little something at the Platoon Advantage about the trade that brought Gomes (and Mike Aviles) to the Indians in exchange for Esmil Rogers.
I'm less interested in whom the Indians received than who they gave up: promising reliever Esmil Rogers.
Turns out that Gomes was an All-Star caliber catcher last year, whose defensive chops were eventually matched by his prediliction to hit for power. He's quite, quite good. He also has more than a little experience filling in at the infield corners, posted the best BsR (0.9) of any catcher in baseball, and is still quite young. Since he played about seven full games at the hot corner back in 2012, he's my guy for this team of catchers. Too good to pass up.
Designated Hitter: Devin Mesoraco
DH is the last refuge for the best-hitting catcher with a lot of offensive talent but little mobility. Mesoraco was the best hitter among catchers last season, posting a wild .273/.359/.534 triple-slash line. It's unlikely that he'll find a slot on this team when taking into account defensive ability (I'd like, at the least, to put a truly elite defensive catcher behind the plate) but he has to find some spot on this team. He's just too good of a hitter, and we probably just don't want him anywhere else.
Catcher: Jonathan Lucroy
Sometimes, you have to just go with the best player at their position, and roll with it. Lucroy is athletic enough to handle a different position -- perhaps the outfield -- but he's also pretty much the best player on earth at catcher. He's a dynamic hitter, which would make him part of the team in any capacity. He's a fantastic defensive player, and his framing ability -- courtesy of Baseball Prospectus's CSAA -- rated him among the best in the big last season. (No. 5 overall, if you're counting.)
No, Lucroy has to be here for this team, though it'd be worth swapping him out with another position -- maybe an outfield corner or first base -- every so often to keep him fresh and keep his bat in the lineup. But even among a team full of catchers, he stands tall.
With most of what we'd call "skill positions" covered, let's focus primarily on offense for out next few spots in the lineup.
First base: Brian McCann
McCann makes a great timeshare candidate with Lucroy behind the plate. McCann is historically a tremendous hitter for a catcher -- his 114 wRC+ puts him in the upper tier of catchers over his career. But his feet, well, probably wouldn't translate well to the outfield. With McCann spending the brunt of his time at first, where his plus glove control will serve him well, he can also sub in for Lucroy behind the dish. In that role, the defensive downgrade will be pretty minimal.
Left field: Evan Gattis
I'm not the believer in Gattis for the long term that others are, but it's hard to argue with slotting him in at an outfield corner due to his power (.230 isolated slugging last year), and his experience in the outfield. El Oso Blanco barely makes the cut over a couple of other players due to his upside, his raw power, and the fact that it's really easy to see him playing this position -- as he'll be doing it for the Astros for much of 2015.
Right field: Yasmani Grandal (and Matt Wieters)
I was torn here, as I feel that both Grandal and Wieters should be fighting for that last slot on the team. We don't quite know how Wieters will respond to his Tommy John surgery just yet, but both switch hitters certainly deserve consideration for the last spot. While Grandal is younger, Wieters has a track record of offensive success, and looked like he was turning a corner before his injury locked him out of the 2014 season.
So here's the plan: Grandal gets the lion's share of time in right field. He's a bit more athletic, as per the Speed Score and BsR numbers I've seen, his arm's more of a known factor (he hasn't had TJS in the past 18 months), and he projects about as good offensively as Wieters does. But, if we wanted to get clever, we could pull a cute platoon here, with the two switch-hitters picking a side, and using them in a standard platoon rotation. Grandal would get the long side of the platoon, thanks to his career beating up on right-handed pitchers, and Wieters could have the short side. There's even been some talk in the past about Wieters giving up switch-hitting anyway.
So that does it. It's actually not the worst thing in the world to have a team full of catchers ... so long as they're the best ones in baseball. This team would be ugly defensively, sure. But it could hit a little and field a little and -- well, we probably shouldn't talk too much about the pitching situation.
Godspeed, rest of the league. If something happens to everyone else, the catchers could -- theoretically -- pick up the slack.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball Reference.
Bryan Grosnick is the Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @bgrosnick.