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Baseball's best catchers visualized

This is the first in a series reviewing players by position to see not only who is performing best, but who is delivering the most value. This post looks at catchers.

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One of the greatest advances in baseball statistics has been the introduction of the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) statistic, a handy tool with which to compare players across eras or position. Like every stat, it's not perfect, but I remember the first time I saw the Baseball Prospectus WARP value, and I knew my days of trying to calculate Total Baseball Total Player Ratings were over.

This allows for reviewing players by position and plotting their salary against their WAR values. FanGraphs includes a measure that estimates the dollar value a player has delivered, which creates an apples-to-apples comparison --their pro-rated salary compared to their FanGraphs Dollar Value (FG$V). This makes it very easy to see who's delivering value--and who isn't.

This Tableau data viz is the foundation for the posts, and I'll take some time to explain it:

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Every day I update FanGraphs data, which means that the Date slider can be moved back to see changes in value over the year. It only goes back to mid-May, since much before then meaningful distinctions can't be made, and this will be more useful as the season progresses. All players with 100 plate appearances are included, and as players cross that threshold, they'll be added. The PA slider can be moved to show fewer or more players. I'm only discussing the catchers today, but all positions are there, so feel free to jump ahead and see how players rate at other positions. As an added bonus, the FG WAR tab shows the correlation between cumulative team fWAR and winning percent for all of baseball history.

The horizontal axis is the FanGraphs Dollar Value, and the vertical is the player's pro-rated salary, currently around twenty-five percent of a player's 2015 salary. Clicking on individual data points shows more information and also adds drop lines to both axes to better visualize where the player stands among his peers. I can't add this line to the data viz, but imagine it's there:


Players to the right of the line are delivering more value than their contracts, and players to the left are delivering less. The further from the line (at a 90-degree angle) the data point, the greater the difference.

I'm sure few are surprised in seeing the catchers delivering the most value are Russell Martin of the Blue Jays and . . . Stephen Vogt of the Athletics?!? Martin isn't a surprise, but in my mind was no sure thing when the Blue Jays signed him last winter. He was a very good catcher his first three years, slipped a bit with the Yankees and had a career renaissance after going to the Pirates. However, especially in this day and age, 32 is around the age catchers begin transitioning into ex-catchers, and that's not why the Blue Jays acquired him. So far, he's delivering everything the Blue Jays wanted, and at $7 million, is relatively affordable. This rises to $15 million in 2016 and $20 million for 2017-2019, so check back with me then.

Stephen Vogt  played just about every position but catcher last year, but the loss of Derek Norris and Geovany Soto cleared the path for him. He's a 30-year-old still playing on his first contract and isn't arbitration-eligible until 2017 or eligible for free agency until 2020, which means his big payday day will probably never come. It's a lost season for the A's, but Vogt is a bright spot. A recent post by fellow BtBS contributor Murphy Powell showed Vogt is currently seventh in isolated power (ISO) this year--let's see if that can be maintained.

Look at the range of players just over the horizontal axis, the young and cheap catchers, stretching all the way from Martin Maldonado of the Brewers (unlabeled, and with his numbers, it's probably better that way) over to Vogt. Part of the Padres success can be attributed to the solid start of Derek Norris and his excellent pitch framing skills. Daren Willman's outstanding Baseball Savant shows Norris has the most called strikes on pitches outside the strike zone with over 300 pitches. As you peruse that list, pay attention to the percent of pitches as well.

Yasmani Grandal and Caleb Joseph are also near the top of the pitch framing list, and Grandal in particular has been a very pleasant surprise so far this year. He demonstrated some pop last year, hitting 15 home runs in hitter-unfriendly Petco Park, but he hasn't hit for average for the last couple of year, so perhaps the relocation to Los Angeles and the addition of lineup protection is paying off. Caleb Joseph is filling in admirably for the oft-injured Matt Wieters and will probably not remain as the primary Orioles catcher when Wieters returns, which appears imminent. The question becomes what the Orioles will do with both these players--try to shift Wieters to another less-demanding position, or move Joseph, either on the field or to another team?

The players near the top of the chart have interesting stories. The Cubs acquired Miguel Montero for his pitch framing skills and also hoping he'd return to the offensive form he'd shown prior to sustaining nagging injuries in 2012. So far he's doing well on both counts as part of the only three-man catching crew (since ended with the trade of Welington Castillo to the Mariners for a bag of used baseballs Yoervis Medina), which reduced the games he's played. His load will increase, so it will be interesting to see how well he holds up. As a side note, check out the pitch framing skills of Cubs backup David Ross. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer were not pleased with Castillo's pitch framing skills and made the conscious decision to upgrade in that regard.

Buster Posey is listed as both a catcher and first basemen, one of the vagaries of how FanGraphs displays data. He hasn't quite gone Joe Mauer and turned into a full-time first baseman and is still catching in two-thirds of his games, and at 28 can probably continue to do this for at least the next couple of years. If he maintains his pace, he'll be in the neighborhood of a six fWAR player, and those are few and far between.

Brian McCann and Yadier Molina continue to defy age and be productive, Molina more so than McCann. No one disputes the defensive abilities of Molina, and his pitch framing is right up there with anyone and one reason why the Cardinals can lose Adam Wainwright and apparently not miss a beat. Some day, I'll get tired of watching this video of Brian McCann's reaction to Carlos Gomez' home run, but that day won't be anytime soon. The AL East is about as confusing a division as there is in baseball. McCann's handling of the pitching staff, especially one missing Masahiro Tanaka and featuring a subpar CC Sabathia is a substantial part of the Yankees success so far.

One thing I find interesting in this chart is what isn't shown--as of Friday, May 22nd, there were only 24 catchers with at least 100 PA, meaning six teams were such a jumble at catcher that they couldn't field one meeting this meager threshold. When you consider these teams--the Braves, Red Sox, White Sox, Reds, Tigers and Angels, it helps explain their relative lack of success. In some cases, there's a true platoon going on, in others, particularly the Red Sox and increasingly the White Sox, there's a desperation to find someone who can make positive contributions.

My method of determining the best catchers isn't perfect, but it does reveal who is outperforming his contract. It's far easier for younger players on their first contract to do so, but veterans like Jason Castro and Salvador Perez are delivering value as well. As the season progresses, flip back and look at this chart as it gets updated and observe the changes that hot streaks, injuries and the long slog of a 162-game season will have on catchers. Chances are quite good the graph won't look like it does today.

Scott Lindholm is a contributor at the Baseball Prospectus Cubs site BP Wrigleyville and lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.