“Who’s the best catcher in baseball?” is a multiple choice question, and there aren’t many reasonable answers. In no particular order, here are the contenders:
- J.T. Realmuto, who led MLB catchers with 4.8 fWAR this season.
- Buster Posey, the standard bearer for the last decade or so, whose offense declined this year at age-31.
- Gary Sanchez, coming off a nightmare season, but probably your best bet as the top catcher for the next five years.
- Yadier Molina, who doesn’t really belong on this list anymore, but people just love this guy.
- Yasmani Grandal, the most complete offensive and defensive catcher in baseball since 2014.
Based on your preferences, you probably think at least one of the above catchers has no business here. (Feel free to chew me out in the comments!) Regardless, it’s a major stretch to make a case for anyone else not listed. There just aren’t that many quality catchers in baseball right now, so when one of them hits the open market, there ought to be a major bidding war...
...at least in theory.
Grandal is the undisputed best catcher in free agency. However, the market of available players, the qualifying offer ball-and-chain, and his postseason reputation all conspire against him cashing in.
Offense and Defense
Have you noticed how bad catchers have become at hitting lately? In 2018, only five of them surpassed 110 wRC+ (minimum 300 plate appearances).
After these five, who are all pretty close in offensive production, there’s a big drop to Kurt Suzuki’s 108 in sixth place. On the whole, MLB catchers averaged 84 wRC+ and .296 wOBA. It’s the most physically demanding position in the lineup, so they’re always below league average, but this is especially poor. The collective 84 wRC+ is the lowest by catchers since 2007.
With a dearth of decent hitting catchers around, the team that grabs Grandal will have a major advantage over their opponents. His 13.9 percent walk rate was second among catchers behind Russell Martin (who only hit .194), and his .225 isolated slugging was the best in baseball at the position. This is par for the course for the switch-hitter; he has a 115 wRC+ since 2014.
In spite of his consistently above average offense, defense is probably Grandal’s best asset. (Yes, I saw what happened in the NLCS. More on that later.) Nearly every year, he manages to rank second in MLB pitch framing stats according to StatCorner.
Grandal’s Pitch Framing Runs
There is a different catcher in first place each season, so Grandal has the most framing runs above average by far during his four year stay in Los Angeles. Baseball Prospectus has the the only “WAR” that accounts for catcher framing, and they credit him with 20.9 WARP since 2015. In other words, he’s consistently one of the elite catchers in baseball. Having just turned 30, he should expect a big payday.
Unfortunately for Grandal, his on-field performance is only one factor that impacts his market in free agency. The other variables don’t trend in his favor:
- Unsurprisingly, Grandal was stuck with a qualifying offer as a parting gift from the Dodgers. He is one of six free agents who rejected the qualifying offer this year (plus one who accepted), and all six of them are now tied to draft pick compensation. Any team that signs these players has to forfeit one or more draft picks and possibly international bonus pool money. This boat anchor can sometimes wipe out a player’s market, as evidenced by Mike Moustakas, who rejected a $17 million QO and was forced to sign for just $6.5 million. Bryce Harper probably doesn’t have anything to worry about, but this could happen again for Grandal or any of the other QO rejectors.
- The first major trade of the winter involved the Rays acquiring Mike Zunino. This is bad news for Grandal. The tight-wallet Rays were unlikely to spend big on him, but they were one of a small handful of contending teams looking to add a catcher. Having filled that need via trade, the pool shrinks. No one really knows each team’s plans, but there are really only six likely landing spots for a quality starting catcher: Boston, Houston, Oakland, LA Dodgers, LA Angels, and Washington. Mystery teams come out of nowhere sometimes, but right now it’s hard to see anyone outside of these six stepping up to pay Grandal.
- For the second straight year, Grandal was benched in the playoffs. In NLCS Games One and Three (he didn’t start Game Two), he combined for three passed balls and two errors. That is seriously awful timing for a defensive meltdown. It’s really easy, and perhaps unfair, to make a mountain out of the small sample size molehill that is the postseason. Presumably, all teams know his performance over the 162 game regular season is far more predictive than anything that happens in October. Should they use the NLCS to restrict his value? Of course not. But WILL they? Maybe so.
- Related to the second point above, this is actually a robust market for catchers. Grandal is the best of the free agent class, but J.T. Realmuto expects to be traded. Most likely, he’ll go to one of the six destinations listed, reducing Grandal’s targets to five. Other free agent catchers include Wilson Ramos, Robinson Chirinos, Kurt Suzuki, Matt Wieters, and Martin Maldonado. Maybe some of them aren’t starting quality anymore, and none are as good as Grandal. However, they’re all considerably cheaper, and none are tied to the qualifying offer. Sometimes, price tag outweighs production.
In their preview of the top 50 free agents, MLB Trade Rumors ranked Grandal sixth overall. They project him to sign with the Nationals for four years, $64 million. That makes a lot of sense, but I’m leery of the impact of the qualifying offer. I believe the Dodgers tendered him hoping that he might accept. They do have Austin Barnes, an excellent pitch framer in his own right who also draws tons of walks. They also have top prospect Keibert Ruiz knocking down the door. Nevertheless, I think the Dodgers re-sign him for two years, $36 million, possibly with a team or player option that allows him to test free agency next year sans qualifying offer.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983