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Starting catchers are disappearing

If backups get more playing time, can we still call them backups?

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Miami Marlins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

What does a “normal” catching tandem look like?

You probably think of a starting catcher who plays five or six days per week. He straddles the line between muscular and chunky, can’t run at all, hits for power, and yells a lot. He’s backed up by a well-traveled veteran who can’t hit a lick, but he’s a fan favorite because he bunted once or twice, “calls a good game,” and has great facial hair.

That well-established idea of a Batman-and-Robin catching duo might be fading away. Bucking tradition, teams are doling out more similar shares of playing time to two or even three catchers.

The best example is probably the Red Sox, who used Sandy Leon (89 games) and Christian Vazquez (80 games) almost equally, with Blake Swihart mixed in. For the Diamondbacks, John Ryan Murphy, Alex Avila, and Jeff Mathis all played between 69-87 games last year.

The traditional nuclear catching tandem still exists. For the Royals, Salvador Perez played 129 games while Drew Butera played 51 in 2018. The Marlins used J.T. Realmuto 125 times and Bryan Holaday for 61 games. Teams blessed with “top five” catchers will always use them as much as possible. Realmuto and Perez fall into that category. (Okay, Perez is debatable, but the point stands.)

1A and 1B

Nevertheless, more teams without one of the best catchers in the world seem to be going with a 1A and 1B rather than a starter and a backup. Here’s a look at average games played by starting and backup catchers over the last five years:

The blue line represents the average of the top 6-30 catchers in games played. The top five catchers are removed because guys like Buster Posey and Yadier Molina are impervious to a 1A and 1B catching timeshare.

The red line shows the average games played of the backup catchers— ranked 31-60 in games played. The yellow line is just the difference between the blue and red lines.

The trend shows that starting, non-superstar catchers are trending down in playing time, while the backups are picking up more usage. The difference in average playing time was 53 games in 2014, but dropped down to just 34 games last year.

Causes

There are any number of explanations for this trend. One of them is the larger gravitation towards resting all players more often. In 1998, there were 90 players who appeared in at least 150 games. In 2008, that amount dropped to 67. Last year, there were only 58.

Human beings perform physical tasks closer to peak efficiency with better rest, and baseball players are no different. Catchers have always needed more rest than other position players, but now the others are resting more as well. With an increased emphasis around the league on time off, it makes sense that starting catchers get more breaks as well.

Of course, not all catchers are created equally. Very few are good at everything, from pitch framing and throwing to reaching base and hitting for power. Some teams might divvy up the labor based on each catcher’s relative strengths.

For example, the Padres featured Austin Hedges, renowned for his defense but with only a .258 career on base percentage, along with A.J. Ellis, whose on base percentage was .378 in 2018. Atlanta’s Kurt Suzuki hit for more power, but Tyler Flowers featured a higher walk rate.

Defense might even be a larger factor in specialization. By now everyone in baseball is aware of the importance of quality framing, but perhaps some catchers are better at certain types of framing. One catcher could excel at stealing low strike calls, while the other works the inside and outside edges best. The former pairs better with a pitcher who throws lots of curveballs, while the latter catches for slider and cutter-heavy pitchers.

Another reason for shared time could simply be that there really aren’t many good catchers these days. Only Realmuto, Yasmani Grandal, and Francisco Cervelli eclipsed 3.0 fWAR in 2018.

Perhaps this is a chicken-and-egg situation, in which it’s unclear whether catchers get less plying time because few are really exceptional, or few of them are exceptional because of a lack of playing time. Regardless, Omar Narvaez and Elias Diaz each amassed higher fWAR than Buster Posey and Salvador Perez last year, even though they played less. Make of that what you will.

Whatever the reasons may be, the stereotypical starter-backup combination appears to be dying out. It will never go away completely; there will always be superstars a cut above everyone else. For the 25 or so teams who don’t have one, expect to see more of a 1A and 1B scenario from their backstops.


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