Catchers have never been known for their offense. While it is great to have a catcher who can hit, those kind of backstops usually give back a chunk of that offense with below average performances behind the plate. In recent years, however, that has become a trade-off that teams are no longer willing to make.
Defense has been emphasized for catchers in recent years at the cost of offense, perhaps more so than it ever was previously. The value of pitch framing is at the forefront of what catchers do, especially as the running game has diminished. This has resulted in catcher offense declining over the past few years, bottoming out last season. In 2018, catchers hit a combined .232/.304/.372, which comes out to an 84 wRC+. Their .296 wOBA was 13 points lower than it was in 2017, which might not sound like a lot, but it’s a lot.
The Red Sox illustrated this point well. It is surprising coming from a team that won 108 games last year, but no team got less from their catchers offensively, as they combined to put up a line of just .202/.254/.293 in one of the more hitter-friendly ballparks in baseball. Their 44 wRC+ was far behind the second-worst team by catcher offense, which was the Orioles with a 57 wRC+.
As I wrote not too long ago, Christian Vázquez is experiencing a renaissance at the plate. He is currently hitting .289/.330/.476, which is an above average line for the league, and that makes it way above average for a catcher. He has 8 HR when he had only 10 total for his career going into this season, and his .187 ISO is 73 points higher than his previous career high in 2017. That was the only time in his four seasons that he cracked a .100 ISO! He is already at 1.6 fWAR for the season.
Vázquez is not the only catcher excelling at the plate. In fact, after reaching a nadir last season, catcher offense is the best it has been since 2014.
League Wide Catcher Offense
There are a number of catchers who are just raking. Gary Sánchez leads all catchers with a 142 wRC+, though that is mostly from hitting for power than getting on base, with a complete line of .259/.330/.608. Yes, a catcher is slugging over .600 and has a ridiculous .349 ISO, which ranks fourth in baseball among hitters with at least 200 PA. His 20 HR lead all catchers by five, and that is with spending some time on the IL.
Thanks to his offense and pitch-framing, Yasmani Grandal has been one of the best catchers since 2015. Now he is having a career year at the plate, hitting .280/.384/.551 with 15 HR. Many believed that he was a tremendous free agent signing at just one year and $18.2 million, and now we see him surpassing even his 90th-percentile PECOTA projections. He has already been worth 2.9 fWAR when Brewers catchers combined were worth 2.0 fWAR for all of last season. Even though he will be entering his age-31 season next year, hopefully he will get a contract more in line with what he is worth.
Robinson Chirinos is hitting .243/.367/.521 with 12 home runs, and is probably making the Rangers really regret that they declined his $4.5 million option last year, especially since they are in the thick of the Wild Card race but have the worst catcher offense in baseball. To be fair, however, one cannot assume he would have been this good had the Rangers kept him. As detailed in The MVP Machine, the Astros might be better at player development than anyone right now.
Willson Contreras used to be leading the majors in catcher offense by a lot, but he has regressed quite a bit. Still, he is currently hitting .283/.385/.530 with 13 HR, good for a 138 wRC+.
James McCann is hitting so much better with the White Sox than he ever hit with the Tigers that one has to wonder if he is another player development success story. He is hitting .283/.385/.530, and his .362 wOBA is 46 points higher than his previous career high in 2017, the only time in the past four seasons that he cracked a .300 wOBA. He does have an absurdly unsustainable .398 BABIP, and he is actually putting the ball on the ground more often than he used to. He is going the other way more, though, and has been more aggressive when it comes to swinging at pitches in the strike zone.
BtBS alumnus and current Mariners analyst John Choiniere recently tweeted out that Omar Narváez should be getting more All-Star support. I have not cared about the All-Star game in years, so I am not going to agree or disagree with him. That being said, I believe that John was trying to point out how good Narváez has been, because it seems that he has flown under the radar a bit. He was quite good last year with a line of .275/.366/.429 in 322 PA, and he is following that up by hitting for even more power while still getting on base at roughly the same rate. I would be surprised if Jerry Dipoto does not move him by the trade deadline.
The biggest surprise among catchers this year other than Vázquez is our fellow boricua Roberto Pérez. Going into this season, he had a career line of .205/.298/.340. A 72 wRC+ is not too bad for a back-up catcher, but it is obviously not a good line, and with Yan Gomes gone, he has been seeing a lot more playing time. To his credit, he has always had good plate discipline, and now he is leveraging that into a .238/.337/.490 batting line with 11 home runs. I can’t believe that Pérez has a .252 ISO. The juiced ball has been good to him! However, he is not going to continue to hit one third of his flyballs over the fence, and one has to wonder what will happen to him if the balls go back to normal.
Oddly enough, J.T. Realmuto is hitting “only” .276/.331/.452 right now. However, he is still a good baserunner for a catcher, and what was once his biggest weakness, his pitch-framing, has improved dramatically, which is why his 2.5 fWAR is second in the majors only to Grandal.
With the current state of offense, it is nice to see the worst hitting position in baseball show such improvements. Hopefully they can keep it going.
. . .
Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.