NL East position rankings: catcher
Ranking catchers is a softer science than doing so for other positions. Advanced fielding statistics have come very far in helping us determine who the best fielders are, but there are still many skeptics who question their validity. Now, take into account that even the sabermetricians admit that they haven’t perfected evaluating a catcher’s defense and we have even less to go on. Also, I think you have to take into account a starting catcher’s durability when you start to put together a short list of the best backstops. Atlanta’s Brian McCann logged the most plate appearances for a catcher in the National League with 566, but that was only good enough for 58th most in the NL when we include players at other positions. Therefore, it’s critical that you also evaluate the drop-off from starting catcher to backup, because you’re going to get far less innings from your starting catcher than your starters at other positions. Finally, there’s some credence to the theory that a good catcher helps improve the pitcher by knowing the opposing hitters and calling a good game. Taking that all into account, here’s the NL East rankings:
Brian McCann, Braves - This was the closest race in the NL East rankings so far, as Carlos Ruiz has a good argument for the top spot, but the reason it’s McCann is that he has no weakness. He’s a plus bat. He had an .828 OPS last year. He’s respected as a good game caller. John Smoltz used to request that a young McCann call his games. Defense sabermetricians rank him in the top fifth of defensive catchers. He durable, as mentioned above. Also, McCann is only 27 years old, so he should be hitting his athletic peak and he’s five years younger than Ruiz. Finally, he’s backed up by David Ross who is only the best returning NL East catcher from last year in terms of OPS (.871), albeit in a small sample size of 145 plate appearances.
Carlos Ruiz, Phillies - The envy of all catchers, Ruiz shouldn’t have a hard time calling games as he’s working with a supremely talented starting rotation. Chances are the Phils could coax Darren Daulton to go on hiatus from hanging out with his space alien friends to catch for Lee, Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt and he would look good doing it. Joking aside, Ruiz is a good player in his own right and is one of the better hitting catchers in the game as he put up an .847 OPS in 433 plate appearances last year.
John Buck, Marlins - An all-star last year with the Blue Jays, Buck was rewarded with a three-year, $18 million contact with the Fish in the offseason. He hits with power, but only walked in 3.7 percent of his plate appearances. He’s also not regarded as a good defensive catcher. He’ll play a lot, though, and if he gets back up to the nine percent walk rate he had in 2007 and 2008 with the Royals he’ll be a much bigger force in the Marlins lineup.
Josh Thole, Mets - Here’s one guy Mets fans can be excited about. The 24-year-old gunned down 44 percent of would be base stealers last year in the first season where he saw extended action. He knows balls and strikes in front of the plate, too. Simply, if it’s in the strike zone and he swings, he hits it. Last year, he had a zone contact percentage of 97.5 percent, nearly 10 percent higher than league average. This leads to very few strike outs and a good amount of walks, which is all good for the on-base percentage. He’ll have to be good at getting on base, because his bat is bereft of power. He’s never hit more than five home runs in a season at any level.
Washington Nationals sum of the parts - It’s really anybody’s guess right now who’s going to play the most out of the three catchers in camp for the Nats. Pudge Rodriguez is still known for calling a good game. Jesus Flores was on the fast track to being an everyday catcher before his shoulder injuries forced him to sit for the better part of two seasons. Wilson Ramos will try to live up to the promise at the plate that he showed in his first four minor league seasons. Combine what each player could reasonably give you and you might have the third ranked catcher in the division, but this race is still too early to call.