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Griff says...The Importance of the Catcher in MLB

I’m not sure I have any brilliant new observations about catchers but I feel they deserve their due as the most underrated, underappreciated, underpaid position in baseball.

Catcher is the hardest position to play, the most taxing physically and perhaps mentally, and yet they receive the lowest salary of any position. They are like the offensive lineman in the NFL. They do all the hard stuff, receive little recognition or glory, and receive the lowest pay at the same time. They are like teachers in our education system. They are critical to success but underpaid. It’s even worse when you realize they have to report early to Spring Training simply because the pitchers do.

I can only conjecture that they are underpaid because so little offense is expected of them. Also, they are not typically involved in flashy plays where they display their skills on defense. Of course throwing runners out is flashy but a good throw out percentage is only equivalent to a good batting average. And more of the throw outs probably depend on the pitcher than the catcher.

It is really surprising the catchers have any offense at all. Try squatting down for a minute or two sometime, let alone off and on for several hours, 5-6 times a week, for about 9 months. I’m amazed they can even swing a bat. Often overlooked is merely the pounding they take just catching the ball. I played catcher one year in Little League and it hurts when you catch a hard fastball right in the pocket, over that bone in the palm of your hand that sticks out. Imagine what it must be like to catch a 95 mile an hour fastball over and over throughout the year. I don’t see how those same hands have enough feeling and flexibility to move through the hitting zone fast enough. I really applaud their toughness and stamina. We should have the Catcher position changed to be like the DH but for defense. They should not have to hit. Perhaps because they do not typically hit for power or average, we get away with giving them lesser contracts.

Going into last year I was surprised to find out Brian McCann was rated the number one catcher. Not that I think he didn’t deserve it but Braves players rarely get the publicity they deserve. Of course after the year Joe Mauer had there is little doubt he is now rated the number one catcher. Russell Martin was ranked high but he had a bad year. Victor Martinez is always highly ranked.

What do they get paid for their sacrifice and suffering? As amazing a year as Mauer had, believe it or not, he was just signed to a deal that pays him a little over $8 million per year for the next four years. That’s the equivalent of merely a decent starting pitcher. Frankly, we are paying Kenshin Kawakami over $11 million a year and he is our number five starter. Brian McCann is currently signed to a 6 year contract paying a little over $4 million per year. But for the seventh year the Braves have a club option for $12 million. Unfortunately, I can’t see the Braves paying that with the need for handling the contracts for all the young pitchers we will likely want to keep.

Clubs love it when a catcher has power or average or can switch-hit or all of the above. But you don’t have too look far to see GMs know their real value is simply the ability to handle a pitching staff. Pudge Rodriguez will be with the Nationals for just that reason this year. Especially when teams have a young rotation, a catcher known for calling a good game and handling pitchers is often brought in and paid a bit more than their market value.

McCann was touted for his ability to call a game in his rookie year. Smoltz made him his designated catcher right off the bat and praised his advanced knowledge of the game. That knowledge has only gotten better over the years.

How would we grade Brian’s skills? From my viewpoint, I would give Brian an A in hitting, a B- on defense and throwing runners out. In all fairness, he has improved his throws to second but the Atlanta starters overall are pretty ineffective at holding runners on. Perhaps it stems from the attitude and strategy of Greg Maddux, who pretty much ignored runners on first. Of course, partly it is because our starters are all right-handers, which places them immediately at a disadvantage for holding runners on. Even beyond that, if you look closely at Jurrjens and Lowe and even Hanson, they are not good at holding runners on. Perhaps an unconscious result comes from Cox’s clear lack of emphasis for speed on offense, which may translate to a lack of concern defensively when it comes to speed. Whatever the other reasons, it places McCann at a serious disadvantage.

I saw Brian make some incredible throws last year and still not throw runners out because they either had big leads or great jumps, or both. It is too bad because McCann definitely improved his mechanics last year. It seems unfair to me that the pitchers don’t seem to place much emphasis on it. I think it is very important, notwithstanding Greg Maddux’s opinion about it.

As far as McCann’s defense, he tends to not slide to his right very well on low outside pitches, tries to glove them with one hand too often, and far too often reaches for balls in the dirt with his glove facing down instead of up so he can try to block it. I will say he is very good at getting out of the box on a bunt or dribbler and throwing out the runner at first. It is painful to watch how often he gets hit by a foul ball during the game. Legs and hands are so important to hitting, especially for power, it is really amazing to me that he can endure all the constant injuries and still produce offensively. Imagine what he could hit if he was a DH or played first?

McCann’s offensive gifts go back to Little League and his dad, who was a coach. Brian has a very good understanding of hitting and his own swing and that leads to an understanding of other hitters as well.

What is the magic of calling a game? I have often wondered how often the catcher is making the decision on the pitch selection as the game goes on. Sometimes you can obviously see the pitcher shake off a sign, but not all that often. Does that mean that all the other times the catcher called exactly what the pitcher wanted in that situation? That is hard for me to accept. Instead, it looks to me like the catcher just calls what he wants and the pitcher goes along with it. An analogy to it might be in football where the Offensive Coordinator calls each play and the quarterback merely executes it. They do that so the quarterback does not have to think about everything when they already have so many responsibilities. Of course Peyton Manning is the exception as he calls all his own plays. So maybe it is the same way for the pitcher. Maybe it is just easier to keep the pressure off him and let him execute what the catcher calls. I really wonder about that sometimes. Certainly, making the right pitch selections are a crucial element to the game. It may be the most important factor in situational pitching, which is where games are won or lost typically. They need to come up with a stat to measure that somehow. I saw a new state the other day called WAR which measures the number of games a player contributed to wins after calculating his offense and defense. That may truly have value to compare different players at all positions offensively and defensively and determine their value. But that’s another blog.

In any case, it does appear that catchers often have the best understanding of what to use against the hitters in each situation. The fact that you rarely see a pitcher shake off a McCann sign says a lot. Clearly, catchers are highly regarded for their knowledge of the game. Look at some of our best managers in baseball and you are looking at ex-catchers.

All in all, the catcher is the second most important position after the starting pitchers. Certainly you can make a case for any particular position at any given time during a game as having a critical impact. But for the overall game evaluation, the catcher is involved in the execution of every play and the strategy of every play, and is influencing the most important player in the game on every play. I still believe the starting pitcher is the most important position but catcher is very under-rated in its importance.

This year when we watch McCann, watch him more carefully than before. Watch the beating he takes and appreciate him more. Let’s show him the appreciation and recognition he deserves, not just as a catcher, but as one of the very best. In fairness to McCann, Mauer played 28 games last year as Designated Hitter. McCann had none. His only rest was about once a week or less when Ross started instead. Both Mauer and McCann played in 138 games last year but when you subtract the 28 games that Mauer played at DH, he was clearly fresher. Hence the superior power numbers. Of course McCann had vision problems which certainly impacted negatively on his performance. In my opinion, all in all, McCann is the best catcher in the game. Watch for him to have an outstanding year in 2010. He will benefit from not having to hit cleanup, reworked vision, and by hitting behind Glaus, who will also have a good year.

My next blog will be on Thursday. The topic will be about Braves Fan Support. Griff says…later.

4 comments:

  1. I agree with you that catchers are typically vastly underrated, and when they aren't it is because they have plus offense. The defense/calling ability is so vital to a a team, I can't believe an agent like Boras hasn't managed to get the teams to pay fair money to catchers. The potential injury factor always scares me when signing a catcher but come on Ben Sheets just got 10 million with the Athletics, and he hasn't been healthy in years.

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  2. absolutely right. the average pay of catchers in baseball is 2.1million. compared to over 6 million per year for a DH. that's crazy, a catcher is the most grueling position and a DH bats 4 or 5 times a game and sits on the bench the rest.

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  3. Anon - You may be right that it will take someone like Boras to work a couple fantastic deals for catchers as the only way they will be recognized. If that would happen it would be the first good thing Boras ever did.

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  4. It's probably a result of economics; not so much a slight on catchers. You have to pay pitchers a lot which is obvious. Then by the time you wrap up a couple power hitters which are going to be able to be game changers the economics don't allow a lot of money for the remaining positions. Outfielders play the easier position yet if they can hit they make good money. It's easier to measure runs driven in than runs prevented.

    All that said, I absolutely agree the catcher is under appreciated. Maur would be making $12 to $15 million a year at first base and should have at catcher. If he had gone on the free agent market it would have been interesting to see what he would have inked.

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