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Catchers Wanted



HELP WANTED: Major League Baseball club has immediate opening for a durable, athletic catcher. Must be experienced game-caller, adept pitch-blocker, and possess sure hands and a strong, accurate arm. Expertise in pitch-framing preferred. Above average contact rate, power, or plate discipline on offense a plus.

You get the idea.

Catchers, known for their physicality and gamesmanship, have always been important cogs in the baseball machine. Today the expanded use of “Big Data” in Major League game planning has increased the mental skills requirements of the always physically draining position. More than a merely crafty receiver, the catcher today must perform multiple roles and tasks while risking injury on every pitch.

Knowing that skilled catchers are in short supply, the Kansas City Royals offseason move to sign durable All-Star Salvador Perez to a five-year, $52.5 million contract is understandable. Perez’ extension starts in 2017 and locks him up before and after his original 2018 eligibility for free agency. The small market Royals organization recognizes the popular Salvy’s value to a defense-minded team and thus made his signing a priority. Stardom may have its price, though; look for continued speculation among baseball writers that the Royals will burn Perez out.

Across the state of Missouri and near the opposite end of the catching career arc from Salvador Perez is 33 year old Yadier Molina. The perennial All Star and Gold Glover is a career St. Louis Cardinal, and for some may provide a glimpse of what is in store for the 25 year old Perez. Molina played in only 110 games in 2014; when he returned to a normal workload in 2015 it was with diminished production (Molina’s batting, on base, and slugging were below his career averages). Molina is a question mark for opening day 2016 following two thumb surgeries to repair a torn thumb ligament during the offseason.

Perez, Molina, Russell Martin, and Buster Posey are elite catchers, a rare breed. While the Royals are fortunate to have Perez, and Molina has accumulated 30 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) during his storied Redbirds career, other teams feature depth at the number two position. The San Diego Padres, for example, boast Derek Norris, an capable veteran receiver still only 27, plus fine young backstops in Austin Hedges and Christian Bethancourt. The 23 year old Hedges, who is having a good spring, likely will make the 25-man roster after playing 56 games with the Friars in 2015.

The Pittsburgh Pirates received good value from Francisco Cervelli, who batted a solid .295 with an outstanding .370 on base percentage in 2015, avoiding the injuries that had bedeviled him during his seven seasons with the New York Yankees. Cervelli’s back-up, Chris Stewart, also had a good year at the plate and established himself as Gerit Cole’s personal catcher. Third on the Bucs depth chart is Elias Diaz, a 25 year old prospect who, like Cervelli (and several others in MLB), is from Venezuela. Diaz spent 2015 with AAA Indianapolis, batting .271/.330/.382 and had his first sip of coffee with the big league team in September.

The Cardinals have an experienced backup catcher in Brayan Pena, acquired in the offseason from the Cincinnati Reds shortly before shipping Tony Cruz to the Royals. The stocky, switch-hitting Pena is 34, however, even older than Molina. Youth may be on its way in 25 year old Mike Ohlman but the six foot five receiver has not played higher than AA (last year he hit .273/.356/.418 for Springfield in the Texas League). If Ohlman proves ready for the majors in 2016 his height offers the Cardinals an opportunity to play him on occasion at first base, where he has played a handful of games in the minors. This gap between aging veterans and inexperienced youth at catcher may be a vulnerability for the Cardinals in 2016.

Extremes of age and youth characterize the Cardinals chief rival as well. Last year the Chicago Cubs started the season with three catchers on the 25-man roster: Miguel Montero, Welington Castillo, and David Ross. Though younger than the other two, Castillo was odd-man out: the Cubs brought Montero to town in large part for his game-calling and pitch-framing skills, and Ross is 2015 free agent prize Jon Lester‘s personal catcher. The Cubs in 2015 traded Castillo to Seattle where he had scarcely settled in before moving again, finishing his season with the Arizona Diamondbacks (part of a savvy trade that indirectly replaced former D-back Montero and netted several prospects in exchange for Mark Trumbo, “Welly” hit 17 home runs for the Snakes in just 80 games).

Montero and Ross now mentor a corps of young catchers, including top 2014 team draft pick and 2015 second half rookie sensation Kyle Schwarber, who was drafted for his bat, and Willson Contreras, a capable receiver who won the Southern League (AA) batting title in 2015. In January the club added Tim Federowicz (after release by the Los Angeles Dodgers), another strong defender that may be insurance against injuries.

The Cubs plan to carry three catchers on the opening day roster again. Schwarber played more left field than catcher in 2015 but the team has been working with him on his defensive skills behind the plate, making him a personal catcher for Jason Hammel in spring training. Montero and Ross will handle the majority of games behind the plate. Some giddy fans may note that none other than late Hall of Famer Gary Carter started his career splitting time in the outfield for want of a starting catcher job opening, though odds are long that anyone will equal “The Kid” in catching ability.

Changes in the game, the peculiar skills necessary to perform the job, and the tolerance of physical punishment make good catchers indispensable. Every team wants a good one – or three – but while many are called, few are chosen.

Tim is a lifelong baseball (especially Cubs) fan, member of SABR, and player of Out of the Park Baseball. Recently he caught the genealogy bug and is researching his family history. He is originally from Chicago, but now lives in Columbia, MO, with his wife, two daughters, and two dogs.

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