Saturday, October 27, 2012

Identifying the Top NL Catcher

 The talking heads of the postseason finally got to me. It happened in the NLCS whenever Buster Posey and Yadier Molina came up. Posey was referred to as the "NL MVP" as though the votes have been counted and Molina was referred to as an "MVP candidate." This very well could be how the voting plays out and I would not be upset or surprised. However, these talking heads laid the claim on Posey being a catcher and the more demanding defensive role that requires over say Ryan Braun in left field. So it was a combination of offensive power and defensive skill that led them to anoint Posey as the NL MVP (factors the talking heads ignored in the AL where they are behind Miguel Cabrera despite his defensive limitations).
 Rather than debate the MVP merits of the players, I decided to look at who is the better all around catcher in the National League. 2012 brought spectacular seasons from both Posey and Molina, but as a catcher specifically Yadier Molina deserves top billing.

The Numbers on Buster Posey

 Buster Posey had a banner year after coming back from a season ending leg injury on May 25, 2011. He recovered to make 143 starts this season for the San Francisco Giants. Overall his offensive numbers were excellent: 178 hits, 39 doubles, 24 home runs and 103 rbi with 96 strikeouts. This was good enough for a league high .336 batting average and with the help of 69 walks produced a .408 OBP. Helping his numbers was a career high .368 batting average on balls in play (babip), his previous babip high was .326 during his shortened 2011 season. Such a high babip is more an indication of good fortune than something sustainable year after year. His numbers benefited from his batting 4th most of the time, but probably helped contribute to his 19 ground into double-plays.
 In an effort to keep his bat in the lineup, the Giants moved Posey out from behind the plate often. As a result he caught in 112 games and a total of 973 innings. During that time he was charged with 8 errors and had a fielding percentage of .991 (the league average was .992) so he was slightly below average. His 30% caught sealing rate was just above the league average (27%) and he also picked off 2 players during the year. He started 29 games at 1st as well. So defensively Posey was average when looking at the raw numbers. However, the numbers hide some interesting facts. Of the regular 5 in the Giants rotation he did not catch Tim Lincecum or Barry Zito regularly during the season. While Zito could be explained as the starting catcher getting a rest day with the 5th starter on the mound, I can come to no similar conclusion for Lincecum. Lincecum did have the worst season of his career which could speak well for Posey, but we are still left wondering why 40% of the rotation does not use him as their primary catcher.

The Numbers on Yadier Molina

 Molina had a solid offensive year in 2011, but 2012 was a career season. Over 133 starts Molina notched 158 hits, with 28 doubles, 22 home runs and 76 rbi with an impressive 55 strike outs. Molina posted a .315 batting average and along with his 45 walks notched a .373 OBP. Molina also benefited from a career high babip of .316 which is more sustainable. Much of the numerical differences between Molina and Posey result from Molina batting 6th or 5th most of the season. Molina was more productive on the base paths with 12 stolen bases (15 attempts) and only 10 ground into double plays. While they may bat in different parts of their respective lineups, both are productive offensive catchers that their teams can and do rely on for success.
 Molina might be the most talented of the Molina brothers, but all of them were noted for their defensive skill. Molina caught 134 games and 1161.1 innings in 2012 while committing only 3 errors for a .997 fielding percentage. On top of that he caught 48% of would be base stealers and picked off 5 others. Molina caught every pitcher on his staff regularly while only playing 2 games at first. Molina was well above average in these defensive metrics and Cardinal fans are likely ecstatic that his new contract will keep him around for several seasons to come.

Baseball executives would gladly have either of these catchers on their teams, but if you are looking for the best overall catcher I have to go with Yadier. Their offensive numbers are comparable, while Yadier had a clear advantage in 2012 defensively.

Do you agree or disagree with my take? Have an explanation for Posey not catching certain pitchers? Any all comments are welcome.