This year, Yankees catchers, led by Russell Martin, have combined to hit .201/.293/.335. It’s a far cry from Yogi Berra, Jorge Posada, Thurman Munson, Elston Howard, and Bill Dickey. Heck, it’s a far cry from Jake Gibbs, and Frank Fernandez (although to be fair to both Frank and Russell, for a little while Frank was a better hitter averaging .170 then some hitters are at .290). Depressingly, though, when you look at Martin and Co. in the context of today’s class of catchers, it becomes clear that (A) the situation could be a lot worse, and (B) is unlikely to get better unless the help comes from Martin himself.
When I was a teenager, one of the baseball memes that just wouldn’t go away was that catching was dead. There were just no good young catchers coming into the game at that time. The kind of catching prospect that would get tongues wagging was Ron Karkovice, a guy whose mustache and throwing arm were 1-A but whose bat was 4-F.
In 1986, the year Karkovice came up with the White Sox, the youngest catchers to get regular playing time were guys like Rich Gedman (who was basically done), Joel Skinner, Mike LaValliere, Andy Allanson, John Russell, and Mark Salas. Darren Daulton and Mickey Tettleton were around, but both were years from emerging as All-Star level players. Benito Santiago made his major league debut that September, but it wasn’t until the next year that he became a rookie sensation.
What we didn’t know then was that Pudge Rodriguez, Mike Piazza, and even guys like Jason Kendall and Todd Hundley would be stars by the middle of the next decade. It’s for that reason that I’m not declaring catching dead (again) now, but we certainly seem to be in a similar kind of trough. There simply aren’t many young catchers with star potential in the majors right now. Buster Posey is 25, as is Alex Avila, who was terrific last year. Maybe Oakland’s Derek Norris will hit enough to be Tettleton II. Carlos Santana has had a miserable year.
Yasmani Grandal of the Padres might have star ability, but he probably won’t be one given his home park (though with four home runs in his first ten big-league hits, he could certainly prove me wrong). Devin Mesoraco doesn’t play enough. Willin Rosario has followed up a .249/.284/.457 season at Double-A last year with .247/.279/.521 in the majors (.295/.330/.568 away from Colorado) and I don’t know what to make of that—he’s like J.P. Arencibia/West. I guess we can still call Matt Wieters a young catcher at 26, though I would still like to debate if he is a star—past, present, or future. And, of course, there is Jesus Montero, who may or may not be a catcher in the long run.
On the prospect front, Travis d’Arnaud is hurt. Gary Sanchez is another catcher-who-may-not-be-a-catcher, as is the slugging Ryan Lavarnway of Boston. The Rangers’ Jorge Alfaro looks like he might be a good hitter, but he’s light-years away from the big leagues. There were four catchers selected in the first 50 picks of this year’s draft, but it’s too early to say what they will be.
Catchers generally don’t hit. This is one of the reasons that, despite shaky defense, Jorge Posada was so valuable to the Yankees for all those years—his bat was miles ahead of his peer group (you can say the same thing about Derek Jeter). All major leaguers have combined to hit .254/.319/.406 so far this year. Catchers are hitting only .246/.314/.398 (.249/.319/.401 in the NL, .248/.308/.394 in the AL). If you can forgive using OPS as a shorthand, the only two positions that have a lower OPS than the .712 of the combined backstops are second base (.700) and shortstop (.686). Last season, even the second basemen outhit the catchers; with the help of the Weeks brothers, Robert Andino, and everyone to play second for the Detroit Tigers this year, that is no longer the case. This is not unusual, though. In most seasons, catchers, shortstops, and second basemen are mired at the bottom of the hitting lists, and the only thing that changes is what order they land in.
Catchers as productive at bat as Posada are generational, and it might take a team awhile before it finds another. Think about it this way: the last four expansion teams, two in business for almost 20 years, two around for almost 15, have struggled to produce any catchers of note, let alone an impact-level bat. There is Miguel Montero and some odd seasons of some other catchers—a good year by Charles Johnson here, a .295 season by Dioner Navarro there—but no one with five strong years in him—and we’re only asking for a hitter here, not Johnny Bench. The Houston Astros have been around since 1962 and still haven’t produced that guy, unless you count Craig Biggio.
That the Yankees have had five MVP-level catchers in their history, not to mention assorted shorter-term production from Mike Stanley, Wally Schang, Ron Hassey, Johnny Blanchard, and others, makes them, as they have been in so many ways, a tremendous outlier. Don’t hold your breath waiting for the next one to come along.
Yankees’ catchers are by no means the least productive in baseball. In the AL, the A’s (Kurt Suzuki), Rays (Jose Molina), and Angels (Bobby Wilson) have had less production, in the NL the Padres (Nick Hundley), Cubs (Geovany Soto), Marlins (John Buck), and Mets (Josh Thole). That’s about a quarter of the league gone in terms of upgrade possibilities, unless you believe that Hundley (who hit quite well last year) or Soto has change-of-scene possibilities. At the other end of the list, it’s seems spectacularly unlikely that any of the ten most-productive catchers would be available at any price. Maybe the Phillies will trade you Carlos Ruiz, but how much are you going to offer for a 33-year-old having a career year? Besides, the Phillies have a reasonable option on him for next season and no one in the minors knocking on the door (although I would love to see Tuffy Gosewisch make it into the official record).
The free agent outlook for this winter is not a whole lot better. In short, it is much more likely that Martin gets better and figures out how to hit better than .147 against right-handers, than it is they improve from the outside, even if Brian Cashman reverses himself and makes acquiring a catcher a priority.
As much fun as it might be to imagine the Twins calling and saying, "Take Joe Mauer, please! He’ll waive his no-trade clause and we will throw in up to 60 percent of his $23 million salary from now until 2018!" it just ain’t happening. Russell Martin is just a problem the Yankees will have to deal with, now and maybe next year too.