MLB backstops starting to catch up on offense

Buster Posey is one of several catchers capable of contributing both at the plate and behind it. - Denis Poroy

"The only thing you know about pitching," Bob Gibson once scolded Tim McCarver, who made the mistake of interrupting his battery mate with a visit to the mound, "is it's hard to hit". The Cardinals' Hall of Fame right hander could have been talking to just about any catcher from most eras in baseball history, but so far this season, those sentiments have not rung true.

Catchers' Cumulative Offensive Contribution, 1945 to 2013
Catcherops_medium

Note: Play-by-play data from 1945 to 1972 is incomplete.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

Defense has long been a priority for catchers, but this year, baseball's backstops have been contributing as much at the plate as behind it. Entering play today, major league catchers have posted an OPS+ of 101, which, if maintained throughout the season, would represent only the fourth time since 1945 that the game's backstops have been above average offensive contributors. In addition, the production has been relatively broad based. Currently, 10 different catchers have an OPS+ of at least 100, which would match the all-time high set in 1914 and 1915.

Catchers with OPS+ Above 100

Catcheropsseasons_medium

Note: Includes only players who have played 75% of games at catcher and accumulated enough at bats to qualify for the batting title.
Source: Baseball reference.com

Comparing early season statistics to full-year totals has significant limitations, especially for catchers, who notoriously wear down on offense as the season progresses. As a result, the collective performance of major league catchers has to be taken with a grain of salt. Still, it's interesting to note that the offensive contribution of catchers is up at the same time every other position's performance, except for center field, is down on a relative basis over the past decade and well off season highs. Although pitchers have clearly turned the tables on hitters of late, ironically, catchers have helped stem the tide a little.

Current Position OPS+ vs. Previous Season High, 1945 to 2013

Positionopshighs_medium

Note: Play-by-play data from 1945 to 1972 is incomplete. Listed years represent the seasons in which all-time high OPS+ were accomplished.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

Position-Based Offensive Performance Trends, 2004 to 2013
Position_ops_medium

Note: Play-by-play data from 1945 to 1972 is incomplete.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

Beyond the numbers, it's easy to see why catching is no longer an offensive black hole. Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, Carlos Santana, Joe Mauer, and Brian McCann, who was just activated from the disabled list, lead a crop of receivers who are more than just good hitting catchers...they are good hitters, period. With promising young backstops like Wilin Rosario, Matt Wieters, and Salvador Perez starting to emerge, as well as several elite catching prospects like Travis d'Arnaud, Gary Sanchez, and Mike Zunino, knocking on the door, a golden age of catchers appears to be emerging. So, forget about the year of the pitcher. Near perfect games, record setting strikeouts, and an abundance of shutouts are all impressive, but the real history could end up being made behind the plate instead of on the mound.

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