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The AL East by Position: Catcher

Best shape of his life!
Best shape of his life!

The American League East has the reputation of being one of the most difficult divisions in all of Major League Baseball. Almost all the teams are competitive, and some of the best talent in the game plays there, thanks in part to the high payrolls of the Yankees and Red Sox bringing in top dollar free agents annually. The Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays are all expected to be at or near the top, and the Blue Jays could be on the rise in the very near future. It makes for exciting baseball and a race for the division crown year after year.

As a self-confessed stats nerd, I love to compare baseball numbers, so I decided to compare the expected starters for each team in the AL East. It's nothing super definitive, as I only used 2011 data for the sake of the comparison, but it is a pretty good way to size up what the Yankees are facing as their most immediate competition in trying to win the division and make the playoffs.

This idea is not unique by any means. A lot of the credit for inspiration goes to Ben Buchanan, manager at Over The Monster, who has been comparing the players of the AL East teams (non-Orioles division) position by position to see where the Red Sox fall in line among their contending counterparts. I took his concept a step further, included the Orioles, and threw in all kinds of comparative stats, because that's what I do.

Because I haven't decided how to proceed with rotation comparisons yet, we'll start with catcher as the next logical position. Russell Martin, Matt Wieters, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and J.P. Arencibia all return to their respective teams for the 2012 season, while Jose Molina moves from Toronto to Tampa Bay to take over behind the plate for the departed Kelly Shoppach and John Jaso. Sorting out the competition begins after the jump.

Stats via fangraphs.

Matt Wieters led all AL East catchers in 2011 with a .339 wOBA and only trailed J.P. Arencibia in home runs by one with 22. He is likely the most well-rounded catcher in the division, providing both solid defense and good offense, which is as much as you can hope for from a catcher. His strikeout% was lowest of all the catchers compared here, demonstrating his good discipline at the plate. I don't think Wieters gets as much credit as he is probably due because of how bad the Orioles have been, but he is the real deal.

Russell Martin had the chance this off season to sign on with the Yankees long term after having a better offensive season than he is used to as of late, but things didn't pan out and he's set to become a free agent at the end of 2012. He was infuriatingly inept at the plate for most of last season, but made his numbers catcher-respectable with a strong April and August. The pitchers all speak highly of his intangible ability to call a game and handle a pitching staff, and you've likely read the research exalting him as the King of Framed Pitches. Some of that is probably important in some capacity, some of it probably isn't. If Joe Girardi doesn't attempt to drive him into the ground the first month of the season, maybe he will be able to not disappear for large chunks of the year with the bat. We can only hope. Otherwise, the loss of Jesus Montero is going to sting even more.

There was a time when pointing and laughing at Jarrod Saltalamacchia was a fun time, but his offensive numbers weren't much different than our own Russell Martin's were last season. Martin got on base more, Salty had more extra base power. Saltalamacchia is no All-Star behind the plate, and he did make those unflattering comments about Latin players he should have probably kept to himself, but all in all, Boston could do much worse.

It's kind of silly that Jose Molina had such great offensive numbers last season, but his .363 BABIP tells us that the Rays should not expect him to be repeating that any time soon. His 55 game sample size also likely skews the numbers a bit, but the Rays will be asking him to take on a lot more plate attempts in 2012. Easily the best defensive catcher in the bunch, I'm sure that Joe Maddon and company will find lots of value in what he does behind the plate, rather than what he does with a bat in his hands. Joe Girardi would be so proud.

Nearly everyone expected better from J.P. Arencibia, long time hype machine member, but aside from his impressive power, there wasn't a lot to write home about from him in 2011. With the loss of Molina as their backup, the Jays will need Arencibia to step up and become the catcher they thought they were getting offensively. A sub-.300 OBP and a batting average that flirts with the Mendoza line probably won't cut it going forward, but he's a good bounce-back candidate for this coming season.

Overall, 2011 brought good and bad to the catchers of the AL East, which I suspect will be a common theme among the players at every position. We obviously have a deep personal interest in whether Russell Martin can figure out why he hit so poorly save for two months of the season, how much money it will take to retain him at the end of the year, and who could replace him if that figure proves to be too steep. It will be interesting to see whether Russ can replicate or improve upon his 2011 results going forward with the goal of a big payday in mind.