With a dearth of truly great catchers across the major leagues, the AL East is, like most other divisions, again without a true stud backstop. While a clear case was made for Gary Sánchez just a year ago on the presumption that he’d build upon a solid 2019, he turned in the worst year of his career. Still, the talent is undeniable, which is more than can be said for a few of his divisional counterparts.
5. Mike Zunino/Francisco Mejía, Tampa Bay Rays
In his first two seasons as the Rays’ primary option behind the dish, Mike Zunino has been mostly mediocre, posting just 0.3 total WAR. While he’s only 29, he hasn’t been able to recapture any of the intermittent offensive firepower he produced as a member of the Mariners since swapping coasts. Underwhelming in contrast to a career high wRC+ of 126, he’s posted a 45 and 65 wRC+ in 2019 and ’20, respectively. With the 15th best pop-time in the majors (2019), he’s a base stealing deterrent, but was the second-worst pitch-framer in baseball last year. With steals increasingly becoming an artifact of a bygone era with each passing day, the value of Zunino’s greatest present strength continues to shrink.
Mejía, still only 25, has fallen off from one of the game’s top catching prospects to a borderline bust. Across 128 combined career games, he’s posted a 75 wRC+, and has been criticized for his general defensive and game-calling capabilities. He’s still got all the theoretical upside in the world, but Mejía’s yet to convert any of that promise into practice at the game’s highest level.
4. Chance Sisco/Pedro Severino, Baltimore Orioles
Even amidst the exploding trash fire at Camden Yards, the Orioles can expect a modicum of stability from Sisco and Severino behind the dish. Though he’s by no means great, Pedro Severino has proven to be at least a replacement level quality backstop. With a 96 wRC+ in each of the past two seasons, he’s makes the most of his keen eye to remain inoffensive in a weaker lineup. Defensively, he’s one of the worst pitch framers in the majors, though he does possess an above average arm. Altogether, he a presents a pretty unspectacular but acceptable package for a catcher.
At 26, and three years Severino’s junior, Chance Sisco has shown flashes of offensive upside superior to anything in his cohort’s past. He doesn’t have any of the light tower power to wow scouts, but he walks a ton (14.0 BB% in 2020), and elevates the ball well enough to make the most of his contact (career average launch angle of 16 degrees compared to the MLB average of 11.9). Still, he’s a bad of a framer and one of the slowest catchers to second in all of baseball. He’s no long-term option, but of course the Orioles he doesn’t need to be with the franchise already set on Adley Rutschman as their eventual franchise catcher.
3. Danny Jansen/Reese McGuire, Toronto Blue Jays
For someone with an average exit velocity in MLB’s 5th-percentile, it’s a wonder Jansen was able to finish 2020 with an xwOBA in the 71st percentile. In large part due to his keen eye (88th percentile BB%), consistent barrels gave Jansen a stellar sabermetric profile. However, when it came to actual results, his counting stats disappointed. He failed to clear the Mendoza line for the first time in his career and finished 2020 with a meager .671 OPS. If the walk rate is real, he can be a positive offensive contributor in the vein of an Aaron Hicks walk monster, so long as the exit velocity picks up a tick or two.
While he projects to be Jansen’s backup, between the two of them, Reese McGuire once had a much higher prospect pedigree. While he was the 14th overall pick in the 2013 Draft, McGuire’s earned just 183 plate appearances over parts of the past three seasons. He slugged over .500 in small sample sizes during 2018 and 2019, but recorded three hits in his 45 2020 plate appearances. Since 2020 was an aberrant year for just about everyone, it’s only charitable to give the 25-year-old a mulligan and assume that he could develop into the offensive threat he was once drafted to be.
2. Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees
While Gary would have topped the same ranking a season ago, it’s almost impossible to expect anything other than inconsistency after the train wreck that was his 2020. With a unique combination of Herculean power and ugly offensive production, Sánchez played himself out of the lineup in favor of the more reliably mediocre Kyle Higashioka.
Despite his comparative predictability, Higgy wasn’t actually great either. Despite his league average wOBA, he did so in just 48 plate appearances, and owns a career .252 wOBA, even worse than Gary’s 2020 mark of .266. With Sánchez and Cole working together in spring training, it seems as though the Yankees don’t think Higgy’s inextricable from the team’s best battery.
The talent is immutable, even if it’s been dwarfed by injuries and strikeouts in the Yankee faithful’s recent memory. He actually improved as a pitch framer in 2020 with a new approach, though the accomplishment was masked by his woes at the plate. It’s an odd numbered year, so maybe Sánchez can rediscover what made him an All-Star in 2017 and 2019.
1. Christian Vázquez, Boston Red Sox
Over the past couple of seasons, Christian Vázquez has seemingly matured into a quality professional hitter to complement his already staunch defense behind the dish. In 2019 and ’20, he’s posted an OPS+ greater than 100, hitting homers at the best rates of his career. However, of his seven 2020 homers, four were far from no-doubters per Statcast, leading to two more homers than his expected total. Since his power numbers jumped so radically from 2018 to 2019/’20 and the expected stats don’t support the boosted production, Vázquez is likely due for some serious regression. Still, he was the game’s fifth-best pitch framer in 2019 and the third-best in 2020, ensuring he’ll be a more than capable steward of the Red Sox’s game plan.