Who’s the National League’s Best Catcher: Yadier Molina, Buster Posey or Carlos Ruiz?
2012 is seeing some of the most impressive individual seasons in recent baseball history for a catcher, the toughest position in the game, and the one that requires a player to take the most beating. Catchers’ bodies subject to all manner of abuse – from blocking balls in the dirt to foul tips that miss the padding – they are constantly under assault. This season, three backstops, Carlos Ruiz of the Philadelphia Phillies, Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants and Yadier Molina of the St. Louis Cardinals, have overcome all the physical demands to excel at not only an All-Star level, but maybe even an MVP level. (Granted, Posey does spend some time playing 1st base). Although right now that honor goes to Andrew McCutchen, who is playing like his long flowing locks are on fire, the three players are worth entrants into the discussion. But who’s the superior player? If we were to determine an All-Pro type team, which catcher would we most want? Let’s take a look, and discuss the merits of the two finest backstops in baseball.
Yadier Molina is hitting an excellent .303/.354/.550 (131 OPS+) as of today with 15 homers, 49 RBI and 8 steals in 9 attempts. The Cardinal backstop has made a living at the plate throughout his career by rarely striking out, with a career 8.7% strikeout rate, much better than the ML average of 17.6%. This season Molina is at a 10.3% strikeout rate, while continuing last year’s trend of hitting the ball with more authority. Molina never posted an isolated power rating of better than .106 until his breakout last year at .160. This season he’s elevated that to a career best .190, while already besting his previous career-high of 14 homers. He’s also well on his way to topping his career-best number of total bases (221), by hitting for 160 bases so far. And this is all in addition to his defense, which has been world-class since he entered the league as a 21-year-old rookie in 2004.
Molina, much like his brothers Jose and and Bengie, was born to play catcher at the Major League level. He’s 5’11”, 225 lbs of solid brick wall while blocking pitches delivered in the dirt, rarely letting one hop by. He possesses one of the strongest arms in baseball, as well as one of the fastest releases from a catcher, which is the most underrated factor considered when discussing throwing out base stealers. This season Molina ranks 2nd in baseball in caught stealing percentage at 38% (league average is 27%), nabbing 15 of the 39 men foolish enough to test his arm. Over the course of his career Molina has caught 44% of base stealers, which is why so few players attempt to test his .45 caliber arm. Out of the 14 qualifying catchers this season (those who have played more than 65 games behind the plate qualify), Molina has faced the fewest opposing base stealers by far and it isn’t close. Matt Wieters, who has seen 52 men steal, has the 2nd fewest, 13 fewer than Molina despite the fact that he has played in 5 fewer games behind the plate, a substantial number. This man is absolutely feared by all on the base paths, which is why he is also no longer picking lazy runners off of first base, nabbing only 2 this season after posting 3 seasons of 8 or more.
Buster Posey on the other hand is still a player to be triffled with, if you’re a speedy base theif, but he’s pure poetry in motion with a bat in his hands and he absolutely demolishes lefties. Posey is hitting .313/.379/.500 (150 OPS+) with 13 homers and 60 RBI. And as the summer has heated up, so has the Giant’s backstop, hitting an outrageous .379/.440/.606 with 3 homers and 20 RBI in the month of July. Against left-handers this year the catcher has hit .409/.436/.720 in 101 plate appearances, good for a Ted Williams like 1.156. Of course the Splendid Splinter hit from the left side of the plate and demolished pitchers equally, be they right or left-handed, but you get the point. Posey, at age-25, is also closing in on his career high in games played, nearing the 108 time he saw action during his rookie season, and he’s been behind the plate in most of those, catching 67 games so far. The Giants rely on his offense so much that they need to keep him fresh, so they have given him spells at 1st base (16 games) and DH (3 games) in order to keep him in the lineup.
When he has been behind the plate it’s somewhat apparent that he’s still learning all the nuances of Major League defense, particularly throwing runners out. Posey has a below average 25% caught stealing rate, and has allowed 49 steals in just 67 games behind the plate, or about 1 per every 12.1 innings. Compared to Molina’s elite 1 per every 29.7 innings, it’s apparent Posey still needs to work on his jump out of his stance and release, which appears a little bit slow. At just 25, there is still plenty of time for the Giants youngster to improve, and with his offensive skills, Posey is already a force.
Finally we have Carlos “Chooch” Ruiz, who at age-33 is having the best season of his career. He’s hitting .345/.409/.574 (OPS+ of 163) with 14 homers and 65 RBI. Ruiz is vying to become just the 10th catcher in Major League history to hit for an OPS+ of above 160, according to Cliff Corcoran of SI.com, joining the likes of Joe Mauer, Mike Piazza, and Johnny Bench. Ruiz has seen a nice jump in his extra-base hit percentage (2012: 11.6 %. Career norm: 8.1%), which has coincided with his long ball binge. Ruiz had never before hit even double digit homers in a season, posting a career-high of 9 back in 2009 before exploding for 14 already this year. If he can keep this offensive production up, it will be hard to deny him a top-3 spot on the MVP ballot, especially if you look at his defense.
Ruiz has also excelled behind the plate, earning the trust of his pitchers while throwing out base runners at a Molina-like 38%. He’s caught 32 base runners this year, the most in the Major Leagues, probably in part to his opponent’s willingness to run on him. Last year Ruiz caught a mediocre 23% of base stealers, allowing 77 swipes in 100 tries and this year they are exhibiting the same willingness to run. Even with a nice caught stealing ratio, Ruiz is still allowing 1 steal per every 13 innings, slightly better than the effort that Buster Posey is putting in and nowhere near as excellent as Molina.
When you look at all 3 players as a whole, it becomes very difficult to make a choice. Molina is easily the best defensive player, but his offense drags just a bit behind the other two, which is saying something about the quality of this pool of catchers. Posey is the youngest, but his defense needs the most refining, and we’re not looking at future seasons, just which player we would want this year. Ruiz is having a historic offensive season, but runners are still leaving 1st with reckless abandon, knowing that there might be an easy base to be had. Out of all three I would probably take Molina, due to his ability to completely shut down an opponent’s running game, while still providing a solid middle-of-the-order bat. But if you want Ruiz or Posey I could easily see why, because they are running neck-and-neck with Molina. It will be fun to watch how they handle the later part of the season, when fatigue starts setting in and, at least historically, most catchers numbers begin to drop off. If they can stay on track, however, look out because those are some serious MVP candidates.