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Keep 'Em Catching
JOE SHEEHAN
June 13, 2011
It's tempting to protect good-hitting backstops by moving them to safer positions, but their greatest value is behind the plate
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June 13, 2011

Keep 'em Catching

It's tempting to protect good-hitting backstops by moving them to safer positions, but their greatest value is behind the plate

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The May 25 collision at home plate between Marlins outfielder Scott Cousins and Giants catcher Buster Posey created a controversy that will not die. On a radio show last week, San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean, still smarting over the fact that Posey will miss the rest of the season with a broken left fibula and strained ankle ligaments, fanned the flames by criticizing Cousins for barreling into last year's NL Rookie of the Year, and implying that the Giants will seek revenge. But the merits of Cousins's takeout aside, the play raises an important question: Is it worth the risk for a team to play a great young hitter at the game's most difficult position? After all, Posey, 24, isn't the only young star catcher forced out of the lineup by injury. The Twins' Joe Mauer, 28, hasn't played since April 12 because of bilateral leg weakness, and his absence is a big reason why the Twins have been the worst team in baseball this year.

In general, teams should let a player play the most difficult position he can handle adequately. To get an idea of the value of playing catcher, consider that in the calculation of the popular value statistic Wins Above Replacement, the difference between an average defensive catcher and an average defensive first baseman is 25 runs. In other words, a first baseman needs to be 25 runs better at the plate than a catcher to be as valuable to his team. That's a huge difference. The gaps between catchers and third basemen and catchers and leftfielders are similar.

There is no better argument for leaving a great offensive catcher behind the plate. So long as he shows a respectable level of defensive competence, someone who can hit like Posey or Mauer and can catch is instantly an elite player. That kind of offense makes a catcher's 25-run value advantage over other positions even greater.

It's not as if this plan hasn't met with success elsewhere. Posey and Mauer are the exceptions right now in terms of catcher development. Around baseball several young catchers are staying in the lineup and playing well. The Braves' Brian McCann, 27, is the anti-Mauer, about a year younger and much more durable. He's started 49 games behind the plate this year and is on his way to a sixth straight season of at least 1,000 innings caught. The Rockies' Chris Iannetta (.234/.381/.449, with eight home runs) and the Diamondbacks' Miguel Montero (.271/.359/.448) are having breakout seasons at 28 and 27, respectively. It's a huge year for sophomore backstops, as the Tigers' Alex Avila (.282/.339/.519, with eight homers) and the Brewers' Jonathan Lucroy (.292/.331/.458) make cases for spots on the All-Star team.

This isn't unusual. We're just exiting an era in which a number of players assembled Hall of Fame careers from a crouch. Mike Piazza is one of the best-hitting catchers ever, and Ivan Rodriguez one of the best defensive backstops ever. Jorge Posada was the catcher for four championship teams and a middle-of-the-order hitter for a decade. Benito Santiago and Jason Varitek, on the next level down, built long careers on their ability to carry the defensive load while providing passable production at the plate. All were durable deep into their 30s. Such players are franchise cornerstones. Moving them to an easier position is usually a mistake.

Posey's injury was a fluke, and while devastating to watch and a harsh blow to the Giants in 2011, it shouldn't derail his career. He has the build and the skills to handle catcher, and his bat will make him a special player back there. Mauer's case is different; at this point, the Twins may have to choose between having him in the lineup and not, because his body has been rejecting the rigors of catching for some time. Since making his major league debut in 2004, Mauer has started just 58% of the Twins' games at catcher. He's already not a full-time catcher, and even that light load has caused his body to give out.

Until a player shows that kind of fragility, though, he should be allowed to stay behind the plate. There is a tremendous crop of young talent at catcher right now, from the players mentioned above through the Indians' Carlos Santana, the Orioles' Matt Wieters and Blue Jays' rookie J.P. Arencibia. One collision doesn't change the fact that all of them are playing exactly where they should be playing.

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