The title of the best backstop in the National League is a discussion between the duo of Buster Posey and Yadier Molina. They have established themselves as the cream of the crop, with others a clear step behind. In the American League, this discussion has been easily resolved for the better part of the last decade, as Joe Mauer has simply dominated. However, with the news that Mauer is moving from behind the plate to first base, the question becomes surprisingly difficult to answer. That is, who is the best catcher in the American League?
I’ve narrowed the list of potential candidates to the following handful of players: Jason Castro, Yan Gomes, Brian McCann, Sal Perez, and Matt Wieters. Certainly, others could breakout and surprise everyone, but these five are the most likely in my view to be the most productive AL backstops in 2014. Also worth noting is that I’ve excluded Carlos Santana from the discussion, as there are reports of him abandoning catching, in order to accommodate Gomes.
The 26-year-old Castro experienced a breakout campaign in 2013, to the tune of a 4.3 WAR. His year was largely influenced by an uptick in power, as well as an inflated BABIP (.351). Castro is a major regression-candidate going forward, especially when considering that his plate discipline took a turn for the worst last year, resulting in a 26.5% strikeout rate. His defense grades out as roughly average, based on limited MLB experience. Steamer projects his 2014 offensive numbers to replicate those of his career, coupled with the improved defense he exhibited last year. Steamer also projects a 3.6 WAR in a full season.
Another breakout from 2013, Gomes, also just 26 years old, produced 3.7 WAR with above average offense and defense in just 322 plate appearances. As I mentioned earlier, his production has led the Indians to experiment Carlos Santana at third base. As the most inexperienced player on my list, he is the hardest to project for 2014. His numbers across the board were very similar to those of Castro, except that he doesn’t walk nearly as often. Steamer projects Gomes to regress from his spectacular 2013 with a 3.1 WAR in two thirds of a season. Gomes is definitely the wildcard of the five players I’ve listed, as he could conceivably regress further than Steamer believes he will.
McCann, fresh off of signing a five-year, $85 million contract with the Bronx Bombers, is the only catcher of the five presented in this article that has changed teams for 2014. His new home should help his offense, being a left-handed bat. Steamer agrees, by projecting McCann to match his career high in home runs next year with 24. About to turn 30, his numbers shouldn’t begin to decline dramatically just yet. Also, his 2013 wRC+ of 122 was dragged down a bit by a suppressed .261 BABIP. Steamer believes that in roughly a full season, McCann will produce 3.7 WAR, with a 112 wRC+. I find this offensive projection to be a tad conservative, but it still places his 2014 WAR higher than that of both Castro and Gomes.
Perez, a 90’s baby, has more than 250 games under his belt even though he is just 23. As a contact hitter, he has shown consistency in his plate discipline through low walk rates and low strikeout rates. His on-base percentage will continue to be average-ish, unless he starts to walk or sees a spike in his BABIP. His strength is his defense, with a cannon for an arm. He has displayed some extra base power, with 27 homers, 49 doubles, and even 5 triples in his brief career (989 plate appearances). By nearly duplicating all of his career statistics, Steamer projects Perez to produce 4.1 WAR in 2014. With youth on his side and a high-floor in the event that he takes a step back, Perez looks to be a lock to be one of the American League’s best for years to come. With a bit more patience and power, he could be the best as early as next year.
The final name on the list is the former top-prospect Wieters, who has had an inconsistent career thus far. Surprisingly, his defense has been stronger than his bat. Wieters’ 2013 saw a dip in his BABIP, which is the main cause for his sub-.300 OBP, which is .319 for his career. The 27 year-old will be entering his power-prime, and it would be nice to see him improve on his high-.100’s ISO. Wieters’ numbers have been trending in the wrong direction for the past two years, so it will be interesting to see if he can improve upon the just-okay numbers Steamer projects; a slash line of .249/.319/.425 and a 3.2 WAR. He certainly has the ability, especially when looking at the 4.6 WAR he delivered in 2011. I’m skeptical, but maybe a BABIP-bounce back will create the spark he needs. He hasn’t had a BABIP greater than .290 since his rookie campaign of 2009.
Of the five names, none seem like slam-dunk picks to be the most productive American League catcher next year. I would be tempted to bet on one of “the field” to out produce all of them; I’m thinking a surprise breakout such as Mike Zunino or Hank Conger, or a resurgent Alex Avila, for example. Perhaps even more likely is that Carlos Santana sticks around at catcher for a little bit longer. This will certainly be fun to reflect on at the end of next year.
For the record, I’m taking Sal Perez as my pick. His defense is elite, as only Russell Martin and Yadier Molina graded out better defensively by Fangraphs’ cohesive metric last year. The beautiful thing is that he doesn’t have to produce any more offense than he has thus far in his brief career to be a huge asset. At the very least, he’ll be an average backstop for the foreseeable future, and carries a tremendous ceiling. And luckily for the Royals, he’s all theirs for the next six years.
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