For decades, the position of shortstop was treated by a lot of teams as a spot for which the clear preference was for defense. The lords of those times, the managers, willingly sacrificed production at the plate for consistent glove work from a player who often handled the baseball in pursuit of outs.
Earl Weaver was regarded as the most progressive manager of his era, someone who scoffed at the idea of sacrificing outs with bunts, and his shortstop through most of his time with the Orioles was Mark Belanger, who hit 20 homers in his career, with a career .300 on-base percentage. Weaver wanted the defense, and Belanger won eight Gold Gloves, playing in the World Series four times.
Could it be that the new lords of baseball, the front-office executives who navigate through decisions based on the readings of analytics, now view the position of catcher in the way that shortstop used to be treated? Defense first?
The number of high-end two-way catchers -- those who thrive on both offense and defense -- seems to be in decline, as teams learn more and more about evaluating and teaching skills like pitch-framing, blocking and pitch-calling.
As anybody who has seen “The Sandlot” knows, the stereotypical catcher was once the burly guy who didn’t move very well, but now there seem to be more catchers built like the Dodgers’ Austin Barnes -- 5-foot-10, 190 pounds. The Reds’ Tucker Barnhart might be the best defender at his position, and he’s listed at 5-foot-11, 192 pounds. Last season, Barnhart and Barnes combined for 705 plate appearances and generated 17 homers.
Is this cyclical? Is it a trend? “Most young players who have great offensive ability don’t want to catch,” one evaluator said. “They want longevity and shift to other positions.”
Carlos Santana was one of baseball’s best catching prospects early in his career, but then as his defensive skills were scrutinized, the Indians moved him from behind the plate to first base. “I wonder with the way teams value catcher defense now if someone like Mike Piazza would have been approached about a position change earlier in his career,” the evaluator mused.
Defensive shifts can help to cover the deficiencies of a shortstop, or any infielder or outfielder. But there is no hiding a subpar catcher who does not move well behind the plate, or does not receive well, or perhaps is too tall to consistently set an optimal target low in the strike zone, or is unwilling to do the pregame preparation that is much more extensive than a decade ago. Teams also concentrate on properly resting catchers and try to build a strong two-man tandem the same way a lot of NFL teams prefer to use two running backs.
The position of catcher is changing as much as or more than all others, including that of starting pitcher. With that in mind, here are the top 10 catchers: