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Top 10 MLB Players: Catchers

Every year, ranking the top ten catchers in baseball is harder than any other position. Not only is it the thinnest position in the league, but there are also wildly different ways to value the position. How do you value a catcher who rakes but can’t frame? What about one who can’t hit but steals a ton of strikes? This year, another question arises: how do you rank a prospect who hasn’t yet played an MLB game? Adley Rutschman is the number one prospect in baseball – and has shown nothing but promise – but some fans are already ranking him among the game’s elite.

10. Omar Narvaez, MIL

Omar Narvaez reinvented himself defensively prior to the abbreviated 2020 season. In just one offseason, he improved from a -9.7 FRAA (fielding runs above average) defender in 2019 to 19.5 FRAA in 2020 and 2021. He ranked 1st in the National League in FRAA in 2021, although he hasn’t been the same offensively over the past two seasons. In his first four MLB seasons, Narvaez had a .361 OBP, .411 SLG, and 113 wRC+ (weight runs created plus). In 2021, Narvaez had a .342 OBP and 99 wRC+. Now, as an average hitter and elite defender, Narvaez has climbed his way into the top 10 players at his position.

9. Willson Contreras, CHC

Depending on who you ask, you could find some very different impressions about who Willson Contreras is and what he brings to a team. While some fans would place Contreras in their top five, others don’t believe Contreras is even top 15. I think Contreras truly falls somewhere between these two extremes. Contreras is one of the premier hitters at the position, ranking 5th in MLB in wRC+ among catchers with at least 400 PAs in 2021. Since 2019, Contreras has an .816 OPS and 115 wRC+.

Contreras’ defense is polarizing, as some stats believe he’s near league average, while some show he’s well below. He has 1.2 FRAA since 2020, but he has -2.8 FRM in the same sample size. Contreras also has a cannon and is hard to run on, ranking 1st in MLB in pop time in each of his first four MLB seasons. No matter what you look at, it’s clear that Contreras has improved drastically defensively over the past few years while maintaining well-above-average offense at the position.

8. Salvador Perez, KCR

Even more so than Contreras, Salvador Perez is a polarizing case among different factions of MLB fans. Some fans appreciate his record-setting home run numbers, while others recognize his defensive shortcomings. Despite setting the single-season record for home runs for a catcher, Perez trailed four other starting catchers in wRC+, an all-encompassing hitting stat. Perez, among all qualified hitters, ranks in the bottom five in walk rate. As a result, he has just a .316 OBP despite his .544 SLG and 127 wRC+.

Perez is undoubtedly the worst defensive catcher in baseball. He ranked last in the league in FRAA with -13.3 in 2021. He ranks in the 8th percentile in framing according to Baseball Savant’s RES (runs extra strikes). He ranked last in FRM with -19.6, and it wasn’t particularly close. While Perez’s offense can make up for his defense, he should probably DH or play first base.

7. Mike Zunino, TBR

Mike Zunino might have the weirdest profile of any catcher on this list. He absolutely rakes against lefties, but he’s borderline unplayable against right-handed pitching. By the end of the year, Zunino was platooning with Francisco Mejia, so his overall numbers still look great. He finished the year with a 134 wRC+ while having a 243 wRC+ against left-handed pitchers. Zunino is also a great defender, ranking 14th in the league with 5.3 FRAA in 2021. Although Zunino’s full-season numbers look better than some guys ahead of him, it’s tough to put a guy who is only playable against lefties much higher than 7th.

6. Max Stassi, LAA

The Angels and their veteran catcher just recently agreed to a three-year, $17.5 million dollar deal that will keep him in Anaheim through 2025. Stassi is a well-above-average offensive catcher while being one of the best framers in the entire league. Since 2020, Stassi has slashed .250/.333/.452 with a 114 wRC+. In 2021, Max Stassi led the league in FRM with 12.0. He only trailed J.T. Realmuto in FRAA, finishing the season with 12.2. Stassi’s only real concern is his lack of volume, as he only played 87 games in 2021 and has never eclipsed 100 games in his nine-year MLB career.

5. Sean Murphy, OAK

Sean Murphy had a relative down year at the plate in 2021, but he’s one of the league’s best defensive catchers. He ranked second in the league in FRM (9.7) and 6th in the league in FRAA (8.9) in 2021. He was average offensively in 2021 but ranked 7th in fWAR among catchers. Murphy’s bat was graded well as a prospect, and he was an elite hitter in his first 200 PAs from 2019-20. Steamer projects him as a 108 wRC+, which is just about on par with his career average of 109. Murphy is now left as one of the only established MLB talents on his team, and he might even be on his way out of Oakland if the price is right.

4. Mitch Garver, TEX

Mitch Garver was the last major addition for the Texas Rangers, who were the offseason’s biggest winners. Garver only played 68 games in 2021, but he slashed .256/.358/.517 in his 243 PAs. Since breaking out in 2019, Garver has a 135 wRC+ in 683 PAs. He struggles to stay on the field at times, and had a down year in 2020, but he’s still a premier player at one of baseball’s weakest positions. He had 0.5 FRAA and 0.3 FRM in 2021, but he’s being paired with Jose Trevino, who is one of the best defensive catchers in baseball. Day in and day out, Texas will have an elite hitter or an elite defender penciled into the lineup at catcher.

3. JT Realmuto, PHI

The top three catchers have truly separated themselves from the rest of the pack, and in my opinion, they can be ranked in any order. JT Realmuto ranks third because he took a slight step back offensively in 2021, only recording a 108 wRC+ as opposed to his 118 wRC+ from 2018-20. Realmuto ranked 1st in the league in FRAA and 6th in FRM, so he’s still among the best defensive backstops in baseball. Realmuto’s baserunning and durability separate him from other catchers, as he put up 5.5 BsR and played 134 games. Realmuto could easily top this list next year with another 120 wRC+ season, which he’s shown the ability to do multiple times before.

2. Will Smith, LAD

As if the Dodgers needed more top-tier talent, Will Smith has emerged as one of the best catchers in baseball. Smith, in his 834 career PAs, has a .365 OBP, .527 SLG, and 130 wRC+. He’s also an above-average defender, as he was rated as a 67th percentile framer by Baseball Savant in 2021. Smith has the ideal batted ball profile – he walks a lot, rarely chases, barrels the ball a lot, and limits strikeouts. At just 27 years old, Smith has a chance to become a regular atop this list.

1. Yasmani Grandal, CWS

Yasmani Grandal‘s second half of 2021 was rivaled only by Juan Soto and Bryce Harper. At the all-star break, Grandal was turning heads with his .188 batting average and .388 OBP. In the 2nd half, he exploded for a .337/.481/.673 slash line to go along with a 209 wRC+. He walked almost 50% more than he struck out. He’s only a league-average defensive catcher nowadays, but his bat is by far the best at the position.

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