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Catchers Don't Catch Anymore

by Photo of Andrew Lontos

Catchers playing out of position may keep them healthy, but at what cost?

Catchers Don't Catch Anymore

Via MLB.com:
Catcher Joe Mauer was held out of the lineup on Wednesday against the Rays after taking a foul tip to his shoulder the night before, but he is expected to return to action on Thursday in Chicago -- where he will likely play first base for the first time in his big league career.

At first it may seem like a smart decision for the Twins to play their franchise player at first base, a position easier on the body than the brutal catcher spot. But while it may keep Mauer healthier, it certainly devalues him as a player and weakens Minnesota's lineup. Mauer's .324 career batting average and .879 OPS are great at the catcher position, which is a big part of the reason why he is in the first year of an 8 year, $184 million contract. However, do you give a guy who has hit over 15 home runs in a season only once that kind of contract to play first base, a position where it's easy to find offense? A big hitting catcher is valuable because it's a rarity to get that kind of production from behind the plate. But Mauer's move continues a recent trend in baseball with young catchers.

Teams are so worried about protecting young pitchers and catchers long term, that they hurt them in the short term. The San Francisco Giants and Cleveland Indians have already had their young catchers play numerous games at first base. Buster Posey caught 41 games this year and played 2 at first base, before suffering a season ending injury blocking home plate. The injury has little to do with their philosophy, as last year Posey started 75 games behind the plate and 30 at first. He won the National League Rookie of the Year, not for hitting .305 with 18 home runs, but for hitting .305 with 18 home runs while managing a pitching staff and producing at a weak offensive position. After suffering a season ending injury last year, the Indians' Carlos Santana has started 52 games at catcher and 26 at first base. His .773 OPS, 13 home runs, and 40 RBI this year are good for a catcher with less than a full season under his belt. But it's pretty ordinary when you look at him as a first baseman. For example, Santana and Brian McCann (14) are the only catchers in baseball with at least 13 home runs; twelve first basemen have hit 13 so far.

If you don't think having a stud hitter at the catcher spot is that valuable, look at the 2000 New York Mets. A team that won 94 games and made the World Series had Benny Agbayani leading off and Todd Zeile hitting cleanup in the deciding Game 5 against the Yankees. The reason the lineup was able to produce enough was because they had Mike Piazza anchoring the offense. The Mets got 38 home runs, 114 runs batted in, and a 1.012 on base plus slugging from their catcher spot. That year, only one other catcher hit 30 home runs- only six others his 20. No other catcher had an OPS of 1.000. It was a clear advantage. The Mets' star outperformed the average player at his position much more than a star outfielder or first baseman ever could.

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This begs the question: should teams try to prolong their catchers' careers by splitting time at other positions, or get the most value out of them behind the plate and risk injury?

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