If we swapped all the starting catchers with their Triple-A counterparts, who would notice?
Yesterday, the Royals formally announced the signing of Martín Maldonado. This is a marriage of practicality. Salvador Perez will miss the season entire season following Tommy John surgery, and Maldonado was the only starting caliber catcher remaining in free agency.
Now that Maldonado is officially a Royal, where does he rank among AL catchers? At first blush, you might think, “C’mon, it’s Martín Maldonado! He can’t hit at all! He’s probably, I dunno, 10th best?”
At this point, I prompt you to name three AL catchers who are definitively better than Maldonado. You begin to list them. “There’s Gary Sanchez, for starters. Then there’s, um… probably Danny Jansen, I guess? Uh, is Mike Napoli still around?”
No, Mike Napoli is not still around. Other than Sanchez, there are no really good catchers around at all— at least not in the AL. There are seven catchers projected for more than 2.0 WAR by ZiPS this season. All of them except Sanchez play in the NL. In fact, one might argue that Maldonado is the second best catcher in the Junior Circuit.
The catching landscape is indisputably bleak. At FanGraphs, Paul Sporer’s fantasy catcher rankings begin with, “Catcher is so brutal. As if it couldn’t get worse, Salvador Perez is now out for the year. I’m not even sure everyone I listed is real. John Hegglund’s similar rankings at Baseball Prospectus likened the positional preview to “the equivalent of eating your broccoli before your french fries and ice cream.”
With such a dearth of decent catchers in the major leagues, imagine how atrocious it is in the minors! How much worse can the triple-A backstops really be?
Catchers Trading Places
Let’s play a game. We’ll swap each team’s starting catcher with their Triple-A affiliate’s counterpart. Then, we simply see if anybody notices. Of course they don’t all look alike, but we’ll base this solely on performance.
Spring Training is ongoing, and several roster battles involving catchers have yet to be decided. As such, it’s hard to tell in some places who’s a starter, a backup, or a minor leaguer. To circumvent sticky little inconveniences like managerial prerogative, we’ll use the Roster Resource depth charts. Whoever they say is the starter will be the guy we replace, and whoever they list as the first man up in triple-A shall be the replacement.
We’ll also skip over backup catchers entirely. This isn’t about who deserves to make the 25-man roster. It’s just about starters versus triple-A players. For comparison purposes, we’ll use Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection system (found at FanGraphs). There are several models out there, but this one projects the most playing time for fringe players, making it more apples-to-apples.
The NL is in decent shape. The league features all of the projected best catchers in baseball except Sanchez. In total, ZiPS likes the starters 26.2 WAR better than the triple-A players.
Most teams fall into the “Noticeable Difference” category, which is a drop off between 1.0-2.0 WAR. Yadier Molina and the Cardinals are a surprise inclusion in here, but this is more of a testament to how much ZiPS likes top prospect Andrew Knizner.
Three teams might have a hard time noticing our body swap. Avert your eyes, Marlins fans! The Braves may give more playing time to nominal backup Tyler Flowers than Brian McCann, while the Colorado catching situation remains unsettled.
Oh. OHH! THIS IS NOT GOOD! Somehow, at least two of these players will make the All-Star Team. Garrett Stubbs— a player I’ve never heard of— is the fifth best catcher in the league. Except he’s not really in the league! He’s supposed to start for the Round Rock Express. The starters outpaced the minor leaguers by just 5.9 projected WAR, and only 3.0 if we take out the Yankees.
There are only three teams with a difference greater than 1.0 in the AL, as compared to 12 in the NL. While the Yankees and (to a lesser extent) Rays are no surprises, the Twins are sort of cheating. Roster Resource expects the club to carry three catchers, depriving their triple-A affiliate of a challenge to Jason Castro. If Willians Astudillo doesn’t make the team, he brings his hefty 2.4 WAR projection to the minors. That moves the Twins to our lowest, most disgraceful category, which would serve them right for depriving us of Astudillo!
Almost the entire league fits into the “Very Little Difference” category. Toronto and Houston are here for good reasons— they have capable minor leaguers. Other teams, such as Texas, are just awful at any level.
Cleveland and Oakland deserve special recognition. Roster Resource and ZiPS project them to start a weaker catcher in the majors than in triple-A. The gravity of this statement is magnified considering they were both playoff teams last season. For the A’s, at least they have an exciting prospect in Sean Murphy. He’ll probably take over sooner rather than later, especially given that Nick Hundley is not even on the 40-man roster right now.
Cleveland’s catching situation is simply inexcusable. How is it possible that the reigning division champions failed to bid on Maldonado, while the cellar dwellers of the same division snatched him up?
In many ways, this experiment begets more questions than answers. The original query was, “Is Maldonado the second best AL catcher?” Probably not, but he isn’t far away. That doesn’t reflect very well on the league as a whole.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983