Catchers have an inherent advantage in the American League. If a team has a catcher who has more value at bat than behind the plate, that team can simply slot him in the DH role. Imagine the numbers Mike Piazza could have put up if he played in the American League, being able to hit on his off days. The catcher position of the AL seems to be more focused on offense given that inherent advantage.
5. Alex Avila
Coming out of nowhere after a dismal 2010, Avila had a very successful 2011. With almost a 0.300 BA and 0.900 OPS, Avila allowed the Tigers to use Victor Martinez at DH to keep him healthy. Although he put up excellent numbers, it is difficult to see him repeating them in 2012. Avila was putrid in the postseason, going 3/41 with 16Ks. Against higher quality pitching, it seems Avila could not keep up. He also only walked twice in 44 plate appearances. Avila has a healthy K% at 23.8%, but he also has a good eye with a 13.2% BB.
The eyesore of Avila’s 2011 is the 0.366 BABIP. That is extremely high and will be headed south this season. For a hitter who hits more flyballs than grounders, the number he put up in ’11 is certainly an anomaly. This will drop along with his 0.295 average. He will still have solid OBP given his tendency to walk, but a 0.270 average looks much more likely than a repeat of 2012. Avila was pretty average behind the plate in 2011, keeping constant with his career numbers. Avila is definitely a valuable asset to the Tigers, but expect regression from 2011.
4. Matt Wieters
The quintessence of a post-hype player, Wieters has not been the threat to becoming the best catcher in baseball as many expected. He has been serviceable the past few years, showing spurts of brilliance generally mired in nondescript play. He doubled his HR output in 2011 and decreased his K%, but his stats are still quite unspectacular. At another position, Wieters would not come close to being on this list, but catcher is always shallow. Wieters is a strong fielder, throwing out 37% of basestealers in 2011, good for 3rd in the AL. He also only surrendered one passed ball in 2011.
One area of concern for Wieters is his righty/lefty splits, especially in 2011. A switch hitter, Wieters had an OPS of 1.124 against lefties and only 0.662 against righties. Obviously this is a concern given there are more right handed pitchers than there are lefties. His career splits are not as disparate, but Wieters cannot have over 400 plate appearances in a season of below average production. Wieters did have a very strong September, which has portended well for players the following year.
3. Mike Napoli
Napoli had a breakout year in 2011, taking well to his change of scenery. A 0.264 career hitter, Napoli hit 0.320 for the Rangers and had an OPS of 1.045. There could be a few reasons for Napoli’s emergence in 2011. First, his BABIP was extremely high (0.344), especially for a non-groundball hitter. His HR/FB rate was an absurd 25.4%, certainly correlating with the very high BABIP. However, Napoli did cut his K% significantly from 26.9% in 2010 to 19.7% in 2011. He has never had an OBP anywhere near 0.400 in his career, and a small increase in walks (also the 0.320 average) helped that as well.
It is clear Napoli will probably regress to some degree. Moving to the Ballpark at Arlington has certainly benefited Napoli, but some of those balls that were hits in 2011 will end up in fielder’s gloves in 2012. His power has always been there and if he can keep the K totals down again, he will be fearsome in 2011.
He only caught 61 games in 2011, but did suffer quite an ankle turn in the World Series. It seems he will be fine to start the season, but expect him to get a heavy dose of DH ABs, especially to start the season. He had his best season throwing out runners in 2011 (36%) and only surrended one passed ball. His UZR was negative, but with his offensive skillset, the Rangers are not paying Napoli to get Gold Gloves.
2. Joe Mauer
Once an elite player, Mauer has come down to earth the past few seasons. He is only two years removed from a ridiculous 0.365/28/96 line in his MVP 2009 season. However, injuries have slowed Mauer down, especially in 2011. It seems fair to completely ignore the statistics of 2011, while recognizing the injury risk. Mauer was clearly hurt last year and still has incredible bat control and hand/eye coordination. One item that can be inferred, especially given the new ballpark, is that Mauer will never reach his 2009 home run total again. But if his average falls in the 0.330 range and he has a healthy season, the Twins will be happy.
Although he sees less and less time there, Mauer is a defensive asset behind the plate. His CS% has dwindled in the past few years, possibly due to a lack of sample size given his time at first base and DH. He handles the pitching staff very well. Mauer obviously has the tools and track record to be an elite player. However, there is something troubling about having bilateral leg weakness. It’s all about health for Mauer.
1. Carlos Santana
The Dodgers probably regret trading Santana for Casey Blake given the upside he possesses. Santana does not spend all of his time at catcher; he started 63 games at first base in 2011. Santana obviously possesses great power, hitting 27 home runs and slugging 0.457 in a neutral park for hitters. For a young hitter, he walked at a ridiculously high percentage (14.7%), almost eclipsing the 100BB mark in 2011. The only current knock on Santana is an extremely low batting average. His minor league numbers are scattered, but it seems that Santana is actually around a 0.260 hitter with a 0.280 ceiling.
With a bat like his, it is easy to turn the other way when it comes to fielding. He only threw out 24% of runners in 2011, down from a smaller sample of 35% in 2010. He is towards the bottom in the AL in terms of catcher’s fielding, and he is still young and learning how to handle a pitching staff. When someone has 30+ HR power from a generally weak offensive position, it is easy to let all that go. He will not spend all of his time behind the plate this year; Lou Marson will catch a good deal of games for the Tribe.
Anyone that starts regularly in the Yankees lineup is going to have a chance to put up some solid numbers. Martin took well to the change of scenery to bandbox Yankee Stadium, rediscovering his power. It doesn’t seem like that batting average is going to increase and he is not the speed threat he once was. He handles the pitching staff well, but lands just outside the list.
The power is obviously there but so is a terribly low batting average. He also strikes out way too much. He’s still young, but he looks to be developing into the Mark Reynolds of catchers. The Jays may call up their catching prospect Travis D’Arnaud at some point this season as well, which could cut into Arencibia’s at bats.