Sizing up the American League East competiton: Catchers

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles' Matt Wieters is the only incumbent starting catcher in the American League East. How does he stack up against the newcomers to the division?

Over the next couple of weeks, we will be taking a position-by-position look at the American League East, gauging where the Orioles are strong and where they are weak relative to their divisional peers, against whom they'll play nearly half of their games. First up is catcher. Check back each day to see what one of our writers thinks about the other positions.

Within the East, this was a position with significant turnover during the offseason. Of the five teams in the division, the Orioles are the only ones who will have the same starting catcher as a year ago. Their four divisional foes all bought a new catcher on the free agent market. The value of Matt Wieters is less than Orioles fans might have hoped, but there's a very real possibility that he'll be the best backstop in the division in the upcoming season.

A couple of years down the road, trying to keep him will be a difficult proposition. For now, he's on the Orioles and a lot of teams would love to have a Wieters of their own. Since they don't, they have to shell out for the likes of players they've gotten.

The chart for each player includes the following from 2013: games, plate appearances, AVG/OBP/SLG, innings caught (Inn), steal attempts, runners thrown out (CS), and wild pitches (WP). Wild pitches are not fully in a catcher's control, but I think there's something interesting, if not precise, to be found in the rates these catchers allow them. Batting statistics for 2014 are according to ZiPS projections for each player. Data comes from Fangraphs.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Dioner Navarro

Season G PA AVG OBP SLG Inn Attempts CS WP
2013 89 266 .300 .365 .492 470 50 13 25
2014 ZiPS 86 279 .264 .325 .420 - - - -

Though the ZiPS projection system does not figure a full catching season for Navarro, he's expected to be the Jays regular starting catcher. That's what Jays GM Alex Anthopolous said back in December when Navarro was signed. He was last a full-time starter in the 2009 season, when he batted .218/.261/.322.

In his limited 2013 use, Navarro had his best career season at the plate at the age of 29. He hit, particularly for power, in a way he has never done in his career at any level, with a career high 13 home runs while only going to the plate 266 times. If he gets another 150 plate appearances and keeps up that rate, he'll probably end up as the best offensive catcher in the division.

A catcher awakening offensively in his late 20s is not unheard of in recent years, with the example of Yadier Molina finding a power stroke at age 29. Navarro is probably not Molina.

TAMPA BAY RAYS
Ryan Hanigan

Season G PA AVG OBP SLG Inn Attempts CS WP
2013 75 260 .198 .306 .261 589.2 33 15 20
2014 ZiPS 88 297 .249 .342 .311 - - - -

The bargain-hunting Rays have Hanigan under their control for what could end up being a four-year, $13 million deal, if they exercise the option on the back end. How does a guy who's played in over 100 games one time, and came off a year slugging .261, get three guaranteed years, even if the cost is modest?

This is the kind of thing where looking at the batting average on balls in play (BABIP) may be instructive. Hanigan's career BABIP is .283 and in 2013 he only had a .216, which could mean bad, bad luck, especially considering his line drive percentage was in line with his career numbers. He is probably better at the plate than he showed last year. Still not great, but better than last year.

In controlling the running game, he's been excellent. Over the past two seasons, he's thrown out 48% and 45% of would-be base stealers. That's good when he's on the field, but his high for innings caught in a season in his career is 877. That probably means that Jose Molina, whose value is predicated largely on home plate umpire incompetence, will get his share of playing time.

BOSTON RED SOX
A.J. Pierzynski

Season G PA AVG OBP SLG Inn Attempts CS WP
2013 134 529 .271 .297 .425 1005 75 24 45
2014 ZiPS 123 481 .267 .297 .430 - - - -

If part of catching is making your pitchers look good, then Pierzynski fails at that in some key ways. One way is that runners simply aren't afraid of him. In his career, he's only thrown out 25% of baserunners. They go when they want. He's allowed 90+ stolen bases in a year on five separate occasions and has allowed from 70-90 another three times on top of that. He also allows a lot of wild pitches. No matter what team he's on, or who's throwing to him, he allows wild pitches in large numbers.

Another part of catching is actually playing. Pierzynski has done well in this regard, catching at least 1,000 innings a year in every season from 2002 onward. This level of durability is significant because it means less time has to be given to the backup catcher, who's probably the backup catcher for a reason.

What about at the plate? Pierzynski has a lower career walk rate than Adam Jones. He looked to be winding down his career until he blew up with 27 home runs in 2012. His previous career high was 18. He followed that up with another 17 homers last year. Since 2004, he's only been a better than league average hitter one time. He doesn't have to be, though. As long as he keeps making his starts, that's what they need.

NEW YORK YANKEES
Brian McCann

Season G PA AVG OBP SLG Inn Attempts CS WP
2013 102 402 .256 .336 .461 806.1 62 15 17
2014 ZiPS 118 474 .258 .340 .473 - - - -

It's good to be a not-ancient catcher who can hit 20+ home runs a year in a free agent market where there's no other catcher who can do that. That gets you $85 million over five years, a $17 million per year value. That's actually kind of ridiculous for a guy who's two years removed from a season in which he batted .230/.300/.399. He still hit 20 homers, though, even while battling assorted injuries that sapped his effectiveness without ever landing him on the disabled list. Too bad last year's Nick Markakis couldn't learn that trick.

The 2013 season did see McCann hit the disabled list. The last two seasons were the fewest innings he'd caught since breaking in as a regular in 2006. The Yankees made a big bet that he'll be healthier now, but it was probably a bet they had to make after a season in which their #1 catcher was Chris Stewart.

When it comes to controlling the running game. McCann is similar to Pierzynski in that he essentially doesn't. He's thrown out 24% of baserunners in his career, when the league average in that span is 28%. This may explain the time he infamously inserted himself in the path of a runner who had homered and was heading from third to home. That's the only way McCann could hold them up, literally blocking the basepath.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
Matt Wieters

Season G PA AVG OBP SLG Inn Attempts CS WP
2013 148 579 .235 .287 .417 1201 66 24 28
2014 ZiPS 144 573 .250 .314 .427 - - - -

Oh, that 1,000 innings was awful cute, Pierzynski. Wieters will see that and give you 200 more. He is a horse. Over the past three seasons, he's caught at least 122 games from start to finish each year. No one else in any division is doing that. He's also hit more than 20 home runs in each of the last three years, and has thrown out 37%, 39%, and 35% of baserunners over the last three years. You don't run on Matt Wieters.

In 2011, when McCann caught 1,083 innings, runners stole 104 bases off of him. Wieters has allowed 90 steals in 3,539.2 innings over the past three seasons combined.

Where he leaves something to be desired is his ability to hit for average and get on base, which were both at career lows last season. Would he be better off abandoning switch-hitting, as he only had a .628 OPS as a lefty? Does his heavy workload behind the plate impact his ability to hit? Maybe he would be better off if he caught ten or fifteen fewer games, but the Orioles have shown no inclination to do that. This is what he is.

**

It's no sure thing how either Navarro or Hanigan will handle an increased workload, though Navarro was impressive in a small sample size last season.

Pierzynski brings stamina, but neither a strong bat nor strong defense. With McCann, there's recent injury history and major problems with handling the running game. However, he's also a left-handed batter who has shown respectable power and who will be playing half of his games in the bandbox that is Yankee Stadium.

Would you take any of these guys over Wieters? McCann might outperform him, especially offensively, this season, but what about in year four of that contract, when he's 34? And if Wieters returns to something like his 2012 offensive production - a .249/.329/.435 batting line - along with the other value he brings, it's no contest as to who has the best catcher in the American League East.

Two years from now, the O's will have a giant question mark at catcher, but for now they've got someone as good as Wieters. Not many teams are so lucky to say that.

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