AL East Midseason review: Catchers, where the Orioles, surprisingly, may be the best

Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles lost catcher Matt Wieters after a month of the season when he was hitting better than ever. How do Orioles backstops fare against the rest of the catchers in the division? Better than you might think, it turns out.

Going into the season, the Orioles looked to have the best catching situation in the division, with Matt Wieters the lone incumbent as other teams chased more stable catching situations. Despite losing Wieters to season-ending elbow surgery after he played only 26 games, the Orioles sit at the All-Star Break with the best hitting catchers out of all of their division opponents.

The table below is the total offensive output for each team heading into Sunday's games. This is whoever is catching that day, and would not include the production (or lack thereof) for a particular game by a player who is primarily a catcher but is the designated hitter on a given day.

AL EAST CATCHERS - HITTING

Team AVG OBP SLG OPS AL OPS Rank 2B HR RBI
Orioles .252 .299 .407 .706 8th 19 10 46
Yankees .246 .297 .379 .675 9th 15 10 46
Red Sox .232 .273 .357 .629 12th 17 8 39
Blue Jays .242 .287 .317 .604 13th 11 5 37
Rays .202 .273 .266 .539 15th 8 4 32

No team in the division has an above-average performance at bat from their catchers. The AL is led by the tandem of Derek Norris and John Jaso in Oakland, who have combined for an .834 OPS. For the O's and the Yankees, it is a situation that is meh at best. For the rest, despite free agent acquisitions in the offseason, it's a completely terrible offensive contribution at this position.

Tampa Bay Rays

Catchers: Ryan Hanigan (434.2 innings caught), Jose Molina (404)

Hanigan is batting  .212/.309/.327 on the season and he's the better hitter of the pair of Rays catchers. They have gotten similar amount of playing time despite Molina sporting a slugging percentage that is below the Mendoza line. Molina is slugging .199. That's absurdly bad.

Molina brings the reputation of a pitch framing wizard, which you'll see in action a few times a game when he catches, literally stealing strikes. He is less than adequate about throwing out runners once they reach, catching only 7 of 34 runners. That's a 21% rate. The league average is 28%.

Hanigan is more in line with league average in caught stealing, throwing out 7 of 26 runners, which is good for a 27% rate. However, this is poor by Hanigan's recent history, as he threw out nearly 50% of runners the past two seasons. That was probably a big part of why the Rays signed him to a modest deal for three years, and he's not living up to that end of the bargain yet.

Toronto Blue Jays

Catchers: Dioner Navarro (473.2 innings caught), Josh Thole (207.2), Erik Kratz (158)

Navarro has gotten the bulk of the playing time after signing a two year, $8 million contract in the offseason with the expectation that he'd be the starting catcher for the Jays. He has a .659 OPS and has thrown out only 9 of 46 baserunners - a rate of only 20%.

Thole is primarly the R.A. Dickey catcher, so his value is solely that he can approximate the ability to catch the knuckleball regularly. He has a .632 OPS and has thrown out only two of 15 base stealers.

Kratz is hitting to the tune of a .585 OPS, but he's thrown out five of 17 base stealers. For the Jays, much like the Rays, the catching position is largely a black hole.

Boston Red Sox

Catchers: A.J. Pierzynski (540 innings caught), David Ross (296), Christian Vazquez (future Hall of Famer, according to the Boston prospect hype machine)

Pierzynski has been so bad that the Red Sox already designated him for assignment even though they signed him to an $8.25 million contract for the season. As has become a Boston custom, the front office stuck the shiv in his back on his way out of town via leaks to the Boston media. He was pretty bad, with a .633 OPS while throwing out only nine of 47 runners, but nobody cares that he sat in the clubhouse after games with his phone out instead of paying attention to teammates.

Ross is basically the platonic ideal of a backup catcher, poor-hitting (.600 OPS) but decent defensively, throwing out seven of 27 base stealers. That's a 26% rate, just about league average. He's also the platonic ideal of a Red Sox whiner with the way he will occasionally pop off about other teams and PED players while ignoring the fact that David Ortiz is on his team.

Vazquez is destined for greatness, like Ryan Lavarnway before him.

New York Yankees

Catchers: Brian McCann (582 innings caught), J.R. Murphy (159.2), Francisco Cervelli (100)

McCann was signed to a five year, $85 million contract to bring his left-handed power bat to the lefty hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium. He's been a disappointment in that regard so far, with only a .669 OPS, although he does have double digit home runs. One surprise is that McCann has thrown out 21 of 48 basestealers, a 44% rate. His career best was 30% in a year where he threw out 36 of 120 runners. People are not afraid to run on McCann.

Murphy was pressed into service while Cervelli missed time due to a hamstring injury. He is back in the minors now and doesn't figure to be back up before rosters expand, barring another injury. Murphy hit for a .673 OPS in his big league action and threw out two of ten runners.

Cervelli, when not injured, has batted .697 this year, about what you'd expect from a career backup. In his 100 innings, he's been tested twelve times and thrown out four runners.

Baltimore Orioles

Catchers: Caleb Joseph (302.1 innings caught), Matt Wieters (194.2), Nick Hundley (176.1), Steve Clevenger (170)

One of the unfortunate things about this season for the Orioles is that Wieters was finally living up to the offensive production we hoped for from his prospect days. Before going down with a torn UCL, Wieters had an .839 OPS. It was clear something was wrong with his throwing arm, though, as he only threw out one of twelve runners -  he usually does 35% or better.

Joseph, who was in his seventh minor league season in part because he did not have a good defensive reputation, has been the surprise find in Wieters' absence. While he's only batting .189/.258/.311, he is performing far better than you ever could have hoped defensively, including throwing out 15 of 29 runners. That's over 50%! The league is testing the 28-year-old rookie and it isn't going well for them.

Hundley, acquired from the Padres once it became apparent that Wieters would not be returning, has a .666 OPS in Baltimore and has only thrown out two of 14 baserunners. He displaced the lefty Clevenger, who has a .670 OPS and only threw out three of 20 runners. The Orioles quickly realized their best remaining catcher was, improbably, Joseph, and they've used him the most ever since.

***

From bottom to top, here's how the division's catchers stack up collectively according to Fangraphs WAR:

Rays: -0.3
Jays: 0.2
Red Sox: 0.4
Orioles: 0.9
Yankees: 1.3

The Yankees are 17th in MLB in WAR for their catchers. Everyone else is worse. The Rays have the worst catchers in baseball by this metric. That seems fair. If McCann was throwing out runners as poorly as he usually does, he would be farther down. If he keeps that up, he gives Yankees catchers an edge over the likes of Joseph.

It's dire out there for everybody, but if you'd told me at the beginning of the season that the Orioles would only have Wieters for a month, I would have expected far worse out of their catchers. Joseph has no hope of replacing Wieters' bat, but if he keeps throwing out runners, the O's will keep not missing Wieters far more than I thought possible.

Despite missing their best catcher, the Orioles have close to the best catching situation in the division out of all of their AL East rivals.

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