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Setting (Low) Standards for the Catcher Position

The Cardinals will have a new starter at catcher for the first time in a long time. What should we expect from the position?

Wild Card Series - Philadelphia Phillies v St. Louis Cardinals - Game Two Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Cardinals are going to have a new starting catcher this season.

That’s a sentence that we haven’t had to say ‘round these parts for quite a long time. And it’s a sentence that we haven’t had to say ‘round these parts very often at all.

The Cardinals have a storied history at the catching position. They have a Hall of Famer in Ted Simmons, a Hall of Very Good-er in Tim McCarver, and arguably the greatest defensive catcher of all time in Yadier Molina.

(Arguably, Johnny Bench fans. Not definitively. I’m not ready to make that claim myself but we started to hear it stated more frequently this year as Molina was on his farewell tour. So, it gets a mention in this article on catching just to derail the whole conversation.)

Those three stalwarts have covered home for the Cards for nearly a half-century. 44 years of catching excellence from just three players. That’s pretty amazing stuff.

It’s also the stuff of the past.

With Molina’s retirement, the Cardinals are facing uncertainty at the catcher position for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Yes, they have two internal candidates for the position. Andrew Knizner has been barely serviceable as a backup catcher for the club. His defense has been shaky. His framing has been terrible. His offense hasn’t been enough to overcome his shortcoming with the glove.

Ivan Herrera was (is?) oft-mentioned by those in the know with the front office as Molina’s heir apparent. He is still a highly regarded young prospect, with a reputation for good defense and a developing bat. However, he’ll enter the ’23 season still at age 22 with just 22 MLB plate appearances to his name. When the club needed a third catcher during this past season, Marmol and Mozeliak turned to journeyman Austine Romine ahead of their self-proclaimed future. Maybe that’s just giving a prospect time to develop. Maybe it’s a sign that the heir-apparent isn’t yet ready to step in for a Hall of Famer.

That’s not to say that either of those two players (ok, only Herrera has any chance) can’t work their way into the conversation as another McCarver, Simmons, and Molina. But it does seem likely that the Cardinals will have to settle for “making due” for a while at a position where they are used to setting the standard.

As fans, we’ve gotten to watch this greatness play out. We’ve celebrated it. We’ve romanticized it. We’re left now reminiscing about it.

It’s a good time to recalibrate the club’s standards for major league catchers.

My approach for this piece is two-fold. First, I want to look at the “other” catchers that the Cardinals have employed when they didn’t have a Hall of Famer on the field. We’ll look at Cardinals catchers from 1981 – the year Simmons left – through 2005 – Molina’s first as a full-time starter. Doing that will give us a familiar context of how good (bad) your average, run-of-the-mill, non-Cardinal legend catcher is using names we’re at least familiar with.

Then, I want to look at the catching landscape throughout baseball; just a glance at the 2022 catcher leaderboard. That should let us see the kind of production other teams are getting from the catcher spot right now.

Combined that will help us more accurately attune our expectations for the catcher position when the club isn’t throwing a legendary player out there and our likelihood of improving on the production we’ve seen at the spot recently.

Ok, let’s jump right into the pain. This chart provides offensive stats for Cardinals catchers who had 350 or more plate appearances from 1981-2003. Limiting it to 350 PAs should keep most of the backups out of the picture, while still giving space for players who might have been on the high side of a position timeshare.

I then sorted the data by wRC+. Why wRC+? By necessity, this exercise has to stick mostly with offense. Catching defense is still a tough thing to measure and evaluate right now. It’s nearly impossible to get accurate defensive data from bygone eras. So, while fWAR is included in this chart for you to look at, I’m largely going to ignore it.

That’s the method. Now the (pretty depressing) results.

In 18 seasons of results, the Cardinals have had one “good” offensive catcher. Darrell Porter had a 120 wRC+ in 1983 and a 111 in 1982. 100 is average. Porter was with the club in ’81 behind Simmons after coming over from the Royals. The next season, with Simmons exiting, Porter took over the job and performed very well through 1985. He had a 110 wRC+ which translates to just a .237/.347/.402 slash line during that era.

After Porter, we get two guys who weren’t really consistent starting catchers. Todd Zeile had a 102 wRC+ in 1990 but only started 98 games behind the plate. He ended up having just 121 starts at the position in his entire career. He probably doesn’t belong here, except to further demonstrate just how difficult it is to get any offense from a catcher, even if they can’t catch.

Then there’s the enigmatic Eli Marrero, who never started more than 77 games at the position in his career. The 2002 season listed here was one of his best offensive seasons with a .262/.327/.451 slash line and an even 100 wRC+. But that season he only started 15 games behind the plate that year, so I don’t see how we can count that in the sample.

So, one good hitter. Two hitters who owned catcher’s mitts but rarely used them. From there down, the list ranges from well below average to well below puke point.

Tom Pagnozzi had a quality defensive reputation and caught 748 games for the Cardinals in the 80s and 90s. His high during that period was a 91 wRC+. In seasons where he received 350 or more PAs, his career low was 75. He was well below that a time or two in partial seasons. Add it up and Pagnozzi provided a miserable 77 wRC+ as a Cardinal.

Tony Pena had some very good seasons with the Pirates. He then produced a 90 wRC+ in ’88 with the Cards. Like Pagnozzi, though, the sum of his StL catching career was pretty bleak. He had a 76 wRC+ in StL in 1435 PAs.

At least those players peaked at around 90. Mike LaValliere had a 76 in ’86. Mike Matheny had a whole bunch in the 60s. (He was a “leader of men”, though, and I’m sure that counts as a 20-30% bump in offense, right?) Matheny was a very good defender. As was Pagnozzi and Pena.

What’s the takeaway here? We can dream of the above-average Darrel Porter. But the Cards spent a long time stuck with defensive-oriented catchers who were worse hitters than your typical backup middle infielder.

Maybe times have changed! After all, those Pre-Yadier Molina catcher stats were from a different game at a different time. Let’s play the same game but instead of using Cardinals’ catchers from an entire era, let’s use catchers league-wide from this past season.

This list is significantly more interesting. While the Cardinals can claim just one actual catcher from the Simmons-to-Molina era who was average or above at the plate, the league produced 14 such players (if we are willing to count a 99 wRC+ as average). 11 players had a 108 wRC+ or higher. 9 tied or beat Porter’s team-high 120 wRC+ last season alone.

Below that it’s not exactly the seething pool of offensive ineptitude that the Cardinals fielded for a large number of games over two decades. 4 more players (18 total) had an 89 wRC+ or higher. That’s not particularly good, but it’s also not take-a-foul-tip-in-the-pain-parts terrible. Just 6 catchers who had more than 350 plate appearances produced a 75 wRC+ or below last season.

Notice that there are no Cardinals on this list. Last season, Andrew Knizner and Yadier Molina split duties. Neither player earned even 300 PAs on the season. Knizner had 293 PAs with a 79 wRC+. Believe it or not – and I know you believe it – that’s the best offensive season of his career.

Molina had 270 PAs and produced a 51 wRC+ – among the worst numbers we have seen on either of these charts.

So, while Cardinals fans might be accustomed to a high level of standard from the catcher position, we haven’t exactly seen a catcher meet that standard offensively for quite a while.

Over the last 5 seasons, Cardinals’ catchers have produced a high of an 86 wRC+ in 2019 and a low of a 65 wRC+ this past season. Now, that’s not a direct comparison to the charts above. This data includes all catchers for the Cardinals, including the backup types that we were intentionally trying to remove from the original data set.

Still, it’s been quite a while since the Cards had offensive production that would even sit in the top half of the league this past season.

Let’s start putting it together.

Historically, the Cardinals have received pretty poor production from the catcher spot when it wasn’t filled with one of their three historic figures plus Darrell Porter. That includes some relatively long-time defense-first starters at the position in Tom Pagnozzi and Mike Matheny.

However, around the league, offensive production from the catcher position isn’t that bad. There is a significant number of players who produced better-than-painful levels at the plate for their teams.

While the free agent market is not exactly filled with talent at the position, there are some players available for money only who should fit that low standard. It’s safe to assume that several more similarly productive players should be gettable through trade.

So, while the Cardinals do have to replace an irreplaceable legend, they haven’t actually received legendary production at the position in quite a while. An upgrade at the position – offensively and defensively – is not only possible but very likely.

We just have to be realistic about what that upgrade is.

Are the Cardinals going to get a middle-of-the-order bat who can provide Gold Glove-caliber defense at the catcher position? Will they be able to find their next legendary catcher? Almost certainly not. Sean Murphy might maybe qualify as that kind of player if we squint a lot, and while he might maybe be available, he will definitely certainly cost the Cardinals a whole host of prospects.

On the other side of the list is probably someone like Christian Vazquez. He ranked 12th in the league in catcher wRC+ (350 PAs or higher) with a perfectly average 99. He has a solid glove. In seasons where he has received 345 PAs or higher (prorate that for 2020), he has a wRC+ high of 114 and a low of 76. He has averaged an 88 wRC+ since 2017, his first season as a full-time starter. Vazquez is looking to re-establish himself as a starter and would be a very easy free agent signing for the Cardinals.

Is Vazquez exciting? Nope. Would he be a team legend? Nope. Would he help solidify the position for the Cardinals temporarily? Moreso than Knizner. The Cards could hope that Herrera challenges him while not having to rely on him. It would be a perfectly acceptable situation. For a year or two.

Regardless, it’s time to recalibrate our expectations for the catcher position. We likely won’t see the excellence that we prefer at the position. But we likely will be able to get an upgrade over what we’ve actually seen at the position in recent seasons.