Going to WAR with the league’s catchers

After the approximately 8 million stolen bases thieved by Boston during last night’s ninth inning, it’s rather appropriate that in today’s post we’re landing on the catcher position.

Determining a catcher’s value can be a tricky business. Therefore, for the purpose of getting a better overall perspective, I’ve increased the number of players in the analysis from the top 10 to top 15. More than anything, I think the added players will better exemplify just how challenging it is to find a consistently well-rounded catcher and just how lucky the Yankees have been all these years.

Earlier this month, I wrote a piece pertaining to Posada’s increasingly exposed defense. Basically, the key point of the post was that Posada’s value was in his bat. Every other facet of his game was essentially serviceable (generously speaking). As it turns out, the WAR matrix reflects a similar story.

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There’s no doubt that Posada still has pop in his bat. However, he’s nearly reached that pivotal point in his career where his defensive blunders outweigh his offensive contributions. Last night’s baserunning shenanigans put an excalamation point on Jorge’s defensive shortcomings, and were as much to blame as Mariano Rivera’s struggles during the critical ninth.

Last year, Jorge Posada’s dWAR was a modest -0.3 (which isn’t awful considering replacement-level players are usually utilized for their superior defense). Unfortunately during the 2010 season, he dropped even further to -0.9. It is disconcerting to think that essentially any opponent with any degree of baserunning ability will exploit his arm.

Perhaps more intriguing is a player like Yadier Molina who is renowned for his defense and offers substantially less offensively than Jorge. Overall though, his value is still higher than the 2009 iteration of Posada. In 2010, Molina’s been substantially more valuable in terms of WAR. I’m not ready yet to claim that a defense-oriented catcher is better than an offensive one. However, I’d be okay if there wasn’t quite the degree of separation in skill set. I’d be willing to sacrifice some offense for a bit more defense if that were a possible arrangement — similar to a guy like Mike Napoli. Basically if you can’t get a stud like Joe Mauer, I think there’s something to be said for the well-rounded guy instead of an all-offense, no-defense backstop.

Offensively, Joe Mauer of course continues to reign supreme. This year he’s acquired a 5.1 oWAR which is almost a full point ahead of the second-most offensively productive catcher (Brian McCann with a 4.3 oWAR) and nearly two points ahead of everyone else. Victor Martinez is potent with the bat (3.6 oWAR) but his days are probably numbered as a catcher. Don’t be at all surprised to see his defense deteriorate to the same level of Posada’s very quickly. Honestly, he’s nearly there already despite being six years younger. As for Posada himself, he’s earned a 2.7 oWAR which I’m completely satisfied with. For a guy who is well past the typical age (average age of other catchers in the list is 28) of a useful catcher, that’s not bad at all.

In terms of salary, Posada is definitely getting paid handsomely although not completely absurdly (in large part because he’s been relatively uninjured over the duration of his current contract). Per Fangraphs, Jorge’s season has been worth $11.2M, which is only a few million off of his actual salary.

Also, in case you were wondering, Francisco Cervelli was listed at a 0 WAR (0.8 oWAR, -0.8 dWAR). His oWAR was certainly inflated by a hot April. Offensive woes aside, his defense essentially rates nearly the same as Posada’s, which is pretty much terrible considering Cervelli’s role on the team. Hip, hip… anyone?