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These teams stink at finding catchers, and these teams are great

Which category does your team fall into?

Minnesota Twins v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

You’re reading this right now because of how awful the Seattle Mariners have been when it comes to finding a catcher. There’s no way around that, so I’ll dive right in. They were so bad, they inspired me to create a series that goes position-by-position to look at which teams develop which positions the best. And worst.

For example, the Mariners have been one of the worst at developing catchers

Over the last 20 seasons, 76 different Mariners catchers have combined to accumulate 14.5 WAR. That’s .7 WAR per season, which isn’t much different from a replacement-level player. Those 76 catchers have averaged 0.2 WAR each.

For 20 years, the Mariners, on average, have been employing the equivalent of a catcher they found on the waiver wire the night before. Here, the top 10 seasons from a Mariners catcher since 1997:

  1. Dan Wilson (3.8 WAR, 1997)
  2. Kenji Johjima (2.6, 2006)
  3. Dan Wilson (2.1, 2001)
  4. Mike Zunino (1.8, 2016)
  5. Kenji Johjima (1.6, 2007)
  6. Dan Wilson (1.6, 2002)
  7. Tom Lampkin (1.6, 1999)
  8. Ben Davis (1.2, 2002)
  9. Joe Oliver (1.0, 2000)
  10. Tom Lampkin (0.9, 1999)

When Tom Lampkin shows up twice on your “best of the last two decades” list, the list had better be “catchers who used Alice in Chains’ ‘Rooster’ as their walk-up music.” Not only that, but the eagle-eyed observers among you might have noticed that just one of those seasons happened in the past decade. The second-best season from a Mariners catcher since 2010 came from Jesus Sucre, who was worth 0.5 WAR last season.

Sucre had 25 at-bats last season.

Of the 76 catchers the Mariners have used in the last two decades, 40 of them have been exactly at replacement level or worse.

Look, I can keep going — I could point out how they had Welington Castillo for six games, and how he went on to accumulate more WAR with his new team than any Mariners catcher from the last 10 years, or I could regret to inform you that Mike Zunino is bad again — but it seems like overkill. And it’s not the point of this article.

The point of this article is to look at each major league team and evaluate how they’ve done at finding catchers over the last 20 years. Are the Mariners especially cursed, or is this something that other teams have gone through? Which teams have fared the best?

The Mariners have not fared the best.

Sorry, I’ll move on.

Methodology

We’re exploring the last 20 seasons, from 1997 through 2016, looking for teams that were good at finding solid contributors, teams that found the occasional All-Star, and teams that found those rarest of griffons, the MVP candidates.

WAR is kind of trash for evaluating catchers, but it’s also the best way to run a search like this. I’m torn, but, more importantly, lazy. So WAR it is.

Baseball-Reference uses some simple benchmarks for different WAR totals.

2+ starter
5+ All-Star
8+ MVP

There were only two catchers with eight WAR or more over the last 20 years (Joe Mauer in 2009 and Mike Piazza in 1997), so I tweaked the parameters just a little, moving the top tier down to seven wins are more.

When it comes to WAR, decimal points are annoying and deceptive, so I round up. A catcher with 1.6 WAR is considered a two-win catcher. This is now Mike Zunino squeaked on the Mariners’ list last year. Otherwise, they would have looked even worse, if you can imagine. It really is hard to imagine the Mariners looking worse when it comes to catchers, but ANYWAY, here we go.

The best team at finding catchers

This title is going to be rigged throughout the series, favoring the teams that lucked into Hall of Fame candidates, who tend to hang around for a decade, adding value the whole time. This is no exception, as the Texas Rangers rode Pudge Rodriguez a long way, and they loved almost every second of it.

It wasn’t just Rodriguez, though. The Rangers also wrung productive seasons out of Robinson Chirinos and Gerald Laird. Rod Barajas had a .466 slugging percentage in 2005, and Geovany Soto had a .466 slugging percentage eight years later. They have the raw numbers (a two-win catcher or better in 14 of the 20 seasons), and they have the Hall of Famer (Barajas).

If there’s a caveat, it’s that the Rangers used my decision to round the WAR up in bulk. Technically, eight of the catchers finished under 2 WAR, at least if you believe in the decimal points. Which you shouldn’t. If you need a runner-up without the caveats, the Braves have you covered. Their two decades included Javy Lopez, Brian McCann, and Evan Gattis, who was unrealistically written into the script of baseball by producers who wanted to goose the ratings.

Only Lopez came close to MVP caliber in 2003, but more often than not, the Braves found a catcher who helped them win more than the other team. That’s a nifty trick.

The most reliable team at finding catchers

When I came up with this idea, my baseball-writer pea-brain kept chirping, “I hope there are surprises to be found!” Well, guess what, brain, here are the Oakland A’s, who are the best in baseball at making catchers from household supplies and scraps from the lumberyard. In the last two decades, they’ve received substantial contributions from ...

  • Brent Mayne
  • Derek Norris
  • George Williams?
  • Jason Kendall
  • Kurt Suzuki
  • Ramon Hernandez
  • Stephen Vogt

Not a one of them had an OPS over 800. More than half of them didn’t crack double digits in homers. Heck, in one of the seasons, Kendall hit .226/.261/.281, which probably didn’t feel like a two-win season.

But the numbers don’t lie, at least not directly, and the A’s have picked up 17 different 2-win catchers over the last two decades, with just five seasons without one.

The worst team at finding catchers

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Mariners catcher.

Mariners catcher who?

Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?

That makes no sense.

I told you I was a Mariners catcher, didn’t I?

© Grant Brisbee, 2017
for use only with written permission

Except, the worst team at finding catchers is actually not the Mariners! They inspired the series, but it’s the Rays who have had the worst struggles finding a halfway-decent backstop, with just five two-win catchers over the last 20 years.

Now, they were an expansion team, so they had a harder slog at the beginning, but that doesn’t explain everything. The Rays’ last starter-level catcher according to Baseball-Reference was John Jaso in 2010. Their top-10 list is even sadder than the Mariners’:

  1. Toby Hall (2.8 WAR, 2005)
  2. John Jaso (2.6, 2010)
  3. Dioner Navarro (2.0, 2008)
  4. John Flaherty (1.7, 1999)
  5. Toby Hall (1.6, 2003)
  6. Jose Lobaton (1.4, 2013)
  7. Mike Difelice (1.4, 1999)
  8. Ryan Hanigan (1.2, 2014)
  9. Curt Casali (1.0, 2015)
  10. Toby Hall (1.0, 2001)

Toby Hall: Greatest catcher in Rays history, and it’s not that close.

In the last three seasons, the Rays have used 13 different catchers, and they’ve combined for -1 WAR, which seems hard to do. They’ve tried to jump on the pitch-framing bandwagon, with Jose Molina and Rene Rivera, so it’s possible that these numbers are obscuring the true value of the catchers acquired.

Remember, WAR is lousy for catchers, so take these numbers with a grain of salt. But on the surface, it’s not like that list up there is leaving out All-Stars. And, of course, this article wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t take that grain of salt and stick it right in the wound.

In 2008, that’s where the Rays played, and that’s where the best college catcher in the country played. They had the first-overall pick, and they could have had anyone. They did not pick the best college catcher in the country. Rays fans might not have heard about this, but it’s true.

Here’s the full list. Find your team! Click the link! See the list! Marvel at the names you’ve already forgotten, and appreciate them retroactively!

Catchers, 1997-2016

Team Number of 2-5 WAR catchers Number of 5-7 WAR Number of 7+ WAR Most recent Link
Team Number of 2-5 WAR catchers Number of 5-7 WAR Number of 7+ WAR Most recent Link
Angels 8 0 0 Chris Iannetta, 2014 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/ENKFZ
Astros 4 1 0 Jason Castro, 2014 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/KwCff
Athletics 17 0 0 Stephen Vogt, 2016 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/ZuRN3
Blue Jays 15 0 0 Russell Martin, 2015 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/76jxa
Braves 15 1 1 A.J. Pierzynski, 2015 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/vVdKL
Brewers 6 0 1 Jonathan Lucroy, 2016 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/C0si9
Cardinals 7 1 1 Yadier Molina, 2016 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/RFkAJ
Cubs 12 1 0 Willson Contreras, 2016 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/qBCvG
Diamondbacks 9 0 0 Welington Castillo, 2016 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/3lusu
Dodgers 14 2 1 Yasmani Grandal, 2016 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/H01oU
Giants 7 3 1 Buster Posey, 2016 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/6GuFV
Indians 9 1 0 Yan Gomes, 2014 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/5eodH
Mariners 7 0 0 Mike Zunino, 2016 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/nqSVs
Marlins 7 0 0 J.T. Realmuto, 2016 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/ytkpX
Mets 7 2 0 Travis d'Arnaud, 2016 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/YHyn1
Nationals 4 0 0 Wilson Ramos, 2016 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/SmjXr
Orioles 11 2 0 Matt Wieters, 2016 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/0GOot
Padres 9 0 0 Derek Norris, 2015 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/kY90U
Phillies 12 1 0 Carlos Ruiz, 2016 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/zAUDu
Pirates 11 3 0 Francisco Cervelli, 2016 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/WMerN
Rangers 10 4 1 Jonathan Lucroy, 2016 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/1hRGr
Rays 5 0 0 John Jaso, 2010 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/IREKg
Red Sox 12 0 0 Sandy Leon, 2016 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/o4Ph6
Reds 8 1 0 Devin Mesoraco, 2014 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/U3SRp
Rockies 10 0 0 Nick Hundley, 2015 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/HhyKF
Royals 6 0 0 Salvador Perez, 2016 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/NXGoI
Tigers 8 2 0 Alex Avila, 2014 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/6xciV
Twins 5 4 1 Kurt Suzuki, 2014 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/1pc0M
White Sox 7 0 0 Tyler Flowers, 2014 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/pUiwF
Yankees 12 2 0 Brian McCann, 2015 http://www.baseball-reference.com/tiny/hLKlG