Will Leitch took an in-depth look at the game in 2019 with a series exploring Major League Baseball's Data Decade. From the best World Series, to the best starting pitchers and more, Leitch ranked, dissected and celebrated all the things we loved most about the Great American Pastime during the past 10 years.
For all the talk of how much data and analysis have changed the game of baseball over these 10 years, there is no position as stubbornly resistant to being broken down statistically than catcher. The catcher is the field general, the one person who can see every bit of the action playing out in front of him, arguably the most important player on every individual pitch. But the position’s effect is so difficult to quantify.
We have tried, in many ways, to varying degrees of success. Lately, the trend is to put a lot of value on framing pitches, but even that’s strange; as baseball writer Joe Sheehan has pointed out, it feels weird to reward a player for, essentially, tricking an umpire.
More than any other position, you sort of have to just trust what players and managers tell you about catchers, either through their words or their playing time. Tony La Russa once said that Yadier Molina could go 0-for-30 and still help his team win games every day -- even be the most important player on the field. That’s the elusive value of a catcher.
Here's a look at the 10 best catchers of this decade. Because catching is such a physically demanding position, many players split times at other positions. For the sake of clarity, we looked at players who caught at least 50 percent of their games over the decade, according to Baseball-Reference’s Play Index. It’s a tough position: Merely playing a whole decade, or close to it, is its own massive achievement. But here are the best of the 2010s.
1. Buster Posey (Giants 2010-19)
There is a very good case for Molina, but Posey:
• Leads all catchers this decade in WAR by nearly a full 11 wins
• Is the only catcher to put up a .300 batting average for the decade, and has the best on-base percentage and is second in slugging (behind Gary Sanchez)
• Has won a National League MVP Award and NL Rookie of the Year Award, and has received NL MVP Award votes six times
• Has, oh yeah, won three World Series this decade
2. Yadier Molina (Cardinals 2010-19)
It is no fun having to choose between Molina and Posey, both likely and deserving Hall of Famers. The case for Yadi: He has caught far more games than Posey (or anybody else), he won seven Gold Gloves this decade, he’s a fiery clubhouse leader, his bat has improved dramatically as the years have gone along and he’s the most important player on a team that makes the playoffs nearly every season (until recently, anyway). Oh, and in a nice touch, Molina, of all people, actually has more stolen bases than any other catcher this decade. In any other decade, against any other catcher, he’d have to be the pick. Maybe he still should be. It’s impossible to pick between these two.
It’s so, so close. Neither choice is wrong. But Posey is ours, for the best catcher of the decade.
3. Russell Martin (LAD 2010, NYY 2011-12, PIT 2013-14, TOR 2015-18, LAD 2019)
Wherever you look at the postseason, there is Martin, with the Dodgers three times, and the Yankees, Pirates and Blue Jays twice. (From 2006-16, Martin’s teams only missed the postseason twice.) He’s always at the center of those teams, the guy who has been there before and can get you there again. It’s also amusing that he’s always wanting to play shortstop for Canada in the World Baseball Classic. He also has a better Hall of Fame case than anyone realizes.
4. Jonathan Lucroy (MIL 2010-16, TEX 2016-17, COL 2017, OAK 2018, LAA 2019)
After the 2014 season, Lucroy didn’t just look like one of the best catchers in baseball, he looked like a perennial MVP Award candidate. That was a monster year: He slashed .301/.373/.465, leading the Majors in doubles (and breaking a record for catchers) and winning a Fielding Bible Award. After Lucroy invoked his no-trade clause to stop a trade to the Indians in 2016, though, he fell off, both offensively and defensively, and somehow became a worse framer. His decline continued in '19, but the first half was so fantastic that he still rates this high.
5. Salvador Perez (KC 2011-19)
Perez has always seemed like the spiritual successor to Molina, although there isn’t much succession about it: Yadi has played more games over the last five years than Perez, and Perez is going to miss all of the decade’s final year due to elbow surgery. (And his rookie year wasn’t until 2011.) Perez has hit better for the first few years of his career than Yadi did, and his absence will allow someone else to finally win a Gold Glove: He has won six in a row. His bat has power, but his OBP has always been a problem; he somehow had the worst OBP among Royals regulars in 2018, sort of an amazing fact considering how poor that team’s offense was.
Salvy was the heart and soul of a Royals team that won its first World Series in 30 years, and he’s young enough that he could be the heart and soul of Kansas City's next contending team.
6. Brian McCann (ATL 2010-13, NYY 2014-16, HOU 2017-18, ATL 2019)
McCann’s best years were mostly before this decade began -- he was an All-Star every year from 2006-11 -- but he has certainly held his own in the '10s as well. He leads all catchers this decade in home runs (179), and he is third in RBIs, fifth in hits and runs, and fourth in total games played. McCann’s best numbers were still back in Atlanta, where he returned for one final season before retiring. Not that the sojourn in Houston, where he won his first World Series ring, wasn’t worth it.
7. Carlos Ruiz (PHI 2010-16, LAD 2016, SEA 2017)
Chooch won his one World Series in the previous decade, but he had his best years in this one, including a fantastic 2012 in which he hit .325 with 16 homers and made his lone All-Star Game. (His numbers would have been even better had it not been for a plantar fasciitis injury that cost him more than a month.) Ruiz actually received NL MVP Award votes in three consecutive years, from 2010-12, topping out in 17th place in 2010. He also caught four no-hitters this decade, including Roy Halladay’s perfect game.
8. Matt Wieters (BAL 2010-16, WSH 2017-18, STL 2019)
As the decade began, Wieters was considered one of the best prospects the game had ever seen. (Remember Matt Wieters Facts?) He didn’t turn out to be the slam-dunk Hall of Famer we were all hoping for, but that shouldn’t distract from the fact that he has still had an excellent career. He made four All-Star Games this decade, won two Gold Gloves and hit 67 homers from 2011-13.
Wieters fell off dramatically in the second half of the decade -- his last average offensive season was 2015 -- but he has still provided considerable value defensively. He’ll end the decade backing up Molina, by far the best player to hold down such a job.
9. Wilson Ramos (MIN 2010, WSH 2010-16, TB 2017-18, PHI 2018, NYM 2019)
If Ramos had been able to remain healthy, he very well might be atop this list. Alas, injuries have always been the issue; in this decade he has only played more than 128 games twice, and more than 88 four times. But boy, when he has played, he has hit. Never one for plate discipline, Ramos has power nearly unparalleled among catchers, and he won the Silver Slugger in 2016, putting up a career-best .307/.354/.496 line. When he’s healthy, he’s a vital part of any lineup, and he’s been around so long you forget he is still only 31 years old. We’ll always wonder what might have been, but what we have is still impressive enough. He also caught a Max Scherzer 20-strikeout game, by the way.
10. Francisco Cervelli (NYY 2010-14, PIT 2015-19)
Is Cervelli the most unappreciated catcher of the decade? He spent the first half of the 2010s backing up Jorge Posada, Martin and McCann, though he was suspended for 50 games in '13 as part of the Biogenesis scandal and sustained multiple concussions. The Yankees traded him in November 2014, and his career finally took off. He has been an on-base machine since arriving in Pittsburgh -- he’s behind only Posey in OBP among qualified catchers this decade -- and is widely considered one of the best framers in the sport. Cervelli briefly stopped catching in 2019, but he returned to it and helped the Braves in their playoff run.