MLB Network's "Top 10 Right Now" series ranks Major League Baseball's top players at each position headed into 2018, with two episodes airing each Saturday night through Feb. 10. MLB.com's Mike Petriello participated in the show, and as each position is aired, we'll share his list along with the reasoning behind it. Rankings were compiled with a combination of subjective and analytical data, and no, batting average and RBIs never matter.
Position overview: Catcher currently boasts one of the all-time greats, and a few young stars coming up behind him, but there's a lot of movement after that. As teams become more aware of the increasing demands of the position, are we nearing an era where catchers simply don't make more than 110 starts?
Before we get to my list, here is The Shredder's list -- the official ranking of Top 10 Right Now -- for comparison.
1. Buster Posey
2. Gary Sanchez
3. Willson Contreras
4. Yasmani Grandal
5. J.T. Realmuto
6. Austin Barnes
7. Mike Zunino
8. Yadier Molina
9. Tyler Flowers
10. Robinson Chirinos
1. Buster Posey, Giants
Our stated position about the top of this list is that the future Hall of Famer Posey remains atop it until someone makes it clear it's time for a change, and that hasn't happened yet. Posey's excellent .320/.400/.462 (128 wRC+) line contributed to his sixth straight star-level season, and while he hasn't reached his decline phase yet, he's currently the third-best hitting catcher of all time. He even put himself in better position to hit, dropping his chase rate from 30 percent to 24. Not unrelated, no hitter in baseball, other than Joey Votto, hit from behind in the count as rarely as Posey. He is, as always, the best.
2. Gary Sanchez, Yankees
Despite Posey's all-around greatness, Sanchez is the best hitting full-time catcher in the game. He led in home runs (33), despite missing a full month with a biceps strain, and he led every catcher who had at least 300 plate appearances with a 142 wRC+ mark (.278./345/.531). This isn't in dispute, and neither is his elite throwing arm; his 86.6-mph average on "max-effort" throws was the third-best in the Majors. He's even considered a slightly above-average pitch framer. He was so close to taking out Posey to lead this list.
The one flaw Sanchez has is that his pitch-blocking isn't strong. It's among the weakest of any catcher. But while it's a visible issue, it's not a particularly meaningful one. The spread between an elite framer and a poor one is on the order of 40 runs a season. The spread among great and poor pitch-blockers is only about five or six runs. It's not nothing. It's just not a lot.
3. Willson Contreras, Cubs
Contreras is a lot like Sanchez: Young, powerful at the plate, and with a cannon of a throwing arm. Last year, despite missing a month with a knee injury, he still hit 21 homers, and his .276/.356/.499 (121 wRC+) line was well above average. The difference here is that Contreras is not considered a strong framer, but the gap between Nos. 2 and 3 is smaller than you might think. Contreras is that good.
4. J.T. Realmuto, Marlins
When we said that Realmuto was "baseball's most athletic catcher" over the summer, we meant it. He's not just the fastest catcher in baseball (per Sprint Speed), he's also as fast as non-catchers like Brett Gardner and Michael Trout. He doesn't just have the fastest pop time to third that Statcast™ has ever tracked, he has the fastest two. He can hit a little, too, with 17 homers and a line of .278/.332/.451 (105 wRC+), his second straight above-average season.
5. Tyler Flowers, Braves
6. Austin Barnes, Dodgers
Flowers spent most of his twenties as a weak-hitting, part-time catcher for the White Sox, so it's somewhat stunning to see him ranked this highly. But in his first year with Atlanta in 2016, Flowers showed some offensive upside (.270/.357/.420, 110 wRC+), and then last year, he improved even more, hitting a very strong .281/.378/.445 (120 wRC+). His real skill, however, is behind the plate, where he grades out as the single best pitch-framer in the game. (His departure from Chicago was even potentially a factor in Chris Sale's lower-than-expected 2016 strikeout rate.)
Flowers is 32, and he's never been a full-time player, so there's limited upside here. Given how thin the position is right now, an elite framer with some power makes for a valuable player.
Now, take everything we said about Flowers and assign it to Barnes, except only 28 years old. On a rate basis, Barnes was nearly Flowers's equal in pitch-framing, and also on a rate basis, his .289/.408/.486 (142 wRC+) was actually better than Sanchez. The problem we have here is that we're talking about a limited sample size, as Barnes had only 262 plate appearances, but this list is about projecting forward, not looking back.
Barnes started 15 of the Dodgers' 17 postseason games, and he looks likely to see the field a lot more in 2018. If he keeps up that performance -- and he does have a .388 Minor League OBP -- he's a star.
7. Salvador Perez, Royals
8. Yadier Molina, Cardinals
We go from a pair of new faces to a pair of long-time stars, though there's a significant age difference here.
Perez, who turns 28 in May, has the same story every year. For four straight seasons, he's had an OBP below .300, which limits his offensive value. For six straight years, he's made up for it with double-digit home runs, putting up career bests in 2017 with 27 longballs and a .495 slugging percentage. While his skills handling pitchers and throwing out runners are well-respected, he also rated as one of the five weakest framers in the game. None of this is new. This is who he is every year.
It's a little different for Molina, 36 in July. After a standout 2016 (.307/.360/.427, 114 wRC+), he took a step back in '17 (.273/.312/.439, 94 wRC+), his second below-average batting season in the past three. Like Perez, Molina's value usually gets a boost from the difficult-to-quantify skills he brings as a backstop, but the Cardinals do have Carson Kelly ready right now. This may be the year that Molina shifts into more of a part-time role, rather than a 550-plate-appearance season.
9. Mike Zunino, Mariners
Zunino was rushed to the Majors so quickly in 2013, only a year after he was drafted, and he struggled so badly after, that it's easy to forget that he won't even turn 27 until March and he's still full of talent. Last year started out looking like more of the same, as early-season struggles (.167/.250/.236, 36 wRC+, no home runs) led to a May demotion. He returned later that month and simply crushed the ball, smacking 25 homers in only 355 plate appearances with a huge .270/.349/.571 (146 wRC+) line.
Zunino still strikes out too much; even after returning, he whiffed 37 percent of the time. But that's just who he is, and if he continues to slug the way he did, the Mariners will be thrilled by it.
10. Yasmani Grandal, Dodgers
Last year, Grandal was No. 2 on this list, and it's not like he suddenly forgot how to play. He was still an elite top-five framer in 2017. He still hit 22 homers, a year after hitting 27. So, what's the issue?
For one thing, Grandal's plate discipline, always a strength, just disappeared. He usually walks between 13 and 16 percent of the time, but last year, that was just 8 percent, and that's partially because his chase rate skyrocketed from 25 percent to 34. There's also the matter of opportunity; as we saw in October, Barnes looks like he may be taking a greater share of the work. Grandal is still valuable. There's just more uncertainty here now.
Just missed (in no order):Welington Castillo, White Sox; Robinson Chirinos, Rangers; Chris Iannetta, Rockies; Alex Avila, free agent; Russell Martin, Blue Jays