Catcher of the day: More backstops set to bust out
Excuse Bengie Molina for being slightly biased. After all, we're talking about his little brother on one hand and a player he mentored into a rapid rise to stardom in the Major Leagues only a few years ago on the other.
But that doesn't mean Molina is wrong.
When he talks about Yadier Molina and Buster Posey as the very elite among current catchers in the Majors, he has a strong case. He's talking about two players who really stand -- and squat -- in a class by themselves.
"They're the best, so it's not really fair for the other guys to be compared to them," said Molina, a catcher's catcher for more than a decade in the Majors and now assistant hitting coach for the Cardinals.
As the 2013 season begins, most anyone would agree that the two backstops who met in the National League Championship Series last October remain the best of the best when it comes to the players wearing the so-called tools of ignorance.
But a broader look than Molina's reveals that there are quite a few younger catchers who are rising to their potential, a number of veterans who remain key two-way players in the Majors, and a couple of surprises behind the mask for 2013.
Really, guys all over the Majors are putting on the tools of ignorance and putting on a show, on both sides of the ball.
"To me, it's the best crop of catchers in I don't know how many years," said Giants manager Bruce Bochy, a former catcher himself. "If you look around baseball and see all the great catching in the game today, it's changed a little bit. There are better athletes now, there are better offensive talents, and it's fun to see the gifts and talents of guys like Posey and Molina play."
Among those looking to elevate their games to the top level in 2013, there's the American League Central duo of the Indians' Carlos Santana and the Royals' Salvador Perez, both showing signs of great things to come after injuries sidetracked the starts to their Major League careers. Matt Wieters of the Orioles showed he could handle all aspects of the job in 2012, helping lead his team to the postseason.
In the veteran category, there's Joe Mauer of the Twins -- remember, he won the AL MVP Award just four years ago, and he has made strides back in the direction toward his 2009 form at least. Veteran backstops A.J. Pierzynski and John Buck found new homes this winter, Pierzynski heading to the Rangers as a free agent and Buck landing with the Mets after two trades. And both of them are showing that they are still able to serve their clubs well on both sides of the ball. Arizona's Miguel Montero and Milwaukee's Jonathan Lucroy, too, have established themselves as core players for their teams. And, yes, there are veteran catchers who aren't off to the greatest of starts in 2013, like the Pirates' Russell Martin (3-for-35 start) and the Reds' Ryan Hanigan (2-for-32), but both have track records and the fact that they're leaders of the pitching staff to support them.
As for the you-never-know category, how about Evan Gattis, the former janitor who's batting cleanup and playing catcher for the Braves? With six-time All-Star Brian McCann out until May, Gattis is showing that he could be here to stay, contributing both behind the plate and beside it.
"He's not an offensive guy who just cares about hitting," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He calls a good game and takes care of the pitchers."
There are other guys under the radar, such as Oakland's combo of John Jaso and Derek Norris and Seattle's 23-year-old Jesus Montero, and even more young talent on the rise, such as Colorado's hot-hitting Wilin Rosario.
Catchers are even enjoying a heyday in the dugout. There are currently 11 managers who played catcher professionally, nine of them in the Majors. Having experienced the game from the position's unique perspective, be it from behind home plate as an All-Star or mostly from the bench as a backup, catchers in recent years especially have been considered naturals to be the brains of the on-field operation.
One of those catchers-turned-managers is Mike Matheny of the Cardinals, and he agrees with Bochy that there's a "good crop" of catchers in the game today.
"If you go team to team, guys are stepping up and taking advantage of the great position that it is, and using both sides on offense and defense," Matheny said. "There's some good examples around both leagues."
But none better than in San Francisco and St. Louis, where the top dogs are plying their trade. Posey and Molina certainly have the tools to work a game behind the plate. Add in leadership and offensive abilities, and the two backstops are hard to match. Posey became the first catcher in 40 years to win the NL MVP Award, and Molina earned strong consideration as well after a career year offensively and a fifth consecutive NL Gold Glove Award.
"As a catcher who evaluates catchers even when I don't want to, you can't help but on a daily basis appreciate what Yadi Molina brings to the table. It's hard to quantify," Matheny said. "But I also know that Buster does so many things beyond the statistics for the Giants' club as well, which is really the heart and soul of the catching position's all about. It's the influence and impact you make when your time comes up to shine, but also all the peripheral things that happen inside the clubhouse and on the field, and both of these guys are great examples of that."
They really do it all, that's true. But when it comes down to it, a catcher needs to put down fingers and make good things happen for a pitching staff, and that's what Bengie Molina -- who ushered in Posey's debut in 2010 as a member of the Giants -- really likes about his kid brother and his former prodigy.
"For me, I loved to call the game, and these two kids are probably the best in the game," Bengie Molina said. "The more you watch them, the more impressed you are."