Who are MLB's best catchers? Experts debate

March 19th, 2022

Every year, MLB Network previews the upcoming season with its “Top 10 Players Right Now” specials, which break down the best at each position. The latest installment, on the Top 10 catchers, aired Friday night. Now, MLB.com is continuing the debate with a panel of experts, who will explain their lists and share their thoughts on the state of the position.

Andrew Simon, moderator/editor: Before we get deep into these lists, I want to start this conversation with a big-picture question. Clearly, this is not a position that currently blows you away with either top-tier talent or depth. Do you all think this is a sign of where the position is headed long-term? Or is this just a cyclical thing, and we’re in a lull that will end?

Mark Feinsand, executive reporter: Like most things, I think it’s cyclical. It feels like catching has become more of a defense-first position now than ever before.

Mike Petriello, lead stats analyst: I think that's a hard question to answer without knowing what the requirements of the position are in the next however many years. If robot umps arrive, then receiving becomes a lot less important, and maybe offense starts to come back to some extent?

Sarah Langs, reporter/producer: I do think it’s cyclical -- it’s such a hard position to be perpetually good in. But I totally agree with Mike that we don’t know exactly what the future of this position holds. Could this end up a more-physically-demanding first base at some point?

Petriello: Catchers in general are just difficult to evaluate because we know there are a lot of things they do (game calling, pitcher management, etc.) that are difficult or impossible to quantify in something like WAR. So if you want to convince me that, say, Yadier Molina is underrated by WAR because of all his unquantifiable skills, I'd completely buy it. Of course, without being able to quantify it, it's difficult to know exactly how much more he brings there than other highly regarded catchers like J.T. Realmuto, Jacob Stallings, Sal Perez, etc.

Feinsand: I feel like big offensive players shy away from catching at a young age because of the toll it takes on their body. That’s why it’s so rare to see catchers who are big-time hitters.

Simon: Bolstering the cyclical argument, to me, is that MLB Pipeline has 12 catchers on its new Top 100 Prospects list for 2022, the most it's ever had, including three of the top 10.

Langs: That’s exciting — and fascinating.

Petriello: We'll see how long they last behind the dish, though. Kyle Schwarber was a catcher. Bryce Harper was a high school catcher.

Langs: I do wonder if changes to the defensive expectations could help more of them last longer at the position.

Feinsand: How many big-time offensive catchers have also been excellent defensively? We can probably count them on one hand. They’re like unicorns. We often describe someone as “a good-hitting catcher.” It’s a different scale than with other positions.

How long did we wonder when Buster Posey would move to first base? Same with Joe Mauer. Seems that’s a question that arises with every major offensive catching prospect.

Simon: That's definitely true, but maybe Adley Rutschman is that guy? There's a reason some have him as the No. 1 overall prospect right now (He's second on MLB Pipeline's list). Sarah, you took the bold step of putting Rutschman at No. 10, even though these are based on 2022 only and there’s no guarantee as to when he will make his Major League debut or stick in the Orioles’ lineup. What was your reasoning there?

Langs: I had a great chat with our wonderful Pipeline folks to get a rough ETA. There were varying estimates, but I figured that even 250-ish plate appearances from Rutschman was better than whoever I was considering for the list. If he’s as advertised — and how he played last year — that is absolutely top-10 catcher material. My thinking was, as long as he plays more than a September callup, it’s worthwhile to consider him here.

Feinsand: I never even considered Rutschman because of the uncertainty regarding his timeline, but I agree with Sarah that when he gets to the Majors, he could be a top-10 catcher pretty quickly.

Simon: Rutschman wasn’t the only guy who ended up on only one of your lists, as there was some variety at the bottom. Mark had Molina at 10, Sarah put Stallings eighth, and Mike went with Tyler Stephenson and Mitch Garver at 8-9. Let’s do a lightning round here and have each of you make a brief case for why your guy(s) deserved a spot here.

Petriello: I am a total Mitch Garver fanboy, probably to my own detriment. But in 2019, he had a 157 OPS+ and absolutely murdered fastballs. In 2021, he had a 137 OPS+ and absolutely murdered fastballs. Put those two seasons together, and he had 44 HR in 602 PA, or roughly a full season. Am I selectively choosing to ignore 2020? You're absolutely right, I am. As should we all. He even improved his framing, though I don't consider him a terribly great backstop there. So long as he can do things like avoid deeply uncomfortable injuries, I'm happy to take a chance on a catcher with that kind of lightning in his bat.

Feinsand: I was considering a number of guys at 10, but I think the unquantifiable skills that Mike mentioned earlier are why I went with Yadi. What he means to that team and the fact that he can still hit a little contributed, though I have to admit that his name certainly played a part in me ranking him No. 10. If you guaranteed me Rutschman would be up by July, I might go with Sarah’s pick.

Langs: Stallings got some worthy shine this year for his defense, which was stellar. With catcher, it’s often one or the other — defense or offense — and if you’re standout in one respect, you get consideration, especially down-list. For me, Stallings’ defense in ’21 was enough to get him that spot. He’ll be the starter for the Marlins this year, and get a chance to work with some very exciting starters.

Petriello: Molina's turning 40 in July. He's an all-time legend, he'll be in the Hall of Fame, etc. I just couldn't put a nearly 40-year-old catcher coming off of three straight down years with the bat in the Top 10. It is a Top 10 of 2022, not of the last 15 years.

Feinsand: Hey, I knew I would take some heat for something on this list. If ranking Yadi No. 10 is the worst of it, I can live with that.

Petriello: No heat, Mark. If I went past 10, I'd have Yadi in the next few. He's still Yadi, anyway.

Langs: We have this conversation yearly with MLB Network's Brian Kenny! All respect to the career he’s put together, and if we were ranking top-10 intangibles for catchers, it’s a different list entirely.

Simon: Mark, let's give you a chance to bring the heat on Mike and Sarah. You had Sal Perez second on your list after his 48-homer, 121-RBI outburst in 2021. The others had him fifth. What are they missing here?

Feinsand: I don’t know if they’re missing anything. Many catchers on this list might be better defensively than Perez, but the opportunity to have that type of offensive weapon in the catching spot is one I wouldn’t pass up. I doubt he’ll replicate his 2021 season, but even if those numbers fall to 30 HR and 90 RBIs, that’s something most teams don’t have in that spot. And he’s not exactly Gary Sánchez behind the plate.

Petriello: No, but the framing numbers hate, hate, hate him. And I don't think framing is everything, because he sure has a lot of that "unquantifiable Yadi shine" to him, but framing sure is a lot, too. I did rank him fifth, so it's not like I'm down on him or anything, But bad framing and a total inability to take a walk are big detriments to me; the obvious outstanding power is what floats him up into the top half of my list.

Langs: What Mike said. It was more about the others ahead of him, for me, than him as a downvote necessarily. And yes — the framing is particularly low.

Simon: Since you mentioned him, Mark, I have to ask about "El Gary." He’s conspicuously absent from these lists. What are the chances he’s back in the top 10 next year?

Petriello: What are the chances he's a catcher next year?

Feinsand: Unless he’s figured out his defensive issues -- or reverted to the offensive force he was when he first entered the league -- I would say it’s low. In Sánchez’s first year and a half, he hit 53 home runs with a .923 OPS in 175 games. Teams will put up with defensive problems for that type of production. Not what he’s produced the past couple seasons.

Simon: We haven’t talked about the top of this list yet, but maybe that’s appropriate in a way. Mike, you and Mark both put the Dodgers’ Will Smith at No. 1, but this is a guy who blends into the background a bit on a team with a lot of stars. Heck, he’s not even the only Will Smith in the Majors, much less in general. Do you think that he’s gotten enough attention for a catcher considering the numbers he's put up in his first few years?

Petrello: Of all the Wills Smith in America, he is definitely one of the top 3.

I do agree that he blends in. You joke about the name, but that probably is part of it -- as is being, like, the 11th-most famous guy on a team of superstars. But the bat is no joke. Over his three seasons in the bigs, he's hit like Mookie Betts, Pete Alonso, Xander Bogaerts (in fewer PA, to be sure), and he does it as a catcher. He's also improved his framing from below average to above average, he's got a career 136 OPS+, and he's only entering his age-27 season. I've had Grandal/Realmuto 1-2 in some order for a few years now, but given slight concerns about those two, it wasn't hard for me to put Smith up top.

Feinsand: I would rank him second on the Will Smith list in America. Smith seemed to take a step backwards defensively from 2019 to 2020, but he rebounded in a big way last season. He gets overlooked because of the other guys in the lineup, but to me, he’s the best blend of offense and defense at the position.

Langs: I want to defend myself here! I wanted to put Smith No. 1 but was worried I’d be the only one -- a very cowardly and incorrect choice. It should be Smith, and I agree with everything Mike said Mark said.

Simon: Last question: We've already talked about Rutschman and the potential for him to quickly vault into the top 10 when he gets the chance. Who's another dark horse not represented here who could be all over these lists by the end of the year?

Petriello: I don't feel that strongly that there is one. Maybe, I guess, Sánchez has that huge 40-homer season we all know is possible. I'd like to say Alejandro Kirk, but the Toronto catching situation is crowded. So I'll go with the guy that Will Smith helped push out of LA: Keibert Ruiz, who should get a lot of opportunities in Washington.

Feinsand: I like Ruiz here.

Langs: I am the third echo. ... I was typing that I like the Ruiz pick.

Feinsand: Mike wins the fastest-typer contest.

Petriello: Many people are typing about Keibert Ruiz

Langs: Or I could be really wild and speculate about Joey Bart, if he gets the chance to become the Buster Posey-in-waiting for the Giants as we’ve been hearing about. But Ruiz feels likelier.

Petriello: Oh, that's a good one. I kind of forgot about him.

Feinsand: I know Carson Kelly will be the starter in Arizona, but I have liked what I have seen from Daulton Varsho in limited viewing. Seems like he’ll see more time away from catcher, though.

How did I forget Bart? Great call.