On Monday, the Phillies committed three years and $26 million to retain catcher Carlos Ruiz. It's a large figure for a 35-year-old catcher. Given the wear and tear of the daily grind behind the plate, catcher is not an old man's position.
But Ruiz has been a rock for the Phillies over the past five seasons. He owns a .288/.371/.434 line in 566 games since 2009 and earned an All-Star berth in 2012. In other words, even with a down 2013 season (.268/.320/.368 in 341 plate appearances), Chooch can hit, and when you're a catcher, that's enough to get paid even when age isn't on your side.
With the market kicked into motion by Ruiz, we can be somewhat certain the rest of the big-bat catchers available will get their fair share as well. Both Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.273/.338/.466 in a career year as a 28-year-old in 2013) and Brian McCann (.256/.336/.461 in 2013 at 29, .277/.350/.473 over a nine-year career) can both expect at least a three-year deal at an eight-figure average annual value.
As you look through the catcher market and at the backstops already in place, though, a realization strikes: there are as many big-bat catchers in the game right now as in any time in recent memory.
Consider last season: Yadier Molina nearly won the National League MVP. He's now a dual threat, as he paired a .313/.361/.481 line with impeccable defense. Even in a down year, Buster Posey posted an excellent .294/.371/.450 line in a tough hitter's park. Carlos Santana powered Cleveland with 20 home runs and a .268/.377/.455 line. And of course, Joe Mauer was great as usual, as he posted a .324/.404/.476 line in what would be his final season behind the plate with Minnesota.
These veterans were joined by a slew of rising stars: Houston's Jason Castro, Colorado's Wilin Rosario, Milwaukee's Jonathan Lucroy and Kansas City's Salvador Perez all played at 27 or younger in 2013 and posted OPS marks of .750 or better in at least 400 plate appearances. The Cubs' Welington Castillo, a 26-year-old, came just shy at .746.
As a whole, major league catchers hit .245/.310/.388 in 2013, good for a 96 OPS+ (or 96 percent as good as the average MLB hitter). Catcher, being one of the few positions on the field where defense is the top priority, naturally finishes below the major league average -- usually far below. Observe, catcher performance adjusted for park and league since 1974:
Only in 1977, an expansion year in which the Mariners and Blue Jays joined the league, did catchers outhit the league average. Carlton Fisk, Ted Simmons, Johnny Bench, Gene Tenace, Joe Ferguson, Bob Boone, Steve Yeager and Thurmon Munson were all in the prime of their careers. Gary Carter broke out at age 23, and Darrell Porter and John Stearns excelled for the Royals and Mets respectively, each at age 25.
This excellent crop kept the catcher position competitive for a few years, but as they began to fade, the position dropped off significantly. Catchers managed an OPS+ of at least 95 every year from 1977 through 1982, but never did it in consecutive years until the current era, 2011-2013.
Catchers only reached the 95 OPS+ mark three times between the two golden eras. The first was 1990. Carlton Fisk was still around and still fantastic, as he led all catchers with a .829 OPS. Darren Daulton and Mickey Tettleton packed a punch for Philadelphia and Baltimore respectively, and part-time catchers like Pat Borders in Toronto and Mike Fitzgerald in Montreal propped up the group.
Tettleton and Daulton were still mashing in 1993, but Fisk had finally retired, and another group of catchers climbed to the top of the leaderboard. Chris Hoiles posted an absurd .310/.416/.585 line for Baltimore behind 29 home runs. Mike Piazza led all catchers with 35 home runs and 112 RBI. Rick Wilkins matched Piazza's .561 slugging percentage with the Cubs. Mike MacFarlane, Chad Kreuter Don Slaught and Mike Stanley rounded out the offensive forces behind the plate.
By 1997, the last time catchers reached the 95 OPS+ until 2011, Piazza had established himself as the premier offensive backstop. 1997 was his magnum opus, as he clubbed 40 home runs for the first time, crossed the 200 hit mark for the only time, and finished with a career high in all three triple-slash categories at .362/.431/.638. Only Hoiles remained from the 1993 group of mashers, but Todd Hundley (Mets), Sandy Alomar Jr. (Cleveland), Javy Lopez (Atlanta), Jason Kendall (Pittsburgh) and Darrin Fletcher (Montreal) all had huge seasons, as did a 25-year-old Ivan Rodriguez making waves with the Rangers.
If there's anything we can learn from these old groups of great catchers, it's that catcher success is fleeting. Catcher is a young man's position, and so players either move or retire quickly. We already know Joe Mauer will be on the move from catcher to first base in 2014. The Giants have discussed such a move with Buster Posey at times, and Carlos Santana already regularly plays first base and designated hitter, and could be shifted to make room for Yan Gomes full-time.
But over the past three years, we've seen catchers hit and hit consistently in a way they haven't for over three decades. It takes a special player to handle a pitching staff, take the beating of 100-plus games behind the plate and handle the bat as well. Today's major leagues has a plethora of players doing so, both young like Buster Posey and old(er) like Carlos Ruiz and it's a group that shouldn't be taken for granted.
(All data via Baseball-Reference.com)