Over the past few years, MLB Network has released top 10 lists of players at each position. Titled “Top 10 Right Now!” the series uses data from the past two seasons, offensive and defensive statistics of various complexity, and input from the network’s analysts and contributors. Here at BYB, we decided to create our own rankings. These lists are a compilation of individual rankings created by each author. There were no specific instructions given for this exercise, other than a player’s position was determined by whatever spot he appeared at most often defensively in 2017.
To kick off our rankings, we started behind the plate. Catcher is arguably the most important defensive position in baseball, and undoubtedly the most complex. While backstops have historically been glove-first players, the emphasis on offensive production from this spot has waxed and waned over the years. Now, with the game once again trending back towards defense, two-way catchers are becoming even more valuable. Here are our picks for the best catchers in the game today.
*Note: In the tables below, “RAA” refers to Runs Above Average, a pitch framing statistic tracked by StatCorner.
#1. Buster Posey
Was there even a question? Buster Posey has arguably been the best catcher in the game since he was first called up in 2010, and has raced far ahead of the pack in recent years. He ranks first among backstops with 13.7 fWAR since 2015. Only one other catcher has even been worth eight wins. His offensive production (per wRC+) is second only to Gary Sanchez, and Posey has been miles better defensively. He is one of the best pitch framers in baseball, and even fills in adequately at first base to keep his bat in the lineup. The only drawback — trust us, we’re really grasping at straws here — is that he doesn’t hit for a ton of power anymore. But when you rank first among catchers in batting average and on-base percentage over the past three years as Posey has, “only” hitting 10-15 homers a year is just fine.
#2. Gary Sanchez
While Posey doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon, Sanchez looks like a capable heir to his throne. The 25-year-old picked up last season right where he left off in 2016, hitting 33 home runs and another 20 doubles in 525 plate appearances. Sure, this was a slight drop-off from his ludicrous 2016 numbers, but he still finished the year atop the catcher leaderboard with 4.4 fWAR. He also kept the running game in check, throwing out 38 percent of base stealers. Still, there were some issues, particularly defensively. Sanchez led baseball with 16 passed balls, a number usually reserved for someone catching knuckleballers regularly. He was also a below-average pitch framer, according to StatCorner. Neither of those statistics are big concerns given how valuable Sanchez is overall, but the offense-first profile might eventually lead to him changing positions down the road.
#3. J.T. Realmuto
J.T. Realmuto has quietly been one of the better catchers in the game over the past couple years, producing 9.1 fWAR in his first three MLB seasons. He ranks second to only Posey in fWAR since 2015, and is still only 26 years old. His relatively modest offensive numbers belie how good he is offensively. Away from the cavernous Marlins Park, Realmuto has a career .846 OPS, and he hit .323/.369/.543 with 12 home runs on the road last season. We’re not sure what’s up with his framing numbers either. He was generally praised for his abilities as a receiver in the minor leagues. Baseball Prospectus’ numbers have been far more favorable, ranking him sixth overall in framing runs last season.
#4. Yasmani Grandal
Yasmani Grandal just barely nudged his way into our No. 4 spot, receiving perhaps the widest spread of votes of anyone on this list. He earned the nod thanks to his skills as a receiver, which made him so appealing to the statistically-driven Dodgers in the first place. Grandal finished 2017 second among all catchers with an incredible 18.9 Runs Above Average as a framer. He has also proven to be a capable hitter, clubbing 22 home runs in 482 plate appearances last season. It was a slight downturn from his incredible performance in 2016 (129 wRC+), but still good enough to make him one of the most valuable catchers in the game, at 2.5 fWAR.
#5. Willson Contreras
Willson Contreras came out of nowhere to be on this list. Signed by the Chicago Cubs as an amateur free agent way back in 2009, Contreras took a long time to work his way through the lower minors. A breakout 2015 season put him on the prospect radar somewhat, and he followed that up with monster offensive seasons in 2016 and 2017. He has proven himself more than capable at the plate in 711 plate appearances, hitting .278/.356/.494. Those are good numbers for just about any position, which is what he did for most of his development before settling in behind the plate full-time last year. Will it last? Contreras’ defensive numbers are a little suspect, but could improve as he further gets used to the position over the next few years.
#6 (tie). Jonathan Lucroy
A few years ago, Jonathan Lucroy might have given Posey a run for his money at the top of this list. Lucroy enjoyed a mammoth 2014 season, compiling 6.2 fWAR in an incredible 153 games played (136 at catcher) for the Milwaukee Brewers. He hasn’t quite come close to those numbers since then, but has three other three-win seasons under his belt, and is just a year removed from a stellar 4.6 fWAR effort in 2016. Age might be starting to catch up with him, though; Lucroy is entering his age-32 season, and posted a paltry .716 OPS in 481 plate appearances last year. His once-legendary framing has also fallen off; Lucroy was worth -8.2 Runs Above Average last year.
#6 (tie). Mike Zunino
Mike Zunino was rushed to the big leagues just a year after he was drafted third overall by the Seattle Mariners in 2012. Major league pitchers ate him alive as he learned on the job for three seasons, all the while proving to be an above-average defensive catcher and framer. His framing numbers have oddly taken a dip over the past couple years, but he has finally become the two-way force many projected him to be way back on draft day. He is coming off his best season to date, hitting .251/.331/.509 with 25 home runs for the M’s last season. Just 26, Zunino might still have his best years ahead of him. Mariners fans just wish they came with a little more club control.
#8. Yadier Molina
Father Time is undefeated, but Yadier Molina isn’t going down without a fight. The 35-year-old made his eighth All-Star appearance last season, and compiled 2.1 fWAR while hitting 18 home runs, his highest total since his heyday in 2012. Despite the uptick in power, it’s clear Molina’s skills are starting to erode on both sides of the ball. He was still only able to produce a 94 wRC+ last season, and he finished in the negative as a framer for the first time in his career in 2017. Even then, Molina is still both productive and durable. Save for his contract, a good majority of MLB teams wouldn’t mind having him around their clubhouse.
#9. Salvador Perez
Salvador Perez does a lot of things well behind the plate. Pitch framing does not appear to be one of them. The 27-year-old Venezuelan rated as the second-worst pitch framer in baseball last year, just a few runs ahead of Detroit’s own James McCann. According to both Baseball Prospectus and StatCorner, Perez has been a below average framer in each of his seven major league seasons.
So why is he on this list? As mentioned, Perez does plenty of other things well. He has a rail gun attached to his right shoulder, and has picked off 23 baserunners since arriving in the majors in 2011. He has also thrown out 34 percent of base stealers, including a couple of seasons in the high 40s. He provides plenty of thump at the plate as well, with three consecutive 20-homer seasons on his ledger. Were it not for a horribly low walk rate, he’d be one of the best offensive catchers in the game.
#10. Welington Castillo
Welington Castillo has perhaps the most offense-heavy profile on this list. That’s not necessarily a good thing, because he’s a bit of a liability behind the plate. However, he is coming off one of the best seasons of his career, a productive campaign with the Baltimore Orioles. He put up a career-best 113 wRC+ in 365 plate appearances, and hit 20 homers for the first time. Castillo also had a strong year defensively, throwing out a league-high 49 percent of attempted base stealers. He parlayed that production into a two-year deal with the Chicago White Sox this offseason, one that could pay him as much as $22.5 million if they pick up his team option in 2020.
Also receiving votes: Alex Avila, Robinson Chirinos, Tyler Flowers, Chris Iannetta, Kurt Suzuki