If you haven't read my previous posts as I go around the diamond and review teams position by position, I use a simple scatter graph to denote high-value players:
The horizontal axis is the player's 2013 salary and the vertical is the FanGraphs dollar value, their method of translating performance into a dollar figure. Catchers above the line are outperforming their contract and below are underperforming. In addition, the further above the line the player is, the better he is, making Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, Russell Martin and Jason Castro (!) the best values for 2013. The further below the line, the worse the performance, making Miguel Montero the worst value.
I'll begin with Joe Mauer in order to make an important point. It is VERY DIFFICULT for a highly-paid player to play up to the value of his contract, it just is. As I continue to put these charts out, it will be apparent that there are very few players in the upper right quadrant of these charts. Mauer is doing pretty good though, delivering over $19 million of value for a salary of $23 million. Is he overpaid? That's very debatable, but I wouldn't be surprised if he's the last big-contract catcher for awhile. He's not a power hitter who appears to have cashed in on a fluke 2009 season. Is he a good catcher? Of course--in addition to his offense he's in the top 10 defensively as well, but he turned 30 this year, the point where catchers start to break down just like NFL running backs. I suspect in the next couple of years his point will start dropping down to the lower right quadrant of the chart, a place NO ONE wants to be--a highly paid and unproductive player. And he'll be doing it for a woeful Twins team.
I always liked Russell Martin when he was with the Dodgers--not too many catchers bat in the #2 position. He seemed to hit his decline when he joined the Yankees, but has rebounded nicely with the Pirates and deserves some of the credit for that pitching staff's success. I'm NOT a proponent of catcher ERA (Baseball-Reference does have it if you dig around--who knew?), but the catcher calls the game (I THINK--for all I know, every pich is being called from the dugout). Yadier Molina gets substantial ink as the best catcher in the game today, with FanGraphs defensive metrics placing him at #2--behind Martin. I'm not sure of Buster Posey's position going forward--at some point, ALL catchers become something else (if you consider part-time catcher to be a position), and Posey has been playing about 20% of the games at first. The Giants have a decent first basemen in Brandon Belt and I have no idea what they have in the pipeline at catcher. I don't know enough to state whether there are lingering effects from that horrific 2011 collision with Florida Marlin Scott Cousins, but he might be making that move sooner than most. He's signed through 2022 (age 35) for $167 million and hitting enough to easily live up to that contract, but he's in the affordable part of the contract now--he'll start making Joe Mauer money in 2016.
The line of catchers at approximately the $500,000 salary line extends from Michael McKenry at the bottom (bad) to Jason Castro at the top (good). The group of young good catchers includes Castro, Jonathan Lucroy, Salvador Perez and Carlos Santana. This chart shows that group of players clustered around the $5 million in value mark and their contract status:
If you read my post on the future of first base, you'll see a very different chart for those young players--for the most part, they're all locked up, and in many cases for quite some time. In this list of the cheap catchers, we can throw out Carlos Corporan, Erik Kratz and Chris Stewart right away--they managed to catch a break this year but are too old to get any kind of money. But for the rest of these guys, who is worth locking up? Welington Castillo is nothing special, Evan Gattis is no wizard behind the plate, and the Braves have Brian McCann. Only Lucroy, Perez and Santana have long-term contracts, and even those contracts are for very modest amounts.
The future of catcher pay can be seen in the section of the chart that includes McCann, A.J. Pierzynski, Chris Iannetta and Jarrod Saltalamacchia--mid-range pay players who deliver mid-range results. They can handle a pitching staff, get a timely hit here and there and allow their teams to allocate payroll in other areas. They're the stopgaps for teams that are either in a playoff window or a year or two away from the emergence of a prospect.
This chart shows defensive numbers for the highest-paid catchers:
Miguel Montero is not having a good offensive year, but he's having Yadier Molina-like numbers with base stealers. He has the unusual distinction of having both the most opportunities for players to steal AND the lowest percent of those who tried, 29 for a ridiculous 2.5%. Contrast that with some of the other players and it's easy to see catchers that teams feel free to steal on (Nick Hundley and Alex Avila). The other interesting column is the one labeled RBA, which is essentially wild pitches, passed balls and stolen bases added together. This helps illustrate how effective Mauer has been on defense. For a closer look at some of these numbers, check in this section of Baseball-Reference.
I suspect part of the reason the catcher chart looks the way it does is the transition to other positions. Even Johnny Bench and Yogi Berra ended up playing other positions at the end of their career, suggesting that teams ride their young catching talent until they turn around 30 and either cut them loose, play them at a different position or in the rare occasion like A.J. Pierzynski, let them keep catching. There's a reason why there's so few highly-paid catchers, and an indicator of what will occur in the future. Actually, it's been going for about as long as baseball has been around, we just happened to witness a very brief period where catchers received big contracts. There are exactly FOUR catchers making $10 million or more, with Posey poised to join them in a couple of years. This isn't the new normal, but the NORMAL, and probably the sanest position from a financial standpoint in baseball.