Just as technology informed an evolution in pitching strategy and evaluation throughout MLB, it's facilitated a crucial expansion of our understanding and appreciation for the other half of the battery. Catchers' ability to win strikes and influence umpires by presenting pitches well on the edges of the strike zone has been quantified for over a decade and has become the top statistic teams and serious analysts use to evaluate defense behind home plate. Elite framers can create 20 runs of value in a season. There's always been much more to being a catcher than meets even the careful eye, though, and that's as true as ever.
Good catchers have to be singularly unselfish. The grueling nature of the position requires sacrificing playing time and health. They must be willing to sacrifice their own offensive potential to make their whole team better at preventing runs. A good catcher trades some time in the batting cage for extra prep time and scouting meetings with the pitching staff and coaches, and he practices his techniques for framing pitches, blocking balls in the dirt and throwing out would-be basestealers, all of which are demands on his time.
Beyond that, though, catchers can have an influence in many different ways. Some catchers gobble up the analytics the front office and pitching coaches make available, then put it into action by creating a granular gameplan to give their pitchers a systematic edge. Others are specialists in noticing when a pitcher's release point is dropping, or in resetting a guy whose frustration or intensity is distracting him from optimal execution at a given moment. Still others are masters of situational awareness: They know what outcomes their team needs, which they can't afford, what a hitter is thinking, where the holes in his swing are and any number of other small details that go into calling the right sequence of pitches.
Arguably, the winter's top free-agent positional player was catcher J.T. Realmuto, who in late January signed a record-breaking, five-year contract worth $115.5 million to stay in Philadelphia. Much in demand for his athleticism, a great bat for a catcher and his relative youth, Realmuto was a quick study as a pitch framer after the Phillies traded for him prior to 2019, becoming elite at that skill. He's also a former high-school quarterback, with the leadership and poise typical of that station, and has proved to be an active learner in managing the avalanche of information.
Yadier Molina, another free agent who re-signed with St. Louis in early February, does it differently. Almost 20 years into his career, Molina is profoundly old-school in his approach, but over his career, opponents have scored just 4.02 runs per nine innings when Molina has been behind the plate, a full half-run below the league average.
— Written by Matt Trueblood (@MATrueblood) for the Athlon Sports 2021 MLB Annual. At 224 pages, it's the largest on the newsstand and the most complete preview available today. Click here to get your copy.
(Top photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via AP Images)