2002 Player Rankings: Catcher

by Devin Clancy (USA Today Sports Weekly, Oct 30 - Nov 5, 2002)
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The Elite Backstops Are In The City That Never Sleeps

Watch any Little League game, and the one kid you won't find tossing grass in the air and wearing his mitt on his head is the catcher.

As catcher you're involved in every pitch, you touch the ball more than anyone else does and you're supposed to be in charge of the infield. But there's a price to pay: People keep crashing into you and hitting you with pitches and bats, and you have to spend all night in a crouch. Your career is probably limited to less than 1,500 games behind the plate — but you won't get that far if you can't ignore the pain and contribute to the offense.

With the number of interesting things that can happen to a catcher, it's surprising that seven of them played enough to qualify for the batting title.


The 2002 season was a career-worst year for Mike Piazza — not that there's anything wrong with that.

It was marred by nagging injuries, the Mets' inability to win and persistent questions about his personal life — such as why he spends so much time hanging around with ALF.

His on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) dropped for the third year in a row. He hit only .280 this season, allowed an insane 125 stolen bases and he was healthy for only 119 starts (73% of his team's games, a career low).

Despite all that, he's still the best catcher in the game.

The Mets' season was almost lost before it began, and it had nothing to do with the team's catcher. Piazza suffered his typical spate of nagging injuries — knee, back and hamstring in April, elbow in May, groin in June, back in July, wrist in August and September. But he was still the best-

hitting catcher in the game and among the seven most durable who qualified for the batting title (502 plate appearances). He was also, by many measures, one of the worst everyday defensive catchers in history. He caught 27 basestealers, or two more than backup Vance Wilson, who played 600 fewer innings.

He was the Mets' best hitter, although that says more about the rest of the team than about him. Likewise, his standing among his peers says more about the state of major league catchers than about the state of Piazza. He hit 33 home runs to lead his position (and his team). He also led catchers in slugging percentage and RBI and tied for the lead with 12 errors.

Every offseason the question comes up — when will Piazza move to first base? But for at least the near future, he's blocked at that position by Mo Vaughn's bulky contract. It's inevitable that the 34-year-old Piazza will end up at first, but that might have to wait until his physical breakdown has turned him into a merely average hitter.

In the Bronx, Jorge Posada and the Yankees have similar difficulties behind the plate. Posada's not as bad as Piazza defensively, nor is he as important to the Yankees' offense. But he too struggled with the glove while enjoying an All-Star year at the plate. He had an offensive year almost exactly in line with his career averages, while suffering a couple of mild injuries, including a ball that ricocheted off the hole surgeons drilled in his shoulder last offseason.

Posada, 31, tied Piazza's 12 errors and caught only 31 runners trying to steal while allowing 76 stolen bases. (Reports of a drop in crime rates in New York City were apparently premature.)

He led all catchers in walks and on-base percentage. Like all Yankees in 2002, he also piled up a ton of strikeouts. He played in more games than any other catcher, starting 136, partly because his backups are always a string of non-entities.

Posada's defensive liabilities didn't prevent another 100-win season, and manager Joe Torre and the pitching staff seem to share full confidence in his abilities. Torre, a former catcher, won an MVP after switching to another position, so he may have a secret plan for Posada.


Don't forget: Jorge Posada's absence from the last three weeks of the playoffs means we haven't heard on a nightly basis how good he is.


The time may have come to stop throwing the "best catcher when healthy" title in Ivan Rodriguez's direction. Rarely has a player been more often associated with the phrase "cleared to begin baseball activities." Rodriguez hasn't been healthy for a full season since he won the 1999 MVP. Is it worth spending top money on a guy who spends, at best, four months in the lineup?

This year's annual injury was a herniated disk, from which he recovered in June. Considering the injury, he had another pretty good year. His first home run didn't come until July, but he finished with 19. Rodriguez also had his typical glowing results while wearing the "tools of ignorance," throwing out 15 of 41 basestealers. By now only the best baserunners even try to steal against him. The number of attempts against his arm is even more impressive considering that everyone and their grandmother can reach base against Rangers pitching.

Jason Kendall is the reverse Rodriguez. Injuries to his thumb in 2001 and his foot in 2002 (for which he had surgery this month) have totally removed him from the ranks of top-flight catchers. But he still plays 140-plus games a season. He never strikes out and still steals an occasional base, but he hit just three home runs this season. Talk of him moving to the outfield has apparently ended, but there's still the possibility that Pittsburgh will trade him. The Pirates held talks with the Rockies to re-acquire Denny Neagle for Kendall. Who ever thought the day would come when Kendall was equivalent to an 8-11 pitcher with a 5.26 ERA and a huge contract?


Philadelphia's Mike Lieberthal returned this year from knee surgery, putting up good numbers despite a lackluster Phillies team. His 500th plate appearance kicked in an option year in 2003, but the Phillies locked him up to a long-term deal, assuring that he'll be behind the plate when the new ballpark opens in 2004.

That is, of course, if he can stay healthy. Lieberthal injured his knee getting out of a golf cart earlier this month. He expects to be fine by spring training, but the Phillies might want to hire him a caddy.

The other name prompting comeback-player talk is the Giants' ageless Benito Santiago. He capped a quality season with a stellar postseason and a World Series appearance. More impressive than his age (37) is his recovery from a debilitating car accident in 1998. But few seem to remember that Santiago was eligible for the 2001 comeback player of the year, not 2002. He had a strong year in 2001 after walking into Giants camp without a job. This year was slightly better offensively but basically comparable to his 2001. Santiago's most difficult task was magnified in the postseason — when teams walk Barry Bonds to get to you, you have to produce. Santiago hit .320 in the fifth slot during the regular season and hit .308 with 12 RBI when Bonds was walked in front of him in the postseason.

Santiago's defensive talents have degraded a little with age, but he's as good as anyone at blocking the plate and can throw from his knees like he did in his 20s.

Some Red Sox players felt that the loss of Jason Varitek to a broken elbow doomed their 2001 season as much as Nomar Garciaparra's absence. Varitek was certainly missed — but he didn't put together the kind of year he was on pace for when he went down.

Varitek, 30, had an offensive season in line with his career averages but had one of the worst stolen base percentages among catchers in 2002. Ex-managers Jimy Williams and Joe Kerrigan believed it was OK for pitchers to ignore baserunners. Without them in town, we'll have to assume that Varitek isn't that good at controlling the running game.


Paul Lo Duca had a breakout year for the Dodgers in 2001. He caught more games this year, which might explain his August, in which he hit .180 with one home run. Los Angeles likes to have his bat in the lineup, but he started only five games at other positions. In 2001 he played 24 at first and the outfield.

One might assume that a catcher, of all people, would know all about home plate and how to frustrate a pitcher with selectivity. But A.J. Pierzynski has 36 career walks in 293 games played. Bonds walked more than twice as often in the postseason as Pierzynski walked all year. He should take note of the fact that June and July, his two biggest walk months (five and three), were also his best batting average months. But Pierzynski fits the mold of the aggressive Twins, and you can't argue with their division title, his .300 batting average or his Division Series-clinching home run against Oakland.

Michael Barrett is the other contraction catcher. Barrett had an MVP-type April (.348, four homers, 17 RBI) but tailed off, finishing with numbers about on par with his 1999 season when he played as much third base as catcher. Barrett is only 25, so he should be in the Expos' (or whatever they'll be called) plans for the near future. Barrett's backup, Brian Schneider, also 25, had as good a year. The two of them make an excellent, and most important, affordable combination for wards-of-the-state Montreal.

The world met Damian Miller last postseason. The world was a little confused a year later when Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly started a different catcher (Miller, Chad Moeller and Rod Barajas) in each of his three postseason games. Brenly also confused some observers by naming Miller as the third catcher on the All-Star team. Miller had a fine year interrupted by back spasms — he hits enough and is decent if unspectacular at controlling runners — but he was apparently, in the mind of Brenly, an All-Star for his other unseen abilities.

Cincinnati's Jason LaRue, a .249 hitter with a little power, experienced one of the worst innings ever by a catcher. On Aug. 14, with young knuckleballer Jared Fernandez on the mound, LaRue was charged with three passed balls. As tough as it is for a catcher to handle a knuckleball, those three passed balls simply added to LaRue's total, which at the time already was greater than that of any other NL team. He finished with a major league-leading 20 passed balls. At the same time, he threw out a better percentage (45.2%) of runners than any other catcher and had only five errors.

Players, once labeled, often have trouble shaking that label. Mike Redmond should probably be the official starting catcher for the Marlins. Technically, veteran Charles Johnson gets that title, but Redmond, who is a couple of months older than Johnson, had a better year and has almost been permanently labeled as a "backup." He's not going to hit 30 home runs, but he calls a good game, has a decent arm and has hit better than .300 in three of his four major league seasons. Johnson is a hometown favorite who has some value behind the plate, but he hit only .217 this year. Manager Jeff Torborg also announced that he'd play only 80 or 90 games next year.

Brad Ausmus is in Houston's lineup for his defense. His control of runners dropped off a bit this season, but Jimy Williams will wear a cap with a curved bill before he starts caring about stolen bases. Ausmus was instrumental in the development of the Astros' excellent young pitching staff.


When Darrin Fletcher retired July 24, Tom Wilson's 68 games of major league experience made him the Blue Jays' veteran catcher. Prospect Josh Phelps, a catcher in the minors, is a major league first baseman, so Wilson and Ken Huckaby are the Blue Jays' catching solution. Both are past age 30, so they won't be there in 10 years, but together, they'll be fine for the next couple of years.

The world champion Angels take this theory a step further by filling their catcher spot with two guys from the same family. Bengie Molina is older than his brother Jose by about a year, so he gets the starting job (and likely the top bunk if he wants it on the road). Neither hits a whole lot, but they play their position well, and Jose can bring his .271 average to the Christmas dinner table, while Bengie might just have to settle for showing Mom a Gold Glove (one error all year, five passed balls and 44.9% of runners caught). Neither Molina has his first initial on his uniform, and they sort of look alike, so one might wonder if they'd be tempted to pull a fast one and monkey around with the lineup.

The Orioles got into the Molina business with Izzy Molina (no relation) for one game in May. But the real catcher in Baltimore was rookie Geronimo Gil. "The Chief" is still a little raw (19 passed balls), but pitchers seem to like him and he got off to a great start, hitting .286 with five homers in April. It didn't take long for him to wrest the starting job from Brook Fordyce.

Oakland's Ramon Hernandez, 26, managed to cut his steals allowed in half this season, from 98 to 45. Unfortunately, his home run total also dropped from 15 to seven.

The White Sox traded Sandy Alomar to Colorado so they could give Josh Paul a chance behind the plate. The major league jury is still out on Paul, but he and Mark Johnson were not a complete embarrassment as a platoon.


In a similar technique to the Blue Jays, Angels and White Sox, the Cardinals use two catchers about evenly, Mike Matheny and Mike DiFelice split time for most of the season. Matheny didn't throw out runners the way he did a few years ago, but he's still one of the best defensive catchers in the game.

The Cubs also go the two-catcher route, though being the Cubs, they naturally got it all wrong. Instead of two young catchers, they've gone with veterans Joe Girardi and Todd Hundley. Girardi has value as a leader and in handling young pitchers such as Mark Prior. Hundley found himself the third-string catcher behind Mike Mahoney late in the season and didn't help his cause when he gave some fans the finger.

Veteran Dan Wilson had a career year offensively in Seattle. He has low error totals but doesn't overly intimidate runners. He'll be a free agent this offseason, leaving Ben Davis' future open until the team gets a manager.


Detroit's Brandon Inge has a great arm and is good defensively. Prospect Mike Rivera started the season in Detroit but finished at Triple-A Toledo. He'd made the jump from Double-A to open the season, however, so he's still on track.

Tired of Alomar, the Indians handed the catching reins to Einar Diaz. They won the division last year, but this season the floor gave way as Diaz hit .206. That won't cut it, no matter how good his arm is — and in fact, it isn't good, as he needed to shut things down in late September with elbow trouble.

After trading Davis to Seattle, the Padres signed Wiki Gonzalez to a four-year deal. Tom Lampkin came over in the deal as a backup to Gonzalez but ended up playing more when Gonzalez had injury trouble.


Javy Lopez was not the worst hitter on the Braves this year. Vinny Castilla hit .232, a point lower than Lopez. Lopez signed a one-year, $6 million deal with Atlanta for 2002 and was injured just as often as he was in previous years. It seems unlikely that the Braves will pick up his $7 million option for 2003. His backup, Henry Blanco, is said to have the best arm of any player in baseball. He needs it too since he catches Greg Maddux, who refuses to care about runners.

Sandy Alomar would seem like an odd choice for the Rockies, but they simply have no good young catchers for him to block. He's a free agent, but the Rockies signed his father, Sandy Sr., as a coach, so maybe he'd enjoy returning as a backup. Ben Petrick, the ex-catcher-of-the-future in Colorado, is now an outfielder. Alomar, in one of his worst career years, was the Rockies' best catcher.


Ivan Rodriguez

  • Ht.: 6-2 Wt.: 225 2003 season age: 31

  • Experience: 12 years with Texas; 1999 AL MVP; 10 Gold Gloves; .305 lifetime average, including eight years in a row hitting .300 or better.

  • Where he'll end up: New York, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco are the only cities where he'll likely find no interest. He might be best served by signing a one-year deal for a discount, putting up good numbers and parlaying it into a long-term contract.

  • Market value: In flux. The new labor deal and his injuries may affect his value.


Mike Piazza, Mets

  • Ht.: 6-3 Wt.: 215 2003 season age: 34

  • Credentials: Piazza is already the best-hitting catcher of all time, although he's never led the league in any major category or won an MVP. Some voters will likely hold his poor defense against him — but he may still get in on the first ballot with his offense.

  • Projected year of induction: We'll predict Piazza's retirement in 2008, a month after his 40th birthday. That puts him on the ballot for the first time in 2014.

  • Player Gold Gloves BA Slg. OBP HR RBI
    Mike Piazza 0 .321 .388 .576 347 1,073
    Johnny Bench 10 .267 .342 .476 389 1,376
    Carlton Fisk 1 .269 .341 .457 376 1,330
    Games caught: Piazza, 1,318; Bench, 1,742;