The NL Central figures to be one of the most competitive divisions in baseball this season. Let’s have a look at how the catchers shape up.
In this series we are going look at every position in the NL Central division to see how each team ranks by player. Each position will be graded by the player expected to start the most games at that position. For pitching, each collective of starters and bullpen arms will be evaluated. At the end, we will take all of the positional rankings and try to predict where each team will finish in the standings. It’s not exactly scientific, but it should be fun!
Willson Contreras – CHC
The brash, young star had a breakout year in 2017 and entered 2018 declaring himself the new best catcher in the league. Unfortunately for him, his follow up campaign didn’t go quite as well as 2017 did.
Contreras logged more games and more plate appearances in 2018 than in 2017, but hit less than half as many HR with only a .249 BA, down from .276 the year before. You might think BABIP was the culprit, but his BABIP was only .313 as compared to .319 in 2017, so not that different.
You begin to get a real picture of what happened when you look at Contreras’ power numbers. His ISO dropped from .223 in 2017 to .141 in 2018. In other words, he went from being a near elite power hitter to just average.
Contreras’ batted ball profile also showed that he was making softer contact overall and that when he was getting the ball up in the air, it wasn’t hit hard enough to leave the yard. It all translated to a 100 wRC+, or perfectly league average offensively in park adjusted runs created.
Contreras still has room to improve defensively, but he was solid behind the plate in 2018. He had a +2 DRS and caught 34% of would be base stealers. We’ve already seen what he can do, and at 26 there’s plenty of room for improvement from the young backstop.
We’re giving Contreras an B+ based off his solid defense and offensive capability. If the power returns, this could easily grade out at A or even A+ by season’s end.
Yasmani Grandal – MIL
The Brewers won the off season last year when they wrestled reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich away from the Marlins. They continued their run of impact moves by signing Yasmani Grandal to man the backstop this year.
Grandal brings big time power to the Brewers and joins a lineup that’s already stacked with top end talent. His .225 ISO from 2018 is near elite and he proved it with his 24 long balls on the year.
Grandal’s AVG dropped to .241, but thanks to his increased walk rate and lowered K rate he was able to manage a .349 OBP. Combined with his power numbers, it all translated to a 125 wRC+ and a career high 3.6 WAR.
As a switch hitter, Grandal fared much better against righties and with all the power there remains a reason why he was a platoon catcher. His defense is solid though as he managed a +9 DRS. He will need to improve on his 28% CS rate, especially in a division with its fair share of speedsters.
Grandal will own the lion’s share of innings behind the plate in Milwaukee this season and his raw power skills and solid defense grade him out at A-. I wanted to give him a higher grade, but his batting splits keep him from being a complete hitter.
Tucker Barnhart – CIN
The Reds look to be a much improved team this year. Overall that is true, but unless Barnhart makes some major strides then the same cannot be said of the catcher position.
Barnhart is a troubling case. He probably should be better than the numbers show, but he just hasn’t managed to put it all together yet. Defensively, he’s been known to be great. However, he’s always been a liability at the plate.
Barnhart has never posted a wRC+ of 100 or better in the majors and managed just an 89 wRC+ in 2018. He strikes out nearly twice as much as he walks and the well below average power numbers don’t make up for it. He managed a 1.1 WAR in 2018.
Barnhart also took a big step back defensively last season. He was responsible for a -2 DRS and only threw out 24% of would be base stealers. All in all, it was a rather forgettable year for Barnhart.
In spite of it all, Barnhart is still in line to see a majority of starts behind the plate in 2019, though we expect it to be quite unspectacular and grade him out as a C-. If he can show he is capable defensively and makes some offensive strides, he could be a solid B by season’s end, but don’t hold your breath.
Francisco Cervelli – PIT
Cervelli is yet another in a deep division for the catcher position. He is both solid and reliable at the plate and behind it, though his defense has taken a hit the last couple of seasons. Still, his overall WAR of 3.3 from 2018 is second only to Grandal on this list.
Cervelli was once again solid at the plate in 2018. He raised his AVG ten points to .259 despite a lower BABIP (.308) last season that was also well below his career average mark (.331). He also posted above average power numbers with a .172 ISO.
Now, Cervelli isn’t going to tear the cover off the ball, but he is going to be generally solid at the plate, as his 125 wRC+ from 2018 shows. That’s more than solid for any position, but as far as catchers go, that’s pretty close to elite.
Consider that Cervelli’s wRC+ ties him for third among all MLB catchers with Grandal and that his WAR ranks him third as well, then you start to get a picture of how good Cervelli really is. He probably doesn’t get enough credit.
Defensively the picture has started to change somewhat. Cervelli still threw out would be base stealers at a 39% clip, but also posted his second consecutive season of -6 DRS. At 32 years of age, it could be the wear and tear on his body. He’s generally been a solid defender, but a third consecutive season with a negative DRS rating will change that perception.
Cervelli is a solid player all around, and we’re banking on that defense straightening itself out. We’re grading Cervelli at B+, based on his solid offense and perceived defensive erosion. Like Contreras though, don’t be surprised if he raises his grade by season’s end.
Yadier Molina – STL
Yadi has been the gold and even the platinum standard at catcher over the course of his career. However, he is best compared to iron at this point in his career. He is 36 years old and shows no signs of slowing down, even after he missed a month last year when he took a 104 mph foul tip right in the giblets.
Molina arrived on the scene as a Glove only catcher, but has made himself a hitter as well. While his wRC+ was marginally above average at 103 last year, his .174 ISO is above average. His 2.2 WAR was good enough for sixth in the majors last season among catchers.
Despite missing an entire month, Molina smacked 20 homers and still posted solid offensive numbers all around. He may not be the best hitting catcher in the NL Central, but he is still an above average hitter that puts together solid at bats on a consistent basis.
Molina posted a -1 DRS in 2018, but was still good enough to earn the Gold Glove. Again, he missed a month due to injury which could account for the aberration in Molina’s stat line.
Defensively, Yadi was still exceptional. He threw base stealers out at a rate of 31%. That might seem low, but runners only attempted 39 stolen bases all season. Yadi didn’t just shut down opposing running games, he virtually eliminated them altogether.
It’s difficult to stay objective when it comes to rating Cardinals against other players, and especially with Yadi. That having been said, catching is the most defensively dependent position and Yadi is the best. Still, offense does matter and as such Yadi gets a grade of A-, but could easily be an A or A+ by season’s end. Plus we all know the motivation he has already received.
Catcher Grade Recap
The NL Central is deeper than possibly any other division in baseball at the catcher spot. There are solid backstops top to bottom with four out of the top ten in the majors in WAR for a catcher in the division. Here’s how they rank:
STL – A-
MIL – A-
PIT – B+
CIN – C-
Check back next week as we continue our look around the NL Central at first base.