Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Hall of Fame player and Manager Casey Stengel once said, “You have to have a catcher because if you don’t, you’re likely to have a lot of passed balls.” Minus the catching greats over the years, the catcher position is traditionally filled because it needs to be filled. Catching is undeniably the toughest position to play on the baseball diamond and it’s an easy thing for teams to sacrifice offense for a dependable defensive catcher. But the MLB is busting up those traditions by searching for and finding catchers who can hit just as well as they can field. Who’s leading the way as the very best catchers in the game? Joe Mauer for the Minnesota Twins and Yadier Molina for the NL Champion St. Louis Cardinals.
Mauer and Molina are perfect for comparison. They both cracked the big leagues at age 21 with short 2004 seasons and took over fulltime catching duties for their respective teams in 2005. Buster Posey deserves some mention as a great offensive catcher but he only cracked the MLB in 2009 so it’s harder to compare his career to Mauer and Molina’s. These two guys are radically changing the game by showing that catchers can be both defensive AND offensive forces. But who is better?
MVP, 3 Batting Titles, 6 All Star Games, 3 Gold Gloves, 4 Silver Sluggers
5 All Star Games, 5 Gold Gloves
World Series Rings
Looking at their career stats, Mauer has a pretty definitive edge over Molina in the offensive category. However, unlike Mauer, who immediately upon entering the league put up “Joe Mauer” stats, Molina didn’t start clicking offensively until about 2008 (or perhaps even 2011). Whereas Mauer has always put up an OPS+ above 100 (Adjusts OPS to a players’ ballpark, league average is 100), Molina posted only one season of 100 or more in his first seven seasons. On the defensive side, Molina is statistically (throwing out a crazy high 45% of base stealers compared to Mauer’s 33% plus a 17.2 defensive WAR to Mauer’s 3.9) and anecdotally (5 Gold Gloves to 3) a better catcher. But plain and simple; Mauer’s better offensive production for much longer than Molina gives him the edge as a better catcher over his career.
Playing the GM game
If you had to build a team in 2014 around Joe Mauer or Yadier Molina, who would you pick? Now the debate isn’t as cut and dry in Mauer’s favor. Here’s a quick breakdown.
The three best years of Molina’s career have been 2011-2013, suggesting he has found his hitting sweet spot. Mauer’s best OPS+ years were 2006, 2009 and 2013, certainly spaced out over his career but still are higher than Molina has ever produced (144, 171, 144 to Molina’s 124, 137, 131). Mauer is a higher run scorer because of his significantly higher OBP and has a higher potential wow factor for offensive production. Advantage Mauer
Though Molina owns a higher career caught stealing percentage, both players threw out 43% of would-be base stealers in 2013. Both players are noted for their excellent handling of their pitching staffs but Molina still has more Gold Gloves, with a another one likely on the way in 2013. Plus there are many questions about Mauer’s future playing catcher. Advantage Molina
Here is the biggie. Yadier Molina has played in 136 or more games for the last five seasons and never played in less than 111 games (except his 2004 entry season). Joe Mauer is looked at by many as injury prone after missing significant time in 2007, 2011 and now missing the last chunk of the 2013 season. Mauer has always received spells at DH and 1B to rest from catching duties and his 2013 concussion could force the Twins to move him permanently away from catching. Since offensive standards for First Base are much higher, Mauer’s great stats wouldn’t stand as head and toes above the rest of the MLB anymore if he wasn’t catching. Advantage Molina
In 2010, Joe Mauer signed an 8 year/$184 million deal to stay with the Twins, which averages to $23 million a season. Molina signed a five year extension with the Cardinals in 2012 at $14-15 million a season. Would anyone be complaining if the Twins were paying Mauer 8 or 9 million dollars less a season? Nope! Advantage Molina
Mauer has an MVP award and Molina has two World Series titles, currently working on a third. How much emphasis do you put on winning a championship versus winning an MVP award? Molina can accurately be considered more successful of a baseball player but the MVP is an individual award that honors the best player in each league. Would the Cardinals have still won the World Series in 2006 and 2011 if Mauer was their catcher? Most likely yes. Would Molina have won the MVP award in 2009 if he played on the Twins? No he wouldn’t have. Advantage Mauer
Molina has the edge in three of five categories but the decision is still very close for the best catcher to build around. Ultimately the deciding factor is Mauer’s health and his head. If he stays healthy and concussion free, while still playing most of his games behind the plate, his offensive edge beats out Molina’s defensive edge. But if he has to play more games at DH and First Base than at catcher, then Molina is the clear cut favorite as best catcher in the league (as long as he doesn’t get hurt too).
You never know with the future though and all you can really go on is the past. With Minnesota Twins fans, the past is filled with affection for their homegrown son and fueled by glorious Mauer offensive years. You can’t take that away from them and will never be able too. Joe Mauer will always be their number one catcher in the league. The same can be said with Yadier Molina and the St. Louis fans who adore him for his huge postseason contributions and exceptional skills. Player versus player debates are always locally biased but no matter what, every fan can appreciate this current golden age of all-around amazing catchers.