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Take Notice: Defensive Catchers Are Necessary In The American League

This article is a part of the Take Notice Column. This column serves to bring the attention of the reader to a new, unique, and / or radical point of view from the author. To view other Take Notice pieces, click here.

Baseball fans love the long ball and the big play. It’s no secret that we like the heavy hitters and the fielders who can flash the leather to turn two or make a diving catch.

But what do most fans think about catchers? Sure, the top-tier catchers can hit well, but they aren’t usually the ones bat-flipping and hitting no-doubt homers. And hardly ever do you see a catcher dive for a pop fly.

Let’s face it: catchers don’t get enough love from the average fan, especially defensive catchers. But to those who know the game, they understand just how vital the role of the catcher is outside of the batter’s box.

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Catchers do the dirty work. They are responsible for so much on the defensive end. They have to know the pitch repertoires of all pitchers on the roster in order to call the game behind the plate. They have to be familiar with their pitchers’ strengths and weaknesses to figure how he and the pitcher can attack the hitter. The catcher’s goal is to make the pitcher’s life as easy as possible.

So as far as catchers go, they don’t need to hit well, necessarily. They just have to be able to make their pitchers look good. So why haven’t teams (and fans) completely gotten on board with the idea of a defensive catcher?

It’s because teams are disproportionately obsessed with offense at a position where defense is more valuable.

My whole thought process was sparked by this Morgan Ensberg tweet:

Ensberg, currently a member of the Astros organization, which he was part of for eight seasons during his time in the majors, argues a rather unpopular point in his tweet. He clearly supports the defensive catcher, particularly in the American League.

“Wait, why specifically the American League?” you might ask (as did I, at first). Here’s why.

The American League has the luxury of the designated hitter, which obviously allows them an extra hitter. Or, if they so choose, they have the luxury of starting a defensive-minded catcher while still using eight other hitters (unlike in the NL where an offensively weak catcher would leave you with just seven proficient hitters).

So even if an AL team chooses to have a catcher that bats, let’s say below .230, but is a defensive upgrade, then it’s almost the same concept as a standard NL lineup. This time it’s just the catcher hitting poorly in the nine spot, not the pitcher.

My next thought was, “Why don’t we see more teams try this?”, especially in the AL where it’s so advantageous.

We have seen it, but in a small sample size. Some pitchers have a specific battery mate that catches every game, like Josh Thole with R.A. Dickey and David Ross with Jon Lester. Those catchers are usually noted for their defense more than their offense, but tend to fill the role as a spot-starter as opposed to an everyday player (and both players have spent time in both leagues). You can make a career out of for sure, serving as a steady backup, but that’s about it.

And going back to what I mentioned earlier, teams love offense. It’s difficult for managers to consistently put a guy into their lineup who hits poorly, even if he does make up for it in the field. There will always be a handful of teams unwilling to put up with below-average hitting catchers.

As far as I’m concerned, there’s no reason why more teams shouldn’t at least try to experiment with a defense-first catcher in the AL, as Ensberg alluded to. In 2015, out of the top ten catchers ranked by dWAR (playing at least sixty games), just three of them were from the AL.

That doesn’t make sense to me. Those are the teams that should be more inclined to test out a defensive catcher. Having an offensive deficiency behind the plate in the NL is more costly than in the AL, so I just can’t wrap my head around why teams like Milwaukee and Philadelphia were so insistent upon starting guys like Martin Maldonado or Cameron Rupp.

I don’t see NL teams as the beneficiaries from defensive catchers, hence my unwillingness to title the article as such.

So I believe that if we could see an AL team make a deep playoff run with a defense-first catcher as their starter, maybe then we could see some more teams get on board with that philosophy. In regards to getting fans on the defensive catcher bandwagon, that may be a more difficult challenge. I mean, we’re always going to want more dingers.

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