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Rays best-ever series, Part III: Catcher

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How much do you want to weight catcher defense?

Tampa Bay Rays v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

With another month until pitchers and catchers even start reporting, it’s time for another Rays history series. This series will focus on the best-ever production from a Rays player in a single season at each position around the diamond.

Today we start with a position that has historically been, um, a struggle for the Rays. Catcher is a position at which no Rays player has ever truly established himself, meaning this should be one of the more balanced battles we’re going to see in this series.

In line with that, it’s not too surprising to see that there are five different players who appear in our best-season candidates. This will not always be the case as we move around the diamond. (Third base is basically going to just be “which Evan Longoria season was best?”) With that in mind…

Here are the candidates for best season from a catcher in a Rays uniform:

Best seasons from Rays catchers

Name Year G R HR RBI BA OBP SLG wRC+ Framing runs fWAR rWAR
Name Year G R HR RBI BA OBP SLG wRC+ Framing runs fWAR rWAR
John Flaherty 1999 117 53 14 71 0.278 0.310 0.415 80 3.8 2.0 1.7
Toby Hall 2003 130 50 12 47 0.253 0.295 0.380 75 -17.1 1.3 1.6
Dioner Navarro 2008 120 43 7 54 0.295 0.349 0.407 105 -21.9 1.9 2.0
John Jaso 2010 109 57 5 44 0.263 0.372 0.378 115 -13.9 2.3 2.6
Jose Molina 2012 102 27 8 32 0.223 0.286 0.355 81 22.4 0.7 0.9

Framing stats from Baseball Prospectus

Yes, those are truly the best…

Catcher is a challenging position, but the Rays have made it look harder than it has to be over the past 20 years. Of the five candidates above, three of them produced at significantly below a league-average rate, even when accounting for position. (Catchers posted a wRC+ of 89 in 2017.)

However, this is the hand we are dealt, so let’s do the best with it.

Now, all of these players have flaws, but they were actually some strong seasons, despite the general tone of this article so far. A lot of the counting stats aren’t flashy, but that’s due in large part to the catcher position as a whole needing a lot more days off during the season than any other spot on the diamond.

In the first few issues of this series, we typically handled these debates Agatha Christie style, meaning we pointed out the flaw that eliminated each player except one, ending up with the winner that way (before having the fans vote to truly determine the winner). Since all these catchers have warts, however, it’ll be a bit different this time. Each player will have their flaws discussed, and it will be up to the reader to compare their flaws at the end.

John Flaherty

Flaherty has some of the nicest counting stats of any of this crew. His 14 home runs and 71 RBI are downright sexy compared to most of the seasons listed here, and his .278 batting average is quite respectable. He also was a positive on the defensive side of things, with 17.7 defensive runs, per FanGraphs, and positive framing numbers, per Baseball Prospectus.

The big knock against Flaherty is that all those flashy counting stats were a bit empty. Thanks (or unthanks) to a paltry 3.9 percent walk rate, Flaherty’s .310 OBP meant that his total production was actually 20 percent below league average (per wRC+). That’s a pretty big knock, but if you’re not totally on board with the legitimacy of framing stats (hold that thought), or believe that wRC+ is a stat with issues, Flaherty is a pretty strong option.

Toby Hall

I’ll be transparent. Hall’s 2003 season was the fifth season to be added, and I only included it because I had had five candidates in the previous breakdowns, and I really like symmetry. Hall was not only a poor offensive contributor in 2003 (wRC+ of 75 is the lowest of the group). He also was not a strong framer (second-worst). He was solid in other ways behind the plate (blocking, throwing out runners), but he’s not a serious contender here.

Dioner Navarro

Navarro had one of the best offensive seasons from a Rays catcher with his 2008 campaign, as he hit .295 with a solid 7.2 percent walk rate and a .112 ISO. His 105 wRC+ is second-best for a Rays catcher (min. 100 games played), and if that was where the story ended, he’d have a good chance.

However, catcher is such a vital position because defense is such a massive part of value. Similar to Hall, he was decent by FanGraphs defensive runs (10.6), but holy hell did he suck at pitch framing. His 21.9 framing runs he cost the Rays in 2008 were 106th out of 108 catchers in baseball (per Baseball Prospectus), and the story doesn’t get much better by Stat Corner’s framing stats (-12.6 runs; 105th of 111). Framing is a stat baseball statisticians may not have totally perfected just yet, but when you rank basically dead last in the two main systems calculating framing, it’s certainly not good.

John Jaso

In many ways, Jaso’s case is similar to Navarro. His offensive production from behind the dish in 2010 was definitively the best from any Rays catcher in their history. While he only left the yard five times, his .372 OBP (and 115 wRC+) were tops among all candidates for this post. He walked (14.6 BB%) far more than he struck out (9.7 K%), and he was solid on the basepaths (his four stolen bases were tops among any of the five candidate seasons here). His 2.3 fWAR and 2.6 rWAR are both tops among Rays catchers in their history.

As you might have guessed, his framing is where he loses points. The rest of his defense (0.3 dWAR; 1.2 FanGraphs defensive runs) was right about average, but his -13.9 framing runs from Baseball Prospectus and -13.6 framing runs from Stat Corner are both quite damning. It makes sense, too. Jaso began his career as a catcher, but he was never the most natural there, and after his Rays days, he was fazed out to DH/first base for the rest of his career. (Before retiring to do, well, we’re not sure.)

However, it’s hard to argue with his offensive output in 2010.

Jose Molina

If you believe in framing stats and that there may be some hidden ability among great catchers to call a strong game that we have discovered yet statistically, 2012 Molina is your guy.

If you don’t, boy are there some flaws to pick over. The only thing uglier than his .223 batting average is his .286 OBP. He hit eight homers to somewhat salvage his wRC+ (81, somehow a point higher than Flaherty), but still: if he gets your vote, it’s all on the strength of his defensive contributions. His fWAR (0.7) and rWAR (0.9) paint the picture of what you get without the framing contributions - not much.

* * *

All that being said, I am indeed a believer in the pitch framing metrics available, and I even believe there are some nuances behind the plate that are not yet statistically quantifiable. That’s why I’m going with Molina as my pick. If you convert all the framing runs into wins and combine them with each player’s fWAR above, suddenly Molina is the leader, and that’s before any sort of boost for game calling, etc. This will likely be one of the more heated debates, so I’m excited to see which way you all go. I’m thinking Flaherty and Jaso may end up top dogs, but I’m sticking with my dude Molina.

Poll

Which season was best from a catcher in Rays history?

This poll is closed

  • 18%
    1999 John Flaherty
    (24 votes)
  • 4%
    2003 Toby Hall
    (6 votes)
  • 38%
    2008 Dioner Navarro
    (49 votes)
  • 14%
    2010 John Jaso
    (19 votes)
  • 23%
    2012 Jose Molina
    (30 votes)
128 votes total Vote Now