Saturday, October 18, 2008

2008 Positional MVP Picks: Catchers

This is the second installment in a position-by-position look at the most valuable players of 2008. I had initially intended to analyze relief pitchers second, immediately after their SP counterparts, but decided instead to switch to position players first and to then return to RP's near the end of the series. So welcome to Installment #2: Catchers.

Thanks to Jorge Posada’s shoulder surgery and Victor Martinez’s two+ months on the disabled list, the race for the top catcher in the big leagues looks much different this year than it did last year. Five backstops had solid-to-big years. Of those five, two have legitimate shots at the catching MVP, and in a wide-open AL MVP race, one even has a chance at a league MVP—you know, a real award—as well.

But before I rank the top five, I want to give a quick “Honorable Mention” to Mike Napoli, who would have easily cracked the list this year given more than 78 games under his belt. Based on his ridiculous partial season numbers and obvious talent (he’s put together better and better partial years the past three seasons), don’t be surprised if he makes a splash as soon as he gets 120-140 starts in a season.

Also, I feel I should make a few statistical disclaimers for this and all future posts concerning position players. I don’t care all that much about runs scored, and I care a whole lot less about RBIs. Both totals are too reliant on teammates’ performances to be primary metrics for individual awards (even made up awards like these positional MVPs). I don’t mean to suggest that a lot of runs and/or RBIs can’t be indicative of a good player and/or season, but rather that fewer runs and/or RBIs are not necessarily indicative of a comparatively worse player/season. Similarly, I don’t care about batting average in a vacuum, but coupled with OBP and/or BABIP it can show whether a hitter puts a lot of balls into play or takes a lot of walks (or both), and coupled with SLG can show how many of those hits go for extra bases. The relative unreliability of these metrics when cited, as they too often are, “in a vacuum” (without qualification) is much less of an issue in this installment than it will be at the big RBI positions (1B and corner outfielders), but I felt a blanket qualification was in order nonetheless.

And now, on with the top five catchers of 2008:

5.) Russell Martin regressed from his 2007 numbers, but he still put together a respectable season, particularly for a guy who spent 149 games crouched behind home plate. Martin hit .280/.385/.396 (BA/OBP/SLG) with 13 HR for an OPS of .781 (which translates into an OPS+ of 103), an EqA of .283, 22 total win shares, and a VORP of 33.7. His offensive numbers aren’t overwhelming (his SLG, in fact, is downright underwhelming), but they are above league average, and Martin was good enough defensively at a skill position to remain a valuable catcher in ’08. But the other four players on this list pace or outpace him in nearly every category, which makes Martin a third-tier catching MVP candidate this year.

4.) Ryan Doumit may not be a household name, having played his entire career (brief though it has been) in baseball purgatory (aka Pittsburgh), but in 2008 he showed what he’s capable of doing with more than half a season of playing time. Doumit’s batting line this year was .318/.357/.501 with 15 HR, good for an OPS of .858 (OPS+ 125), a .297 EqA, 22 total win shares, and a VORP of 35.8. He’s probably the weakest fielder on this list, but his bat kept him near the top of the catching heap in 2008 even though it wasn’t nearly enough to make him more than a second-tier candidate.

Like Napoli, though, Doumit didn’t play in as many games (only 116 games, 106 of them behind the plate) as any of the other catchers in my top 5, so we can only guess at the sort of year Doumit can put together given 20-30 more starts. He'll be interesting to watch, particularly if he escapes the anemic offense and small-market exposure in Pittsburgh.

3.) Geovany Soto will probably run away with the NL Rookie of the Year award, and, as a rabid Cubs fan, I’m very excited at the prospect. That said, Joey Votto is another deserving candidate, but Soto should (rightly) beat out the Reds’ first baseman due to his excellent defensive numbers at a skill position (good reasoning) as well as the fact that he played for a big market, division-winning team (bad reasoning).

Soto’s numbers are fantastic for a catcher, and even more impressive considering 2008 was his first full season (and only second overall) in the bigs. He went .285/.364/.504 with 23 HR, an .868 OPS (OPS+ 122), .288 EqA, 24 win shares (including a very impressive 9 fielding win shares), and a VORP of 39.3. He beats out Doumit for third primarily because he played in more games (allowing him to rack up higher quantitative statistics, like HRs) and played better defense in those games. Soto is a borderline first-tier candidate for the catching MVP, but the next two men on this list are simply too far ahead of him in VORP, and either comparable defensively or, in the case of my #2 man, not so much worse that Soto can make up such gaps in VORP (in particular), EqA and, to a lesser extent, OPS+.

2.) Three full seasons into his career, Brian McCann has certainly proven that he can punish a baseball. In 2008, McCann’s numbers included a .301/.373/.523 line, 23 HR, .896 OPS, 136 OPS+, .307 EqA, 21 win shares, and a VORP of 51.6. In fact, if I were only looking at offensive statistics, McCann might even be #1 on this list, though it would still be a pretty close race.

However, once defense is added to the equation, McCann’s overall value drops somewhat. Not by an awful lot, mind you—he’s ahead of the next runner up (Soto) in too many offensive categories (OBP, SLG, XBH [66 to 60], OPS, OPS+, EqA, and, in particular, VORP) for his glove to drop him past the number two slot—but faced with a similarly valuable offensive catcher with superior defensive skills, McCann falls short of the top catching spot in 2008.

1.) Joe Mauer returned to his ’06 form (see: ridiculously, ridiculously good) in 2008, compiling a .328/.413/.451 batting line with 9 HR, an .864 OPS, 134 OPS+, .316 EqA, a league-leading 31 win shares (22 batting and 9.2 fielding), a VORP of 55.5, and a substantial amount of MVP buzz. Mauer’s EqA, total win shares, and VORP were all tops among catchers.

Mauer and McCann are both very different (albeit very good) hitters. McCann hits for more power than Mauer does: he chalked up 66 XBH vs. only 44 for Mauer, who collected 31 doubles and 4 triples to go along with his 9 HR. But Mauer is an OBP machine. He takes a lot of walks (84 in ’08) to add to his characteristically high batting average (he won his second batting title this year) as well as to Justin Morneau’s characteristically high RBI totals. In a final offensive analysis, McCann has the edge in HR, XBH, SLG, OPS, and OPS+, but Mauer leads in hits (176 to 153), BA, OBP, EqA, batting win shares (22 to 16.2), and VORP.

Even in an offensive vacuum, Mauer probably deserves the nod for the top catcher of 2008, but adding his higher fielding win shares (9.2 to 4.9) to the equation widens his advantage over McCann in total win shares to 10 (31 to 21), giving Mauer the edge by a little over three wins. Baserunners were more conservative with Mauer than with McCann, as well, running on the Twins’ catcher only 80 times (and getting caught 29 times) as opposed to 120 times on McCann (who threw out two fewer runners—27—in 40 more chances).

Joe Mauer should not be the AL MVP this year, but he was definitely the most valuable big league catcher in 2008, and an easy choice for the top spot on this list.

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