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Ranking the Best MLB Catchers for 2023: 20-11

Opening Day for the 2023 MLB season is right around the corner. This means it is the perfect time for position-by-position rankings. Let’s see how each team stacks up – ranking the best MLB catchers.

First, let’s lay out some ground rules. A player’s position is based on Fangraphs’ Depth Charts as of March 15. If a player is duplicated (such as Byron Buxton being listed as Minnesota’s primary centerfielder and designated hitter), he will be assigned to his main position in 2022, and the player with the second-most projected plate appearances will be used for the second position. Teams only get one entrant per position (sorry, Alejandro Kirk).

Let’s continue. Feel free to check out the first 10 players ranked in our Best MLB Catchers ranking!

Best MLB Catchers: 20-11

Best MLB Catchers: No.20 – Francisco Mejia, Tampa Bay Rays

After a solid 2021 outing, Mejia took a step back in 2022. His OPS+ dropped by 20 points, and he posted just half of his WAR total despite playing nine extra games. Mejia has been spectacularly average over the last three (non-COVID) seasons. He had a healthy tally of doubles last season (22), but he had a microscopic 2.3% walk rate.

Mejia is stuck in no man’s land in this catcher ranking. He has a bit more of an offensive track record than anyone in the first 10, but he has a spotty defensive record, and he is still a below-average hitter for his career. He has a good arm, but he has been a below-average pitch framer and plate blocker in the last few seasons.

Best MLB Catchers: No.19 – Martin Maldonado, Houston Astros

More than any catcher in baseball, Maldonado epitomizes two things. First, Maldonado is the anti-stat catcher. His (well-deserved) reputation as a tremendous defensive catcher does not shine through in defensive metrics. Second, he breaks any concept of ranking because his skills are more intangible than tangible. He is the king of unanswerable questions. Which catcher helps his team win the most? The answer might be Maldonado.

Maldonado is a known negative at the plate (career .209 average with a 72 OPS+), but his defensive metrics in framing, blocking, and throwing paint him as a good catcher. Beyond the numbers, Maldonado has a sixth sense when it comes to understanding the Astros’ assortment of arms. It seems notable that the two-time reigning AL champions have willingly played a 63 OPS+ hitter 265 times (including playoffs) in two seasons.

Best MLB Catchers: No.18 – Mike Zunino, Cleveland Guardians

Zunino was one of the best catchers in 2021. He made the All-Star team, slugged 33 home runs, and finished 20th in AL MVP voting. Last year, he had an on-base percentage below .200, an OPS below .500, and an OPS+ of 44. He went from nearly a 4-WAR player to a -0.8 WAR player. Where is the real Zunino?

Zunino has always had catastrophic contact issues, but his walk rate halved, and he never quite made the same noisy contact he did in every other season of his career. From 2016 to 2021, Zunino never had a barrel rate below 11% – a mark that dipped to 8.6% in 2022. When he makes contact, he demolishes the baseball, but he was rarely making quality contact – and it seemed to hurt his defense.

Best MLB Catchers: No.17 – Yasmani Grandal, Chicago White Sox

Somehow, Grandal is a more exaggerated Zunino. Grandal might have been the best (or second-best) catcher in 2022, but he had a disaster of a season. His WAR fell by over five wins, and his OPS+ dropped by 91 points. Grandal’s batted-ball stats also went off the deep end. He maintained his elite walk rate (despite it cutting in half), but he was in the bottom 10 percentiles in expected batting average and expected slugging percentage.

Now 34, Grandal is in a strange spot. His plate discipline and framing are worth banking on, but the other 90% of his production is now in question. He was in the first percentile in both pop time and sprint speed, and his lack of consistent hard contact is alarming.

Best MLB Catchers: No.16 – Austin Nola, San Diego Padres

Like his brother, Nola is a difficult player to rank. He is tremendous at making contact, posting some of the best strikeout, whiff, and chase rates in the game regardless of position. However, his contact is far from ideal as he ranks in the middle of the pack in exit velocity and hard-hit rate. On defense, the story is much the same – he is a solid blocker, but he had a poor season as a framer.

Nola has a healthy 106 OPS+ for his career, but he has posted a mark of 95 over his tenure in San Diego. The ceiling is limited, but his rate of contact could lead to some hot stretches when the BABIP gods are on his side.

Best MLB Catchers: No.15 – Omar Narvaez, New York Mets

For what feels like the 100th catcher in a row, Narvaez is coming off a down season. He was an All-Star in 2021, finishing with a 101 OPS+ and 10 framing runs. In 2022, he had a 71 OPS+, negative DRS, and only six framing runs. He also has a below-average pop time. However, he piqued the interest of the free-spending Mets, capitalizing on an $8 million deal. Which Narvaez will the Mets get?

Even if the bat is not there, Narvaez is one of the better framers in baseball. He also improved dramatically as a pitch blocker in 2022, advancing from -12 blocks above average to 0. He has above-average plate discipline, and perhaps he could string some good at-bats together in Queens this season.

Best MLB Catchers: No.14 – Christian Vazquez, Minnesota Twins

Now a two-time World Series champion, Vazquez signed a three-year deal with the Twins to be their full-time backstop. He had a tale of two seasons last year. With Boston, Vazquez was on pace for a 4-WAR season, and he had a 109 OPS+ with 20 doubles. With Houston, he had a negative WAR, an OPS+ of 68, and an ISO of .058. All told, he finished with a 99 OPS+ and 2.1 WAR.

The real Vazquez is likely in the middle. He is a contact-first catcher with competent defense. He might not win a Gold Glove, but he finished above average in pop time, framing, and blocking in 2022. Since 2019, he has had a 95 OPS+. If the Twins get that version of Vazquez, he will be a top-half catcher.

Best MLB Catchers: No.13 – Tyler Stephenson, Cincinnati Reds

Unlike most catchers, Stephenson is an offense-first player. He will get some time at both first base and designated hitter just to keep his bat in the lineup. Across 190 games over three seasons, Stephenson has slashed .296/.369/.454 for an OPS+ of 115. Among the 45 players to catch 125 games over the last three seasons, Stephenson is tied for sixth in OPS+. Four of the other five are ranked ahead of Stephenson, and the fifth is the positionless Alejandro Kirk.

The drawback to Stephenson’s offensive production is his suspect defensive capabilities. He has -3 framing runs and -4 blocks above average in his career. He has a good arm, but he projects as a long-term first baseman rather than a catcher. On the bright side, if he hits as he did in 2022 (.319/.372/.482, 130 OPS+), his position will not matter.

Best MLB Catchers: No.12 – Salvador Perez, Kansas City Royals

On the aforementioned list of best MLB catchers ranked by OPS+ since 2020, Perez is second. The former World Series MVP and seven-time All-Star continued his barrage on baseballs in 2022, launching a healthy 23 doubles and 23 home runs. The main issue is that Perez had more home runs in 2021 than extra-base hits in 2022. He was still worth multiple WAR for the 10th season in a row – if you follow defensive runs saved and ignore framing.

Framing runs have been tracked by Baseball Savant since 2015. Perez has an extraordinary -83 framing runs in this time. He has posted -10 or worse in five seasons, and he likely would have performed worse than -8 last season if he had played a few extra games. Perez actively hurts his pitching staff, but he sometimes makes up for it with his bat.

Best MLB Catchers: No.11 – Jonah Heim, Texas Rangers

On the spectrum, Heim is on the opposite end from Perez. He ranked 30th on the OPS+ list but his framing is elite. However, the best seems to be yet to come for Heim. He has steadily progressed both as a hitter and fielder. If the trend continues, he will be a Silver Slugger contender and the best defensive catcher in baseball. Last season, he had a 98 OPS+ to go with 12 framing runs.

Heim is not a perfect defensive catcher – his arm and blocking are below average – but his framing is useful enough that he could be in the lineup over 130 times. He also does not always make useful contact (21st-percentile xwOBA), but he has reasonable plate discipline. With a solid season, Heim will be an easy inclusion in next year’s top 10 list.

Let us know what you think of our Best MLB Catchers ranking so far in the comments below and be sure to look for our final Best MLB Catchers ranking!

Main image credit Embed from Getty Images

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