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 to determine the best MLB catchers. 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).
Best MLB Catchers: 10-1
Best MLB Catchers: No.10 – Jose Trevino, New York Yankees
The AL’s Platinum Glove winner opens the top 10. At any other position, Trevino might be in the bottom third, but catcher defense is so crucial that he finds himself in the top 10 despite posting a 90 OPS+ in 2022. Trevino made the All-Star team and won his first Gold Glove last year in his first season in the Bronx. He had largely been a part-time player in Texas in his first four seasons, but the Yankees let Trevino shoulder their catcher load, and he impressed.
After being a solid framer in Texas (+8 framing runs), Trevino made the jump to superstar framer with an excellent +17 framing runs last year. He also tacked on 18 blocks above the league average. He might not have a rocket launcher of an arm, and he might be a below-average hitter, but he steals more strikes than anyone.
Best MLB Catchers: No.9 – Carson Kelly, Arizona Diamondbacks
In four seasons in Arizona, Kelly has two good years and two bad years. In the two good years, he had an OPS+ over 100, catching a total of 192 games and accumulating 3.8 WAR. In the other two seasons, Kelly had an OPS+ in the 70s and tallied 0.6 WAR in 143 games. Last year was one of Kelly’s bad years as he struggled to a .211/.282/.334 line. Sometimes the batted-ball data provides a silver lining, and Kelly’s plate discipline is the only offensive trait worth salvaging.
Unlike the host of disappointing catchers who featured in the 20-11 list, Kelly was still solid defensively. He was an average blocker and thrower, but he posted +3 DRS and +3 framing runs. If he meets in the middle between his 2021 and 2022 production, he should be a healthy candidate to be a top-10 catcher once again.
Best MLB Catchers: No.8 – Danny Jansen, Toronto Blue Jays
The only issue in Jansen’s game is that he is teammates with another young stud catcher. He has played just 323 games over five seasons, but he has blossomed over the last two seasons as a power threat. In 142 games over the last two seasons, Jansen has 26 home runs while slashing .243/.321/.496 and posting a 124 OPS+. He also has 4.2 WAR and reasonable defense in this span.
If Jansen and Alejandro Kirk were not competing for games and plate appearances, they both could be in the top five. However, they will likely continue to split time, forcing small sample sizes onto baseball fans everywhere. The Blue Jays have a good problem to have – possessing three capable catchers (including Daulton Varsho) – but it is a difficult decision to play them together in case of injury.
Best MLB Catchers: No.7 – William Contreras, Milwaukee Brewers
The younger Contreras brother had a huge breakout season for the Atlanta Braves. He swatted 20 home runs, posted a 138 OPS+, and made the All-Star team (as a designated hitter). He positively demolished left-handed pitching (1.036 OPS) while still being a 120 OPS+ player against righties. After a huge May, Contreras was remarkably consistent as he had an OPS above .800 in each of the last three months.
Like his brother, Contreras’ defensive value comes from his arm. He posted -3 framing runs for the second season in a row, and he also had -3 blocks above average. Contreras is similar to another NL Central catcher in Tyler Stephenson. He might be better suited to play a position other than catcher, but if he continues to hit, he will always have a place on the diamond.
Best MLB Catchers: No.6 – Willson Contreras, St. Louis Cardinals
Staying in the same family, the older brother also mashed in 2022. He slashed .243/.349/.466 for a 128 OPS+. He slugged 20 home runs for the fourth time, and he coaxed 24 hit by pitches as well. Contreras had an exceptional 94th-percentile xwOBA and 90th-percentile hard-hit rate. He whiffs a little more than one would like, but he walks more than average, and he makes a lot of loud contact. He was in the 98th percentile in maximum exit velocity.
Contreras racked up 0 framing runs and -4 blocks above average. He had a 79th-percentile pop time which alleviates some of his other defensive issues, but Contreras is a step below the remaining catchers because of his defense. He might be a better hitter than at least two of the next five players, but they are superior all-around catchers.
Best MLB Catchers: No.5 – Cal Raleigh, Seattle Mariners
Famous for his excellent nickname – Big Dumper – Raleigh had play that backed up the nickname in 2022. He blasted 27 home runs, posted 3.9 WAR, and hit the biggest home run in the history of the Seattle Mariners. His batted-ball data is particularly solid (besides his 8th-percentile expected batting average). His ranking among the best MLB catchers is something of a projection, but Raleigh is one of few catchers who blends great offense and great defense.
In 2022, Raleigh had a 122 OPS+ despite hitting .211. Defensively, he was a Gold Glove finalist and owner of +9 framing runs. This is made all the more impressive because Raleigh was dealing with a wrist injury late in the season and the playoffs. The future is incredibly bright for Seattle, and Raleigh is one major reason why. He is only 26, and if he generates more reliable contact, he could be a top-three catcher soon.
Best MLB Catchers: No.4 – Will Smith, Los Angeles Dodgers
Smith has played four seasons in the Majors. He has four seasons with a 120 or better OPS+. For context, Johnny Bench had five seasons in which he played 90% of his games as a catcher and had 130 plate appearances with a 120 OPS+. His defense has been questionable at times, but Smith is a terrific hitter with a career 129 OPS+ and 49 home runs since 2021. He has 7.6 WAR over the last two seasons, and his batted-ball profile says he could be even better moving forward based on his exceptional plate discipline.
The only part of Smith’s game keeping him out of the top three is his defense which is average. Last year, he had -2 framing runs but +6 blocks above average. For his career, he has -4 framing runs and +3 blocks above average. If he can trend slightly better, Smith could be the best catcher in baseball. For the moment, he must settle for being an elite hitter – perhaps the best at the position – but an average fielder.
Best MLB Catchers: No.3 – Sean Murphy, Atlanta Braves
Murphy is a tick behind Smith as a hitter (career 114 OPS+), but he brings excellent defense to the equation. He has racked up +19 framing runs over the last three years, and he has +27 blocks above average. He has healthy peripherals, and his raw numbers will appreciate his new environment in Atlanta. Murphy also has one of the best arms in the business, sporting a 96th-percentile pop time. He is a former Gold Glover, and he finished 22nd in AL MVP last year after a 120 OPS+ season.
Murphy played 148 games last year, catching 116 of them (including 111 complete games). He might not have quite the same usage in 2023 as he now shares a position group with 2022 All-Star Travis d’Arnaud, but he is Atlanta’s No. 1, and d’Arnaud will be available as a bench bat and rotational catcher. Had d’Arnaud stayed the starter, he likely would have been sandwiched between Contreras and Raleigh.
Best MLB Catchers: No.2 – J.T. Realmuto, Philadelphia Phillies
The top two of the best MLB catchers are quite interchangeable. For the first 28 catchers, there was a shortcoming in some ways. Some players were defensive wizards and black holes on offense. Other players were offensive juggernauts but could not stick at catcher. Not only do the top two catchers bring elite offense and defense to the table, but they both also have a trump card not usually found at the catcher spot.
Realmuto’s trump card is his excellent base running. In 2022, he swiped 21 bags and had a sprint speed in the 85th percentile. He might not be deployed as often as other speedy players to keep his injury risk down, but Realmuto is incredibly economical with his attempts, converting 47 of 53 stolen base attempts in four years with the Phillies.
In addition to his base-running, Realmuto is a great hitter. He has an OPS+ of 109 or better in seven straight seasons including three trips north of 124. Last year, he posted his best season, racking up an OPS+ of 129 with 22 home runs and 26 doubles. The batted-ball data backs up Realmuto as a stellar hitter. On defense, he has the best arm in baseball, and he is an above-average framer.
Best MLB Catchers: No.1 – Adley Rutschman, Baltimore Orioles
Rutschman’s trump card is his plate discipline. In his first 113 games in the Majors, he had 65 walks – good for a 13.8% walk rate. He could walk more than he strikes out this year as he makes more consistent contact. Rutschman slashed .254/.362/.445 for an OPS+ of 128 – one point behind Realmuto. He mashed 35 doubles, and when the doubles become a few extra home runs, Rutschman will become the unquestioned No. 1 catcher in baseball.
However, Rutschman might be even better defensively. He had a 79th-percentile pop time and +4 framing runs. He was also stellar at blocking pitches in the dirt, accumulating +18 blocks above average. He might not have Realmuto’s raw speed, but Rutcschman is a savvy base runner, posting +4 base runs. Rutschman was one of just 21 players to have at least +1 batting runs, base runs, double play runs, and fielding runs in 2022.
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