Head to Head (Part 1): Ranking the Catchers in the NL East

The 2012 Philadelphia Phillies begin their season in just a week, and expectations are high for the Phillies to capture their sixth consecutive NL East title. It won’t be easy though, as both the Miami Marlins and Washington Nationals have made substantial improvements to their team, and the Atlanta Braves have a young team that could easily be the class of the division within several years.

This will be the first article in a series that will break down each position in the NL East, beginning with the five backstoppers.

5. Josh Thole, New York Mets: The New York Mets have themselves a pretty solid catcher in Josh Thole, a 25-year old catcher with solid enough offensive skills. Thole posted a .268/.345/.344 statline in 386 plate appearances last season. He doesn’t have much power (just three home runs and 40 RBIs) but he’s an improvement over the likes of Rod Barajas, Omir Santos, and Brian Schneider that have held down the fort behind the plate since Mike Piazza left.

Thole definitely has some improvements to do defensively – he led all NL catchers by allowing 16 passes balls, and he threw out just 21 percent of base runners attempting to steal, but he did rank third in the league with a .997 fielding percentage. Thole should be counted on to catch around 120 games, bat .270, and rank among the middle of the pack in the game in catchers.

4. John Buck, Miami Marlins: The Florida Marlins acquired John Buck before the 2011 season because of his above-average offensive skills, and then they saw his statline drop from .281/.314/.489 with the 2010 Toronto Blue Jays to .227/.316/.367 with the Marlins in 2011. Buck has solid enough power, hitting 16 home runs with 57 RBIs last season, and he caught a career-high 140 games, 22 more than any other year of his career.

Even though Buck’s batting average dropped over 50 points from ’10 to ’11, his on-base percentage went up because he increased his walk rate an incredible enough. Defensively, Buck isn’t anything to brag about; he gets the job done and that’s about it. His .995 fielding percentage is a couple of points higher than the league mark, but he threw out just 17 percent of stolen base runners in 2011.

3. Wilson Ramos, Washington Nationals: Wilson Ramos made offseason headlines when he was kidnapped in his hometown of Venezuela, although he was safely returned and is cleared to play baseball again in 2012. Ramos is coming off a strong rookie season in which he finished fourth in the league Rookie of the Year voting, posting a .267/.334/.445 statline with 15 home runs, 52 RBIs, and a 113 adjusted OPS in 435 plate appearances.

Ramos has a strong arm, throwing out 32 percent of base runners in 2011, and he posted both a range factor and fielding percentage slightly above league average marks. At just 23 years old, he should be a solid enough catcher for the Washington Nationals for many more seasons.

2. Carlos Ruiz, Philadelphia Phillies: It’s a close race between Carlos Ruiz and Brian McCann for the best catcher in the division, but McCann wins it by a slim margin. Ruiz posted a .283/.371/.383 statline with six home runs and 40 RBIs in 472 plate appearances. He doesn’t bring a lot of power, but he’s a good contact hitter and draws an impressive amount of walks.

Ruiz is extremely adept at handling the pitching staff, whether it’s Roy Halladay’s assortment of pitches, the fastball/slider combination thrown by Brad Lidge the last several years, or Cole Hamels’ devastating changeup. Ruiz caught a career-high 132 games in 2011, drawing MVP votes for the second consecutive season. He struggled immensely in the playoffs, hitting just .059 (1-for-17) in the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Ruiz probably isn’t quite as good defensively as everyone thinks – he finished fifth in the league in fielding percentage but committed the second-most passed balls in the league, and threw out just 23 percent of runners trying to steal, his lowest total since his rookie campaign. Ruiz is still an extremely vital part of the Phillies, and with his contract year looming, it’s likely that the Phillies will extend Ruiz for several seasons before he hits the free agent market.

1. Brian McCann, Atlanta Braves: Brian McCann has made six straight NL All-Star teams, and he’s got a clear argument as the best catcher in the game, especially with Joe Mauer struggling to stay healthy. McCann is extremely durable – he’s caught at least 128 games for six consecutive seasons, and he’s averaged .286/.358/.386 with 22 home runs and 86 RBIs per campaign.

McCann has some flaws in his game behind the plate, as he led the league in stolen bases allowed (104) in 2011 and committed seven passed balls. But he’s also behind the plate for as many innings as anyone in the league, and both his .995 fielding percentage and 14 double plays last season were each new career bests.

McCann is still just 28 years old, and he’s entering the final season of a six-year, $29.8 million deal he signed with the Atlanta Braves prior to the ’07 season. McCann is due to hit a big payday, and the Braves have every reason to pay him because he’s a vital part of their lineup.

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