Let me begin by stating that this is a subjective topic. Some may agree, some may not. Either way, I’ll definitely be curious for the feedback.
No position in baseball is necessarily easy, especially at the big league level. If a player wants to stick on a big league roster, he must do something at his particular position that forces his manager and the club’s front office to consider him an asset worth keeping. Some guys make it the show and have long and productive careers because they have the skills that enable them to play at a high level for a long time. There are others who scratch and claw in the minors in hopes of at least becoming the 25th guy on the roster. A club’s franchise player and utility infielder will differ in terms of playing time, tenure, and salary. But both have specific jobs and need to work hard to keep those jobs based on their skill set.
But which jobs for position players are considered the most difficult to do? Ones that really require guys to be at their physical and mental best. For me it’s a tie between starting catcher and the double whammy of batting leadoff and playing center field.
Today I’ll make the case for starting catcher as the most grueling job for a position player.
In the case of being a starting catcher, it’s an exhausting job both mentally and physically. There’s so much mental preparation catcher’s need to go through beforehand. They need to study the opposing hitters and discover any weaknesses. They need to discuss a game plan with the starting pitcher and find out what his best pitches are going to be and see if the repertoire will lead to advantages and/or disadvantages going into the game. The mental preparation for constructing a game plan for run prevention is arguably more important for a catcher than his own offensive production. Catchers tend to not be the most dangerous hitters in the lineup. A lot of it’s due to the mental preparation as well as the physical toll the job does to their bodies.
The physical aspect of catching comes into play offensively and defensively. Being in the crouched position does a number on the lower body. Catchers need to keep themselves in good physical condition to endure the amount of time they are positioned in a way the human body does not liked to be positioned.
The biggest asset a catcher can physically have from a defensive standpoint is an excellent throwing arm. For all the praise Jason Varitek received (and rightfully so) for his excellent game preparation and handling of pitchers, he was never the best thrower to second base. It became very painfully obvious as his career winded down that the throwing arm turned him into somewhat of a defensive liability.
If a catcher is an above average contributor, teams tend to find other ways to pencil them into the lineup. For AL clubs, it’s a little easier. Joe Mauer is one of the game’s best hitters. Not just at catcher, but in all of baseball. Luckily he’s on an AL club and can play DH on days where Ron Gardenhire wants him to rest his legs (he also played some 1B while Justin Mourneau was recovering from his concussion). In the NL, it’s much more tricky. Craig Biggio‘s bat was dubbed too valuable to keep him at catcher. Since the Astro’s were in the NL at the time, and the NL does not use a DH, Biggio had to be moved to another full-time position. He would bounce between playing second base and outfield (primarily LF and CF) in a Hall of Fame-worthy career (if over 3,000 hits, 1800 runs scored, and the sacred HBP record aren’t first ballot-worthy, I don’t know what is).
One guy who really lives up to being the complete package at catcher: Yadier Molinaof the Cardinals. He’s caught over 1100 innings in each of the last four seasons (playing between 135
and 138 games behind the plate in those years) and is on pace to do it again this season (80 games behind the dish and 690 innings so far). Despite the physical hardships he endures, Molina excels at his position. He’s excellent at game preparation, which explains his club’s overall record and staff ERA. When it comes to throwing out base runners, nobody else comes close. His caught stealing percentage has been better than the league average in every season of his career. With the exception of 2011 (Molina CS% 29% just one point higher than the league average of 28%), it’s usually never close. Molina has also emerged as a legit offensive contributor in recent seasons, hitting over .300 the past two and currently the NL with an impressive .343 batting average.
Catching definitely makes it’s case as the game’s most grueling position. Most of them aren’t the best hitters and many aren’t necessarily the best at throwing guys out either. Regardless, a starting catcher puts in a lot of effort to try and contribute with the bat while also doing his part in preventing the other team from scoring.
Coming tomorrow: Part II