All guts, no glory. For decades, that has described the plight of today’s Major League Baseball catchers. They squat down behind the plate and sacrifice their bodies to make sure the pitcher of the moment is on his game. Base-runners prefer to plow over them. Lethal wooden weapons swoosh inches away from their heads and balls moving at 100 mph crash into the dirt and then into their protective gear.
Today, though, there is another major drawback. Catchers these days play fewer games than in past generations, and their frequent trips to the bench, often referred to as days of rest, make them less likely to reach 200 hits, 30 homers, 100 RBIs or other milestones that fans take as the sign of a skilled player.
In an earlier era, it was commonplace for young catchers to play in 140 or more games. Gary Carter, a 2003 Hall of Fame inductee, caught in 140 or more games nine times during his 19-year career. Johnny Bench, a 1989 Hall of Fame inductee, caught in 140 or more games nine times during a 10-year span. In 1970, Bench caught all but four games for the Cincinnati Reds. Four years later, he was absent for only two of the team’s 162 games.
During the 2009 season, though, only Oakland A’s catcher Kurt Suzuki played in more than 140 games. He played in 147 games. Only 11 other catchers caught 100 or more games. That means more than half of all teams split the catching duties equally between two or three players.
The reasons for this modern model are many. Foremost, today’s teams have a deeper supply of capable catchers. As well, some pitchers have partnered with certain catchers, making it necessary to sub for the starting catcher when that pitcher has his turn on the mound. Managers also appear to favor giving their catchers a break. Apparently, they’ve learned to appreciate that catchers take a bit of a beating.
The result of the trend, though, is not so positive in terms of the legacies that catchers leave behind. Because they don’t play in as many games today, several catchers fail to qualify these days for a batting championship, and most catchers are unable to produce the gaudy offensive numbers that make players at other positions stars.
To qualify for the batting title, hitters need to accumulate 3.1 plate appearances for each of their team’s games. For the current 162-game schedule, that means that catchers need at least 502 plate appearances. That’s simply unattainable for catchers who play in fewer than 125 games per season.
The issue becomes more acute when one thinks in terms of the Hall of Fame. A catcher who plays in only 125 games loses around 100 at bats a season compared to players at other positions. That results in fewer career hits, fewer career homers and fewer career RBIs. Most likely, it also results in fewer Hall of Fame votes.
In 2009, no catcher hit 30 or more homers, a mark Bench reached four times during his 17-year career. In the 1970s, Bench’s power was a rarity. Today, though, several catchers are capable of 30-homer seasons. It’s just that they never get the necessary at-bats to achieve the mark. A fine example of this is Mike Napoli. The Los Angeles Angels catcher had 20 homers in his first 354 at-bats during the 2010 season. Because he often took days off, though, his at-bats total was approximately 100 fewer than starters at other positions. Joe Mauer, the American League batting champion in 2009, also faced some hurdles when he missed time with a calf injury midway through the season.
So the next time the public address announcer lists the starting lineup, perhaps it would be fitting to toss out a few extra hoots and howls for the man with the toughest job in baseball.