You probably don’t think of baseball as a contact sport, though catchers might beg to differ. Whether it’s blocking a baseball or taking a foul ball to the mask, catchers are constantly at war with a five-ounce ball of leather. That’s why catchers have to commit to blocking through and through. You can’t cheat your way to being a good blocker; you have to learn your pitchers to understand what pitches they tend to spike and how those pitches spin off a bounce. The stakes will always depend on the situation, but as a catcher, you try to gain the confidence in your pitcher to throw a pitch in the dirt by committing to the grind in the bullpen, during warmup pitches, and in game.
I’ve been anticipating Statcast adding blocking metrics for a while now. As a former college catcher, it doesn’t take much to make me appreciate the league’s great blockers, but our culture in baseball gives more attention and value to the things we can measure. With the introduction of the new blocking leaderboard, we no longer need to guess at just how impactful or skilled some catchers are relative to their peers.
In a similar fashion to how I reviewed Statcast’s arm strength leaderboards, I am going to highlight some of the best blocking catchers in the game. The criteria for this exercise is straightforward: I took the catchers ranked first through fifth on the default leaderboard and chose what I deemed to be an impressive pair of blocks from each from the 2022 season. The mechanics of blocking can vary from player to player, but what matters most is killing the speed of the bounce with the lower half of your chest protector. These five catchers can do that on a variety of pitches going in any direction.
Adley Rutschman (no. 1 overall, 18 Blocks Above Average)
I’ll start with this: the debate between catching with one knee down versus in a traditional stance has no absolute answer; it’s entirely dependent on the individual catcher. In the case of Adley Rutschman, he is capable of being both a top-tier framer and blocker primarily in the traditional stance. But the combination of his mobility, flexibility, and hip anatomy allows him to shift his knees down from his traditional stance without needing to get into a pronounced traditional squat.
On this 90-mph splitter from Félix Bautista, Rutschman anticipated the pitch in the dirt and blocked up with what looked like an effortless movement. Bautista is without question one of the most difficult pitchers in the game to catch: triple digits from a straight over-the-top arm slot high off the ground, paired with a blistering splitter that hitters swing through over half the time. Because of that, Rutschman must always be ready to get his knees on the ground and stuff the splitter, especially when runners are on. He put on a clinic all year, and this pitch was no exception.
The second block was just as impressive. On a 92-mph changeup, Rutschman read the arm-side spin and opened up his left hip to create space for a side shuffle to get in front of the baseball. Blocking pitches over 90 mph is a doozy, but it’s all in day’s work for one of the best in the game.
Jose Trevino (no. 2 overall, 15 Blocks Above Average)
Every time I watch Jose Trevino catch, it’s clear to me that he is a former infielder. The way he can shift and rotate his hips while in such a deep position is truly impressive. He is one of the catchers who can have one knee down and be even better at blocking. Since he has such a great feel for his pitcher’s tendencies, he can sink into his one knee stance and block a Gerrit Cole knuckle curve in the dirt if he needs to, or get under the pitch and frame it if it’s in the shadow zone.
The sweeper he blocked from Lucas Luetge with the bases loaded was what I like to call a confidence block. Luetge’s strength is using his sweeper for soft contact and chases on his glove side; that he throws it on an 0–1 count with the bases loaded says a lot about his trust in his catcher. And Trevino stuffed the sweeper right in front of him, showing me that he was relaxed as can be. When a pitch is about to hit your chest protector, you’re taught to exhale so you can soften your body and accept the pitch into your stomach rather than stiffening up. Few catchers do that as well as the Yankees’ backstop.
J.T. Realmuto (no. 3 overall, 14 Blocks Above Average)
J.T. Realmuto is an iron man behind the plate: He has caught over 130 games in back-to-back years, including a deep playoff run last year where he did not miss a single game. This is a perfect example of an everyday catcher who relies on the one knee down stance to take some wear and tear off his body. Like Trevino, he uses it to his advantage when blocking. Because he is so flexible, he can extend his right leg outwards as far as he can, which lets him get ahead of the movement; in a traditional stance, you have to recognize the pitch, then shoot your leg out for a block.
A spiked changeup is no challenge for Realmuto. His body is already in a perfect position to be a wall for a long or short hop. All he has to do is move his glove to cover his five hole like he did in the first clip. The reason I included the blocked curveball was so that I could highlight how he uses his legs to recover from the block in a one knee down stance. Focus on how his left knee slides inward as the pitch hits his chest protector. That lets him tighten his five hole and put his body in a better position to shoot up quickly. He then pulls in his extended right leg under the center of his body so he can push off both legs to chase the pitch to ensure the runner doesn’t advance. This is not a simple movement; it requires next-level mobility and strength to pop up this quickly. It’s just one of the many strengths of Realmuto’s catching game.
Sean Murphy (no. 4 overall, 12 Blocks Above Average)
As a baseball fan on the east coast, I didn’t always get a chance to watch Sean Murphy display his catching prowess in Oakland. But in doing the research for this piece, I was impressed to see how athletic he is back there. Blocking splitters that hit the plate is a painful job; when any pitch hits the plate, it hardly loses any speed. But Murphy grew up in the bigs catching and blocking this pitch from Frankie Montas, and he is a better defensive catcher for it.
Murphy’s stance — with his behind high up in the air — is reminiscent of an old school catcher preparing to stuff a pitch in the dirt. You’ll notice that in the second GIF, he also uses the one knee down stance to block. Some catchers will vary their stance depending on the pitcher. As I said earlier, blocking splitters is extremely difficult; in fact, I’d bet it’s the toughest pitch for catchers to get in front of when it’s spiked because of how it can bounce off dirt. That’s why Murphy opted for the traditional stance with Montas but went with one knee on a curveball from Jared Koenig. When you know your pitchers, you can be savvy with how you set yourself up for success.
Tomás Nido (no. 5 overall, 12 Blocks Above Average)
This wouldn’t be an article about great catching without including a Puerto Rican backstop. Tomás Nido is your classic backup defense-first catcher who has made his carer off being an elite framer and blocker. His placement on this list is incredible given that he is only a part-time player. Similar to some of the catchers already highlighted, he is dealing with some electric pitchers with air-bending offerings. I didn’t include traditional chest protector blocks in either clip because I wanted to use Nido as an opportunity to talk about a crucial part of catching/blocking that isn’t always realized: the art of picking.
Picking is a flashy, beautiful move that can only be executed by players with the softest of hands. The retired Yadier Molina always had a knack for picking balls that looked destined for the backstop, and his fellow Puerto Rican Nido is no different. On an overthrown changeup from Max Scherzer, Nido smoothly moves his glove across the zone and effortlessly stops the pitch from getting by him. He did almost the same thing on the spiked changeup from Joely Rodríguez, but in the opposite direction. Picking is something that you do when you know you have no shot at blocking a pitch. It’s a necessary skill that isn’t always rigorously trained, but it should be for that exact reason. Depending on how you were set up, there are times when there is no shot to contort your body in front of the ball. When that time comes, all you have is your glove and your instincts. Nido has proven time and time again he can do this on a pinch.
I hope you’ve come away from this piece learning a thing or two about blocking. There are the obvious things you cannot miss when it comes to blocking, but aspects such as recovery, picking, and exhaling upon impact are all minute details that don’t always get attention. This list of catchers displays those abilities on a routine basis, and that is why they have found themselves atop this new leaderboard.