Depending on your perspective, it’s a very fun time to be a catcher. Admittedly, I may be imparting some personal bias here since my favorite part of catching was always when a runner took off for second base. It’s the one time in a game when the catcher is in the spotlight. Most of your time as a backstop consists of serving your pitcher in whatever way they need, but with the increase in stolen base attempts this year, catchers have consistently found themselves with golden opportunities to show off their throwing skills. Because of this, arm strength and pop time are as important as they’ve been in the last few decades, and some catchers have been early standouts when it comes to controlling the running game.
The importance of throwing out runners, or even limiting attempts, has made a comeback. As we progress through the next few months, we’ll gain a more precise understanding of just how valuable this skill can be in this stolen base environment, but the early season trends indicate that if you can throw out runners at a good rate, you’ll be one of the most valuable defensive players in the league. And there are a few catchers who have stood apart from the rest of the field when it comes to this being a significant part of their overall value so far. I’m going to highlight two of them in this piece. The first is Gabriel Moreno.
Through the first few weeks of play, no player has produced more defensive value than the young catcher in Arizona and much of that is due to his success throwing out runners. In Moreno’s 2022 prospect report, Eric Longenhagen reported that the catcher sat in the 1.95-1.98 pop time range while in the Arizona Fall League. That would have been slightly above the big league average. However, so far this season, he has been excellent, averaging 1.90 seconds according to Baseball Savant. The combination of his pop time and five caught stealing in eight attempts (63%) has provided the D-backs with plenty of fun, but also with the reassurance that their catcher can still provide value despite struggling offensively (he has posted a meager 62 wRC+ in 52 plate appearances).
Moreno’s J.T. Realmuto-esque athleticism is a crucial aspect of his defensive skills. While it’s clear that being athletic is beneficial to any catcher (or any player for that matter), it’s still worth mentioning how it plays out for Moreno. As a smooth and quick mover, he can quickly transfer the ball from his glove to his hand in each part of the zone while maintaining perfect footwork from a one-knee down stance. Depending on the catcher, this can be very difficult, but Moreno makes it looks easy since his body is so adjustable. Check out these two throws from a one-knee down stance on pitches in different locations from a righty and lefty pitcher:
April 1 (Freddie Freeman running, Madison Bumgarner pitching)
April 10 (Joey Wiemer running, Zac Gallen pitching)
Madison Bumgarner was as slow as can be to home plate. With a long, high leg kick and big arm swing, even a runner with 39th-percentile sprint speed like Freddie Freeman felt confident enough to swipe the base with a big jump. However, Freeman did not account for Moreno’s cat-like quickness and pinpoint accuracy on top of the bag. Accuracy is an important piece of catcher throwing that’s still missing from Baseball Savant’s metrics, but here we can see why it’s so important to be accurate on these throws. It can be the difference between the runner being safe or out on a play like this, even if it wasn’t immediately clear to the umpire. The initial call was safe, but replay review showed that Ketel Marte’s glove hit Freeman’s leg in time.
Moreno was just as accurate on the other throw. Zac Gallen was quick to home, but his loopy curve slowed things down, leading to Moreno having little room for error on the throw. Despite Joey Wiemer’s 95th-percentile sprint speed, Moreno sent him back to the dugout with a quick transfer and a seed down to second. Moreno didn’t get a strike call on a pitch that was in the zone, but his presentation to the umpire was still clear due to his one-knee stance creating a lane for the umpire’s eyes to see the ball. This is an incredible skill to have. Many catchers don’t give the ump a chance to see the location of the pitch, but with this stance, Moreno assures he can still secure strikes while making perfect throws.
Another catcher who doesn’t quite have the framing skills of Moreno but possesses an accurate, rocket throwing arm is Willson Contreras .
April 3 (Ronald Acuña Jr. running, Jake Woodford pitching)
April 17 (Alek Thomas running, Jack Flaherty pitching)
Contreras has always been a standout thrower, but he hardly needed to flex those muscles in the last few years of his career in Chicago. As a below-average receiver and blocker, Contreras’ defensive skills and output were not suggestive of a long future behind the dish as he continues to age. However, if he proves to be a top-tier thrower, his value as a catcher will need to be re-evaluated. So far, he has been the fifth-most valuable defensive player in the league despite his limitations elsewhere as a fielder.
Throwing out Ronald Acuña Jr. and Alek Thomas is nothing to sneeze at either. Both runners had good jumps, but the combination of Contreras’ rocket arm and Jack Flaherty and Jake Woodford’s quick deliveries beat them with plenty of time. Contreras isn’t super quick with his transfer, but his 87.4 mph average throwing velocity makes up for it. That mark is the highest in the league so far according to Baseball Savant. If he continues to couple his great arm strength with his current 123 wRC+, Contreras could be in for a career year with the Cardinals. They would certainly love to continue having a catcher who baserunners fear.
There are more catchers than just these two who have provided their pitching staff with comfort when it comes to handling the run game. Some of those include Elias Díaz (5-for-10 versus would be basestealers), Connor Wong (4-for-6), and Martín Maldonado (4-for-8). On the other hand, some standout defensive catchers from previous seasons have been a liability with throwing out runners: Jose Trevino (0-for-10) and Austin Barnes (2-for-17). Of course, some of this has to do with pitchers letting runners take too big of a lead and/or jump, but it’s notable nonetheless. For example, if Trevino is unable to limit the running game at all this season and going forward, does his value as a framer and blocker make up for his lack of hitting and throwing? On the other hand, a catcher like Connor Wong has been able to add another piece to his game as his bat continues to develop at the big league level. This will be a key contributor in buying him time to stick around.
Players like Gabriel Moreno and Willson Contreras have given their teams an edge while other catchers have done the opposite. It’s still a bit early to know for sure, but if we continue at this rate, we may have to adjust our prior understanding of catcher defensive value.