AP Baseball Writer
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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Fifteen years ago, shortstops such as Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra changed the perception of their position from slick fielders with little pop to run producers who could still hold their own with the glove.
Now, it’s do-everything catchers such as Buster Posey, Yadier Molina and Joe Mauer, along with up-and-coming youngsters Wilin Rosario, Matt Wieters and Salvador Perez, showing remarkable versatility from both the crouch and the batter’s box.
Ex-shortstop Alan Trammell, former catchers-turned-managers Bob Melvin, Jim Leyland and Bruce Bochy have each seen all kinds of trends during decades in the game, and right now they’re all impressed with the latest crew of catchers.
“It’s a lot different than when I played. Johnny Bench started it, and Yogi (Berra) before,” said Leyland, manager of the Detroit Tigers. “Years ago, offense wasn’t as prevalent with catchers as in today’s world. Similar to shortstop. Way back when, you wanted a shortstop who caught everything and you really didn’t care how much they hit. Now the shortstops have become offensive players. It’s just a change in the time.”
Five-tool catchers have become commonplace. Their success shows in the numbers at this early stage of the season, too.
For the first time since 1977, when Hall of Fame backstops Gary Carter, Carlton Fisk, Johnny Bench were manning the position, catchers are outhitting the rest of the league.
“The catching position is one that for a few years here, maybe the last decade, wasn’t the most prominent position,” said the Oakland Athletics’ Melvin, reigning AL Manager of the Year. “It’s good to see so many good catchers you have to worry about not only defensively but offensively.
On-base percentage plus slugging percentage (OPS) for catchers through Wednesday’s games was .732, compared to .712 for all players. And catchers’ slugging percentage of .417 is the second highest ever for the position since at least 1974, the first year STATS broke out statistics by position.
“To me, it’s the best crop of catching probably in I don’t know how many years,” said Bochy, the San Francisco skipper. “When you look around baseball and see all the great catchers in the game today, it’s changed a little bit. They’re better athletes now, they’re better offensive players. It’s always fun to see the gifts and talents of guys like Posey and Molina.”
For a 34-year span from 1978 to 2011, catchers underperformed their counterparts with an OPS of .707 compared to .737. Over the last two seasons, however, they have been nearly equal — .720 for catchers, .723 for everyone.
Nine catchers had batting averages .300 or above in the first month through Wednesday.
Sure, it’s a small sample size, yet this group of backstops has people taking notice.
“There seems to be a little run right now for catchers,” Diamondbacks bench coach Trammell said. “It’s good for baseball. As a fan of the game, you appreciate the talent. Everyone in baseball will tell you the No. 1 component behind the pitcher is the catcher. If you’ve got a good one, you’d better keep him.”
Coaches and managers also point to the improved athleticism and strength at the position.
In the 26-year-old Posey’s case, the Giants are building their franchise around him. They gave him a $167 million, nine-year contract before the season began.
“Buster is the top of that class,” Rockies veteran first baseman Todd Helton said. “If you have a good catcher, their hitting is just a bonus. It’s kind of like having a shortstop batting fourth for you, like we have (Troy Tulowitzki). It doesn’t happen that often, and when it does, it’s just a luxury. You have guys at those positions that are usually just defensive positions that are now offensive threats. As a fan it makes the game that more fun to watch, and I’m sure it makes it a heck of a lot easier to manage if you’re the manager.”
He doesn’t have to tell Bochy.
After Posey started 111 games at catcher last season and another 29 at first base, Bochy can envision Posey playing even more behind the plate this year — though the Giants aren’t inclined to change much from what “worked well last year,” Bochy said in reference to spelling Posey with the starts at first.
“It seems like there’s a decent amount of catchers that are swinging the bats well and playing good defense,” Posey said. “I think you’re kind of seeing more guys, offensive catchers, playing a little bit of first or outfield, which probably helps in the long haul.”
Posey, the reigning NL MVP and batting champion, has set the bar as far as opposing managers are concerned, especially those in the NL West who see him regularly.
The 2010 NL Rookie of the Year suffered devastating, season-ending left leg and ankle injuries in May 2011, then came back better than ever last season to help San Francisco capture its second World Series championship in three years.
Even Bochy was surprised by Posey’s resiliency. Then, to hit .336 and become batting champion and MVP.
“Being a catcher, I appreciate the gift that he has and how hard he works to leverage the gift he has and continue to try to get better as a player,” Bochy said. “It’s hard to imagine that can happen, but it can with this guy, and he’s just going to have a tremendous career — a guy that’s going to be talked about for a long time.”
The Cardinals know they have a pretty good one themselves in Molina.
Among the first things St. Louis pitcher Shelby Miller did following his second career start April 6 at San Francisco was thank Molina for guiding him through the rough innings on the way to a win.
The Cardinals catcher insists that’s just one part of his job — a mindset shared by others who pride themselves in being well-rounded.
It’s no longer just about signaling balls and strikes, or running out to the mound to offer a pitcher a pep talk. This bunch throws out base runners and bats in key spots.
“Baseball changed,” Molina said. “Right now, we’re trying to do it on both sides.”
When St. Louis visited AT&T Park for the first matchup between the clubs since the Giants’ Game 7 clincher in the NL championship series last fall, Molina made a point to find Posey.
“I told him congratulations on everything — on the MVP, on the World Series, on the contract. It’s well-deserved,” Molina said.
Rosario, Colorado’s second-year starting catcher who clobbered 28 home runs last season, admires Posey and Molina from the opposite dugout. He aspires to keep up.
Rosario also points to Minnesota’s Mauer, retired 14-time All-Star and 13-time Gold Glover Ivan Rodriguez and former Yankees star Jorge Posada for setting the example of catchers contributing in multiple ways.
Rodriguez finished his 21-year big league career as a .296 hitter with 311 home runs, while Posda batted .273 with 275 homers in 17 seasons.
“Joe Mauer, Pudge Rodriguez and Jorge Posada, they started to hit very well, and now things changed,” Rosario said. “Other catchers they came to the majors for good defense, not for good offense. Young catchers or rookie catchers, we need to hit.”
Steady hitting is just one more thing on a long list of responsibilities along with handling pitchers.
“Just follow a catcher around from the beginning of spring training until the end of the season. They’re tough, not just physically but mentally,” Arizona manager Kirk Gibson said. “It’s kind of a thankless job. These guys go out and run the show. They’re special people, they really are.”
AP Sports Writer Josh Dubow contributed to this report.