If I’m running a team and I have a catching prospect who can swat the ball a little bit, you bet I’m begging him not to be a backstop. That’s right. Carlos Santana, Buster Posey, Jesus Montero, you name it. Same with the boys of yesteryear like Matt Wieters or even Joe Mauer. Why would I seemingly squander this possible gold mine? Because, in the long-term, catchers who hit simply don’t exist. Either they stop being able to catch or they stop being able to hit.
A lot of catchers throughout history have shown some pop. I looked at players age 32 or younger who played at least half of their games in a season at catcher and had enough at-bats to qualify. They had seasons of an OPS+ above league average a stout 801 times. I then looked at the same criteria but for players older than 32, and found just 49. In other words, for players with catcher as their primary position, the age 32 season is virtually the end of their offense productivity. Although we can’t just simply ignore the 49 cases of a batter remaining useful at this stage of his career. So, we have to look at playing time.
The position of catcher is so grueling that the human body just can’t take it for an extended period. Catching 135 games in a year is an impressive feat, more comparable to playing 160 games in a season for any other position. In Major League history, the 135-game mark has been reached 233 times by a men of iron 32 years old or younger. Among men after that age, it has been done just 19 times (5 of which were Bob Boone). So, apparently our “primary position-catcher” players who were still offensively productive from the previous paragraph simply weren’t spending that many days behind the plate.
Combining the two points paints an ugly picture. 1) Catcher has its share of potent bats, but almost none older than 32. And 2) catcher has its share of near-everyday players, but almost none older than 32. So, 1) if you can actually hit as a catcher, you’ve probably either stopped hitting by that age or changed positions. And 2) even if you somehow are still hitting as a catcher at that age, you just aren’t playing that many games.
In fact, there are just four players to both catch 135 games and have an OPS+ above league average in the same season after the age of 32. Elston Howard (1964), John Roseboro (1966), Terry Steinbach (1996), and Jorge Posada (2007). And these men have something else in common: they were not overused behind the plate. Howard, Roseboro, and Steinbach never had another season above 135 games, and Posada wasn’t even the starter until age 27.
When I’ve got a guy who can rake, I don’t want him sitting every fifth day (playing fewer than 135 in a season). However, I also don’t want his knees to explode, because then he probably couldn’t hit well anymore. According to this evidence, that means I need to move him to another position. And hopefully MLB teams will listen, because the Carlos Santana I want to be cheering for in 10 years is terrible at the guitar.