Specter of position switch persists for top catchers
Star backstops subject to debate as to whether they should avoid rigors, injury threat
When it comes to catchers, there's a big catch.
Most seasoned baseball people will agree that crouching behind home plate for upward of 120 games a year, the typical output for a first-string Major League backstop, is enough wear and tear for knees to endure in a lifetime, never mind a full 162-game schedule.
And what about everything else, like the mental taxation of calling pitches, anchoring a defense, blocking the plate during often hellacious collisions, and when the time comes, hitting and running the bases?
Yes, there's no doubt that being a full-time catcher can shorten a playing career. That's why some of the elite offensive players of this era who happen to be catchers are the subject of a question that doesn't seem to go away: When will they move to another position?
Therein lies the catch.
"Being a catcher is a very unique spot on a ballfield," says Mariners manager and former catcher Eric Wedge. "It's such an important spot. When you have young players and players without a lot of experience, you give them the opportunity to catch. It's good for them to work at other positions, too. I think it's good for athleticism, it's good to see the other side of the baseball.
"Catching is at a premium. It's tough to find good catchers. So you just give them every opportunity to catch."
The perfect case studies are Buster Posey of the Giants, Joe Mauer of the Twins and Jesus Montero of Wedge's Mariners, all for different reasons.
Posey, of course, was the 2010 National League Rookie of the Year and a huge part of his team's World Series championship that season. But when his collision with Scott Cousins of the Marlins in early 2011 mangled his leg, ended his season and put his future in doubt, there were plenty of calls from Giants fans, the media and other voices around the game that it was time for the youngster to trade that big, fat catcher's mitt for a first baseman's glove when he got healthy.
Well, that wasn't exactly an opinion shared by one very important person in all of this: Buster Posey.
Posey, who's 24 years old, came up as a catcher and has said all along that it's the role he wants to maintain. While the Giants have been careful to keep him out of the crouch here and there, playing him in a handful of games at first base throughout this season, his value behind the plate, not to mention his offensive prowess, are immeasurable.
"You forget about that at such a young age, he's been able to command not only the respect of the pitching staff but the coaching staff as well," Giants reliever Javier Lopez said during Spring Training as Posey started working with pitchers again.
"Everybody has complete faith in him. That's one of the things I think everyone's looking forward to -- being able to see him get down in that squat again and be behind home plate."
So the Giants will keep Posey where he belongs while watching out for his well-being moving forward. And that brings us to the Minnesota Twins and Joe Mauer, another rare talent at the plate who wants to keep playing every day behind it.
Mauer, the No.1 overall pick in the 2001 First-Year Player Draft, has won three batting titles and a Most Valuable Player Award (2009). He has been a dynamic hitter, with a career batting average well over .300. He's also been besieged by injuries, and while Posey's season-ending incident in 2011 was clearly rooted in the catching position, it's tough to say why Mauer has been so banged up.
But that doesn't mean people don't make assumptions, and the main assumption is that he shouldn't catch anymore. It was never more obvious than after last season, when Mauer came off arthroscopic knee surgery in the 2010-11 offseason and and never seemed right. He missed 58 games early in the season and ended up missing 80 in all because of bilateral leg weakness, neck stiffness, a viral infection and an upper respiratory infection that turned into season-ending pneumonia.
But not catch? Not a chance. Mauer came back strong this year and has been his old self, at and behind the dish. He made another All-Star team, and while he said he's been open to the notion of playing some first base -- he played 18 games there in 2011 -- he still sees himself as a catcher.
"I guess you wonder about it, but it's funny, every time -- and I know going on the DL is not a good thing -- but every time I get hurt, everybody brings up everything," Mauer said last year. "I've had some injuries, but you look at everything, and I've played a lot, too."
That's what the Mariners hope Montero will do for many years to come, and that's why Seattle traded away young pitching talent Michael Pineda prior to the 2012 season to land the then-prize of the New York Yankees system. Montero, 22, was seen by scouts as an unfinished product behind the plate at best, and a career designated hitter at worst. The dude can hit -- nobody questioned that. But why catch?
As Wedge and maybe any other ex-big league backstop might say when presented with a package of an elite bat in the body of a durable, smart player who can lead a team on and off the field, why not?
"A lot of times catchers come [into their own] late," Wedge said. "There's wear and tear at any position, but more, of course, behind home plate. But I don't think you let that get in the way of anything.
"It's baseball. These guys condition themselves so well. You don't force-feed it one way or the other. You kind of let it play out. It'll show you the way."