It’s just after 10 PM local time on the evening of October 29, 2014. Kauffman Stadium is buzzing, as a two-out Alex Gordon triple in the bottom of the ninth inning was the Royals’ first baserunner since the fifth inning and their first true scoring opportunity since their only two runs of the night came in the second. With the World Series on the line, into the box stepped the batter who would decide each team’s fate in game 7. At the plate was 24-year-old Royals All-Star catcher Salvador Perez, and behind the plate was 27-year-old Giants All-Star catcher Buster Posey. Salvy would pop out to seal the Giants’ third World Series title in five years.
Fast forward almost seven years, and each catcher, with the same team, is leading his respective league in All-Star votes received at the position. While these votes may seem on face to be based more on residual status earned earlier in their careers, the aging catchers aren’t just riding the coattails of their past selves: Posey is on par offensively with his MVP season in 2012, while Salvy is having the second-best offensive season of his career, trailing only his 37-game performance in 2020. The two catchers have certainly had quite different career arcs, and I’m not here to compare the two. They do have one thing in common, though: after years of a full season’s workload as a catcher that likely caused a deterioration in their performance, both are finding success once again immediately after having a full season of rest. This prompts the question: should Salvy and Posey make us reconsider what constitutes a sustainable workload for a catcher?
Let’s first consider each catcher’s career arc individually, starting with Posey. He debuted briefly in 2009, but got a significant amount of playing time beginning in 2010. He contributed considerably to San Francisco’s first World Series win that year, but truly broke out in 2012, a season in which he provided MVP-level offense as a catcher to go along with his establishment as a pitch-framing and overall defensive behemoth. Posey would win the MVP award that year and prove crucial to another World Series title come October. For the next five years, he continued to provide great offense and top-tier defense, remaining the gold standard at the position and tacking on a third World title in 2014 for good measure. Finally, injuries began to catch up with Posey in 2018 at age 31, and his offense fell to league average. It appeared that Posey’s six consecutive seasons playing 140+ games were taking a toll and that he was on his last legs, albeit still providing the same excellent defense, in 2018 and 2019. After posting 4.5 fWAR or more per year for all six of those seasons from 2012-2017, Posey only had 4.0 fWAR in 2018 and 2019 combined.
In 2020, Posey opted out of the season due to concerns for the health of his young children amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first time in a decade, the Giants played a full season in the absence of the titan behind home plate. With top prospect Joey Bart making his arrival in Posey’s absence, it appeared likely that Posey’s days as one of the game’s top catchers were behind him. Now, since the outset of the 2021 season, Posey has played at the same offensive level as his MVP winning season, leading all MLB catchers in fWAR and pacing the field in wRC+ at the position. The full season of rest seems to have dramatically reinvigorated Posey, who has been a key piece in the Giants’ unforeseen success this season.
Salvy has written a similar story, though with far less production to brag about. Perez’s best years came early in his career, as he provided above-average offense for the first three seasons of his career before settling in as a below-average hitter for the Royals for several years, including their 2014 and 2015 playoff seasons. Still, being a consistent home run hitter with a good arm made Salvy a fan favorite in Kansas City and earned him more than his fair share of accolades. While he did show an improvement in his quality of contact statistics in 2018, Perez entered the 2019 season without an offensive season to write home about in five years. Then, during Spring Training, Perez tore his UCL, requiring Tommy John surgery that ruled him out for the 2019 season. After the full season of rest, his return in 2020 was nothing short of a rebirth: though he missed some time with injury, Salvy posted career highs almost across the board offensively, ending with a 162 wRC+, 11 home runs, and 1.9 fWAR in just 37 games. He demonstrated the highest quality contact of his career in 2020, and that has carried into 2021, where he has played 74 games so far and is comfortably on pace for the best full offensive season of his career.
Perhaps the success that Posey and Perez are now finding suggests that the general perception of the role of catcher is still expecting too much. It is well-established that catching is the most physically demanding defensive position in baseball, to the point where catchers already are ineligible to play every game of the season due to the massive risk of injury and generally decreased performance that would come from such physical wear. If the goal is to maximize a player’s value in the short term by playing as frequently as possible, it seems likely that this comes at the expense of long-term value, but it may be far more long-term value than we thought. With both of these players showing such massive and immediate improvement after their time off, it seems probable that many catchers might benefit from a reduced workload.
There are, of course, several caveats to this discussion, and the proposition that catchers would benefit from playing less is far from a foregone conclusion. First, this is only an example of two players, which is far from a large enough sample to generalize the recent success of Salvy and Posey to all catchers. Adding on to the sample size concerns, neither catcher has had even a full season’s worth of plate appearances since returning from his inactive year, so it’s difficult to say that even for these two catchers the success is anything more than a stretch of good luck. Third, there are absolutely other variables at play: as I mentioned before, Salvy altered his approach in 2018 in favor of getting more hard contact, though it didn’t manifest into success for him until 2020. Both catchers likely changed their offensive approach to return to play after a year off, and this may be a far more important factor in their success than the rest that they had. Moreover, the offensive environment in MLB has been so wildly variable that it’s difficult to make any attributions about offensive success. Finally, fatigue is very likely not the only factor to blame for the downturn in performance from both Perez and Posey prior to their seasons off, so it’s not certain that the physical rest was the factor that made the difference: perhaps the catchers benefited equally from the mental break from the everyday grind of the game, or from more time to spend with their families.
Even if it is true that more rest would lead to better performance from catchers, it would be very difficult for teams to implement this knowledge. How is a team supposed to know the threshold at which a catcher’s performance will begin to suffer? Teams can rest their starting catchers more in-season, but there are several issues with this as well: for many contending teams, this is sacrificing the ability to have a productive bat in the lineup on any given day without any immediate return. For a team like the Cubs to rest Willson Contreras more would be taking his bat out of the lineup without a guarantee that it will actually make a difference long-term. In addition, this would mean replacing that bat with the bat of a backup catcher, who is likely to be far worse on offense and actively cost the team when he is in the lineup. Moreover, while Perez and Posey both had a full season off, it’s certainly not the answer for a team to decide that an otherwise healthy catcher will take a season off with the long run in mind. Any plan to increase rest for a catcher would still involve a long season’s worth of work on a yearly basis, and without a full season of rest, there may not be a drastic difference in performance like we’re observing with the two veterans in question here.
Finally, to take a cynical perspective in light of the current state of labor relations in MLB, teams have no incentive to rest their young catchers who are still in pre-arbitration or arbitration years because they are not bound to these catchers whatsoever. If a catcher failed to produce or showed signs of wear early on in his career, his team would have no obligation to keep him around. Especially for a team such as the Dodgers that excels at player development, there is no reason to deprive the team of the performance of a great catcher in the short term when the team will likely develop another great catcher to take his place once his performance drops off.
Ultimately, the cases of Salvy and Posey are not conclusive evidence that more rest would be beneficial for catchers, but they certainly may prompt us to reconsider what a sustainable workload for a catcher looks like. These were two of the most worked catchers in the 2010s, and they each saw an immediate improvement after a year of rest. It’s possible that even as teams handle catchers with care, there may be room to benefit from being even more careful. The Royals and the Giants are certainly benefiting from their veteran catchers now.