Now that the 2021 MLB regular season has come to an exciting conclusion, it’s time to reflect on the outstanding performances that defined this year in baseball. The first of a ten-part series in which we break down the top hitters at each position during the 2021 season is the catcher position. This year, we saw some historic offensive efforts by backstops, but historically, catchers have never been lauded for their production at the plate. The catching position is not where the best hitters in baseball usually preside, lowering the bar for what it means to be an offensive threat at the position. Catchers not only miss out on counting stats because of their reduced playing time due to the rigors of the position, but they are also encouraged to focus more heavily on defense, framing, and game-calling than on hitting, which can hold them back from reaching the offensive potential they might reach at a less demanding position. Therefore, the players on this list might not stack up against those on future editions of the top hitters at each position, but they do represent the top hitting catchers this year.
We’ll use a combination of counting stats, rate stats, and advanced stats to break down each player’s case to be included amongst the best hitters at their position. All stats via Fangraphs.
15. Elias Diaz – Colorado Rockies
106 G, 371 PA, .246/.310/.464, 52 R, 18 HR, 44 RBI, 8.1%/16.2% BB/K, 92 wRC+
Colorado’s primary catcher rounds out the list because of his breakout second half (115 wRC+) that catapulted him to the top-tier of power-hitting catchers. Diaz mastered the long ball, mashing 18 home runs, 11 of which came after the All-Star Break, tying him for third-most among NL catchers. The right-handed hitter took advantage of the thin air in Coors Field by recording a HR/FB rate that placed him in the top ten among catchers with at least 350 PA. The boost he received from hitting in Colorado was most notable in his AVG, as it was a solid .289 at home compared to a .203 mark on the road.
Diaz secures his rightful place on this list by pairing his huge power with the ability to avoid striking out. He sported the lowest K% among catchers with at least 250 PA in 2021 and, among all players, his elite K% put him in the 79th percentile, according to Baseball Savant. His wRC+ took a hit because of the weights it places against hitters in Coors, but Diaz’s monster second half should have pitchers in the NL West thinking twice about taking him lightly when facing him next season.
14. Daulton Varsho – Arizona Diamondbacks
95 G, 315 PA, .246/.318/.437, 41 R, 11 HR, 38 RBI, 6 SB, 9.5%/21.3% BB/K, 98 wRC+
Varsho might be the most interesting player on this list because he is not just a catcher. The 24-year old left-handed hitter appeared in more games in the outfield than he did behind the plate, revealing the athleticism that supports his 84th percentile sprint speed, according to Baseball Savant; second behind only J.T. Realmuto among catchers. Varsho used his speed not only in the field but also on the basepaths, racking up the fourth-most steals by a catcher. Similar to Diaz, the young catcher also broke out in the second half with a 128 wRC+, besting his paltry 32 wRC+ from the first half.
After struggling in the first two months of the season, Varsho was sent to the minors to get his swing right. He did just that, batting .313 and belting nine home runs in just 18 games in AAA. Varsho was called back up to the Majors in late June and delivered upon the promise that led to him being ranked the ninth-best catching prospect by MLB.com in 2019. His ability to combine power and speed is a rare sight at the catcher position, and if he can continue to build upon the .290/.349/.530 slash line he posted in 219 second-half plate appearances, he may be regarded as an elite catcher and someone for the Diamondbacks to build around as they inch towards contention.
13. Carson Kelly – Arizona Diamondbacks
98 G, 359 PA, .240/.343/.411, 41 R, 13 HR, 46 RBI, 12.3%/20.6% BB/K, 103 wRC+
The other half of the Arizona catching corps is the right-handed hitting Kelly, who was acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2018-19 offseason Paul Goldschmidt blockbuster trade. The former next-in-line to Yadier Molina had an up-and-down season similar to many other catchers on this list. Kelly came out of the gates hot with six home runs in the season’s first month alone and paired that power with an unsustainable 1.224 OPS. That monster first month carried Kelly’s stats for the remainder of the season, as he was only able to post a wRC+ above the league average in one other month, yet still finished the season with an above-average mark.
A 2012 second-round pick out of high school, Kelly gains top hitting status by walking at the third-highest rate among catchers with at least 350 PA. His 87th percentile walk rate was buoyed by an elite 85th percentile chase rate, according to Baseball Savant. If Kelly can pair his keen eye with solid in-zone contact, he could return to the heights he reached at the beginning of this past season. With both Kelly and Varsho in tow, the Diamondbacks could have one of the best catching tandems for the next few years.
12. Max Stassi – Los Angeles Angels
87 G, 319 PA, .241/.326/.426, 45 R, 13 HR, 35 RBI, 8.8%/31.7% BB/K, 107 wRC+
Stassi would probably rank higher on this list if he hadn’t missed so much time. He appeared in the fewest number of games of any catcher on this list, yet still had enough time to tally 25 XBH and nearly three fWAR. His fWAR total was boosted by his superb defense and framing, but Stassi also cemented himself as one of the better hitting catchers in the league with his performance at the dish in 2021. The Los Angeles backstop had a top ten wRC+ for a catcher with at least 250 PA as a result of his above-average efforts across the board. Although he spread out his production across different metrics, he didn’t share his best performances with opposing fans. Stassi was unstoppable at home compared to on the road. He sported a .316/.404/.566 slash line with nine homers at Angel Stadium, yet produced just a .546 OPS with only four home runs everywhere else.
These splits suggest that perhaps the Angels should find a home/away platoon partner at catcher so that Stassi can just stay in Los Angeles year-round. This would be the case if his home numbers weren’t totally driven by an unsustainable .425 BABIP (.291 career) and strikeout rate over 30 percent. Look for Stassi to remain the primary catcher for the Halos in 2022, but if he’s unable to recapture his 2021 home form, he might struggle next year.
11. Eric Haase – Detroit Tigers
98 G, 381 PA, .231/.286/.459, 48 R, 22 HR, 61 RBI, 2 SB, 6.8%/31.2% BB/K, 100 wRC+
After spending parts of the last ten seasons toiling away in the minor leagues, Haase finally got an extended chance to show what he could do for the Tigers in 2021. Haase joined the 20-homer club this year after having posted back-to-back 20+ home run campaigns in the minors in 2018 and ‘19. The 28-year old burst onto the scene in June and July during which he crushed 16 of his home runs on the year. His output bumped him into the upper-echelon of power hitters at the catcher position. His .228 ISO (SLG-AVG=ISO, therefore ISO accounts for only extra-base hits) was in the top five among catchers with at least 350 PA. He was one of only seven catchers to reach the 20-home run threshold. The bat of Haase was so integral to the Tiger lineup that manager A.J. Hinch started deploying him in left field where his athleticism and his 72nd percentile Sprint Speed, according to Baseball Savant, could play up and his bat could stay in the lineup.
Haase didn’t just stand out by Statcast metrics because of his speed though, he also hits the ball with authority. He maintained an elite 13.7% barrel rate while his 113.2 mph max exit velocity and 47.9% hard-hit rate placed him in the 88th and 84th percentile respectively. The one major flaw in Haase’s game is his tendency to swing and miss too much. No catcher with as many plate appearances as Haase struck out as much as he did. On top of that, his K% didn’t seem unearned as evidenced by a whiff rate in the fourth percentile and a chase rate approaching 30%. Haase should be a viable power hitter for the Tigers for a couple of years, but a K-rate that high is unsustainable and could force Haase back to the minors before he has the opportunity to alter his approach.
10. Omar Narvaez – Milwaukee Brewers
123 G, 445 PA, .266/.342/.402, 54 R, 11 HR, 49 RBI, 9.2%/18.9% BB/K, 99 wRC+
Narvaez didn’t stand out in 2021 for his rate statistics, but made up for it with volume that is rare at the catcher position in this day and age. Narvaez was top ten in plate appearances by backstops, which allowed him to rack up the seventh-most hits and tie for the eighth-most doubles by a catcher. His volume was paired with some of the best plate discipline at the position. His BB/K ratio of 0.49 was the third-best by a catcher with as many plate appearances as he had and was buoyed by the third-best K% among the same group of catchers. The first time All-Star was mashing coming out of spring training, carrying a 162 wRC+ at the end of April. He earned his All-Star selection by finishing the first half with an impressive .865 OPS and eight home runs. He cooled off from there but, ultimately, finished the season as the league’s top left-handed hitting catcher.
The stock of Narvaez is as high as it’s been since he was traded from the Seattle Mariners to the Brewers prior to the 2020 season, but his Statcast metrics don’t support his 2021 performance. Luckily for him, he’s improved enough in the field to become one of the better defensive catchers, which should help him keep his job heading into his penultimate season before free agency.
9. Gary Sanchez – New York Yankees
117 G, 440 PA, .204/.307/.423, 54 R, 23 HR, 54 RBI, 11.8%/27.5% BB/K, 99 wRC+
The Yankees’ 28-year-old backstop has always shown the ability to hit for power with over 100 home runs in his career heading into the 2021 season. He has also struggled mightily at making consistent contact, resulting in a career .236 AVG (.200 from 2018-20). This year, he continued to display his power stroke but, other than that, Sanchez didn’t create too many positive results at the plate as he continued to struggle to put the ball in play. Sanchez places in the top ten on this list because of his ability to combine plate discipline with power. He was one of three catchers to walk at least 11 percent of the time and hit more than 20 dingers in 2021. He was held back by the fourth-worst strikeout rate among catchers with at least 400 PA and his .204 AVG was the second-worst among the same group of catchers. What Sanchez lacks in contact, he makes up for by hitting the ball extremely hard.
According to Baseball Savant, his 113.4 mph max exit velocity was fifth among catchers (89th percentile overall) with at least 400 PA, and his 86th percentile barrel rate (13.7%) was second on that list. The right-handed hitting Sanchez is, without a doubt, a top-five power bat at his position. That bat is what keeps him in the Yankee lineup, so he will have to keep hitting the ball as hard as he has been to make up for all of his strikeouts and lack of contact if he wants to avoid ceding even more playing time to backup catcher Kyle Higashioka next year.
8. Tyler Stephenson – Cincinnati Reds
132 G, 402 PA, .286/.366/.431, 56 R, 10 HR, 45 RBI, 10.2%/18.7% BB/K, 111 wRC+
After skipping AAA and heading straight to the Majors and showing he could handle major league pitching in a short eight-game sample in 2020, Stephenson was able to continue showing he belongs in 2021. His wRC+ was in the top five among catchers with at least 400 PA as a result of his impressive plate discipline, his solid contact skills, and his ability to take advantage of Great American Ballpark’s dimensions. His prowess at controlling the strike zone is apparent in his 0.55 BB/K rate (fourth among catchers with at least 400 PA) and his 89th percentile chase rate, according to Baseball Savant. He displayed his elite ability to put the ball in play as well, considering his .286 AVG was the second-best mark among catchers with at least 200 PA, trailing only Buster Posey. In addition to his discipline and batting, Stephenson was even more impressive when hitting at home. He hit .314/.381/.467 at home compared to .260/.351/.398 on the road, revealing his fondness for the Cincinnati confines. Stephenson ranked fourth in games played by a catcher in 2021 not only because of his 23 appearances at first base backing up Joey Votto, but also because he appeared as a pinch-hitter 44 times, accounting for exactly a third of his appearances.
His main competition behind the plate, Tucker Barnhart, has a club option next year. If the Reds forego that option, Stephenson, a former 11th overall selection in the 2015 Draft, would be in line to boost his counting stats in 2022 with a heap of extra playing time, possibly allowing him to climb even higher on this list in the next edition.
7. Willson Contreras – Chicago Cubs
128 G, 483 PA, .237/.340/.438, 61 R, 21 HR, 57 RBI, 5 SB, 10.8%/28.6% BB/K, 109 wRC+
Contreras has yet to reach the potential that led to him ranking as high as #23 on MLB.com’s top 100 prospects list in 2016, but he has remained one of the most consistent offensive contributors at the catcher position since his debut in that ‘16 season nonetheless. In his six seasons in the Majors, he has either missed time and performed well or played a lot and performed at around a league-average rate. This past season was the first year that Contreras was able to mingle the two together, appearing in the second-most games in his career while putting up the third-highest wRC+ of his career among seasons in which he had at least 300 PA. Compared to other catchers in the league, the 29-year old stands out by walking a decent amount and hitting home runs without being a slouch on the basepaths. Contreras joined Will Smith and Yasmani Grandal as the only catchers to post an OBP above .340 alongside 20 or more homers.
He adds another wrinkle to his game that Smith and Grandal can’t boast — speed. One of the few Cubs not traded prior to the July 30 Trade Deadline, Contreras tied his career-high in steals, a total that was the fifth-most by a catcher. Contreras’ stats are even more notable on Baseball Savant and suggest that there is another level that he has yet to reach. His 95th percentile Max Exit Velocity (115.4 mph) has him ranked as one of the premier power threats in the league and places him only behind Mike Zunino among catchers with at least 350 PA. He also sports one of the most impressive Hard Hit Rates by a catcher with 350 PA or more, trailing only Grandal and Salvador Perez in that category.
Contreras is already one of the best everyday catchers, but his Statcast metrics (fourth in xwOBA among catchers with at least 400 PA) say that he is a legitimate top-five offensive catcher. His ability to stay on the field aids in his attempt to reach the potential that prospect lists and advanced metrics placed upon him, and he should soon reach an even higher ceiling.
6. J.T. Realmuto – Philadelphia Phillies
134 G, 537 PA, .263/.343/.439, 64 R, 17 HR, 73 RBI, 13 SB, 8.9%/24.0% BB/K, 108 wRC+
Realmuto struggled with nagging injuries and inconsistent performance in 2021 to post his lowest AVG since his first full season in 2015 and his lowest OPS since 2016. Despite his relative struggles, the three-time All-Star was still one of the top offensive catchers this year thanks to his solid skills at the plate and his unmatched speed on the bases. Realmuto was one of three catchers to tally at least 500 PA and paired that volume with production, posting the fifth-best OPS and sixth-highest wRC+ by a catcher with at least 400 PA. Those impressive rate stats combined with his volume allowed him to record the most doubles (25) and triples (4), the second-most hits (125), the third-most RBI, and the fourth-most runs by a catcher.
On top of the Phillies’ backstop being one of the elite batters at his position, he is unrivaled in his ability to swipe bags. At 30-years old, Realmuto set a career-high in stolen bases, attempting 16 steals and only getting caught thrice thanks to a Spring Speed, via Baseball Savant, in the 91st percentile, tops among catchers.
Realmuto has been the premier power-speed threat at the catcher position for the last few years and continued to produce at an unparalleled level in that regard in 2021. The right-handed hitting backstop would have ranked in the top five again if not for some historic performances by the rest of the catchers on this list. Phillies fans will get used to having one of the best catchers on their squad, considering Realmuto is under contract for the next four seasons.
5. Mike Zunino – Tampa Bay Rays
109 G, 371 PA, .216/.301/.559, 64 R, 33 HR, 62 RBI, 9.1%/35.2% BB/K, 134 wRC+
The third overall pick in the 2012 June First-Year Player Draft, Zunino has always had a lot of hype to live up to. He has failed to live up to his draft stock since his debut in 2013, reaching a wRC+ above league-average just once in seasons in which he recorded at least 200 PA in that time. This past season marked the second time in which Zunino accomplished that feat, the first being his 2017 season with Seattle where he hit 25 home runs with a solid 126 wRC+. Zunino topped those numbers and basically all of his other career-highs with his incredible performance this past season for the Rays.
He reached the 30-home run threshold for the first time in his career, tallied 60+ runs for the first time in his career, and 60+ RBI for just the second time. His OPS was the highest of his career as well, a product of a career-high SLG and BB%. Although the 30-year old catcher hit a nearly equal 16 home runs versus lefties and 17 home runs versus righties this season, Zunino did most of his damage against left-handed pitching. Despite the similar power output this season, Zunino batted just .151 with a .638 OPS vs. righties (246 PA) compared to an incredible .342 with a 1.242 OPS vs. lefties (129 PA). Those drastic splits dragged down Zunino’s overall line, but it was painfully obvious what pitchers the Tampa Bay catcher preferred to face. Even with his offensive limitations, he showed some of the greatest power at his position. He tallied the second-most homers, third-highest wRC+, and fourth-best OPS by a catcher, while his SLG was tops among all catchers. Even more impressive were the Statcast metrics that supported his power output.
His max exit velocity was tops among catchers at 117.3 mph and put him in elite territory among all players as that rate was better than 98 percent of the league. His barrel rate was just as, if not more impressive than his max exit velocity. His 24.3 Brls/BBE% was the best mark among any player with at least 200 batted ball events. His barrel rate is actually the second-highest mark ever by a player with at least 200 BBE since Statcast began tracking data in 2015, trailing only Aaron Judge’s 25.1% in 2017.
Zunino might have ranked in the top three on this list if he had 100 more plate appearances or if he could cut down on his abhorrent 35.2% K-rate and first percentile whiff rate. Either way, the first-time All-Star should be in Tampa for one more season before hitting free agency because of a club option attached to the back-end of his contract. Zunino should be able to cash in by then considering his impressive offensive contributions and his elite defense behind the plate.
4. Will Smith – Los Angeles Dodgers
130 G, 501 PA, .258/.365/.495, 71 R, 25 HR, 76 RBI, 3 SB, 11.6%/20.2% BB/K, 130 wRC+
The Dodgers continue to produce All-Stars at every position with their top-of-the-line player development. Smith was the fourth-best offensive contributor at catcher because of his slugging prowess and plate discipline, as well as being slotted in as the everyday catcher for one of the best offenses in baseball. In his first full season, Los Angeles’ primary backstop totaled 25 home runs; the third-highest total by a catcher in 2021. He paired those bombs with a top five BB% and BB/K rate among catchers with at least 250 PA. His keen eye and exceptional power led him to the second-highest OPS and wRC+ rates by a catcher with at least 400 PA. He also racked up the counting stats, recording the second-most walks, runs, and RBI by a catcher because of his everyday role in a lineup that recorded the fifth-best combined OPS in the league.
Smith turned it on in 226 second-half plate appearances with 15 home runs, a .936 OPS, and a 146 wRC+; a performance that vaulted him safely into the top-five on this list. His 2021 performance was backed up by some impressive Statcast metrics. His .359 xwOBA ranked in the 82nd percentile and was third among catchers with at least 250 PA, while his elite plate discipline can be seen in his 90th percentile chase rate. With Keibert Ruiz traded to the Washington Nationals, Smith should have little competition for the primary backstop role for the Dodgers for at least the next five years.
3. Buster Posey – San Francisco Giants
113 G, 454 PA, .304/.390/.499, 68 R, 18 HR, 56 RBI, 12.3%/19.2% BB/K, 140 wRC+
The 2012 National League Most Valuable Player was able to recapture his old form with his 2021 renaissance. After skipping out on the COVID-shortened 2020 season, the 34-year old catcher had his best season since 2015 because of the rediscovery of his power swing. With just 12 home runs across the 2018 and ‘19 seasons, Posey looked like he had lost his ability to hit the long ball and, on top of that, he struggled to stay healthy, producing back-to-back sub-500 PA seasons for the first time since he was severely injured in a 2011 collision at the plate.
With the help of the Giants’ new coaching staff under GM Farhan Zaidi and manager Gabe Kapler, Posey retook his rightful place as a top-three hitter at the catcher position. Kapler deployed Posey in a reduced capacity in order to maximize his abilities and to keep him healthy — and it worked. He was an All-Star for the first time since 2018 and posted his highest single-season OPS since his MVP season. The seven-time All-Star tallied his most homers since 2015 while putting up the highest batting average among catchers by nearly 20 points. Posey was also multi-dimensional at the dish, posting the second-highest walk rate, BB/K rate, OPS, and wRC+ among catchers with more than 300 PA.
Statcast metrics suggest that Posey was helped by some good batted ball luck, yet he still had the highest xBA (.278, 88th percentile) by a catcher and set a career-high in barrel rate (8.1%, 46th percentile). The Giants maintain a 2022 club option on Posey’s nine-year, $167 million extension, so expect to see the former National League Rookie of the Year in orange and black next season.
2. Yasmani Grandal – Chicago White Sox
93 G, 375 PA, .240/.420/.520, 60 R, 23 HR, 62 RBI, 23.2%/21.9% BB/K, 159 wRC+
The 2021 season for Grandal is one of the most extraordinary in recent memory thanks to his otherworldly plate discipline and gargantuan power. His first full season as a member of the White Sox was cut short due to a midseason injury, but Grandal was undeterred in posting some mind-boggling numbers in the time he got to play. His incredible 23.2% Walk-Rate was not only the best by a catcher, but it was also the best in the Majors. His eye afforded him the highest OBP by a catcher which led to him posting the highest wRC+ and OPS marks at the position. The switch-hitter’s numbers were noticeable in the first half of the season in which he hit just .188, yet still had OPS and wRC+ marks north of .820 and 130 respectively. As weird of a sight as his first-half numbers were, he reached new heights in the second half with a .337/.481/.673 slash line paired with nine home runs in just 129 PA that catapulted him to the second spot on this list.
His combination of power and plate discipline was Juan Soto-esque and the elite level at which he performed made up for his lack of time on the field. The statistics on Baseball Savant agree with the assessment that Grandal was a top-tier offensive contributor at the catcher position in 2021. His average exit velocity (93.1 mph, 96th percentile) and xwOBA (.411, 97th percentile) were tops among catchers while his hard-hit rate (53.2%, 96th percentile) was second. A two-time All-Star and former 12th overall pick in the 2010 Draft, Grandal has reached the fullest extent of his potential and will be providing his services to the White Sox for two more years as he finishes out the four-year, $73 million deal he signed with Chicago in the 2019-20 offseason.
1. Salvador Perez – Kansas City Royals
161 G, 665 PA, .273/.316/.544 88 R, 48 HR, 121 RBI, 1 SB, 4.2%/25.6% BB/K, 127 wRC+
Who else could have topped this list other than the record-breaking Kansas City backstop? The seven-time All-Star had a historic 2021 season that vaulted him to the top spot on the list of the best hitters at the catcher position. He broke a 50-year-old record that was established in 1970 when Johnny Bench went deep on 45 occasions as a catcher. Perez demolished the history books by mashing 48 home runs, not only the most by a catcher of all time, but also tied for the highest total by any player this season. On top of that, he tallied the most RBI in the Majors and was the first catcher to lead his league in that category since Bench led the league with 129 RBI in 1974.
Perez was aided in his efforts by being a member of an American League organization, a membership that afforded him the opportunity to be slotted in as the designated hitter on his off-days. He appeared in 40 games as a DH and took just one full game off all season, allowing him to put up the most hits by a catcher. As a result of that volume, Perez’s rate statistics lag behind the elites at this position, but his ability to play more than any other catcher with the best power output the position has ever seen is the main reason he wears the crown for the top offensive backstop.
The Venezuelan native and ten-year veteran reached his 2021 heights by being ultra-aggressive at the plate. According to Baseball Savant, his K% was in the 22nd percentile, while his BB% was worse than 98 percent of the league thanks to his 44.6% chase rate and sixth percentile whiff rate. His aggressiveness paid off, trading walks for home runs, helping him post the best hard-hit rate (56.2%, 99th percentile), xSLG (.554, 94th percentile), the second-highest barrel rate (16.3%, 93rd percentile), xwOBA (.369, 87th percentile) and average exit velocity (93.0 mph, 94th percentile) among all catchers.
Perez may never repeat a season of this caliber again, but he has etched his name in stone in baseball’s history by becoming the catcher with the most home runs in a single season. His historic performance, without a doubt, places him as the top hitter at the catcher position in 2021.