All-Star catchers make a difference with bats
Backstops contribute more in Midsummer Classic at the plate than behind it
From the first of April through the end of October, no position player on a Major League field is as important as the catcher.
He's the field general, part quarterback, part middle linebacker. He studies video endlessly, calls pitches, guides the pitching staff. He blocks pitches in the dirt and encounters hard-charging athletes trying to beat tags at the plate. He keeps baserunners honest with his arm. He crouches 100 to 200 times a game and takes a beating on foul tips.
Amid all of that stress, he's asked to retain enough focus -- and leg strength -- to go up and deliver with the bat in late-game pressure situations.
You don't win it all in late October, or contend, without a quality defender -- several quality defenders in most cases -- behind home plate. That applies for 162 games plus whatever it takes to decide the World Series. Yes, the defensive game is vital. But for one day in mid-July, your priority should be having someone who can drive a ball out of the yard or off a wall serving as your catcher.
In the All-Star Game, no longer an exhibition showcase because home-field advantage in the World Series is at stake, every at-bat counts.
Ideally, you'd want a Johnny Bench or Ivan Rodriguez, a catcher who can do it all. Yadier Molina, the current defensive gold standard, has developed into a threat with the bat. Reigning National League Most Valuable Player and batting champion Buster Posey takes care of business at the plate and behind it. Joe Mauer is a three-time batting champion with three Gold Gloves. The Royals' Salvador Perez is a star in ascent.
The landscape is rich in solid, established receivers: Matt Wieters, Carlos Santana, Carlos Ruiz, A.J. Pierzynski, Jonathan Lucroy, Ryan Hanigan, Jose Molina, Brian McCann, Alex Avila, Miguel Montero, A.J. Ellis, Kurt Suzuki, Chris Iannetta and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
Those are all men you'd be happy to have on your side at New York's Citi Field on July 16. But if you have to make a choice, you'd take the hot bat -- Santana, Wilin Rosario, J.P. Arencibia, Pierzynski, John Buck -- over the smooth defensive operator. One swing can decide an All-Star Game. We saw that in 2010 at Angel Stadium, where the Braves' McCann drove home all the runs with a bases-clearing, seventh-inning double in the NL's 3-1 victory.
Any pitcher good enough to be selected to an All-Star Game can call his own game. He also is aware of the hot zones to avoid when he's facing All-Star hitters. There are few secrets when players get to this elite level.
Given how they rarely go more than one inning, pitchers accustomed to pacing themselves as starters get the rare opportunity to air it out. That tends to make for close, low-scoring games. Offenses have generated an average of 6.7 runs total in the past seven All-Star shows, including the 15-inning game in New York taken by the AL in 2008 at old Yankee Stadium.
The NL's 9-0 knockout in 2012 in Kansas City was a rare blowout. Manager Bruce Bochy's Giants factored heavily in the rout and later in the year made it three World Series championships in a row for the NL, two by San Francisco bookending the 2011 Cardinals' implausible title run. All three were in the aftermath of NL triumphs in the All-Star Game.
In the previous seven Midsummer Classics under the new format unveiled in 2003, the American League prevailed each time. Its league champion went on to win four of those seven World Series.
Seven of 10 championships have gone to the club with home-field advantage since it has been determined by the All-Star Game outcome. Five of those 10 All-Star affairs have been one-run games. Two were decided by two runs, only three by more than two runs.
Posey and Mike Napoli, then with the Rangers, were the starting catchers last year. Posey is the favorite to return, but Napoli is Boston's first baseman now. The backups last year were Mauer and Wieters in the AL, Molina and Ruiz in the NL.
The catching position is loaded, in both leagues. With McCann on the shelf, Evan Gattis, the everyman from everywhere, has become an endearing story in Atlanta with his booming homers. Santana, Rosario, Arencibia, Buck, Nick Hundley and Russell Martin are racking up impressive numbers while elite receivers such as Posey, Molina, Montero, Wieters, Lucroy, Perez and Avila are searching for their consistent strokes. Ruiz is back from a 25-game suspension for a positive amphetamine test.
When McCann was named MVP of the 2010 All-Star Game, he joined four other catchers in that select club: Gary Carter (1981 and '84), Terry Steinbach ('88), Mike Piazza (1996) and Sandy Alomar ('97). Carter -- the late, great "Kid" of Expos and Mets fame -- homered twice in the NL's 5-4 victory in '81 in Cleveland and also went deep in San Francisco in a 3-1 NL triumph in '84. McCann is the lone member of the group who did not homer in claiming his MVP trophy.
Defense is indispensable, the most underrated element of the game. But for one Midsummer Classic evening, the lasting impact usually comes from the sound a loud bat makes.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.