Jon Shepherd contributed to this article.
There has been some data that suggests that catchers peak later offensively in their careers than the average player. The narrative often attached to that late boost in offensive prowess is that a catcher has to deal with the mental hardships that come with taking care of a MLB staff and that exhausts a catcher from developing quickly from an offensive standpoint. A second competing narrative is that a catcher's appearance in the majors is not a product of his offensive game, but of his defensive game. As such, catchers with under developed offensive skills are more likely to be promoted and learn at the major league level than catchers with under developed defensive skills.
The former idea of mental adaptation comes up a lot though in a variety of ways. In a playoffs-related chat at Baseball Prospectus last week, Dan Evans suggested that the first time a catcher goes to the post-season his offensive production can suffer because he's focusing so much on his pitching staff. To put it another way, he is thinking so much about his pitchers that his mind is dulled for handling his own offense. This came up in reference to Matt Wieters, who ended up batting a dismal .125/.197/.167 in the playoffs. Jon was nice enough to provide me with a non-exhaustive list of catchers who had multiple post-season appearances over the last couple decades, so I could preliminary look at how they did their first time there versus their second (counting "first time" as the first year in which they had at least 10 plate appearances in the playoffs.) The was not intended to be an exhaustive study on the subject, but a quick pilot study to see if there was any indication as to whether this truly is a topic to invest more time.
The list: Javy Lopez, Sandy Alomar Jr., Jason Varitek, Jorge Posada, Dan Wilson, Chris Hoiles, AJ Pierzynski, Yadier Molina, and Carlos Ruiz.
The first time this group of players were exposed to handling pitchers in the playoffs, they had an average OPS of .692. In the season preceding that post-season, they had an average OPS of .784. So, while acknowledged that the playoffs do only provide a small sample size, the catchers fared worse in the playoffs than they did in the regular season by an average of about 91 points or a reduction of 12%. This decrease would be in line with general conventional wisdom about offensive performance decreasing in the playoffs for all players in that pitchers in the playoffs tend to be better as a function of the best teams being in the playoffs. Worse teams with likely worse pitchers are not present for hitters to beat up on.
The second time the catchers went to the playoffs, they had an average OPS of .674 - so that is a little bit worse than the first time. That isn't that bad though, when you account for their average OPS during the regular season on .742. So their OPS fell by only 69 points, on average, or a 9% decrease in performance.
This is only nine players, of course, likely with different levels of responsibility when it comes to handling their respective pitching staffs and the quality of pitching each of them faced while hitting may not be the typical quality of post-season pitchers. Again, this is a pilot study. A difference between a 12% decrease and a 9% decrease in relation to their regular season stats does not appear to be incredibly significant. At least, it does not seem to be an interesting enough result to look more deeply into the numbers. The idea is interesting and likely merits greater study, but nothing immediately emerges from this pilot study to indicate there is something really meaty here. A major problem for many statistical-minded folks is to be at arms with established lines of thought. Where this has made sense in order for this approach to gain a strong foothold in every front office, it can sometimes overlook great ideas and concepts that statistical analysis has difficulty in assessing. Perhaps there is truth to the mental hardship being placed on a playoff newbie catcher or maybe there is a general narrative that is being forced on catchers who happen to do poorly in a handful of plate appearances.
The work done here is largely inconclusive. Maybe someone else can find much more merit to the idea than we did. Our personal opinion is that Matt Wieters' line during the playoffs this year will not mean much to what he will do the next time he gets into the post season, fingers crossed, in 2013.
The full data (with an extra year for some catchers who were fortunate enough to see October over and over):
1995 - .315/.344/.498, .842
1995P - .300/.302/.525, .827 OPS, 43 PA
1996 - .282/.322/.466, .788
1996P - .365/.426/.625, 1.061 OPS, 61 PA
1997 - .295/.361/.534, .895
1997P - .125/.207/.250, .457 OPS, 29 PA
1995 - .300/.322/.478, .810
1995P - .220/.233/.366, .598 OPS, 43 PA
1996 - .263/.299/.397, .696
1996P - .125/.125/.125, .250 OPS, 16 PA
1997 - .324/.354/.545, .900
1997P - .274/.303/.507, .809 OPS, 76 PA
1999 - .269/.330/.482, .813
1999P - .220/.227/.512, .739 OPS, 44 PA
2003 - .273/.351/.512, .863
2003P - .294/.351/.706, 1.057 OPS, 37 PA
2004 - .296/.390/.482, .872
2004P - .245/.295/.472, .767 OPS, 61 PA
1998 - .268/.350/.475, .824 OPS
1998P - .227/.414/.500, .914 OPS, 29 PA
1999 - .245/.341/.401, .752 OPS
1999P - .182/.217/.409, .626 OPS, 23 PA
2000 - .287/.417/.527, .943 OPS
2000P - .204/.353/.278, .631 OPS, 68 PA
1995 - .285/.330/.3444, .774 OPS
1995P - .061/.114/.061, .175 OPS, 35 PA
1997 - .270/.326/.423, .749 OPS
1997P - .000/.000/.000, .000 OPS, 13 PA
1996 - .258/.356/.474, .830 OPS
1996P - .158/.292/.316, .607 OPS, 24 PA
1997 - .259/.375/3419, .794 OPS
1997P - .143/.280/.286, .566 OPS, 25 PA
2002 - .300/.334/.439, .773 OPS
2002P - .344/.371/.500, .871 OPS, 35 PA
2003 - .312/.360/.464, .824 OPS
2003P - .231/.333/.462, .795 OPS, 15 PA
2005 - .257/.308/.420, .728 OPS
2005P - .262/.313/.571, .884 OPS, 48 PA
2005 - .252/.295/.358, .654 OPS
2005P - .286/.286/.371, .657 OPS, 35 PA
2006 - .216/.274/.321, .595 OPS
2006P - .358/.424/.547, .971 OPS, 59 PA
2007 - .259/.340/.396, .735 OPS
2007P - .333/.400/.444, .844 OPS, 10 PA
2008 - .219/.320/.300, .620 OPS
2008P - .261/.346/.391, .737 OPS, 52 PA
2009 - .255/.355/.425, .780 OPS
2009P - .341/.474/.591, .1.065 OPS, 57 PA