A year ago, the catching talent available in the Mid-American Conference could match up fairly well against any league in the country. Two of the league's best catchers, both underclassmen, were selected in the MLB Draft last summer following impressive campaigns, with the Bowling Green Falcons' Trey Keegan, a sophomore, getting drafted in the 14th round by the Atlanta Braves, and the Western Michigan Broncos' Brett Sunde, a junior, was drafted by the Oakland Athletics just four rounds later. Across the conference, there were four catchers placed on Wichita Sports' Johnny Bench Award Watch List, and that didn't even include Keegan.
Unfortunately, most of the players making those achievements have moved onto brighter pastures, leaving the the 2016 version of the league in a year of transition. There are a few proven guys left, sure, but most of the league will need to rely on one or more uncertain youngsters to get the job done behind the plate. This list is the hardest that we'll likely be tasked with putting together this month, as a litany of factors come into play when it comes to evaluating catchers. The youth and uncertainty provides for many more chances for current unknowns to break out, and the question of whether one should place more value in throwing out potential basestealers or offensive output will come up especially early in the list.
In other words, go easy on me.
5. Johnny Zubek (Sr, Northern Illinois Huskies): .256 batting average/.370 on-base percentage/.369 slugging percentage in 209 plate appearances, 6 doubles, 1 triple, 4 home runs, 24 runs batted in, .986 fielding percentage, threw out 26% of base-stealers in 39 tries.
Northern Illinois enters 2016 with a duo of senior catchers in Zubek and Tony Brandner who are highly adept at getting on base but not very adept at throwing runners out. It's impressive how similar the two were in many aspects of the game last season, but Zubek got 47 starts behind the dish last year, so he's the one who starts this list. While neither catcher knew how to strike out last season, Zubek provided considerably more pop than his counterpart, smashing a team-high four home runs on the season. Behind the plate, while Zubek didn't show a stellar arm, his 26% throw-out rate is still nearly twice as good as Brandner's in just four more attempts. Because he isn't a dominant defender, however, it will be key to Zubek's senior season that his bat looks much more similar to his 2015 season than his 2014, when he made 36 appearances and posted just a .155 batting average.
4. Tony DiLeo (Sr, Eastern Michigan Eagles): .232/.316/.268 in 156 PAs, 5 2B, 11 RBI, .981 fld%, 43% CSB in 76 attempts.
Nobody's shaking in their boots over that batting line, which, fine. If you'd rather put an average hitter on this list and leave off the conference's best returning defender on paper, good for you. I'm gonna give props to the kid who got ran on the second-most times of anybody in the conference, and threw out just short of half of them, all in a season in which he started 39 games after appearing in just 35 the previous two seasons combined. He did post the same strikeout ratio as teammate Michell McGeein without the ten bombs to back it up, but again, it was his first time consistently facing pitching in three years. Eastern Michigan doesn't have many reasons to get excited this season, but the seniors on this team should at least be fun to watch, and you can count DiLeo as one of their leaders.
3. Spencer Dull (RS So, Miami RedHawks): .286/.370/.486 in 82 PA, 3 2B, 3 HR, 14 RBI, .967 fld%, 27% CSB in 24 attempts.
There are lots of opportunities for young catchers to make a big impact in the conference this season, but perhaps no one is more primed to do that than Dull. As a redshirt-freshman playing behind the seasoned Max Andresen last year, Dull showed a ton of promise finishing with the fourth-highest slugging percentage on one of the strongest lineups in the MAC and actually throwing out runners at a better rate than his senior teammate. He should have every opportunity to earn the regular starting role in 2016, though the team could be willing to give the much-heralded freshman Hayden Senger a chance to show what he has to offer as well.
2. Cody Gaertner (RS Sr, Ohio Bobcats): .291/.358/.429, 12 2B, 4 HR, 43 RBI, .989 fld%, 24% CSB in 42 attempts.
A staple in the Ohio lineup since starting 41 games as a freshman in 2012, the Bobcats had lots of reason to be wary of whether or not Gaertner's bat would return to what it once was following a major shoulder injury that forced him to sit out the 2014 season. Those reservations were cast aside quickly, however, when Gaertner posted a .392 average during the team's season-opening six-game win streak, and never looked back. He was eased into the everyday catcher's spot over the first half of last season, but down the stretch, his arm seemed ready to handle the daily workload again. Gaertner's pop will be crucial to Ohio after losing a couple of its better power guys from 2015, and he may even be asked to carry the clean-up spot in the lineup. If he proves to be as consistent as he has been in the past, however, he's got a firm lead on every other catcher in the conference - except one.
1. Jarett Rindfleisch (Jr, Ball State Cardinals): .310/.417/.518 in 251 PAs, 7 2B, 2 3B, 10 HR, 47 RBI, .984 fld%, 31% CSB in 58 attempts.
The easy choice for the top spot, it's a tribute to the season Keegan had for Bowling Green that the line shown above wasn't good enough to get Rindfleisch named first-team All-MAC last year. Rindfleisch traded a .352 freshman batting average with four dingers for the above sophomore line and 10 home runs, good for second-most in the conference. The slugging percentage, meanwhile, was the best of anyone in the conference not in a Miami uniform. He wasn't just an offensive juggernaut, either. Of the 58 players that dared to run against him, he caught 18 of them, a percentage that ranked among the best in the conference. It's this all-around excellence that makes him another legitimate pro prospect on the Cardinals' roster in 2016.