Among the many gifts the sabermeteric era and the dawning of the Era of WAR has given us, one I'm very fond of is the positional adjustment. Like most of WAR it is a somewhat generalized attempt to even the playing field, taking difficulty of playing a defensive position on a baseball field and the scarcity of players who can do it into account when trying to quantify a player's value.
Like the vast majority of quality sabermeterics positional adjustment is simply an attempted quantification of things a careful observer of the game already knows instinctively. Playing first base is easier than shortstop. Left field requires less range than centerfield. Catcher is the most demanding defensive position on the field, etc.
On that last point there is perhaps no fanbase in baseball better qualified to speak to the scarcity of quality catchers than Mariner fans. Since 2002, when franchise backstop Dan Wilson had his last effective season, the Mariners have had thirty-one catchers. Seventeen, well over half, accrued a negative fWAR in their time with the team. You are already intimately acquainted with the historical level of incompetence from the 2015 Mariner catchers, but that season serves merely as the worst example in what has been more than a decade of Kenji Johjima and a whole pile of suck. Enter Chris Iannetta, and his spectacular okayness.
Acquired as one of Jerry's Buy Low Brigade, Iannetta was coming off a 2015 that represented one of two things: The beginning of 30's decline or a BABIP fueled anomaly. 2016 is still not yet a quarter of the season old, but thus far Iannetta is playing almost exactly like the player he was in Los Angeles from 2012-2014, where he was varying degrees of fine, ok, decent, and "Oh yeah I forgot about that guy."
It's hard to sell fans on the power of league average, but Mariner fans should be equipped with eyes to see better than most. Years watching Miguel Olivo, Ben Davis, Rob Johnson, and Miguel Olivo again have given us a key sense of how poor catcher play can cripple a team. Well Chris Iannetta's offensive and defensive values going into the WAR equation are 1.3 and 1.3, respectively. His wRC+ is 104. He is almost exactly average, at almost everything.
The way Iannetta accrues his value isn't as exciting as, say, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and his .333 ISO, and he's far from the defensive wizard that a player like Salvador Perez is. Iannetta's game is built around a lack of crippling weakness, and drawing walks. His 13.8 BB% is second among American League catchers (min. 80 PA) and, while his framing ranges somewhere in the "it won't kill you" to "ok" zone his defense overall on the season grades out at average to slightly above. He doesn't strike out too much, and he hits for enough power to keep pitchers honest.
I still feel like I'm not selling this as strongly as I'd like to, so here are the top 5 Mariner catchers, since 2003, by accumulative fWAR:
1. Kenji Johjima - 6.7
2. John Jaso - 2.6
3. Mike Zunino - 1.4
4. Chris Iannetta - 0.7
5. Ben Davis - 0.6
So, yeah, by one widely used metric in thirty-eight games Chris Iannetta is already the fourth most valuable catcher the Mariners have had in a decade and a half. Buffeting this data is that same 0.7 fWAR puts him third in the American League, behind only the previously mentioned Perez and Saltalamacchia.
It feels weird to say it, but right now Chris Iannetta is among the best catchers in the American League. He's doing it the exact same way he has always done it, and there is little reason to think this isn't who he is going to be at least the remainder of this year. While many, including myself, allow hope to remain that Mike Zunino can resurrect his career the most exciting news for the Mariners their success at the position no longer hinges on his ability to do so.
Chris Iannetta is here. He's as boring a baseball player to watch as any Mariner has been in some time, and he's boring in exactly the right ways. He's tea with honey, a low-yield IPO, and the small miracle of indoor plumbing all rolled into one. We'll take him for granted, because oftentimes the most dependable things are those most quickly forgotten. He's here, and he's ours, and I could not be much happier about it.