“I just didn’t think (the trade to the White Sox) would happen this soon. I was just talking to my parents. They’re a little upset about it, but I know it’s probably good for me, considering there’s a designated hitter [in the American League]. That’s another position I can possibly play. That’s definitely a plus.” -White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers, after being traded by Atlanta.
We’ve written before that the minor leagues currently have a wealth of talented catching prospects, headlined by 2008 Baseball America Player of the Year Matt Wieters. A catcher is ranked among a team’s top prospects in five of the 14 American League organizations, including top prospects Wieters (Orioles) and Carlos Santana (Indians).
Not all of these prospects will pan out, and odds are that not all of them will still be catchers five years from now. Accounting for the probability of a minor league shortstop moving to second base in his projection isn’t close to the seismic magnitude of a catcher having to move to first base or DH. While catchers’ arms are usually strong enough for third base, their first-step quickness, range and agility—often part of the reasons they might have had to move off catcher in the first place—are usually better suited for first base. Occasionally an athletic catcher like Brandon Inge can make the move to third, but more often it’s a sharp slide down the defensive spectrum (and, at times, it’s a move to the mound, a la Carlos Marmol and Troy Percival).
Some minor league catchers who move to first base are still able to have their bats carry them, as Carlos Delgado and Paul Konerko have proven. But those are only the success stories. Many more have moved off catcher and were not been able to carry the offensive requirements of another position, as their limited offensive skills made them catcher-or-bust players.
Quantifying the entire realm of a catcher’s defensive responsibilities is difficult if not immeasurable. Measuring parts of a catcher’s defense–his ability to control the running game and his ability to prevent baseballs from traveling to the backstop–are a little easier to estimate with relatively basic, official fielding statistics. (For those seeking a more in-depth look at catcher defense, I recommend Tom Tango’s "With Or Without You" article in The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2008, while this 11-year-old article by Tom Tippett is free and still a good read.)
For minor leaguers, we can, as we did last year, look at their caught stealing rates. Of course, there’s a selection bias in play with these numbers. The better a catcher’s defensive reputation, the less likely (in theory) teams are to run against him. So the pool of players who run against Taylor Teagarden (1.9 pop times, 70 arm on the 20-80 scouting scale) is likely to be a group of faster or at least more efficient basestealers than those who might run on a catcher without the same arm strength and quick release. Other variables—pitchers’ times to home, the handedness of the pitching staff, whether organizations let their pitchers in the low minors use the slide step and, of course, sample size—can create noise in the data, so the scouting reports are indispensable. But the performance record adds another voice to the discussion.
Today we’ll examine catchers’ ability to control the running game, saving blocking and receiving skills for next time. The catchers listed below appeared in the 2008 Prospect Handbook (with a few exceptions) and had at least 50 stolen bases attempted against them in a full-season league in 2008. The numbers are players’ cumulative statistics from the 2008 season. "Levels" refers to the levels a player appeared in this year, with the level with the most stolen base attempts against listed first.
|CAUGHT STEALING PERCENTAGE|
|13||De La Cruz, Luis||STL||LoA||20||32||52||38.5%|
|20||De Los Santos, Anel||LAA||LoA/AA||48||80||128||37.5%|
Michael McKenry: McKenry takes our unofficial Prospect Pistol award, throwing out a greater percentage of runners than any other catching prospect from the 2008 Prospect Handbook. McKenry has always had a strong throwing arm, but he made defensive improvements with his throwing mechanics since being drafted in the seventh round out of Middle Tennessee State in 2006 to become superlative at controlling the running game. McKenry erased 34 percent of base stealers (39 out of 114) in 2007 in the low Class A South Atlantic League and leveraged his plus arm strength and quick release to control the running game as well as any other catching prospect this season.
Pablo Sandoval: There’s a disconnect between the scouting reports and the numbers here. Sandoval has a strong arm and a track record of controlling the running game. Last year in the high Class A California League, Sandoval threw out 50.7 percent of runners (36 of 71), which ranked fourth in all of the minor leagues among catchers with at least 50 attempts against. This year he again ranked among the best in the minors in caught stealing percentage. Yet the scouting consensus is that Sandoval will have to switch positions, as the only numbers that jump out to some evaluators are 5-foot-11 and 245 pounds. We’ll take a closer look at Sandoval in Part II.
Jackson Williams: The scouting report on Williams when the Giants drafted him in the supplemental first round in 2007 hasn’t changed much: excellent defensive skills, controls the running game with a quick release and is a ways away from putting it all together at the plate. It’s a good thing Jackson is such a good defender, as the 22-year-old batted just .205/.292/.292 in 97 games between low Class A August and high Class A San Jose this year. Williams didn’t win the Best Defensive Catcher honor in our Best Tools survey of the South Atlantic League managers, though he received several votes of support.
Jonathan Lucroy: In the Rookie-level Pioneer League last year, Lucroy showed a promising offensive skill set, but his arm strength was fringy and his throws to second base tended to tail off the bag. Lucroy began the year in low Class A, a fairly conservative assignment for a 2007 third-round pick out of college. Lucroy improved defensively, became a SAL all-star and earned a promotion to high Class A Brevard County, where his performance remained sharp. His arm strength is now average, but it’s his quick release that helped him control the running game so well.
Wilson Ramos: Voted by managers as the best defensive catcher in the Florida State League, Ramos has one of the best offense-defense packages of any catcher in the minor leagues. His plus arm enabled him to throw out more than 40 percent of base stealers for the second year in a row. The defensive ability alone would make Ramos an intriguing prospect, but his .288/.346/.434 batting line for high Class A Fort Myers in the Florida State League—a pitcher-friendly park within a pitcher-friendly league—is impressive for a catcher who just turned 21 in August.
Konerko moved to first base the next season.
Max Ramirez: Ramirez has been an outstanding hitter since he signed with the Braves in 2002 out of Venezuela and hit .305/.386/.492 in 215 Dominican Summer League plate appearances. Ramirez, who has had an OBP above .400 in each of the last four seasons, lacks even average defensive tools. Many scouts doubt whether some of the things he does are correctable, particularly his lack of athleticism behind the plate, stiff hands and 45 arm. The Rangers traded Gerald Laird to the Tigers this month and still have Ramirez, Teagarden and Jarrod Saltalamacchia to sort out behind the plate. Teagarden is by far the best defensive catcher of the three, while Ramirez looks like he might have enough offensive skill to hold a job at first base. Of course, the Rangers also have Chris Davis at first base and No. 3 prospect Justin Smoak possibly set to rise quickly through the system.
Jesus Montero: Scouts who saw Montero as an amateur in Venezuela in 2006 were skeptical about Montero’s chances to stick behind the plate. Scouts are still skeptical, but Montero has made significant defensive improvement since signing, showing an above-average arm and good athleticism for his size (6-foot-4, 225 pounds). Montero does not have a quick release, which enabled SAL base stealers to have success against Montero despite his arm strength. Like Sandoval, Montero’s size is a concern going forward for scouts, but his offensive game is strong enough to profile at any position. If he can stay behind the plate, he could be a monster.
Angel Salome: One year ago, Salome threw out just six of 46 base stealers (13 percent), so 2008 was an improvement for Salome. The arm strength is there for Salome, but his release isn’t quick and he’s struggled with his throwing accuracy. At 5-foot-7, Salome’s wingspan wouldn’t afford his infielders much leeway on errant throws should he ever move to first base, so continued improvements in all facets of his defensive skills will be crucial.
John Jaso: Although his offensive performance with Double-A Montgomery in 2007 was strong, Jaso began this year back with the Biscuits because the Rays wanted him to work on his defense. Opinions on the degree to which Jaso improved his defense this year are mixed, but the scouting consensus is that he still has a ways to go behind the plate despite having 55 arm strength on the 20-80 scouting scale. One AL scout who was bullish on Jaso’s ability to stick at catcher before this season came away with less conviction in that opinion after seeing Jaso play this year. "It’s his footwork and getting his arm to not make throws that tail," said the scout. "The raw arm strength is there, but his mechancis in getting everything together is not."
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