For years, Jorge Alfaro was a case study in the disconnect between scouting reports and performance.
The Colombian catcher was regarded as having an elite arm behind the plate. Yet, he came into this season with a pedestrian 26.6 career caught-stealing percentage.
He was considered a premium athlete who moved well, and yet had 28 and 23 passed balls in his two most recent full seasons in 2013 and 2014.
The Phillies’ backstop supposedly had the tools to be great. He just wasn’t.
That all changed this year at Double-A Reading. Suddenly, the elite arm began showing up in games. Suddenly, the athleticism started resulting in balls getting blocked. Suddenly, Alfaro became as good as he was supposed to be.
Alfaro threw out 44 percent of runners this season, a new career-high. He caught a career-high 95 games, and had a career-low seven passed balls. He recorded a career-best .993 fielding percentage while guiding Reading’s staff to a 3.85 ERA, the franchises second-lowest mark of the past 10 years.
Everything finally came together for Alfaro defensively in 2016, in all aspects of catching. He silenced any concerns he would have to move to another position in the future, and is this season’s Captain’s Catcher Award as the best defensive catcher in the minors.
“I’m a catcher. That’s the only position I love,” Alfaro told Baseball America through a translator earlier this year. “I’ll play any other position to help my team win, but I’m a catcher.”
A season like this was a long time coming for Alfaro, 23. The Rangers saw this promise when they signed him for $1.3 million as a 17-year old international free agent out of Colombia in 2013, and the Phillies saw it when they made sure to acquire him as part of their massive trade return for Cole Hamels last summer.
He had long shown promise with the bat, hitting 50 doubles and 35 home runs combined between 2013-14 as he made his way up to BA’s No. 67 ranking on the pre-2015 Top 100 prospects list.
An injury-plagued year in 2015 set Alfaro back, but he showed up at spring training this year devoted to his defense and immediately began following in the footsteps of another great Latin American catcher.
“It helped him to be around Chooch (Carlos Ruiz) in spring training,” Reading manager Dusty Wathan said. “Here is a guy that’s one of the best defensive catchers in the game and he’s out blocking balls at 8 a.m. in the morning in spring training and receiving balls off a machine and doing everything these young guys are doing. I think that was a very good example for Jorge of a guy that’s had so much success yet constantly is working on it.”
Alfaro took the example and ran with it once he got to Reading. Wathan, a former catcher in the minor leagues for 14 seasons, marveled at Alfaro’s work ethic and devotion to improving his game.
“He’s a very humble guy, hard-working guy, and competes as well as any player I’ve ever had come through the minor leagues,” Wathan said. “He wants to win worse than anybody.”
The first step for Alfaro was improving his receiving. Under Wathan’s guidance, he found a more consistent, balanced stance than in previous years and also adjusted how he received pitches to his glove side, turning his thumb up slightly to position the pocket of his glove better.
The results were immediate. Alfaro committed only one passed ball and one error in his first 40 games, compared to five passed balls and four errors in 38 games in 2015.
“Framing is something that was an issue and because of this I was doing passed balls and not receiving well,” Alfaro said. “Thanks to the hard work I put in everyday, I’m better in that, but I’m going to stay like I still have problems so I keep getting better.”
Next up was his throwing. Generally speaking, minor league catchers often struggle to get the ball out of their gloves quickly enough to throw runners out.
Wathan, however, found Alfaro had the opposite problem.
“He would fumble it or drop it trying to rush it too much,” Wathan said. “We weren’t really trying to get him any quicker, we were trying to help him be more consistent with his footwork and his exchange. Once he got that down, it was kind of the opposite of what you’d do with other guys. A lot of times you want to quicken the guys up. With Jorge his arm catches up so much he doesn’t have to be so quick with his feet, so quick with his arm, he just has to get a clean exchange and get the ball in the air.”
Indeed, it wasn’t long before Alfaro was gunning runners out left and right, posting consistent pop times in the 1.81-1.84 second range–which grades as a 70 arm on the 20-to-80 scouting scale.
With his framing clean, his arm flourishing, his bat producing a .285/.325/.458 slash line and his work ethic earning raves, Alfaro led Reading to the Eastern League semifinals and was rewarded with his first big league callup.
He got a hit in his first major-league at-bat–a pinch-hit infield single off Pirates reliever Jared Hughes on Sept. 12–and made his first start behind the plate for the Phillies the next day. In his next start Sept. 18, Alfaro threw out the first runner who ever tried to steal on him, Marlins speedster and two-time National League defending stolen base champion Dee Gordon.
It was an announcement, loud and clear, that Alfaro no longer is that same player who personified a headscratching disconnect between scouting reports and performance.
Now, he is the elite defensive catcher everyone expected him to be.
“We expected big things from him and he got better as he went,” Wathan said. “We expected what we saw this year, and we expect even bigger things from him in the future.”