SARASOTA, FLA.—Growing up, Michael Ohlman didn’t have a lot of baseball players to look up to.
He wanted to be a catcher, like a lot of young baseball players. But unlike most other prospective catchers, Ohlman was tall.
Ohlman couldn’t watch Pudge Rodriguez and try to emulate his actions or throwing mechanics. At 6-foot-4, Ohlman’s long arms and legs couldn’t match the compact style Rodriguez used behind the plate.
So Ohlman had one model to follow. He paid attention to the patron saint of tall catchers, Joe Mauer. He watched everything Mauer did behind the plate and tried to emulate it.
“I can’t catch like everyone else. I looked up to Joe Mauer because he was the first tall catcher. We have similar body types. I tried to watch and see what he did well,” Ohlman said. “You have to be efficient. You have to be short. You have to find ways that make work for you. I’ve experimented with stuff and tinkered to see what works for me.
“Throwing is the toughest (part of being a tall catcher). You have to be able to repeat and stay as quick and short as possible. Consistency is the key with anything.”
There has been a long-running skepticism in baseball against tall catchers because they are believed to be more injury prone and are hindered in blocking and throwing because of their size. But 6-foot-5 catchers such as Mauer and Sandy Alomar Jr. and the Orioles’ own Matt Wieters have proven that tall catchers can not only hold up behind the plate but they can be some of the best defenders in the league.
Ohlman isn’t Gold Glove-caliber, but he has made some significant strides to the point where he seems to have a legitimate shot to stay behind the plate. He’s developed into a solid game-caller. But he’s still got work to do on staying low to block balls in the dirt.
The fact that Ohlman is considered even a possible long-term answer for the Orioles at catcher is pretty surprising development. Just two years ago, Ohlman seemed to be a draft bust. He signed for just under $1 million in 2008 after impressing scouts playing on the same summer travel team as 2013 AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers (another offensive catcher at the time).
Ohlman was the club’s 15th-ranked prospect after that season, based more on his potential than anything he’d done after turning pro. Over the next two seasons, Ohlman did nothing to seem to justify the high five-figure payday.
He didn’t show the power or hitting ability he was expected to have, but it was off-field troubles that really seemed to send him on the slide to obscurity. Ohlman injured his right shoulder in a car accident during spring training in 2012. As he recovered from that, he was also hit with a 50-game suspension after testing positive twice for drugs of abuse.
Ohlman says he’s learned from those experiences and they’ve helped him get where he is now, but he doesn’t dwell on them—as he describes it, he’s a positive person.
“You have to be level-headed. That’s the biggest thing. You can’t turn a bad at-bat into a bad inning behind the plate or carry a bad season into next April,” Ohlman said.
He has shown significant improvement on the field since returning from the suspension and injury. Ohlman hit .304/.411/.456 in 51 games with low Class A Delmarva. In 2013, Ohlman showed the same improved batting eye and developing power, hitting .313/.410/.524 for high Class A Frederick. After dropping off Baseball America’s Orioles Top 30 Prospect list for three seasons, Ohlman returned this spring, ranking ninth on the Orioles’ list.
“To see the dust clear and settle and to see myself projected as one of the top prospects again, it’s cool to see how far I’ve come,” Ohlman said.
He’ll head to Double-A this year to continue to try to refine his work behind the plate and to keep up the offensive production that made him one of the minors’ better offensive catchers last season. If he keeps it up, before long, he may get to pick the brain of the 6-foot-5 Wieters in Baltimore.