The Year Of The Catcher
Catching talent runs deep in minors this year
Ideally, they would all come like Orioles catcher and 2008 Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year Matt Wieters: a plus-plus arm, athleticism, quickness, good blocking and receiving skills and an advanced bat that could be above-average at any position.
In reality, finding that right combination of arm strength, blocking skills, agility, mental capacity and the ability to hit well enough for the big leagues can be a frustrating, elusive task for many teams.
Perhaps more so than any place on the diamond, catcher is the one position that requires the greatest work from both the scouting and player development staffs.
Scouts have to identify players who have the tools, the athleticism and mental acuity to play catcher, and the player development staff has to hone those skills, even though catchers often take longer to develop into big leaguers than their counterparts who play less demanding positions.
"The meat and potatoes are you have to be able to block the baseball, you have to be able to receive it and you have to be able to throw," Braves catching coordinator Joe Breeden said. "Those three things are the three most important. I'm not saying it's not important as far as tag plays, fielding bunts or pop-ups, but if you aren't very good at those three right there, it's going to be hard to proceed further."
For many, catching begins with arm strength. An athletic catcher who moves around well behind the plate but has a 40 arm on the 20-80 scouting scale would give away enough runs on the basepaths that it would negate his positional value. While players can improve their throwing accuracy and sometimes improve their arm strength, most catchers have plenty of room for growth in their other defensive skills.
"The college player coming out is going to be a little more refined than the free agent Latin player that you sign at 16, 17 years old," said Rangers farm director and former catcher Scott Servais, an 11-year big league veteran. "Receiving the ball and blocking the ball are probably the two things that take the longest time to develop and get consistent with."
Servais is among the many disciples of Red Sox bullpen coach Gary Tuck, who has worked with Sandy Alomar Jr., Joe Girardi, Jorge Posada and now Jason Varitek, among others, in more than three decades of teaching.
"He is, in my opinion, the best catching instructor in the game today," Servais said. "Basically everything I've learned and what I teach guys, whether I'm on the field or I'm in the position I'm in now in how I have our coaches teach our kids, comes off a lot of what he does."
Player development officials don't want to overwhelm young players with too much instruction, but with the defensive demands of catching, it's often inevitable.
"There's something our scouts have seen in them that made them a prospect," Breeden said, "so I'm just going to evaluate that initially, unless they're doing something that's going to hurt them: their throwing mechanics like arm angle, arm slot or their footwork or their setup. Once that process happens, then I'll go from there. With all catching prospects, the first thing I want to see is if the guy's got an arm or not. Then his footwork, and I'm not talking about footwork as far as running speed. Most catchers aren't fleet of foot, but they have good footwork."
Lou Marson was among the more raw catchers when the Phillies drafted him as a 17-year-old in the fourth round of the 2004 draft. Marson, a star football player in high school in Arizona, never played for a travel team during the summer, instead using the season to get ready for football season.
Four years later, Marson has an advanced hitting approach, which helped him bat .314/.433/.416 with 68 walks and 70 strikeouts this year for Double-A Reading. Marson, 22, has developed into a good receiver and threw out 36 percent of basestealers this year thanks to work with catching coordinator Mike Compton, among others.
"We do a little different stuff every day—blocking, footwork, framing, receiving—everything," Marson said. "So he comes in for four or five days and we try to do as much as we can without killing me, without wearing me out."
Aside from the physical package of tools, one common refrain from catchers and player-development officials is that the mental capacity required of a catcher is unlike the mental demands of any other position.
"You're gonna have to have some toughness too, mental and physical because you take a beating back there," Breeden said. "You're locked in, dealing with the pitcher, dealing with the staff the whole game. You still have to be able to hit and your body's got to be physically able to handle that, and mentally you have to be able get up there and go hit."
The mental part of catching can manifest itself in several ways, ranging from the ability to use game theory in pitch selection, to dealing with the strengths and weaknesses of an entire pitching staff, to the mental toll that catching takes on a player over the course of a long season.
"I think it's a position that has evolved from your traditional skill sets of always being the catcher with the strong arm," said Diamondbacks farm director A.J. Hinch, who caught for seven big league seasons. "One thing that would be across the board is the mental capacity to handle the position. Very few catchers survive at the major league level without it. Even the guys that are defensively challenged, that are kind of more your offensive catchers, it's not because they can't run the game, it's generally whether they have a lack of arm strength or maybe slower feet. Whatever their hiccup is, catchers have that awareness within the game that you don't see at every other position."
The sum total of all of the catcher's mental chores requires what Servais refers to as catcher makeup.
"Catcher makeup is kind of a broad spectrum of things," Servais said. "But it really is important, and I know that if you're going to go out and evaluate players either in your system or other systems, does the player have that ability? Can he fight through an 0-for-20, and his team is still winning because he's blocking the ball in the dirt in the eighth inning and he's calling the right pitches in the seventh. All that stuff that contributes to winning that's not specifically tied to offense."
Teams are always on the lookout for quality young catchers, but their search isn't restricted to the players who already wear a mask and shin guards. If a player can make the conversion to catcher from another position and stick there, his prospect value can shoot up. Not that it's easily done.
"You've got to have arm strength," Servais said. "Some guys' arms do get stronger. When we're looking at converting guys from other positions on the field to catcher, there's a couple things you're looking for. One is arm strength, and for me, personally, I would never convert a guy unless I was very comfortable and very confident that he could hit. Why would you convert somebody who couldn't hit? There's a lot of guys out there who can catch and never quite make it with the bat."
Perhaps the most well-known catching convert is Russell Martin, a junior college third baseman before the Dodgers moved him to catcher. That worked out pretty well.
Last year the Dodgers converted third baseman/outfielder Carlos Santana into a backstop. After showing signs of life with the bat in his first season in 2006, Santana struggled to get to .223/.318/.370 in 86 games with low Class A Great Lakes. Sure, the Midwest League isn't kind to hitters, but Santana also had a heaping new portion of defensive skills and responsibilities to master.
This season, Santana emerged as not just one of the best catching prospects, but one of baseball's better overall prospects. Santana hit .323/.431/.563 in 99 games with 69 walks and 59 strikeouts in the high Class A California League, before the Dodgers traded him to the Indians to acquire third baseman Casey Blake. Despite moving to the high Class A Carolina League after the deal, Santana still was named the Cal League's MVP.
Santana still has some improvements he needs to make behind the plate, but Martin is the perfect example of how much a player with the raw ability and aptitude can improve.
Martin, the reigning National League Gold Glove winner, threw out just 23 of 108 basestealers—a 21.3 percent success rate—and committed 31 passed balls in just 63 games in his first full season as a catcher.
Santana threw out 27 percent of basestealers this season, a figure that registers just below the minor league average of around 31 percent. The raw tools—a plus arm, good throwing mechanics, a quick release and athleticism—are all present, as they were for Martin.
"He hits with the barrel of the bat consistently," Kinston manager Chris Tremie said. "He has good strike-zone discipline and he will hit for power—he definitely has power potential. He uses his lower half well, gets extension, good length in his swing. He's short to the ball with good length."
But Santana isn't the only converted catcher who has put up big numbers at the plate. The Astros converted 21-year-old Koby Clemens from third base to catcher this season. In 109 games, Clemens batted .268/.369/.423 for high Class A Salem. Two others—Tyler Flowers (Braves) and Pablo Sandoval (Giants)—both had catching experience but only emerged as full-time catchers this season.
Sandoval was a catcher in the Rookie-level Arizona League in 2004, his first year in pro ball. The now 22-year-old Venezuelan moved to third base and then first base the next two seasons before splitting time at first base and catcher in 2007. Sandoval made the full-time switch to catcher this season, and he said he also switched to a heavier bat model.
His bat certainly packed plenty of punch when he hit .350/.394/.578 between high Class A San Jose and Double-A Connecticut, and then got off to a hot start upon a promotion to the big leagues. With the addition of Buster Posey, the fifth overall pick and one of three catchers taken in the top 10 picks this year, Sandoval's future may be at a corner infield position.
Flowers was a catcher/first baseman at Chipola (Fla.) Junior College, but after he had knee surgery the Braves put him at first full time.
"Guys that you convert that are first basemen or third basemen, usually their hands are pretty good, and their feet work," Breeden said. "So right away he should be able to receive it, he should be able to be a pretty good thrower, because your feet are working well and you've got arm strength. The big thing when you convert guys is they've got to be willing to do it; they've got to want to make that change. If not, it gets tough."
Despite the move behind the plate, Flowers still hit like a first baseman this season—.288/.427/.494 with 98 walks and 102 strikeouts—for high Class A Myrtle Beach.
"His feet always work well and he has very strong hands that allow him to receive the ball very well," Breeden said. "He got in better shape—not that he was out of shape—but he needed to be a little bit lighter to catch. Through catching all summer in Myrtle Beach and doing some extra work, he lost some weight that allowed his footwork to get a lot better. His arm got a lot stronger by long tossing every day and he's a very intelligent kid. As far as retaining information and remembering things, calling a game, he's not where I want him, but he's learned a lot in one season. From the beginning of the year until now, he's gotten a lot quicker, more accurate than what he was, blocking balls, getting in position better than he was earlier."
Size Matters—Or Does It?
Neither Flowers nor Sandoval fits into the classic catcher body that some scouts believe is ideal. For years, the scouting community's archetype for a catcher was a player between 5-foot-11 and 6-foot-1.
"For me, it's a factor if you are a short guy and your feet don't work well or if you're a big guy and you're feet don't work well," Breeden said. "I know short guys tend to maneuver a little bit better. I think it's more individually, and you have to see. If a guy's 6-foot-2, does he move around well? Does he have good hands? Do his feet move around well? (It's that taken together) as opposed to one generalization."
Of the 297 catchers since 1901 with at least 500 games caught in the big leagues, just 13—or four percent—have been 6-foot-4 or taller. Flowers (6-foot-4, 245 pounds at the start of the season), Wieters (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) and Yankees catcher Jesus Montero (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) are all trying to break that mold, one that Twins all-star Joe Mauer (6-foot-5) already has shattered.
"I don't really subscribe to the theory that they have to fit all in that hole because I do think there are guys who are a little bit bigger," Servais said. "I do think you have to be athletic, you've got to be able to be quick on your feet. Sometimes if you get too heavy, that's not going to happen. But from a height standpoint, I don't concern myself with that maybe as much as other people do."
While Sandoval doesn't have to worry about height, the 245 pounds he packs on to his 5-foot-11 frame are a concern for some scouts. Sandoval threw out an impressive 44 percent of basestealers, but it's the wear and tear, lack of agility and soft hands that has some scouts wondering whether he would remain at catcher even if Posey were out of the picture.
Then there's Brewers catcher Angel Salome, who is basically Sandoval if someone hammered him four inches into the ground. Salome doesn't quite fit into any bucket of players. The first words out of any scout's mouth when analyzing Sandoval are "unconventional" and "unorthodox," based both on his hitting mechanics and his 5-foot-7, 200-pound frame. But those same scouts are usually quick to point out one thing: wherever he goes, he hits, including this season when he batted .360/.415/.559 in Double-A.
In the history of baseball, there has never been a big league catcher who is both 5-foot-7 or shorter and 200 pounds or more. The only other player in the history of the game with those physical measurements to play in the big leagues at all is Warren Newson, an outfielder with the Rangers and White Sox in the 1990s.
"If you look at him, he doesn't do anything picture-perfect, but he has phenomenal hand-eye, a strong arm and he hits balls all over the field—sliders, fastballs, anything," said one opposing Southern League manager. "You've got to pitch him in because he handles the ball out over the plate extremely well, with a lot of power the opposite way. That's his strength for me. He doesn't have that pretty looking swing, but he's so strong and his hand-eye is so good that he's just had a phenomenal year."
Salome may not even be the best catcher in his own organization.
What makes the current crop of catching prospects special is the depth of minor league backstops who already have shown the ability to hit. Catchers often develop their offensive skills later in their careers, delaying their big league debuts and peak years. Yet the minor leagues are blessed right now with a multitude of catching prospets with advanced bats and the defensive tools to stick behind the plate.
Jonathan Lucroy (Brewers), J.P. Arencibia (Blue Jays) and Wilson Ramos (Twins) have above-average potential both at the plate and in the field, while Bryan Anderson (Cardinals), John Jaso (Rays) and Adam Moore (Mariners) could be dangerous offensive-minded catchers in the big leagues with a few more defensive improvements. And in the short-season leagues, catchers like the Rockies' Wilin Rosario, the Nationals' Derek Norris and the Phillies' Travis D'Arnaud are emerging as top prospects in their leagues.
With Max Ramirez and Taylor Teagarden, the Rangers have a pair of talented young catchers knocking on the big league door, and 23-year-old Jarrod Saltalamacchia is finishing up his second big league season. Teagarden is the defensive stalwart with excellent blocking skills, a plus-plus arm and an above-average pop time of 1.9 seconds. Ramirez is the offensive-minded catcher who may end up moving off the position, given the Rangers' situation and his need for overall defensive improvement.
"I know as part of developing catching, I try to put an ex-catcher at every level on the coaching staff, so normally that's your manager or your hitting coach who has catching experience who's there every day with the player," Servais said.
Game-calling is often the last skill to develop for a catcher, especially because most college coaches call pitches rather than letting their catchers do so. While catching a major league pitching staff requires plenty of homework, handling those duties in the minors creates a few more wrinkles. In the minors, a catcher has to deal with constant pitcher turnover due to promotions. Then, if and when a catcher is finally rewarded with a promotion, he must learn a whole new pitching staff and a new league of hitters' strengths and weaknesses.
"I start (teaching game-calling strategy) right away because it's a process that needs to start from the beginning," Breeden said. "The big thing is to be able to retain information, (for example) if a guy is able to retain information, remember what the guy did his last at-bat, remember what the guy did the last series, remember what he did last pitch. Pitch calling for me, what you see, that's what you need to believe, instead of trying to trick people. You get hitters out three ways: front to back, which is changing speeds; you get them out in and out, which is moving the ball horizontally, and you get them out vertically, which is changing planes."
It's a lot for a young player to digest, and not all are able to remain at catcher. Some eventually move off the position and have productive big league careers, such as Carlos Delgado or Paul Konerko.
"It probably depends on their skill," Hinch said. "It can come from an injury, it can come from the value of their bat at a different position and also what you have around them. How do you balance your team to get the most out of everybody?"
Others ditch their catcher's mitts for different gloves but aren't able to hit well enough at the big league level.
"If he started out as a catcher, he's probably going to end up at a corner somewhere, at first base or third base," Servais said. "He's gonna have to really hit, swing the bat, first of all, to have a chance to do that.
"Second of all, I think the guy that just struggles catching the ball, I think we can work on a lot of things, you can help guys with their throwing, their footwork, their accuracy—(but) it's really hard to teach somebody how to catch the ball. I think that's kind of an innate thing that comes when you sign a player and he comes into your system. Most times he can either catch it or he can't. The ability to receive pitches and help your pitchers, and if he struggles doing that, maybe he's a little below-average. But if you really like the bat, (if) the guy might hit 20-25 home runs one day, you say OK, let's move him to first base."