Evaluating Catching Prospects Requires Lots Of Projection
In this decade, more than 900 players have cracked Baseball America's annual Top 100 Prospects lists; the true number shrinks considerably below 1,000 after accounting for a substantial number of return engagements. An analyst could spend hours dissecting this talented troop into every conceivable cross-section, but one anomaly that stands out immediately is how few catchers have made the grade. Just 68 appeared on the lists; middle infielders accounted for nearly twice that number, and corner infielders occupied almost three times as many slots (to say nothing of the outfielders).
While those who toiled under the tools of ignorance may have found early recognition elusive, they've made their mark on the game. This decade, the catching ranks have been blessed with perhaps the most valuable player on the planet in Joe Mauer, as well as the 2009 No. 1 prospect, Matt Wieters. It may not be the golden age of catchers, but any period that includes Mauer is in the discussion.
Eight backstops have garnered a top 25 ranking at least once this decade. Those include Mauer and Wieters, as well as Victor Martinez, Buster Posey, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Jeff Mathis, J.R. House, and Eric Munson. With such a mixed bag of results, it's worth investigating whether a closer examination of scouting information could have enabled us to separate the classics from the clunkers.
Good, Bad & Ugly
Mauer is the paragon of all catching prospects. Scouts raved about his quick bat, cannon arm, and raw athleticism before and after the Twins selected him No. 1 overall in the 2001 draft. The total package has matched or surpassed even the loftiest expectations, with three batting titles and Mauer earning BA's 2009 Major League Player of the Year award.
Martinez's throwing arm was regarded as his weak point throughout his years as a prospect. While he's not known for his defensive play, his offense (career .837 OPS, 111 home runs) has made up for any shortcomings behind the plate, and playing the occasional game at first base or DH should lengthen his career.
Wieters and Posey are too early in their careers to qualify as categorical successes or failures, but both college-seasoned players remain on track for stardom. Both possess strong bats, arms, and athleticism as well as a history of versatility; Wieters closed games at Georgia Tech and Posey played all nine positions during one game at Florida State.
While similarly touted initially, Saltala-macchia has seen his star dim with issues both at and behind the plate. A plethora of strikeouts (246 in 789 big league at-bats) have plagued his offensive profile. Defensive wunderkind Mathis still gets a substantial amount of playing time over offensively superior Mike Napoli, but much like Saltlamacchia's, Mathis' bat has yet to reach its potential.
Mathis represents a subset of catchers that generally has a good track record. He came late to catching, as he wasn't a full-time catcher at Marianna (Fla.) High. Russell Martin, a two-time Top 100 member, played third base at Chipola (Fla.) JC in Marianna and brought an infielder's hands and actions to the catcher position. And like Mathis, Posey was a middle infielder, moving behind the plate in his sophomore year at Florida State.
Two of the most notable "busts" reached the majors, but House and Munson never lived up to billing. Neither was ever a regular as a catcher, and their bats proved insufficient to hold down a job at another position.
Beyond The Bat
Traits the successful catchers seem to share include decent bats, strong arms, athleticism and above-average mobility. This is intuitive; most players with good mobility, hitting ability, and arm strength will find some position to play well, even if it doesn't involve catching. This is not to say some players cannot improve on these skills and transform from non-prospect to an above-average major leaguer. Brian McCann and Geovany Soto are two examples of players who improved significantly in those areas to go from solid prospects (but apparently not Top 25 worthy) to all-stars in the majors.
Extreme makeovers can be beneficial for any player, but the skills that are supposed to set catchers apart are tied to the unique physical and mental requirements that catching demands. What really separates catchers is the need to call strong games, frame pitches and handle pitching staffs.
College catchers, with more experience against stiffer competition, would seem to possess a greater familiarity with hitters' approach and tendencies, and would be easier to scout. Yet college catchers have not become major league starters at a higher rate in recent years. In the four drafts from 2000-03, 14 college catchers were selected in the first three rounds. Just three have more than 500 major league at-bats. Of the 18 preps drafted during the same span, six have surpassed that threshold.
"Coaches for nearly all the colleges in the West call the game for their catcher, and it's more frequent than ever at the high school level as well," said a crosschecker with a National League club. "It is a problem for scouting. With scout teams and such, we can let the boys play, and it allows us to see them use their instincts with catching, pitch-calling, pitchers (shaking them) off, defensive positioning and baserunning."
One team that has had success drafting catchers in this period was the Braves, who found big leaguers in four straight drafts from 2002-2005 in preps McCann and Saltalamacchia, college product Clint Sammons and junior-college find Tyler Flowers.
A high-ranking National League executive praises former Braves scouting director Roy Clark's nose for talent. "I think it's about talent, value, and recognition," he said. "The biggest thing for Roy was to add talent to the system and find the best value in the draft. For the most part, they have always been a high school organization that drafts tools-orientated players who they can mold through their player-development system."
The Braves, like most clubs, have baselines for their catchers, and according to the NL crosschecker, that includes at minimum a major league average arm.
"An average catcher in MLB doesn't even have an average arm; it's a plus for 95 percent of them," he said. "I tend to believe an amateur catcher's arm should be a true present plus, or very close to it . . . If the arm action isn't too long and the arm strength is there, player development has something to work with, especially if the bat is good."
While they have their minor league catchers call their own games, the Braves seem to look for other tools first.
"There are some skills you can't teach—raw power, hittability, speed, arm strength, just to name a few—and certainly you can improve catching fundamentals, depending on how raw a player's grasp of those fundamentals may be," the exec said. "I wouldn't necessarily say that a strong bat is more important than a strong grasp of the catching fundamentals, but it is more difficult to acquire."
It's fitting that Clark's new position—assistant general manager with the Nationals—could team him with the next big thing behind the plate, Bryce Harper. Few high school catchers have attracted such hype, but Harper is unlike almost anything baseball has seen before. He's skipping his last two years of high school in order to attend junior college and enter next June's draft.
While Harper has significant defensive tools—particularly a rocket arm he's not shy to show off—some scouts believe he'll wind up as an outfielder. He's a hitter first and foremost, and that has been a profile that has significant risks. House and Munson top the list of Top 100 catchers who had the bat as their best tool and haven't lived up to their billing, and recent first-rounders such as Jeff Clement (Mariners, 2005) and Kyle Skipworth (Marlins, 2008) are also struggling to meet they hype.
"The bat plays, first and foremost," the NL scout said. "Usually, if an amateur is at the catcher position in college (especially at Division I), there is reason to believe he's got a chance defensively."
Catchers are an ambiguous bunch. Much like their evaluator brethren, even the best have a few get past them; whether they're wild pitches or not is up to the scorer's discretion.
R.J. Anderson is a freelance writer based in Tampa