Getting Defensive: Catcher Prospects Worth Loving For Their Gloves

This is the third installment of a three-part series that will recognize the top defenders in the full-season minor leagues at the premium positions of catcher, shortstop and center field. First we looked at shortstops, and then at center fielders.

A simple approach to a complex evaluation. That’s how one could view the following analysis of catcher defense.

In one sense, the strongest indicator of a catcher’s defensive ability can be measured by survivor bias. The physical and mental demands of the position being what they are, catchers who teams continue to play behind the plate year after year, it follows, must bring the right tools for the job.

We don’t have the luxury of perspective for this exercise, however, so I narrowed my focus to two statistical measures--passed balls and baserunners caught stealing--in which catchers exercise a fair amount of control. Of course the catcher’s batterymate, the pitcher, also shares some of the responsibility for passed balls and caught stealings, but those measures give us a rough idea of a catcher’s blocking ability and arm strength/accuracy.

Rather than present raw totals or rates, though, I calculated the number of passed balls (PB+) and number of baserunners caught stealing (CS+) better than league average each catcher was compared to a catcher with the same amount of playing time or steal attempts. Positive numbers indicate a better rate than the league average, and catchers with at least 70 games at each full-season level are ranked by the sum of their PB+ and CS+.


Triple-A

PASSED BALL & CAUGHT-STEALING RATES • MIN. 70 G
# CATCHER CLUB LGE ORG G CS% PB+ CS+ TOT
1 Bobby Wilson Reno PCL ARI 74 54.1% 2 14 16
2 James McCann Toledo IL DET 98 42.4% 3 10 13
3 Blake Lalli Reno PCL ARI 79 40.6% 3 7 10
4 Rocky Gale El Paso PCL SD 71 38.2% 3 5 8
5 Ed Easley Memphis PCL STL 79 42.3% 1 6 7
6 Josh Phegley Charlotte IL CWS 105 43.6% -5 12 7
7 Francisco Pena Omaha PCL KC 90 39.5% 0 7 7
8 Tucker Barnhart Louisville IL CIN 75 34.7% 5 2 7
9 Humberto Quintero Tacoma PCL SEA 71 37.5% 1 4 5
10 Christian Bethancourt Gwinnett IL ATL 80 36.4% -3 3 0

 

Who's No. 1?
Big league teams want Reno’s Bobby Wilson (Diamondbacks) around, both for his ability to lead a pitching staff and for the positive example he sets. He worked hard to mature from 48th-round pick out of junior college to backup catcher with big league time in parts of six seasons. Wilson led all Pacific Coast League catchers by throwing out 54.1 percent of basestealers, and his rate is consistently above 40 percent in the minors. He won’t ever hit much, but he’s a solid catch-and-throw receiver who could spend a few years as a big league backup, a la present-day Chris Stewart.

Other Standouts
Gwinnett’s Christian Bethancourt (Braves) has the most offensive potential for this group of Triple-A catchers, with scouts expecting his bat-to-ball skills and athleticism to translate to average overall hitting potential. He has a cannon arm and plenty of agility behind the plate . . . A trio of Triple-A receivers project to be at least backup catchers in the big leagues because they have plus arms, good receiving skills and modest offensive potential. They are Louisville’s Tucker Barnhart (Reds), Toledo’s James McCann (Tigers) and Omaha’s Francisco Pena (Royals).

Big Performance, Small Sample
A pair of Puerto Rico-born backstops have long big league careers ahead of them as, at worst, backups, owing to their strong throwing arms and strong overall defensive skills. Columbus’ Roberto Perez (Indians) had a breakthrough year at the plate and spent much of the season as the backup to Yan Gomes in Cleveland. For the Clippers, he scored +3 stolen bases and +2 passed balls in 53 games, throwing out 38.9 percent of basestealers. Buffalo’s A.J. Jimenez (Blue Jays) threw out 42.4 percent of basestealers, with +4 stolen bases and +2 passed balls in 48 games.

Rough Year With The Glove
Throwing accuracy has been a problem for Indianapolis’ Tony Sanchez (Pirates) in the minors, and he recorded -12 stolen bases (and -1 passed ball) in 70 games this year by virtue of throwing out just 12.7 percent of basestealers at Triple-A. He hits for good power (career .193 isolated power for Indy) and has at least average raw defensive tools, so he probably will find a big league role of some variety.


Double-A

PASSED BALL & CAUGHT-STEALING RATES • MIN. 70 G
# CATCHER CLUB LGE ORG G CS% PB+ CS+ TOT
1 Blake Swihart Portland EL BOS 81 47.5% 6 9 15
2 Braeden Schlehuber Mississippi SL ATL 76 49.2% 5 9 14
3 Tyler Heineman Corpus Christi TL HOU 70 45.9% 3 7 10
4 Cody Stanley Springfield TL STL 76 41.8% 2 5 7
5 Austin Hedges San Antonio TL SD 106 38.2% 1 4 5
6 Jett Bandy Arkansas TL LAA 91 40.0% -1 6 5
7 Brian Jeroloman Harrisburg EL WAS 72 33.3% 3 0 3
8 Gary Sanchez Trenton EL NYY 93 38.9% -3 6 3
9 J.T. Realmuto Jacksonville SL MIA 88 38.9% -2 3 1
10 Rene Garcia Corpus Christi TL HOU 71 36.5% -1 1 0

 

Who's No. 1?
A handful of full-time minor league catchers allowed one or two passed balls this season, but Portland’s Blake Swihart (Red Sox) is the only one we can find who allowed zero. That’s a testament to his blocking skills and good hands, while his success at throwing out basestealers (47.5 percent) owes to a quick release and accurate throws. Swihart doesn’t have monster defensive tools at catcher, but his fundamental play and feel for the game elevate him. As does his switch-hitting bat and average power potential.

Other Standouts
Jacksonville’s J.T. Realmuto (Marlins) and his Suns batterymates deterred the running game to an extreme degree in 2014, and they saw just 0.61 steal attempts per game, which is the lowest rate among any receiver with at least 70 games at one level. Realmuto threw out 38.9 percent of basestealers with plus arm strength . . . San Antonio’s Austin Hedges (Padres) and Trenton’s Gary Sanchez (Yankees) are almost two sides of the same coin. They both hit for power, but on the defensive side of things, Hedges excels with strong fundamental play and a plus arm (he led all minor league catchers with 106 games and 1,005 total chances), while Sanchez has a double-plus arm but not nearly so much feel for the craft of catching (who led Eastern League backstops with 17 errors and 10 passed balls, but also handled the most chances and logged the most assists).

Big Performance, Small Sample
Many of the best catching prospects in the game set down at Double-A this year--Hedges, Realmuto, Sanchez, Swihart--and all of them logged at least 70 games at the level as they gained valuable upper-level experience. Thus few bright catching prospects jumped from high Class A or two Triple-A in-season.

Rough Year With The Glove
Bowie’s Mike Ohlman (Orioles) had a rough year behind the plate, throwing out 27 percent of basestealers (-7 stolen bases) and committing 10 passed balls (-3). The 6-foot-5 backstop has no better than average blocking ability or arm strength, so he’ll probably require a do-over at Double-A after hitting .236/.310/.318 in 113 games this season (he also played DH).


High Class A

PASSED BALL & CAUGHT-STEALING RATES • MIN. 70 G
# CATCHER CLUB LGE ORG G CS% PB+ CS+ TOT
1 Roberto Pena Lancaster CAL HOU 93 56.5% 7 23 30
2 Cam Gallagher Wilmington CAR KC 89 40.0% 3 14 17
3 Ronnie Freeman Visalia CAL ARI 90 37.0% 5 6 11
4 Pedro Severino Potomac CAR WAS 93 35.5% 2 7 9
5 Cameron Garfield Brevard County FSL MIL 90 34.4% 6 1 7
6 Gabriel Lino Clearwater FSL PHI 70 42.3% -1 6 5
7 Yovan Gonzalez Bakersfield CAL CIN 72 30.4% 6 -1 5
8 Bruce Maxwell Stockton CAL OAK 78 39.6% -4 8 4
9 Wynston Sawyer Frederick CAR BAL 79 24.3% 7 -5 2
10 Zach Wright Inland Empire CAL LAA 84 33.9% -1 3 2

 

Who's No. 1?
Yet another standout defensive catcher from Puerto Rico, Lancaster’s Roberto Pena (Astros) cut down 23 more baserunners than a league-average catcher would have with the same playing time, which is the highest total in the minors. He also led the way with a 56.5 percent caught-stealing rate, while committing seven fewer passed balls than the average California League catcher. Pena is a good receiver with a quick release and plus accuracy, though he doesn’t quite have the same raw arm strength as some other catchers on these lists.

Other Standouts
Wilmington’s Cam Gallagher (Royals) still could develop into a starter, but after hitting .228/.306/.333 in 96 games in a tough hitter’s park this season, his offensive ceiling is in question. His plus arm and solid fielding ability--he led all minor league catchers with 101 assists--will make him a backup candidate if he doesn’t improve with the bat . . .  Potomac’s Pedro Severino (Nationals) and Clearwater’s Gabriel Lino (Phillies) both have plus arms and profile as catch-and-throw backup backstops because their bats are light.

Big Performance, Small Sample
Charlotte’s Justin O’Conner (Rays) wows scouts with a true 80 arm on the 20-80 scouting scale and rapidly-improving receiving technique. He still can be suspect with regard to passed balls (-6), but he finished at +8 stolen bases in 68 games (with a 50 percent success rate) before moving on to Double-A Montgomery.

Rough Year With The Glove
Myrtle Beach’s Jorge Alfaro (Rangers) committed 23 passed balls (and 13 errors) with the Pelicans and Double-A Frisco to post one of the highest totals in the minors. In his time with Myrtle alone, he allowed 10 more passed balls than the average catcher would have in his 75 games, plus two more stolen bases than average. (He threw out 26.4 percent of basestealers.) Alfaro has plus raw arm strength and athleticism behind the plate, but he obviously has work to do to clean up his fundamental play at catcher.


Low Class A

PASSED BALL & CAUGHT-STEALING RATES • MIN. 70 G
# CATCHER CLUB LGE ORG G CS% PB+ CS+ TOT
1 Joe Hudson Dayton MWL CIN 80 52.3% 2 17 19
2 Spencer Kieboom Hagerstown SAL WAS 86 40.5% 3 9 12
3 Reese McGuire West Virginia SAL PIT 84 38.9% 1 11 12
4 Jose Briceno Asheville SAL COL 75 43.8% -2 11 9
5 Marcus Littlewood Clinton MWL SEA 76 37.1% 2 5 7
6 Michael Perez South Bend MWL ARI 89 34.0% 3 2 5
7 Stephen McGee Burlington MWL LAA 93 32.2% 4 0 4
8 Ty Ross Augusta SAL SF 96 26.3% 7 -4 3
9 Chad Wallach Greensboro SAL MIA 73 31.1% 1 1 2
10 Colton Plaia Savannah SAL NYM 84 33.3% -1 3 2

 

Who's No. 1?
One of the top defensive catchers available in the 2012 draft, Dayton’s Joe Hudson (Reds) has proven to be an easy plus defensive catcher in pro ball. The former Notre Dame backstop, a sixth-round pick, draws praise for his blocking, receiving, leadership, quick transfer and arm strength. After hitting .226/.315/.369 at two levels this season, though, Hudson’s bat requires a lot of polish if he’s going to reach his ceiling as a big league backup.

Other Standouts
An agile receiver with a strong arm, West Virginia’s Reese McGuire (Pirates) is the rare teen catcher who projects to hit and already draws raves from scouts for his defensive acumen . . . Strong-armed Jose Briceno (Rockies) hit .283/.336/.476 while playing half his games at a hitter’s park in Asheville, but scouts love his fielding ability and like his bat enough to proeject him as a starter at this early stage . . . South Bend’s Michael Perez (Diamondbacks), a 2011 fifth-round pick out of high school in Puerto Rico, has spent the better part of two seasons in the Midwest League, but his defensive tools are robust and his power potential robust enough to profile as a backup candidate.

Big Performance, Small Sample
The Rays encourage their young catchers to be aggressive when throwing to bases, and a pair of Bowling Green backstops showed plus arm strength and solid receiving skills while splitting time behind the plate in the Midwest League. Armando Araiza logged +17 stolen bases and +5 passed balls in 68 games (throwing out 58.2 percent of basestealers), while Oscar Hernandez finished with +5 stolen bases and -2 passed balls in 69 games (41 percent).

Rough Year With The Glove
Only one minor league catcher (min. 70 games) saw more steal attempts in 2014 than did Delmarva’s Chance Sisco (Orioles), who saw 1.61 per game. He threw out just 20.2 percent of those basestealers (-12 stolen bases), while also committing 16 passed balls (-7) in 74 games. Sisco’s arm and athleticism will play behind the plate, but the converted high school infielder is better known for his bat at this stage after winning the batting (.340) and on-base (.406) titles in the South Atlantic League.


Playmakers

We’ll close with a nod toward the most active catchers in the minors, those with the most defensive “touches,” as measured by total chances per game.

TOTAL CHANCES PER GAME • MIN. 70 G
# CATCHER CLUB ORG G PO A E TC TC/G
1 Bruce Maxwell Stockston, Midland OAK 102 882 78 8 968 9.49
2 Austin Hedges San Antonio SD 106 910 80 15 1005 9.48
3 Zach Wright Inland Empire LAA 84 689 97 10 796 9.48
4 Kellin Deglan Hickory, Myrtle Beach TEX 94 764 112 7 883 9.39
5 Michael Perez South Bend ARI 89 756 73 6 835 9.38
6 Tyler Heineman Corpus Christi HOU 70 566 72 4 642 9.17
7 Joe Hudson Dayton, Bakersfield CIN 94 754 94 11 859 9.14
8 Eduardo de Oleo Charleston NYY 74 599 64 12 675 9.12
9 Gary Sanchez Trenton NYY 93 737 94 17 848 9.12
10 Roberto Pena Lancaster HOU 93 755 84 3 842 9.05

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