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2020 MLB Draft Stock Watch: How Robo Umps Will Change The Way Catchers Are Scouted

Image credit: Drew Romo (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

Welcome to Baseball America’s Draft Stock Watch. A recurring feature throughout draft season, we’ll use this space to explore rising and falling prospects in the 2020 draft class and also dive into various themes and topics at greater length. Last week, we looked at 10 sleepers who might have the traits that could allow them to pop-up during the spring. Today, we’re taking a look at how scouts evaluate catchers, and how robo umps could change that in the future.

You can see previous installments below: 

How Potential First Rounders Can Boost Their Stock How Juco Can Pay Off | 10 Sleepers To Watch

When Bo Naylor was a high school catcher, there were few scouts who doubted his natural hitting ability. One of the best pure hitters in the prep class in 2018, Naylor became a first round pick largely because of his bat.

The defensive side of his game was a bigger question. Scouts thought he was a middling receiver who sometimes lacked effort behind the dish, albeit one with good arm strength and athleticism. It would not have been a shock to see Naylor enter pro ball and move off the position to third base, where his bat might have a chance to move through Cleveland’s system quicker.

Things quickly changed once Naylor entered pro ball. The reports of Naylor’s pitch-framing skill did an about-face. He was not only very good, but one of the best receivers in low Class A. So, were the reports on his receiving simply inaccurate before the draft? Or did Naylor improve rapidly once he entered pro ball? And exactly how do amateur scouts evaluate catcher defense, which is one of the rare skills on the baseball field that is more difficult to see when it’s done well.

And in the long term, does any of this really matter if pitch framing loses its value as soon as the robot umps are plugged in? We talked with a few scouts to dive more into the subject, and how all of this relates to the four catchers in the 2020 draft class who could go in the first round.

“Over time I have noticed that a lot of the best amateur catchers, you don’t notice them during the game,” said one longtime scout. “The ones you notice are the ones who are constantly dropping the ball, shifting their weight back and forth and really making a lot of noise behind the plate. Of course the arm strength is always going to stand out, but I think defensively, that’s the biggest thing is being able to be quiet and receive stuff that in a way that they aren’t noticed.”

Another agreed with that sentiment, acknowledging the challenge of evaluating amateur backstops.

“It’s really difficult,” said the second scout. “A lot of it comes down to makeup and I think a lot of it comes down to athleticism. The one thing that’s really important is like, there is kind of this feel that is attached to a good catcher that you get a lot of times … I wouldn’t say nonchalant, but there is this ease to everything they do. I think the scout who told you that is really smart. To the point where, when you’re watching a game you never make a comment about the catcher. You never even pay attention because everything is so controlled in game.

“When there is a good one, a truly good catcher, you never (comment on) those guys. And it’s not that you don’t mean to, it’s that you don’t think about it.”

In more ways than one, catchers are like umpires. They’re both sitting behind the plate calling the game and they’re better off if no one but the pitcher on the mound notices them.

Still, the scouting process has developed over time for backstops, and there have been shifts in what evaluators are looking for today. The old school mentality seemed to be that strong hands, strong arms and a durable body were the most important assets for a catcher. Stolen base attempts were a bigger part of the game in 2000 than in 2019. The rates of league wide attempts to steal have decreased steadily throughout this century and in the 2019 season reached the lowest point of those 20 seasons.

Now, with metrics showing how valuable stealing a strike is for major league teams, scouts are prioritizing pitch framing above all else. Arm strength has become a secondary skill that doesn’t seem to matter as much as the smaller, more intricate abilities like getting as low as possible with good flexibility, catching a ball softly and presenting it well—all in a fluid motion that requires more athleticism than any sort of brute strength.

That would seem to be great news for the defensive stalwarts of the 2020 catching class: North Carolina State’s Patrick Bailey and The Woodlands (Texas) High catcher Drew Romo. Both are lauded for their defensive ability behind the plate, and not because of cannon arms—though both have quite strong throwing arms—but because of how they receive, how they move, how they call a game and how they frame pitches.

Alternatively, Arizona State catcher Austin Wells and Turlock (Calif.) High backstop Tyler Soderstrom fit more of an offensive, old-school type of catcher mold. Both have impressive hit tools with power potential from the left side and strong arms, but both have had scouts question their ability to receive well enough to stick behind the plate.

But it’s entirely possible—perhaps even likely—that the environment these four catchers are drafted in this year is completely different than the environment when they make it to the major leagues in 2023-2025.

“(With robo umps) there’s no such thing as stealing a strike, there’s no such thing as framing,” said the second scout. “I could catch a ball across my body—I don’t even have to catch it, I could let it pop out of my glove.

“Obviously you want a capable catcher who is going to catch the damn ball, but it does kind of become secondary to the idea of controlling the run game—guys who can block and guys who can throw. Which is funny because I think those have always been second and third of importance when you’re watching a catcher. It does change it a lot.”

By removing all value of pitch framing, many more catchers would immediately become viable at the major league level, which would likely introduce more offensive-minded backstops to the game. Some scouts think that in that environment, you could get even more creative with player development by converting players to new positions to create more value for the team in ways that aren’t possible now.

Take a corner outfielder or a third baseman who has some athleticism and arm strength with average hit and power tools. Depending on the team, that player might top out in the minors or fill a backup role because he doesn’t profile well enough. But if he had the aptitude to get behind the plate?

A 50 hit, 50 power catcher is significantly more valuable than a 50 hit, 50 power left fielder. Perhaps in this environment a player like Padres infielder Eguy Rosario would be able to convert to catching and become more of an average player than a utility type.

“There’s got to be a sliding scale that teams are going to have to talk through,” said the second scout, “where it’s like what is the risk association of offensive production vs. defensive liability?”

That sliding scale always moves around and shifts slightly, depending on the players teams have and the skills of those players. But robo umps will bring a drastic change to that scale—perhaps a new one will be needed entirely.

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