Chris Okey Gets The Long-Awaited MLB Call
The moment Okey found out he was headed to the majors was caught on video by the Louisville Bats. Bats manager Pat Kelly gave him the news and his teammates celebrated with him.
It’s Okey’s first callup to the majors, which is always a cause for celebration for a player. It’s a culmination of a life’s dream. But it’s also notable as a useful reminder of how catchers develop differently than other positions.
If Okey had played almost any other position, it’s likely that he would have been released several years ago. As a catcher, he was given plenty of opportunities to slowly improve and that's exactly what he's done.
Okey had plenty of big-game experience before he ever became a pro. He was a fixture on USA Baseball teams as an amateur and he started every game of his career at Clemson. But when he reached pro ball, his bat struggled to catch up.
Okey hit .227/.296/.384 in his pro debut at Rookie-level Billings and Low-A Dayton in 2016. The next year, he hit .185/.265/.249 for High-A Daytona. A year later, he hit .199/.259/.315 for Daytona and Double-A Pensacola. In 2019, he hit .209/.286/.374 for Pensacola and Triple-A Louisville.
So four seasons into his pro career, Okey had yet to post a .300 on-base percentage in any season. He’d also never slugged .400 or had more than 20 extra-base hits in any season.
Then the pandemic hit, which wiped out the 2020 minor league season.
If Okey was a first baseman or corner outfielder it’s hard to imagine that wouldn’t have been the end of his career. It probably would have been true if he was a middle infielder or center fielder as well.
Of the 1,184 minor league hitters with 1,000 or more plate appearances from 2016-2020, Okey ranked 1,161st in weighted runs created plus, according to Fangraphs data. Okey wasn’t the worst hitter in the minors, but he did rank in the bottom 2%.
But catchers are hard to find. Instead of being released, Okey was brought to the alternate training site to continue to develop. That seemed to help him. When the minors returned in 2021, he started to show some more positive signs. He hit .237/.330/.379 for Louisville. This year, Okey was hitting .265/.324/.441 at the time of his callup.
Catchers carry a tougher workload in the minors than other position players. They have to catch bullpens and work with pitchers in addition to trying to find their way at the plate. It’s likely optimistic to say that Okey will go on to have a long big league career, but his recent improvement and the fact that catchers are hard to find gives him that oppportunty.
At any other position the thought that a 27-year-old with a career .210/.284/.333 slash line in 1,360 plate appearances would scratch out any sort of an MLB career would seem outlandish, but catchers are different.