Garrett Stubbs has one small problem on his path to the big leagues. It’s the same issue he’s been battling for years.
Stubbs is one of the best defensive catchers in the minors. He frames pitches exceptionally well. He threw out 52 percent of basestealers in 2016 and he moves behind the the plate with a nimbleness that is rarely seen by someone wearing the gear.
Stubbs can also hit. He hit .304/.391/.461 between high Class A Lancaster and Double-A Corpus Christi in 2016. It was a very impressive first full pro season, as Stubbs became one of the fastest moving catchers from the 2015 draft.
None of that is all that surprising when considering that Stubbs was a first-team All-American at Southern Cal in 2015. He threw out 53 percent of prospective basestealers while hitting .346. He was also the Pac-12 defensive player of the year that season.
But Stubbs still lasted to the eighth round in the 2015 draft. And he had to wait until after his senior season to even be drafted–despite similar defensive numbers as a junior, he went undrafted and he wasn’t drafted out of high school. And the reason he fell so far in the draft is the same reason he faces skepticism now.
Stubbs is simply smaller than any regular catcher to play in the big leagues in the 21st century. Stubbs is listed at 5-foot-10, 170 pounds and even that might spot him a dozen pounds. So there is an understandable worry among scouts and front office officials over whether Stubbs can handle a full-time, big league catching job.
Stubbs only caught 66 games in 2016, so he didn’t exactly answer questions about his ability to handle a heavy workload (he did catch an additional 15 games in the Arizona Fall League). But when it comes to catchers, the expected workload isn’t as steep as it used to be.
Rewind to the 1960s and 1970s and ironmen such Randy Hundley and Ted Simmons would regularly catch 150-plus games in a season. Hundley even caught a hard-to-comprehend, MLB-record 160 games in 1968. By the 1980s and 1990s, it was more common to see Jason Kendall or other league leaders top 140 games, although Todd Hundley (son of Randy) did live up to his lineage with 150 games caught in 1996 and Brad Ausmus caught 150 in 2000.
That 150 games caught in the final year of the 20th century did mark the end of an era. No catcher has caught 150 regular season games since. Nowadays, the 140-game catcher is a very rare sight. Where there were three in one season as recently as 2008, there have been only three in the past six seasons combined. In 2016, Yadier Molina was the only catcher to catch more than 130 games. Only seven catchers caught 120+ games.
And in 2016, only half of major league teams had a catcher catch even 100 games. Teams have reduced workloads and spread the catching load.
It’s very possible that Stubbs will never be able to catch 120-plus games in a year. His small frame may not be capable of handling that kind of workload. With the Astros’ acquisition of Brian McCann to join with Evan Gattis, Stubbs, who has limited time above Class A, is headed back to the minors to start the 2017 season anyway.
But Stubbs was born at the right time for a catcher of his ilk. In the 1960s or 1970s, he might have been limited to a backup role at best. But in the late 2010s, a 100-game a year catcher isn’t the liability it used to be. Nowadays, we can call that a regular.