The best MLB catchers haven’t been the best catchers available
The first two mock draft roundups have positioned North Carolina State catcher Patrick Bailey as the consensus pick for the White Sox at No. 11.
He’s the top catcher in the draft, especially in the collegiate ranks. His defense is an asset, and while strikeouts could be a concern, his switch-hitting ability makes it easier for him to avoid a platooned fate. His skill set gives him multiple ways to survive the grind and make himself a living in the major leagues, especially considering the standards for the position.
Keith Law’s latest mock draft suggests there could be a change in store. While he tied Bailey to the White Sox in his first two mocks, he now has Louisville lefty Reid Detmers heading to Chicago instead … but only because the Angels took Bailey one pick earlier.
That would be fine by me.
The prospect of Bailey as a prospect for the White Sox fell flat for me since his name surfaced. OK, not even his name, but his position. The unique demands of catcher squeeze a lot of guys out, and the subsequent vacuum is filled in unpredictable ways.
Here’s a complete list of the catchers worth at least 2 fWAR in 2019, identified by their draft position (click to reveal).
- Third round (104th pick) — 5.7 WAR
- First round (12th pick) — 5.2 WAR
- Ninth round (260th pick) — 3.9 WAR
- Ninth round (292nd pick) — 3.5 WAR
- Third round (105th pick) — 3.2 WAR
- 33rd round (1,011th pick) — 3 WAR
- International signing ($850,000) — 2.7 WAR
- Second round (76th pick) — 2.3 WAR
- International signing ($3M) — 2.3 WAR
- International signing (from 2000) — 2.3 WAR
- 33rd round (1,007th pick) — 2.1 WAR
There is a first-rounder in there, and one that would be available by the time the White Sox picked. In fact, the White Sox have him now. That’s Yasmani Grandal.
It would’ve been a lot easier to write this post’s headline without Grandal, who was indeed the best catcher available when he was drafted in 2010. Then again, 2010 was a long time ago. That was the same year the White Sox drafted Chris Sale. In fact, Grandal was selected one pick ahead of Sale. All things considered, he’s done a nice job of not bringing shame upon the Cincinnati Reds for being the last team that passed on the opportunity to choose the Condor.
Over the remainder of the decade, the position hasn’t been as predictable as it was. First-round picks from the previous decade like Buster Posey and Jason Castro are on the decline, and the catchers who have taken their place are coming from all sorts of different directions.
The top of the draft hasn’t been one of them. Looking back through the most recent draft classes that should have started reaching the majors by now, the label “best catcher available” just hasn’t meant all that much.
- First round: Zack Collins (10), Matt Thaiss (16), Will Smith (32)
- Second round: Chris Okey (43), Andy Yerzy (52), Ben Rortvedt (56), Logan Ice (72), Mario Feliciano (75), Brett Cumberland (76)
Smith, who didn’t draw attention in the college ranks until breaking out during his junior year in Louisville, looks like a keeper. Thaiss had to move off the position, and Collins is fighting to avoid the same fate. It’s possible Collins wouldn’t be catching if his bat were as advertised, but the flaws with his hit tool have allowed the Sox to be patient with his defense.
Of the second-rounders, prep picks Rortvedt and Feliciano are the best bets to contribute — Rortvedt as a defender, Feliciano with his bat. But behind Smith, third-rounder Sean Murphy has more momentum than anybody. The 25-year-old improved his stock after a strong 20-game audition with Oakland in 2019, and is now a top-50 MLB prospect. Sam Huff is also coming on strong in Texas’ system after getting taken out of high school in the seventh round.
- First round: Tyler Stephenson (11), Taylor Ward (26)
- Second round: Chris Betts (52), Lucas Herbert (54)
Stephenson, a prep catcher selected three picks behind Carson Fulmer, hasn’t yet reached the majors, but he looked poised to make his debut during the second half of his age-23 season before the stoppage got in the way. Ward, 26, moved from catcher to third base after two full seasons, and is a .181 hitter over 60 MLB games.
Betts hasn’t made it out of A-ball, and Herbert was just released from the Diamondbacks. This is a year where the top catcher selected looks like the top catcher overall, but 1) he was a prep pick, and 2) there’s also no competition.
- First round: Kyle Schwarber (4), Alex Jackson (6), Max Pentecost (11), Blake Anderson (36), Chase Vallot (40)
- Second round: Aramis Garcia (11)
Schwarber’s successes are well known, but it’s not for his work behind the plate. He would’ve been a DH in the AL, but the Cubs have gotten by with him in left field. The Mariners immediately moved Jackson from catcher to outfield a la Bryce Harper (but he hit so poorly the Braves moved him back). Pentecost’s career was immediately derailed by injuries, Anderson never advanced beyond short-season ball, and Vallot is an organizational catcher in Kansas City’s A-ball leagues.
Garcia received a couple cups of coffee the last two years with the Giants, but a hip injury threatened the entirety of his 2020 season. He’s still probably the best catcher this draft has produced, at least among those who can still catch. If his hip doesn’t comply, Grayson Greiner looks like the last hope.
- First round: Reese McGuire (14), Nick Ciuffo (21)
- Second round: Andrew Knapp (53), Chance Sisco (22), Victor Caratini (65)
All the catchers reached the majors, but none of them threatened to be difference-makers until the defense-first McGuire put together a surprising 30 games of offense with the Blue Jays after a swing change. (The Pirates drafted him before sending him to Toronto in a salary dump.) He was poised to claim a full-time job with 16th-rounder Danny Jansen backing up, assuming there’s nothing more to his spring training arrest for exposure.
Caratini’s a decent second catcher, Knapp is a mediocre one, and Sisco’s defensive issues have prevented him from getting a long look.
They’ve all been lapped by ninth-rounder Mitch Garver, who rates as the most productive catcher of this draft class despite being the 19th one selected.
- First round: Mike Zunino (3), Stryker Trahan (26), Clint Coulter (27), Kevin Plawecki (35), Steve Bean (59)
- Second round: Bruce Maxwell (62), Wyatt Mathisen (69), Dane Phillips (70), Peter O’Brien (94)
Zunino is an underappreciated power-and-framing catcher along the lines of Tyler Flowers, but his high floor is why he went third overall, and his .202 average is what’s kept him from greater acclaim. Plawecki has had moments, but ultimately landed in “fungible backup” territory.
Trahan, Bean and Phillips never made it to Double-A, while Coulter, O’Brien and Mathisen were all moved from behind the plate. Maxwell’s rise and fall is baseball’s closest case to Colin Kaepernick, albeit with an assault arrest and plea agreement in the mix.
The best active catcher of this draft is Tom Murphy, a third-rounder who was well-regarded for his framing with Colorado, but rode the juiced ball to 18 homers and a .273 average in his age-28 season with Seattle.
- First round: Blake Swihart (26), Brett Austin (54)
- Second round: Cam Gallagher (65), James McCann (76), Austin Hedges (82), Andrew Susac (86)
Hedges and McCann have held down starting jobs in different ways (Hedges is the game’s best receiver; McCann’s offense comes and goes), and they came out of the middle of the second round. The remainder of the first 23 catchers selected in this draft haven’t been able to stake such claims. If Austin’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he didn’t sign with the Padres, and the White Sox took him in the fourth round three years later.
The 24th catcher selected, ninth-rounder Austin Barnes, has been useful to the Dodgers over the last three years as a trusted receiver. Tenth-rounder Curt Casali broke out for his first decent season as the Reds’ primary catcher … at the age of 30.
Sizing it all up over these six years, only two of the 18 first-round catchers have provided value to their original franchise from behind the plate, and one of them was selected in the top three. Stephenson might be able to join them if he can complete his slightly delayed climb, and Collins has a chance if robot umps take over. Then again, if robot umps take over, that makes that part of Bailey’s game less of a factor in his draft status.
The first-round successes from this period are outnumbered by international signings and out-of-nowhere successes. Even McCann fits in that second group. While he was technically a second-round pick, his career year came after the team that drafted him non-tendered him.
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The question from here is whether teams and independent evaluators have gotten any better at assessing catchers. While the Class of 2016 is starting to surface in the majors now, we shouldn’t ignore the last three draft classes, since they could shift the discussion in a short amount of time.
The difficulty is that two of those drafts featured top-five picks, including consensus 1-1 catcher Adley Rutschman, who went from Oregon State to Baltimore last year. The Giants selected Joey Bart with the second pick the year before, and he’s a top-30 prospect who might’ve been able to reach the majors in just his second full season before the coronavirus outbreak intervened. Here’s a list of the other catchers drafted in the top five this century:
- 2014: Kyle Schwarber
- 2012: Mike Zunino
- 2009: Tony Sanchez
- 2008: Buster Posey
- 2007: Matt Wieters
- 2005: Jeff Clement
- 2001: Joe Mauer
Every one of these players made the majors. Posey and Mauer reached star status, Schwarber turned into a plus bat that doesn’t need to squat, and Zunino and Wieters can claim decent careers, even if they’re also somewhat disappointing. Sanchez and Clement were the only ones who didn’t stick. That’s an OK conversion rate, so Baltimore and San Francisco should feel good about Rutschman and Bart.
But the White Sox aren’t picking top-two. They’re picking 11th, and the only catcher from the last three years who fits that bill is Baylor backstop Shea Langeliers. The Braves took him with the ninth pick last year, and he posted a .255/.310/.343 line over 54 games with their Sally League affiliate in Rome. He’s more known for his defense, at least.
Otherwise, the most intriguing catchers have come from the second round — Luis Campusano (San Diego) and Daulton Varsho (Arizona) in 2017, and Ryan Jeffers (Minnesota) in 2018. They’re all the right track, but as other catchers on this list warn us, some just might not have had time to get derailed. It’s just a long, tough climb for catchers, so much so that playing 100 games in a single MLB season is seen as a triumph. Take Josh Phegley, who is simultaneously an unremarkable talent, yet more accomplished than any of the other first 27 catchers drafted in 2009. (I stopped at 27 because Tucker Barnhart is 28th, and Yan Gomes has them all beat from way back in the 10th round.)
Getting a starting catcher from a single draft pick requires an unusual amount of luck. Trying to get an impact catcher with your most valuable pick seems like trying to thread multiple needles 10 yards apart on a snowy evening. I’m not even sure college experience reduces the risk all that much, because prep picks like Stephenson and McGuire have benefited from the margin for error their age provides.
The degree of difficulty doesn’t seem entirely worth it, because as much instability as the White Sox have had at the catcher position over the years, they’ve still ended up with middle-of-the-pack production. The passable patches include a non-tendered free agent, a Triple-A Rule 5 pick, and even one of their own seventh rounders.
The reason I’m not sold on Bailey has nothing to do with Bailey himself. He could turn into another Grandal for all I know, and it’d be great to have that sort of talent at the start of his career, even if the Reds traded that kind of talent at the start of his career for Mat Latos of all people. The White Sox just have a poor history when it comes to developing their top picks, and I don’t think it’s a great idea to make it harder on themselves, especially if they don’t plan on picking this high for the foreseeable future.
Nice insight, Jim. The fact that they plucked both Omar Narvaez and Yermin Mercedes from other teams, and both turned into players that are roughly the best-case scenario for Zack Collins makes me agree with you. Would rather see a bat or arm with upside.
Would love to see how C ranks next to other positions for high round draft pick output but from a glance at these names…. seems like not much of a return on investment. Maybe Rutchman could spike some progress along with Joey Bart in the next few years.
It’s a bit harder to assess other positions because of positional changes (shortstops get dispersed elsewhere, corners switch), but generally speaking, the top producers are toward the top of the page. Looking at the WAR leaderboard, six of the top nine players who came in through the draft were first-rounders.
The most striking report about a player who may be available at #11 that I have read is Kiley McDaniel’s profile of Nick Bitsko. The takeaway I got from reading it is “don’t ignore this cold-weather prep prospect” in a way that reflected most of the league passing on Mike Trout. (Not that Bitsko is a Trout-level talent, but that he might be ranked higher if he came from Texas.)
HS pitcher is not a profile the Sox have taken in the first round since the immortal Kris Honel back in 2001, but maybe last year’s draft strategy indicated they are open to it if the scouting report suggests the risk is worthwhile.
And in other news….
At this point I have waved bye bye to baseball in 2020…
Gonna have to settle for watching KBO the remainder of the season.
So deal this weekend
Trading Grandal for Latos is better than trading Grandal for Kemp.
I don’t know what it is, but I just haven’t been able to get excited about the possibility of taking Bailey after reading about him (full disclosure, I know very little on these guys past a little scouting report reading; for all I know, he could be the best player in this draft). This helps put an actual reason behind that thought. I think it also has something to do with the fact that they just signed Grandal. Not that they should be drafting for need (lord knows they could use a catcher with some kind of upside in the system), but it’s just more fun as a fan when you can actually picture a realistic scenario where the player ends up being a core part of the future team (even though whoever they take probably stands a decent chance of being trade bait no matter what position he plays). I’m not sure Detmers would be the BEST selection, but that would be a fun pick. He strikes me as something resembling Barry Zito based on his scouting reports (and Oakland Zito was SUPER fun to watch pitch). There’s something that’s just super aesthetically pleasing about a big loopy curveball like that.
I took Bailey at 11 in my OOTP Sox go and he’s turning into whats looking like a 1-2 WAR type catcher and we all know that video games perfectly mirror the real world.
Great article! It really makes me re-think my support for Bailey.
This same type of thinking, however, is exactly why I’m not very high on picking Detmers. There have absolutely been successful MLB pitchers with so-so stuff that get by on command and guile. But I would guess that most of them did not go early in the draft–I’m thinking Kyle Hendricks in the 8th Rd or Buehrle in the 38th. Intangibles are very important, but they’re just too hard to evaluate for a pick this high.
I think I know what you’re getting at, but Longenhagen called his curve maybe the best pitch in the draft. I’m not sure lack of stuff is really the problem. He doesnt appear to be overpowering though if that’s what you mean.
Maybe I’m remembering incorrectly but wasn’t Aaron Nola considered to be more command than stuff when he was drafted?
That is my recollection as well, though I believe Nola also had three legit pitches coming out. Detmer sounds like he’s basically all FB/CU right now.
Nice article. It got me thinking about top catchers in general. Here’s a list of the Catching Top 10 JAWS leaders (sorted for those who played in the 80s or later):
JAWS Rank, Name, Round (Pick)
1, Bench, 2nd
2, Carter, 3rd
3, Rodriguez, Intl
4, Fisk, 1st (4)
5, Piazza, 62nd
7, Mauer, 1st (1)
10, Simmons, 1st (10)
13, Tenance, 20th
16, Posey, 1st (5)
18, Posada, 24th
It pretty much supports your thesis above. If Bailey doesn’t look like the next coming of Fisk/Posey/Mauer, I’d agree they should be fishing in the lower rounds (or try to sign some free agents this year).
Nice analysis but I’d be wary of the thinking that previous selections at that position influence any players going forward. Every player is an individual and should be judged on that rather than the completely unrelated results other people he has nothing to do with.
Also, why is Bryce Harper only given a passing mention in this article?
Harper hasn’t caught at any level in the pros. I wasn’t going to include Jackson originally either, but the Braves moved him back behind the plate.
Couldn’t agree more. It’s interesting that catchers are near the top of the defensive spectrum, but they can’t move down it in the same way that shortstops and CFs can. Plus it’s so physically demanding. And the learning curve is so steep. Such a unique position.