Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Blue Jays "Catcher of the Future": Blessing or Curse?

Max Pentecost MLB Prospect Portal Photo
     In their second year of existence in 1978, the Blue Jays selected Texas high school Catcher Brian Milner in the 7th round of the June draft.  A week after the draft, like many top picks, Milner was brought to Toronto to work out and see the city.  The fledgling Jays were so thin at the position that they decided to put Milner behind the plate for a couple of games (which may have been part of his signing deal in those pre-service time concern days).  He went 4-9 in the two games, hitting a triple and driving a pair of runs before heading west to Medicine Hat for rookie ball.  The future seemed very bright for the first Catcher in MLB history to be brought directly to the big leagues after the draft.
    Brian Milner was the first Blue Jay to acquire the "Catcher of the Future" label.
    Four years later, Milner's career was over, sidelined by injury and inconsistency.  Milner did not advance beyond AA. He remains the youngest player in club history, and the first "Catcher of the Future," who did not pan out.
   He would not be the last.

     Josh Phelps.  Curtis Thigpen.   Ryan Bundy.  J.P. Arencibia.  A.J. Jimenez.  Danny Jansen.  Max Pentecost......  

     The list of Catchers the Blue Jays have drafted since 1994 is quite staggering.  86 in all have been taken, but their sum total of major league experience in a Toronto uniform is just over 400 games, most of them by Arencibia.
    Is that "Catcher of the Future" label a blessing or a curse?  Why has it been so hard for Toronto to develop a home-grown player at this position?  Some of the answers lie in the very nature of the position, and the perils of drafting high school catchers.

Defence First
   Modern-day analytics have taught us more and more about the value of a premium catcher.  In the past, we may have thought mostly about a Catcher's ability to control the opposition running game as his chief defensive responsibility.  Now, we've learned that the Pitcher is at least equally as responsible for that, and that a Catcher's true value lies in his ability to frame pitches, block pitches in the dirt, and handle a pitching staff.  It has evolved into primarily a defence-first position;  you have to look no further than the 5 year/$85 million contract the Blue Jays gave Russell Martin prior to 2015.  Martin is no slouch with the bat, but make no mistake:  the work he did in leading the Pirates to their first post-season appearance in 20 years had everything to do with his skills behind the plate.
   So when a minor league player does show promise with the bat, the tendency has been to move him from the position, likely so as to not harm his production.  Bryce Harper caught all throughout high school and junior college before being drafted as an OF.  Wil Myers was behind the plate for a couple of minor league seasons, before being moved to the OF in order to get his bat to the major leagues faster.  Joey Votto and Jayson Werth were drafted as Catchers, but were moved off the position.  The Blue Jays own Josh Donaldson was drafted as a Catcher by the Cubs.  2014 1st rounders Kyle Schwarber and Alex Jackson didn't last much beyond a full season behind the plate.
   Of course, the opposite can happen as well.  Martin was drafted as a 3rd Baseman by the Dodgers, who converted him to Catching a year after his pro debut.
   The Blue Jays, for their part, have moved few players off the position once they've drafted them. Pentecost won't be Catching at the start of this season, but that owes more to his injury history than anything else.  The plan, for now, is to move him back once his surgically repaired shoulder allows him to.
 

Demands of the Position
   Sitting in an unnatural position for a couple of hours a day.  Dealing with foul tips.  Getting crossed up with the pitcher, who throws a fastball when you called for an off-speed pitch, leaving you exposed.  Trying to throw runners out without necessarily having time to plant properly, putting added stress on the shoulder.
   These are just some of the hazards Catchers face.
   Then there's what happened to Jansen.







  Pentecost's injury history is already well known, although he seems to finally be on the road to recovery. Jimenez had his career derailed by Tommy John surgery and other injury issues. And Jansen has had a difficult time staying healthy in his brief career - a knee injury sidelined him for half a (short) season in 2014. The development of all three have been affected, to varying degrees, by the demanding nature of the position.  Missed development time can be hard to make up.  

 Developing a Catcher Takes Time
 There are so many facets of the position to learn.  It's not unusual to see young arms or bats accelerate through a minor league system, but you rarely see a Catcher do so - especially one drafted out of high school.  Of all the positions on a baseball diamond, it's the position in most need of reps.  Estimates vary, but on average it takes several hundred minor league games for a Catcher to fully polish all of his receiving skills, as well as learn how to work with pitchers,  coaxing outs from them on days when they might not have their best stuff.
  At the moment, Jansen may be the most promising of the above trio.  Jimenez has yet to prove that he can hit at anything beyond a marginal major league level, and Pentecost's defence, which hardly drew rave reviews in college, has no doubt suffered as a result of his lost playing time.  But given the Jays one step at a time development approach, the earliest we might see Jansen (if he stays healthy) is 2018, or even 2019 - if at all.
  Developing a Catcher takes time, but because it's a long process, it increases the chance of injury.  Which sets back development.

Drafting a High School Catcher is Risky
   High School Catchers drafted since 2005 have produced a total of about 23 Wins Above Replacement, over half of that by Derek Norris and Yonder Alonso.  That's just not a great track record.
  Here are the leaders over the past decade-plus amongst high school Catchers:

NumNameYear DraftedCareer fWARRound Drafted
1Brian McCann200229.92
2Jarrod Saltalamacchia20038.01
3A.J Pierzynski199424.63
4Derek Norris20073.84
5Travis d'Arnaud2007-0.21
6Devin Mesoraco20071.91
SBNation Chart

  The high water mark for high school catchers was Joe Mauer, drafted by the Twins in 2001.  Mauer was the exception to the rule - a strong defensive backstop who at one time could win batting titles.  Time took its toll on Mauer, however, and he hasn't been behind the plate since 2013.  He's also a shell of his former self at the plate.  
  24 High School Catchers have been taken in the 1st round since Mauer in 2001, and Mesoraco leads them in WAR.  With all due respect, he's a decent MLB player, but it's hard to justify him as a 1st round pick.  D'Arnaud will in all likelihood pass him before long, but his six-year minor league apprenticeship (which had its share of injuries) reinforces the notion that developing a Catcher, especially one drafted out of High School, can take a long time.
   Take the case of Reese McGuire, drafted by the Pirates.  Drafted in the 1st round (14th overall) by Pittsburgh in 2013, he was labeled "A Natural" behind the plate, and was a Top 100 prospect in the eyes of Baseball America in 2013 (#81), and 2014 (#97).  He's nowhere to be found on that list this year, and wasn't even ranked a Top 20 Catcher by BA.  McGuire is still lauded for his defensive skills, but the concerns about his bat have grown every year.  He's still expected to be in the majors by 2017, but it's interesting how relatively quickly the shine came off of his top prospect label.
   A marked sign of the lack of depth of Catching prospects is that Penetcost, who has all of 109 Plate Appearances since being drafted in 2014 (and hasn't played a game in almost 20 months) has been named in the bottom half of a number of Top 20 Catching prospect lists.
   BA did a study about how many drafted players wind up in the Major Leagues. and found that about 17% of all players drafted between 1987 and 2008 for at least one game:

1987-2008 Drafts (22)
RoundTotalSignedMLBMLB%3YRS3YRS%Unsigned%
163361144673.023939.13.5
1st supp27326613952.34215.82.6
266662630949.410116.16.0
3-51,9061,74960534.617710.18.2
6-103,1652,77759821.51826.612.3
11-206,3294,90163813.01753.622.6
21+20,4338,1915536.81351.659.9
Total33,40519,1213,28817.2%1,0515.5%42.8%

   For Catchers drafted out of high school, that total would likely be even lower.  


  So, is that label one that blesses Blue Jays Catching prospects, or dooms them to an uncertain future?
   The label does ignore several facts, such as:
-the sheer volume of Catchers needed to fill out minor league rosters means that many will be called, few will be chosen.  
-developing a Catcher takes a long time - injuries, position switches, and other factors can interrupt or delay a prospect's development.  The gestation period for a Major League Catcher is likely longer than any other position.

 Should we view Jimenez, who is at this point likely a backup player at best, like another "Catcher of the Future," Robinzon Diaz (who was re-signed by the Jays this week?) as a failed COF?  
   No, because maybe it wasn't fair to put that label on him in the first place, just as it was with many other young Catchers.  Granted, he did put up some decent numbers in the lower minors, but when the competition became tougher at AA/AAA, he did not experience the same success at the plate. and the injuries caused by the wear and tear of catching didn't help, either.  Perhaps the media is in such a rush to anoint future saviours that they put labels on players before it's really fair or accurate to do so.  
  We should also consider that during the J.P. Ricciardi era, the emphasis for high draft picks was signability, not necessarily projection,  The Anthopoulos regime showed a fondness for athletic high school pitchers.  Drafting and waiting for a high school catcher was not necessarily a top priority.

  The Blue Jays, for the most part, have been an effective developer of players, but the Catching position is a different story.  The best player they have developed and drafted at the position was arguably Pat Borders  Maybe Pentecost of Jansen will change that, but they both have had - and will still have - obstacles to overcome.  In addition to trying to stay healthy, it will not be a surprise if Pentecost's offence forces him off of the position.  Jansen shows promise - he's already shown good pitch-framing and blocking skills, and the organization thought enough of him to have him handle the rehab start of Marcus Stroman last August, but on top of his own health concerns is that he hasn't proven that he can hit enough to advance to the majors.  

 And so the search for the Catcher of the Future continues.


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