With an Influx of Talent at Every Other Position, Straight 108 Addresses the Lack of Quality Catchers in MLB
A couple days ago, I dove into a discussion involving Buster Posey’s potential move to 1st base. In the conversations I’ve had since, the prevailing sentiment seems to be that despite what the numbers (both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus) suggest, fans refuse to believe that Buster Posey has underperformed defensively this season. If there’s one thing I’ve gathered during my time covering the Giants, it’s that fans are incredibly loyal (and rightfully so) to Buster Posey. After all, in his short tenure with the Giants, he’s brought 3 World Championships, a Rookie of the Year, a batting title, and an MVP award (amongst others) to the Bay Area – that’s more than most of us had hoped to see in our lifetime. The thought of transitioning Buster Posey to 1st base in the long term is something that made Giants fans uneasy (to say the least), and put fans under the assumption that closing the door on Posey’s catching career would mean closing the door on the Giants success. How this actually plays out, only Posey and the front office know, but if this does come to fruition, we’re left to wonder – who in the heck would take his place?
This morning, my mentor and longtime Giants executive Pat Gallagher (who spent 32+ years with the Giants organization and played a lead role in the development of AT&T Park) sent me a New York Times article on Red Sox ace Chris Sale, highlighting the importance of the pitcher/catcher relationship on his success. Upon reading this article, I immediately thought back to another article written by Michael Baumann of The Ringer who discussed the scarcity of good catchers in baseball, stating that “Buster Posey’s superiority is partially a function of the difficulty of the position, but we’re also in something of a dry spell for quality catchers, even by the standards of the game’s most demanding position.” Having both articles fresh in my mind, I immediately began to wonder, why is there such a small supply of catcher’s when they play such a prominent role in a pitcher’s (i.e. Sale’s) success? Even if you look at MLB.com’s Top 100 prospects, only 5 of them are catchers – the highest being Carson Kelly of the Cardinals at #34. So no, replacing Posey wouldn’t be easy, but is the lack of a replacement options for the Giants (and across the minor leagues) indicative a general lack of talent, or something else?
My career in baseball took me from college ball as a player (2000-2004), directly to the minor leagues (2004-2009), and then immediately into coaching at the Division 1 level (2009-2016). In thinking back over those 16 years and dissecting the evolution of the catcher position between how it was played then versus how it is played now, it’s evident to me that there is a significant divide (or gap) between the players’ expectations and responsibilities at each level. Think of a young player who just finished his first year on a freshman high-school team, and rather than taking the next developmental step to the JV, he was thrown onto varsity, all the while being expected to mesh right in. With the higher level of play comes expectations that you’ve shown the ability to adequately handle the responsibilities of your position. This is no different than what exists for catchers in the transition from college to professional baseball, and the fact that we’re getting to witness the College World Series right now, you’ll be provided with a 1st-hand look of this growing gap.
If Chris Sale’s catcher, Sandy Leon, is considered to be the finished product (at least in his pitcher’s eyes at the NYT article suggests, which is good enough for me), then college prospects would start their careers at the opposite end of the developmental spectrum (with high-schoolers significantly further behind). In today’s College World Series opener, you’ll see three catchers that were drafted towards the top of the draft – LSU’s Michael Papierski (9th Round by the Houston Astros), and Mike Rivera (6th Round by the Cleveland Indians) and Mark Kolozsvary (7th Round by the Cincinnati Reds) from the University of Florida. None of these three elite-level catchers call their own game – in fact, not a single catcher in this year’s 8-team College World Series called their own game. The college coach in me certainly understands this rationale – remove the excess stress from pitch-calling and allow the pitcher and catcher to put all of their focus and energy on executing the proper pitch in the proper location. But if the end-goal in the Big Leagues is to provide what Leon (or Buster Posey) provides in terms of game-calling and defense, these prospects face a monumental climb, one that many can’t make.
This method of pitch-calling has long been an established and proven system in college baseball. In last week’s College World Series victory over TCU, University of Florida starter and 1st round pick Alex Faedo said of their coach’s pitch calling “I was just throwing whatever Sully (pitching coach) wanted me to throw, trusting him and Mike (the catcher)… they know the hitters more than anyone.” Legendary LSU coach Paul Mainieri elaborates that “for college coaches, jobs are on the line and that one pitch might determine the outcome of the game. I think we have every right to call the pitch so that nobody gets blamed but us. If the pitch gets hit, it’s our fault. You don’t blame it on the kid. You like to think your chances of succeeding are better with a professional coach who’s been in the game for years versus a young, 18-year-old kid who probably called the pitch that’s easiest to catch for him. It’s just part of the game of college baseball.”
Any way you look at it, it’s hard to argue with both Faedo or Mainieri. It’s a system that works at the level the game is played. And make no mistake, it is NOT the college’s job to tailor their game to the pros (although they definitely could do a better job in preparing them for that). They are two separate entities with different goals and objectives for their players. In my 11 years of college baseball, this system has been in place at all 3 of my stops, and to my recollection, was employed by 100% of the teams we played.
The problem, however, is that by the time these players get drafted and report to their respective clubs, they’re expected to be able to call their own games, even at the lowest levels of the minor leagues. And that in it of itself becomes one of the biggest developmental obstacles for a lot of pitchers and catchers. For the pitchers, it’s the first time they’ve ever had to think about what pitches to throw and in what situations. For the catcher, it’s the first time they’ve ever had to evaluate swings and formulate game plans based on the strengths and weaknesses of each hitter. In other words, it’s the first time that these pitchers and catchers have had to evolve and adapt to situations on the fly. Baseball is difficult enough in terms of the ability to properly execute a certain pitch in an exact location – adding this new dimension to the game at the professional level is a game-changer, and has been a defining factor in numerous careers (either forcing a positional change or outright demotion).
I remember my first year in the minor leagues being on a star-studded team full of Division 1 All-Americans (and me being the utility bench player from a Division III school). One of the most glaring differences, even as a player, was the pace of play simply because the pitcher and catcher couldn’t get on the same page. There were more meetings, more confusion, and more instances where pitchers were throwing pitches they didn’t want to throw (and vice versa where the pitcher was throwing pitches the catcher didn’t want the pitcher to throw). Essentially, the gap in the developmental system comes to a head in these early stages of the minors.
The problem for catchers, though, is that the priorities for production have changed over the years. In what used to be primarily a defensive-focused position, catching has evolved (like every other position has) to be more offensive-oriented. This notion is further evidenced by the fact that (according to FanGraphs) of the top 10 offensive catchers in baseball this season, NONE (including Buster Posey) are rated in the top 19 defensively.
This shift in catcher-priorities now leads to more focus on offensive development throughout the minors, and less time spent on the already-unknown concept of game calling. As these offensive catchers continue to climb the minor-league ladder, the organization’s “we’ll deal with it later” mindset becomes more and more prevalent in assuming that they’ll become serviceable defenders imply through playing every day. But if catchers don’t learn to call games in college, yet the minor leagues won’t emphasize teaching it, where are catchers supposed to learn this incredibly valuable skill?
The way I see it, the problem is not necessarily a lack of development of catchers in either college or the pros (although I do believe that the process in college should be educational, not simply absorb and employ) – the problem is that both “finished products” have proven to be successful in their respective platforms. Big League catchers are expected to be experts at calling games, and college catchers are expected to be experts at operating a game plan dictated by coaches. Think of the transition of a quarterback who has never run a play in college that wasn’t dictated by the coaches, and suddenly expected to efficiently run a 2-minute “no huddle” offense in the NFL – it’s darn near impossible. But what makes it possible in football are the developmental steps in between college and actually playing in an NFL game that help the quarterback prepare.
Baseball, by contrast, is a learn-on-the-go sport. There is no sit-and-learn approach. College baseball will not change as there’s too much money riding on the careers of college coaches to put their jobs in jeopardy. Minor league organizations typically focus all their energy and resources on developing prospects, and doing so means they push them through the system in hopes of getting to the big leagues sooner than later. And therein lies the problem – neither college baseball nor professional organizations have any incentive to change, at least not in eithers current state.
Chris Sale’s catcher, Sandy Leon, was never a top prospect, but developed because game-calling was a point of emphasis for the position at that time. Over his 10 year career, Leon owns a .238 career minor league batting average and .253 Major League batting average – yet the impact he has on the ability to call a game outweighs any standard statistic you’ll even see on his baseball card. The fact remains that players like Leon are the last of a dying breed. Without any developmental blueprint in place for catchers, the art of impacting a game through pitch calling and strong defense will soon be a lost-art.
Baseball in general has seemed to take on this “it’s someone else’s responsibility” approach to player development (which is precisely why nobody knows how to bunt anymore). Until either the NCAA elects to outlaw coach’s pitch calling, or minor league organizations decide to value pitch-calling as a skill, we’re likely headed for a continued decline in catcher defense across the board. Perhaps only until pitchers like Chris Sale are forced to call their own game and the negative results begin to show on the scoreboard, will teams be forced to re-think the trajectory of developing catchers from rookie ball all the way to the Big Leagues.