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Why Do College Catching Prospects Always Fail?

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Alright, always might qualify as a bit of hyperbole (you can’t make it in this world without shock value, you know?), but it’s not as big of a stretch as it sounds. A quick scan of college catching prospects over the past few gradable drafts (gradable meaning we are far enough away to begin accessing what worked and what didn’t, thus eliminating the past four drafts, for now) show college catchers to be an awful investment for big league clubs to make.

The impetus for doing the research, such as it is, was pretty simple. Going through the upcoming draft’s available talent, position by position, revealed what I thought was a simple truth – boy, do these college catchers stink. However, since that initial reaction, I’ve come to a) appreciate some of the potentially undervalued mid-round players, and b) learn to accept the reality that college catchers are largely an underwhelming lot.  With a little historical perspective, this year’s class doesn’t look so bad, all things considered.

The research below follows a fairly simple methodology. I took five draft classes – recent enough to be relevant, but with enough time past to give the players a chance to develop – and simply assessed the success/failure of every college catcher drafted. I began by looking at the first ten catchers taken in each draft class. The number ten was chosen for two reasons – 1) it’s a nice round number and people just love round numbers, and 2) I had originally decided to make my 2009 college catching prospect list a top ten (I’ve since expanded it, but more on that later…). From there, I pulled out the college catchers from the previously selected draft classes and did a very scientific, high tech analysis of each player. My highly sophisticated method of measuring success/failure was based on a complicated, hard to comprehend question; for each catcher, I asked myself the following: is this player a “useful” major leaguer or not?

There are flaws in the research, something I recognize and feel obligated to point out. Five years is hardly a representative sample, the absence of the success/failure rate of other positions is a real drawback (I’d love to compare and contrast these findings with, say, the success rate of college middle infielders or something), and the vague terminology (“useful”) is open to interpretation…all of these are definite flaws that should be taken into consideration going forward. However, sometimes the data paints such a clear picture that it’s difficult to envision being able to draw any other conclusion.

After the jump, the damning evidence that college catching prospects don’t want you to see…

  • 2000

Avert your eyes; this year is a special, Willie McGee kind of ugly. Format is as follows: round selected, overall pick, player name, original draft team, college/university, number of big league at bats…

1.28 David Parrish (Yankees, Michigan, 0 AB)
2.44 Mike Tonis (Royals, Cal, 6 AB)
2.46 Dane Sardinha (Reds, Pepperdine, 49 AB)
3.74 Scott Walter (Royals, Loyola Marymount, 0 AB)
4.117 Koyie Hill (Dodgers, Wichita State, 231 AB)
5.152 Brian Esposito (Red Sox, UConn, 0 AB)
5.159 Brad Cresse (Diamondbacks, LSU, 0 AB)
6.166 Daniel Massiatte (Devil Rays, Louisiana Lafayette, 0 AB)
6.180 Beau Craig (Athletics, Southern Cal, 0 AB)
7.193 Ryan Jorgensen (Cubs, LSU, 20 AB)

Dan Conte, Dan Moylan, Chuck Gulledge were also catchers taken in the first ten rounds out of college; all three gentlemen eagerly await their first at bat in the bigs, a proposition about as likely as Stephen Strasburg’s bonus exceeding Daisuke Matsuzaka’s (topical burn!).

Useful college catchers in top ten rounds: 1 (Koyie Hill…I’m being generous)
Useful college catchers overall: 1

Best catchers from draft year: Yadier Molina (4.113) and Mike Napoli (17.500), both high school draftees

First catcher taken: Scott Heard, a prep catcher taken by the Texas Rangers with the 25th overall pick in the first round

Notable: Big league pitcher Jeff Karstens was drafted in the 45th round pick by the Expos as a catcher

  • 2001

The draft began with a bang in 2001 with the selection of Minnesota prep star Joe Mauer, but leveled off big-time after that…

2.48 Kelly Shoppach (Red Sox, Baylor, 638 AB)
4.115 John Draper (Royals, UCLA, 0 AB)
4.117 Mike Rabelo (Tigers, Tampa, 278 AB)
5.150 Greg Sain (Padres, UC San Diego, 0 AB)
6.173 Eli Whiteside (Orioles, Delta State, 12 AB)
7.222 Tyler Beuerlein (Mets, Grand Canyon, 0 AB)
8.228 Warren Hanna (Cubs, South Alabama, 0 AB)
8.252 Brett Kay (Mets, Cal Fullerton, 0 AB)
9.281 Casey Myers (Athletics, Arizona State, 0 AB)
10.306 Bryan Prince (Reds, Georgia Tech, 0 AB)

Ryan Budde and Chris Shelton (drafted as a catcher) are the only other college catchers to reach the majors out of the class.

Useful college catchers in top ten rounds: 2 (Shoppach is an easy choice, but Rabelo is a admittedly a stretch)
Useful college catchers overall: 3 (Shelton gets credit here)

All told, this year’s class stacks up pretty well. Mauer and Soto are both stars, Shoppach is valuable when utilized properly, and Jeff Mathis, Rabelo, and Shelton all have had varying degrees of success as big leaguers.

  • 2002

1S.35 Jeremy Brown (Athletics, Alabama, 10 AB)
2.68 Chris Snyder (Diamondbacks, Houston, 1266 AB)
4.128 John Baker (Athletics, Cal, 197 AB)
6. 175 Adam Shorsher (Padres, San Jose St, 0 AB)
7.207 James Anderson (Mets, Cal Riverside, 0 AB)
8.226 Ryan Hubele (Orioles, Texas, 0 AB)
8.252 Tyler Parker (Cardinals, Georgia Tech, 0 AB)
9.255 Steven Booth (Reds, San Francisco, 0 AB)
9.258 Matt Tupman (Royals, Lowell, 0 AB)
10.289 Jeremy Frost (Brewers, Central Florida, 0 AB)

Brian McCann is the runaway winner as best catcher in a class that has only seen five players get big league at bats. The five players to reach the big leagues are McCann, Snyder, Baker, Brown (first catcher taken overall in draft, since retired), and Joey Votto (long moved off the position). As you can see, Snyder, Baker, and Brown were the only college draftees to have made the big time.

Useful college catchers in top ten rounds: 2 (Snyder and Baker)
Useful college catchers overall: 2

Notable: Jeff Clement (20th round pick of Twins after breaking all kinds of prep records in Iowa) and Taylor Teagarden (turned down the Cubs in 22nd round to play for the Longhorns) both transformed themselves into high round picks in 2005 after spending three years in college.

  • 2003

The first catcher off the board was high schooler Daric Barton (Cardinals, 1.28). After Barton, we have a whole lot of nothing.

1.30 Mitch Maier (Royals, Toledo, 104 AB)
2.48 Javi Herrera (Indians, Tennessee, 0 AB)
2.55 Jeffery Jennings (Giants, Cal St San Bernardino, 0 AB)
3.71 Colt Morton (Padres, NC State, 16 AB)
3.73 Jake Fox (Cubs, Michigan, 14 AB)
3.78 Ryan Garko (Indians, Stanford, 1165 AB)
4.103 Anthony Richie (Cubs, Florida State, 0 AB)
4.107 Richard Guarno (Rockies, Arkansas Little Rock, 0 AB)
7.204 Jeremy West (Red Sox, Arizona State, 0 AB)
7.212 David Castillo (Athletics, Oral Roberts, 0 AB)

Useful college catchers in top ten rounds: 1 (Garko, long moved off the position but he still counts here)
Useful college catchers overall: 1

By the way, Matthew Pagnozzi, Matthew Lauderdale, and Justin Ruchti were also drafted in the first ten rounds, but have no big league at bats between them.

Notable: Plenty of high school catchers with interesting back stories. Luke Montz (Washington) was not listed as having a big league at bat, but considering I saw his first career homer in Philadelphia with my own two eyes, I think the information needs updating. Chris Coghlan, now with the Marlins organization, was drafted as a catcher by Arizona, but reinvented himself as a second baseman after spending three years in college. Jason Motte (drafted out of Iona by the Cardinals) was famous as a college player and as a young pro for his ridiculously strong throwing arm behind the plate. Between the plus-plus arm and the wet noodle for a bat, it came as no surprise that he was eventually moved to the mound. Andy Barb, most famous (if you can even call him that) for being one half of Seattle’s return in the Jamie Moyer trade, is another example of a one-time catcher converted to pitching as a professional from this draft. Last but certainly not least, it should be noted that the jury is still out on Tampa draftee John Jaso. As bad as this draft was for catching, he could turn out to be one of the best, if not the best, of the lot.

  • 2004

The first catcher taken was high schooler Neil Walker, who went 11th overall to Pittsburgh.

1.24 Landon Powell (Athletics, South Carolina, 0 AB)
2.54 Erick San Pedro (Nationals, Miami, 0 AB)
2.57 Curtis Thigpen (Blue Jays, Texas, 118 AB)
2.59 Donny Lucy (White Sox, Stanford, 15 AB)
2.62 Jason Jaramillo (Phillies, OK State, 0 AB)
2.67 Kurt Suzuki (Athletics, Cal State San Bernardino, 743 AB)
3.78 Craig Tatum (Reds, Mississippi State, 0 AB)
3.79 Jeff Fiorentino (Orioles, Florida Atlantic, 84 AB)
4.104 Aaron Hathaway (Mets, Washington, 0 AB)
4.105 Matthew Spring (Devil Rays, Dixie State, 0 AB)

Chris Iannetta, Rob Johnson, Lou Santangelo, Michael Nickeas, Brad Davis, Danny Ivany, Clint Sammons, Pat Perry, Brady Toops, and Eric Cavers were all also picked in the first ten rounds. Iannetta, Johnson, and Sammons have all played in the big leagues.

Useful college catchers in top ten rounds: 2 (Suzuki and Iannetta)
Useful college catchers overall: 2

Notable: High schoolers Lou Marson (4th round) and Angel Salome in (5th round) could make this one of the better years for catching in recent memory if they pan out as expected. If he ever figures it out at the big league level, you can also include 20th rounder JR Towles in that group. White Sox prospect and key to the Javy Vazquez deal Tyler Flowers may or may not wind up catching down the road, but his bat seems likely to carry him to the bigs no matter where he plays.

This class is interesting because college players easily rank 1-2 on the list. Iannetta is a very good young player and Kurt Suzuki should be an above-average starter for the better part of the next half decade.  The non-college players (Marson and Salome most notably) are on the cusp of reaching the big leagues, an indicator that this is a pretty good stopping point.

  • Conclusion

107 –  college catchers taken in the first 15 rounds over a five year period (21.4 catchers/year average)
9 –  “useful” college catchers (Hill, Shoppach, Rabelo, Shelton, Snyder, Baker, Garko, Suzuki, Ianetta)
8.4% –  chance of a college catcher selected in the first third of the draft being, at minimum, a successful major league backup

That percentage is low, but it should actually be even lower; Chris Shelton wasn’t a top-15 round pick, but he was included in the “useful” player category anyway. Let’s break the data down a little bit more…

37 –  college catchers taken in the first 5 rounds over a five year period (7.4 catchers/year average)
8 –  “useful” college catchers
21.6% –  chance of a college catcher selected in the first five rounds of the draft being, at minimum, a successful major league backup

That’s a one in five chance you are getting a living, breathing big league player when you draft a college catcher in the first five rounds. Not very good odds, right?

That one in five success ratio holds more or less steady when looking only at catchers taken in the top two rounds. Four out of sixteen (25%) college catchers taken in the first two rounds in our five draft class sample have had real big league careers. The data is a bit skewed by the large number of high round catcher selections in 2004, the most recent and thus most difficult to properly evaluate draft class analyzed. 6 catchers went in the first 2 rounds in 2004, with only Kurt Suzuki as a clear success story. However, a few other names on the list (Powell, Thigpen, Jaramillo) may suddenly appear as a backup catcher someday, somewhere.

Of course, this is a draft website designed to always be looking forward and seeing as we’re only two and half months away from the 2009 MLB Draft, it only makes sense to finish this off with a brief mention of the ’09 group of college catchers. The consensus top five college catching prospects (Phegley, Sanchez, Coleman, Ortiz, Stock) are all expected to be off the board by the end of the fifth round. Recent draft trends appear to indicate that only one out of the five will be a good investment for their club. A much closer look at the consensus top catchers, as well as my own personal list (the two groups vary wildly, so be excited) will be presented in Part III of this series. Yes, that’s a teaser.

  • Final Note

The value of draft trends, especially when broken down into something like positional success/failure rates, is something that is still a bit of an unknown, at least to me. On one hand, trends like this are important because there may be reasons why players who are a part of a larger demographic (in this case college catchers) make less than spectacular professionals. On the other hand, does it really make sense to devalue the prospect status of a player simply because the players that came before him flopped in the pros? Ultimately, I like looking through trends like this as a means of thinking about the draft, scouting, and player evaluation in a more logical, higher order kind of way.

Phegley, Sanchez, Stock, Seastrunk, Murphy…it doesn’t matter which catcher you choose. Any player from this year’s college catcher group may or may not live up to his draft standing, but it won’t be because the player is a catchers and catchers always fail. It will be because of something (or many somethings) that holds each individual prospect back independent of any other player. By first understanding and accepting that one subset of the draft population often flames out more often than others do, we can attempt to answer the simple question of why. Why do college catching prospects fail? Once we figure out potential reasons why, we can then take a more focused look at the prospects of today (the Phegleys, Stocks, Seastrunks of the world) and see how their personal player attributes line up with the successes/failures of the past.

  • Tuesday: Why Do College Catching Prospects Fail? Part II – theories explaining why do college catchers flop so badly in the pros
  • Mid-week: Why Do College Catching Prospects Fail? Part III – a good hard look at this year’s college catching crop and how it stacks up to recent years


  1. […] jump back in this time with college catching prospects, a topic danced around but never ranked both here and here. Because straight rankings can become a little tiresome after a while, I decided to do […]

  2. […] Why Do College Catching Prospects Fail? An attempt to answer the above question Introduction – The 2009 Field Part I, Part II, Part III Bonus Coverage – Three Quick Notes […]

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