- One – Catchers fail. Period.
Prospects of all shapes, size, and positions fail for all kinds of reasons, but no singular position in baseball has a trickier to understand development curve than catcher. We tend to think of outliers like Joe Mauer, Brian McCann, and eventually Matt Wieters when we think about catching prospects making good, but it’s actually extremely rare to see a young catcher take such a linear path from draft to minors to instant big league starting catcher. Geovany Soto took three cracks at AAA before breaking out in the big leagues last season; Jeff Mathis has also played three seasons at the AAA level, but has yet to put it all together as an Angel. Players who come highly touted and start off their pro careers by coasting through the minor leagues find themselves struggling to adjust to big league pitching and stagnating in their mid-20s. Other plays slip stealthily below the radar for years and suddenly break out as steady big league contributors with little warning. I know, I know…you could say something similar to any young player at any position. There’s just something about the catcher spot that seems to bring out the weirdest in player development curves.
- Two – Between frequent position switches and top prospects signing out of high school, the dilution of the college catching pool brings down the overall positional depth.
First, and this is obviously something not unique to the catching position, more often than not the best players don’t show up on campus. This year’s group of prep catchers could be historically great with as many as a dozen prospects off the board in the first three or four round. Talent like that does not typically turn down big bucks for college ball. The more interesting point, I think, is the one about position switches. Occasionally you get a college catcher who is converted to a different position as a pro (like Ole Miss/Marlins catcher/second baseman Chris Coghlan). More often, a high school catching recruit will get moved to a different position once at college (Yonder Alonso is one such example) in an effort to jumpstart the bat. It takes a special young player to enter school with a good enough bat/glove combo to stick at catcher right from the start. Or it takes a very average, non-prospect kind of player that doesn’t have the bat to make a position switch worthwhile. Either way, the college catching prospect class suffers.
- Three – Organizational preference is more meaningful when it comes to catchers
The continuation of a theme here – catchers are different. Teams place a premium on quality catching thus inflating the stock of otherwise nonspectacular prospects, but, like all things in life, the rise in prospect stock comes at a price. Big league organizations have very particular ideas about what they want out of a catcher. It’s far easier to take a prep catcher and treat them as the unfinished product that they are than to take a polished college catcher who has already developed a set of difficult to alter habits. For this reason, the market for college catching isn’t what it could be.
- Four – Unpredictable impact of physical toll and response to rigors of pro ball
This is more of a catcher point than a college catcher point per se, but it works. College catchers play a totally different schedule than professional catchers. There are no more than 5 games in a given college week, plenty of time to rest up between starts, and only one third the total games of a professional season. This is an issue with all players, but more important when discussing one of the most physically demanding positions in all of sports. Some catchers can hold up, some can’t.
- Five – Complexities of pro ball complicate everything
Point five totally piggybacks off of point four – the differences between professional ball and college ball are magnified when it comes to evaluating a position that requires doing so many little things like catching. Some college catchers will go their entire careers never having to catch a mid-90s fastball. Many college coaches micromanage their pitching staff in a way that professional coaches do not; if a catcher is unprepared to handle a staff, chances are everything about his game (even a seemingly unrelated aspect like his hitting) will suffer.
- Six – Catchers have weird body types and may struggle with aluminum bat swings
This may be the biggest stretch, but these are just theories so I’ll throw it out there. We hear so often about the “aluminum bat swing,” but never about how or why certain players are more prone to it than others. Is it something as simple as learned swing mechanics? Or could it have something to do with the actual body type of the player doing the hacking? I have no idea how a theory like this could be researched any further, but it’s an idea.