Chris Betts has a firm grasp on the title of top prep catcher in this year’s class. The tools are there for him to start at the highest level with good enough defensive ability and average or better raw power. His defense actually remains a hotly discussed topic among industry-types, but I’ve always been impressed at his maturity, arm, and capacity for growth, so I’m confident he’ll wind up an average or better professional catcher in time. Early views on guys like Wyatt Cross, Elih Marrero, Domenic DeRenzo, and Nick Dalesandro have offered promise. Most importantly, as you’ll see below, all four those young men look to have the athleticism, arm strength, and baseball IQ to stick behind the dish after graduation. Don’t think I’m trying to discover what pro teams already know or anything, but a little bit of retrospection about recent draft classes reveals a few worthwhile patterns.
High school catchers remain one of the most consistently overrated prospect commodities leading up to the draft each year. Every year I expect a nice long run of prep catchers in the early going of the draft and every year I’m confused as the guys I like best have to sit and wait and wait and wait. Two reasons for this, I think. First, defensive certainty is valued far more greatly than offensive upside by professional teams looking for early-round catching. This year’s poster boy for that is Blake Anderson, a fine defensive catcher with little offensive potential. Like any of my crackpot draft theories, there’s no rule written in ink here. Offense-first catching prospects like Kyle Schwarber, Chase Vallot, Mark Zagunis, and Brett Austin being selected within the top ten of all 2014 catchers represents the flesh and blood counterpoint. One theme that runs throughout the majority of this year’s top catching prospects (and believe me, it’s one I can really get behind) is an emphasis on athleticism. Max Pentecost, Zagunis, Jakson Reetz, Austin, Matt Morgan, and Shane Zeile as top five round catchers backs this up. Going back to the original theory, however, makes more sense when a comparison is made between my personal list of top HS catchers and how they really went off the board. It goes without saying that I’m far from the authority on, well, damn near anything, so consider this more of a self-audit than anything else. This year I found myself particularly enamored with offense at the catcher spot. Five of my top six all have some degree of defensive uncertainty. Alex Jackson, Reetz, Vallot, Evan Skoug, and Bryce Carter all could move out from behind the plate before long. Jackson has already moved (expectedly, of course), Vallot split time between catcher and DH in his debut, and both Skoug and Carter face unknown long-term defensive futures at the college level (TCU and Stanford, respectively).
The second reason is based largely on age, experience, track record, and the larger body of work that comes with all three of those things. I’m by no means suggesting teams select catchers they deem unworthy of ever seeing the big leagues in the top ten rounds – well, maybe in those underslot spots from round 8-10, but even then they are being very picky with who they bring in – but I do think teams are becoming increasingly realistic about how catchers develop as well as what kind of surplus value a catcher can provide during his own minor league incubation. I’m obviously not a heart, hustle, and grit guy, but there are important intangibles at play in life (sports included) and certain positions in life (sports) often require something more in the way of how you conduct yourself personally and professionally. A young catcher with a dependable glove, strong reputation for working with pitchers, and the personality traits shared by good leaders everywhere has value beyond what he does when the lights go on. It is all about development, after all.
Anecdotally, I’ve also noticed a rise of international catchers at every level of organized ball over the past decade plus. I know our youngest players often start at the most demanding defensive spots before moving off if necessary, but it always piques my interest when I see the July 2 rankings come out and the position player group is loaded with catchers, shortstops, and center fielders. This could be my Phillies-bias kicking in (not favoritism per se, but familiarity) as they seem to sign at least one well-regarded international catcher each year as well as an additional one or two mid-priced guys. Perhaps the steady stream of international catchers in need of reps at the lowest levels of pro ball each year has teams more inclined to favor stability (i.e. college catchers) with their other main source of amateur talent acquisition. Whatever the reason, college catchers always seem to be at a premium: 13 of the top 19 catchers taken in this past draft (top ten rounds) were from college, and that’s without counting Hunter Redman, Greg McCall, Adam Martin, Troy Stein, and Seth Spivey, all players signed between rounds eight and ten to significant underslot contracts.
I said two reasons, but, as always, you can tack on signability as a reason why certain players fall. I ignore signability in my rankings because that’s a factor typically based on information I’m not privy to, but it’s a gigantic talking point in draft rooms for all thirty teams. I have no guess as to whether or not there’s any one position that’s more or less signable – I’d hope pitchers would be for their arms’ sake, but who knows – so signability doesn’t seem to be anything unique to catching. Still, let’s call it three reasons and move on.
In addition to the names listed in the first paragraph (way up there), big Texans Joe Davis and Michael Hickman, hitters with power that will play at any position, would have cracked the rankings if I was thinking more like last year. Now, however, I think we’ve seen enough data pointing towards pro teams wanting to speed up bats by moving questionable defenders out from behind the plate that it makes more sense to group them both with the first basemen. It’s very possible that one or both will improve enough defensively to join the catchers, so stay tuned. The lightness of the catching position this year – I see no legitimate college catcher getting close to Betts, but I haven’t done a deep dive on that side just yet – could put a little pressure on both prospect and team to keep catching at any cost.
C Chris Betts (Wilson HS, California)
C Wyatt Cross (Legacy HS, Colorado)
C Elih Marrero (Coral Gables HS, Florida)
C Domenic DeRenzo (Pittsburgh Central Catholic HS, Pennsylvania)
C/RHP Nick Dalesandro (Joliet Catholic HS, Illinois)
C Alex Webb (Columbia Central HS, Tennessee)
C Hunter Stovall (Pelham HS, Alabama)
C Eric Jones (South Mecklenburg HS, North Carolina)
C Cal Raleigh (Smoky Mountain HS, North Carolina)
C Chris Cullen (West Forsyth HS, Georgia)
C Noah Croft (Olathe South HS, Kansas)
C Nick Fortes (Deland HS, Florida)
C Tyler Garrison (Mill Valley HS, Kansas)
C Chase Smartt (Charles Henderson HS, Alabama)
C Cole Buffington (Kennesaw Mountain HS, Georgia)
C/RHP Brendan Illies (Puyallup HS, Washington)
C Malik Brown (Birmingham Groves HS, Michigan)
C Tyler Murray (Huntington Beach HS, California)
C Angel Lopez (Perkiomen HS, Pennsylvania)
C Sean Buckhout (Don Bosco Prep, New York)
C Lucas Herbert (San Clemente HS, California)
C Michael Curry (Murphy HS, North Carolina)
C Jackson Lueck (Orangewood Christian HS, Florida)
C/RHP Kyle Davis (Miller HS, Alabama)
C Briggs Benson (Tift County HS, Georgia)
C/RHP Logan Gillaspie (Frontier HS, California)
C/3B Gabriel Garcia (Monteverde Academy, Florida)