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High School Catchers

(If you left a comment in the past few days, my goal is to get back to it by the end of the day today. Thanks for reading, interacting, and being patient.)

The success rate for catchers drafted and signed out of high school in Major League Baseball is quite low. This article at Beyond the Boxscore outlines this idea well. The most interesting part, for our purposes at least, is this…

So if very few catchers in the majors are highly drafted high school catchers, where are they all coming from? Of the 33 catchers who have accrued 100+ plate appearances, fourteen were drafted out of college and thirteen were signed internationally. That means six were drafted out of high school.

That stat was true as of last June. I’m too lazy to update it for May 2015, but considering it’s only been eleven months, I think it is safe to assume it’s not too far off the mark today. Here are the catchers that produced positive value per Baseball Reference’s WAR (bWAR) that were drafted and signed out of high school since 2000. It’s set up as follows: year, draft position, name, and value of bWAR in parentheses.

2000: 4.113 Yadier Molina (28.9), 17.500 Mike Napoli (25.2)
2001: 1.1 Joe Mauer (46.8), 1s.33 Jeff Mathis (1.7), 2.49 Rene Rivera (2.5), 11.318 Geovany Soto (10.4)
2002: 2.64 Brian McCann (25.7)
2003: 1s.36 Jarrod Saltalamacchia (5.9)
2004: 4.122 Lou Marson (1.6), 27.803 Martin Maldonado (2.1)
2005: 13.389 Josh Thole (0.2)
2006: 1.25 Hank Conger (2.3)
2007: 1.15 Devin Mesoraco (4.0), 1s.37 Travis d’Arnaud (0.3), 4.130 Derek Norris (6.6)
2008: 9.292 Christian Vazquez (1.1)
2009: 2s.76 JR Murphy (0.6), 4.123 Max Stassi (0.3), 10.299 Tucker Barnhart (0.4)

First, it’s amazing to me to realize that the usual cutoff for judging players drafted doesn’t really apply at this position. I don’t like judging a prospect’s big league future for at least a couple seasons past his draft year, but you really can’t do that for catchers. Turns out catchers really do develop later. Take guys like Mesoraco and d’Arnaud. It took each player six full professional seasons to establish themselves as regular players in the big leagues.

Second, and this is probably one of those things interesting only to me and not all that relevant to this year’s draft class, there are definite value tiers that have established themselves since 2000 with these players. Mauer is all by himself at the top. Then closely bunched together are Molina, McCann, and Napoli. The next tier includes Soto, Norris, Saltalamacchia, and Mesoraco. Then you get a bunch of marginal talents like Rene Rivera, Hank Conger, Martin Maldonado, Jeff Mathis, and Lou Marson. Then there are some younger guys like Christian Vazquez, JR Murphy, Max Stassi, Tucker Barnhart, Travis d’Arnaud, and Josh Thole. The categories aren’t perfect — calling Conger a marginal talent and Thole a youngster isn’t ideal — but they work out nicer than I would have guessed.

Third, prep catchers are not a very good bang for your buck. My pen and paper math came out to an average of right around 56 high school catchers drafted per year from 2000 to 2009. Just under two per draft class turned into positive value big league players. Also interesting: the average draft position of these big leaguers was 183rd overall, which is the rough equivalent of a sixth round pick. That’s a bit of a case of numbers lying (or being massaged to make a point…) because Maldonado (pick 803) and Napoli (pick 500) throw everything off. A better way of looking at it is with a good old fashioned stem-and-leaf plot. My very lazy version, very condensed version…

1: X – X – X
1s – X – X – X
2: X – X
2s: X
3:
4: X – X – X – X

Or, including supplemental rounds with their parent round, we get this much prettier version…

1: X – X – X – X – X – X
2: X – X – X
3:
4: X – X – X – X

Count those X’s. A whopping thirteen of the nineteen catchers drafted and signed out of high school to put up positive bWAR since 2000 were drafted by the end of round four. So if you want a prep catcher, get him quickly. It’s a particularly tough group to mine for diamonds in the rough. For what it’s worth, I think this trend will hold up with the last few drafts as well. Not a whole lot of actual signed prospects outside of the first few rounds.

Going back to 2000 gives some historical perspective often lacking when talking prospects. I know I’ve longed for the day that this site would have enough of a back catalogue of work to refer to when having these discussions. In the meantime, I still like putting things in the context of when I started the site back in 2009. I took a look back to see how many drafted high school catching prospects were selected in the top four rounds in each class since then. Since I’m only interested in trying to see how many high school guys we might expect to see drafted early this year, I didn’t bother with guys who didn’t sign (Brett Austin) nor did I knock anybody for recent position changes (Clint Coulter). Here’s what we’ve got…

2014: 4
2013: 7
2012: 5
2011: 5
2010: 2
2009: 7

So, really, we should only make a HS catching prospect list that goes seven players deep and call it a day, right? I kid, of course, since that presumes that a) historical drafting trends supersedes the specific talent level of any given class, b) outliers like Napoli, Soto, and Vazquez aren’t worth doing a little extra work to attempt to identify, and c) any draft “expert” is prescient enough to identify the exact top seven high school catching prospects prior to the draft. Here are the highest drafted high school catching prospects drafted (I included all first round or supplemental first round picks) since the site’s been around…

2009: 33
2010: 22
2011: 26
2012: 26 and 27
2013: 14 and 21
2014: 36 and 40

It’s a bit of a fortuitous end point because the year before I started the site, 2008, was the same year that high school catcher Kyle Skipworth went sixth overall (and one spot after Buster Posey) to the Marlins. I do think there is something to the lack of early interest in high school catching in recent years, perhaps even due in some small way to Skipworth busting like he did.

On the surface none of this is great news for guys like Chris Betts and Tyler Stephenson. I’d argue it’s less great for Betts, the more likely to remain behind the plate over the long haul of the two, but it’s probably less great for the group of catchers in the next tier down from the clear Betts/Stephenson potential first round pairing. We’ll talk about Betts, Stephenson, and that next group down in a little more depth tomorrow. Until then, a couple of quick conclusions from today. All of the caveats from above (historical trends aren’t more important than individual prospects being the most relevant and most important here) apply, but taking into everything else into account we can guess that the following will wind up as true in 2015…

1) The first high school catching prospect should expect to be off the board around the mid-20s in the first round.
2) There will be other quality catching prospects (perhaps up to five) off the board through round four, but not so much after that point.
3) Only two of said prospects should be expected to have meaningful MLB careers as catchers.

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2 Comments

  1. […] lot can change between now and June – again last year’s early HS catching post compared to the May update certainly shows – but Herbert Iser is the best current two-way prep catcher in this class. His […]

  2. […] late as I write this and I’m too lazy to dig it up preemptively (slightly less lazy AM EDIT: here’s some of it) — but this is one of my […]

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